Four views on hell: Hell and purgatory

Series introduction: I recently had opportunity to read the second edition of Zondervan’s Four Views on Hell. This series of posts will form my personal evaluation of each of the arguments presented in the book.

Ever since the Reformation, evangelicals (Protestants) have roundly rejected the doctrine of purgatory. Luther’s 95 Theses focused somewhat on the abuses related to the Catholic doctrine of purgatory, though he only much later rejected the teaching out of hand. It has been suggested, however, that the Reformed rejection of purgatory was an overreaction, and in recent years evangelicals have begun to reconsider the teaching in light of Scripture.

One evangelical scholar who has come to embrace purgatory is Jerry L. Walls. Walls teaches at Houston Baptist University and upholds the inspiration and authority of Scripture. He actually affirms a traditional understanding of hell: that hell is the literal, final abode of the unredeemed, who will suffer consciously for all eternity. Purgatory, he argues, is not to be confused with hell. Purgatory, in fact, is more to be aligned with heaven than with hell.

In his contribution to Four Views on Hell, Walls is careful to state four vital issues of understanding in relation to his evangelical vision for purgatory.

First, he makes the case that purgatory is the intermediate state of believers between earth and heaven. Those who die outside of Christ are destined for hell; only believers enter purgatory.

Second, he argues that purgatory does not constitute a second chance for those who have died rejecting Christ. While he is open to post-mortem opportunities for repentance, those will only (conceivably) be granted to those who have little or no opportunity to embrace the gospel. Those who have openly and consistently rejected Christ are doomed to hell, but “if God truly loves all persons and desires the salvation of all, would he not make certain that all persons have ample opportunity to receive his grace, even if that entails chances to receive the gospel after death?”

Third, he suggests that repentance in the moment of death is always accepted. Deathbed conversion is as real as any other form of conversion.

The fourth point is closely tied to the third: Those who are converted at the moment of death must undergo a purifying before entering heaven. (In fact, anyone who dies in a state of nonperfection must do so.) Purgatory is the place where this purifying takes place.

Walls notes that the traditional Catholic understanding of purgatory has two senses.

On the one hand, purgatory serves as a place of satisfaction, where those who have died outside of Christ can atone for their own sins in order to gain entrance into heaven. This, he suggests, is the aspect of the Catholic doctrine that the Reformers resisted. In Reformation theology, Christ’s atonement alone is sufficient for entry into heaven. It is impossible for sinners to atone for their own sins and thereby gain entrance into heaven. As Calvin said, this understanding of “purgatory is a deadly fiction of Satan, which nullifies the cross of Christ, inflicts unbearable contempt upon God’s mercy, and overturns and destroys our faith. For what means this purgatory of theirs but that satisfaction for sins is paid by the souls of the dead after their death?”

The other role of purgatory, in Catholic theology, is as a place of sanctification. Those who have died in Christ, but are not completely holy, must first be purged in an intermediate place before gaining access to heaven. Purgatory is the fire by which God purifies his people before receiving them into his presence.

While he acknowledges that the first aspect of the Catholic teaching is incompatible with evangelical theology, Walls thinks that the second is perfectly compatible.

As consistent as he thinks it is with Protestant theology, Walls acknowledges that evangelicals will want to know if the doctrine is taught in Scripture. He reasons, however, that it need not be found explicitly in Scripture, so long as it can be inferred from biblical teaching. He points out that the doctrine of the Trinity is nowhere explicitly stated in Scripture, though it is affirmed by all traditions of Christianity by necessary inference from Scripture. If the doctrine of purgatory can similarly be shown to be a necessary inference, then it must be considered a viable option in Protestant theology.

Walls does, however, think that there are some texts that touch directly on the subject of purgatory. Prime among them is 1 Corinthians 3:11–15:

For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.

Walls finds purgatory here in the last phrase of the paragraph: “though he himself will be saved, but so as through fire.” “I would suggest that this experience of escaping through the flames will be a sanctifying experience for all who undergo it,” he writes. He argues that this will be a process, and that process will be experienced in purgatory.

He then moves from there to survey C. S. Lewis’s teaching on purgatory, as found primarily in The Divine Comedy. Because Lewis was not a Catholic, but was instead Anglican, it is clear that the doctrine of purgatory can exist outside of Catholic thinking. He claims that “using Lewis here is not to appeal to him as some sort of authority,” but, be that as it may, that is precisely how his appeal to Lewis comes across.

The author takes some space to detail Lewis’s teaching, and then returns to the logic of the position. He finds it necessary that pain must be a part of the purgatorial process. God wants to completely transform us, and such transformation is necessarily a painful process. “The pain we may have to face is the pain of following the ‘perfect penitent’ as he leads us in the way of radical repentance on the way back to the Father. And if we do not ‘push him away’ he will take us all the way there, and when we arrive, we shall be like him, and our joy will be complete.”

Walls is careful to state quite clearly that this does not amount to salvation by works. Purgatory is nothing more than a place of final sanctification. Works contribute nothing to one’s final destiny, but since no one will see the Lord without holiness (Hebrews 12:14), and since no one achieves perfect holiness in this life, there must be a place where holiness may be achieved after death but before heaven.

We should be under no illusion that our entrance to heaven is fully assured by justification or having the righteousness of Christ imputed to us. Sanctification is not an optional matter to be chosen only by the super spiritual, but rather, it is simply a necessary condition for all of us who want to experience joy in the presence of a holy God.

Walls concludes: “To fully appreciate and assess purgatory, we must understand it as a work of grace that finishes our sanctification in order to make us fit to enjoy the glories of heaven.”

As I have said, Jerry Walls affirms the inspiration and authority of the Bible. I appreciate that his theology of purgatory is built on his understanding of Scripture. I find his arguments problematic, however, for a couple of reasons.

In the first place, he engages very little with the text of Scripture. In fact, the only place in which he really tries to show clearly biblical support for purgatory is in 1 Corinthians 3:11–15. However, even when he engages this text, he does so outside of its context. First Corinthians 3 really has nothing contextually to do with individual final judgement. Instead, Paul is arguing about the building of the church. He argues that he laid the foundation of the Corinthian church, but that other teachers have built on that foundation. Some teachers have built with gold, silver and precious stones; others with wood, hay and straw. The work of some will survive; the work of others will not. Even Zachary Hayes, the Roman Catholic contributor to the first edition of Four Views on Hell (published in 1992), admits this.

Second, Walls’s insistence that purgation must take place prior to entry into heaven seems to find little biblical support. He argues, for example, that those who are converted at the moment of death must surely go somewhere to be sanctified before they gain access to heaven. What he does not do—at least in this particular treatment, if he does elsewhere—is engage the one text in Scripture where a deathbed conversion is clearly portrayed. When the thief on the cross repented, Jesus said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). Jesus makes no suggestion of an intermediate purgation. Further, believers who are alive at the return of the Lord evidently have no need of purgation, for it will be “in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye” that, “at the last trumpet,” perishable bodies will put in the imperishable, and mortal bodies will put on immortality (1 Corinthians 15:50–53).

I agree with Walls that the Catholic understanding of purgatory as a place of satisfaction for sins is wholly incompatible with Protestant theology. But while he finds the sanctification model of purgatory to be fully compatible with Protestant theology, I remain unconvinced. For the believer, to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:8)—not in some intermediate place where our sins are being purged, but in his very presence in glory.

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