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Protestant purgatory?

Protestant purgatory? September 7, 2010

For some years now I’ve been wrestling with the concept of purgatory and wondering whether evangelical Christians should adopt some version of it.  C. S. Lewis held to a version of purgatory while rejecting the classical Roman Catholic view.

Sidebar: Once again, as I write, I am aware that some critics out there may rip what I say out of context (because they have in the past) and publicly accuse me of adopting a Roman Catholic doctrine.  I can see the (admittedly small) headline in some state Baptist newspaper now: “Baptist seminary professor Roger Olson headed toward Rome!”  Some of you far removed from the “Baptist wars” of the last 25 years (mainly in the South) may think this is paranoia, but you think wrongly.  One influential critic invented a quote (about open theism) and attributed it to me and disseminated it to Baptist state newspapers across the South.  So, if you are one of “those” please be fair (if you’re capable of it) and explain that my hypothesis of purgatory is just that–a hypothesis for discussion (technically called a theologoumenon) and very different from the Roman Catholic doctrine.

What stimulated this thought process was my intensive study of Christian leaders and theologians of the past in preparation to write The Story of Christian Theology.  During that research I discovered things I had never heard or read about great evangelical “heroes” of the past such as Augustine, Luther, Zwingli and Calvin.

In a wonderful little book entitled My Conversation with Martin Luther the late Lutheran theologian Timothy Lull described his imaginary dialogues with Luther in which he discovered that the German reformer had to take classes in paradise about Judaism to correct his anti-semitism.

The question that bothers me is this: How can we picture men (and perhaps some women) who absolutely hated people entering into the joys of paradise without some kind of correction?  Of course, as a committed Protestant I cannot imagine paradise or heaven as a place of completion of one’s salvation.  But I can imagine a justified person being greeted at the gate by St. Peter (imagery) saying “Hello.  Yes, you’re name is in the book.  But before entering fully into the joys of this place you’ll need to take a class taught by [so-and-so] and experience correction and reconciliation.”  And I can imagine every truly saved person saying “Yes!  Of course.  Thank you.  Let’s get started.”  In other words, I don’t envision this “purgatory” as suffering except in the sense that all correction involves some suffering.  But for the truly saved person true correction is also a blessing.

Let me use the four evangelical heroes mentioned above as case studies.  Augustine clearly despised heretics and called on the empire to eradicate by violence those that would not submit to his church.  The heretics in question were the schismatic (as he called them) Donatists.  Luther hated Zwingli and the “radicals” as well as (late in life) Jews.  When Zwingli was killed in battle defending Zurich Luther said it served him right for holding false views of the Lord’s Supper.  We all know about his vicious attacks (in writing) on the peasants, the Anabaptists and Jews.

Zwingli invited Anabaptist leader Balthasar Hubmaier to Zurich for a debate.  When Hubmaier arrived Zwingli had him arrested and tortured.  During the torture Zwingli stood in the room calling on Hubmaier to recant his “heresies” which he did.  (Later, after being released, Hubmaier recanted his recantation.) 

Now we come to Calvin.  What concerned me last year–the 500th anniversary of Calvin’s birth–was all the hoopla about what a great evangelical hero he was without hardly a word about his condoning the burning of Servetus.

My favorite monthly periodical, Christianity Today, celebrated Calvin’s legacy throughout the year.  (One article did mention the Servetus episode.)  The editors asked me to write an article about what I disagree the most with in Calvin’s life and theology.  I wrote it and mentioned his treatment of Servetus.  After submitting it the editors asked me to re-write.  The new assignment was to write about what I, as an Arminian, agree with in Calvin’s theology.  I was happy to fulfill both assignments.    And I understood CT’s reasons for the change: its editorial policy is to remain mostly positive.  I gladly wrote about Calvin’s emphasis on the Holy Spirit.

I attended a conference celebrating Calvin’s life and thought at my alma mater–Sioux Falls Seminary.  Understandably, none of the presenters (that I heard) mentioned Calvin’s treatment of Servetus or his dictator-like ruling of Geneva.  (Yes, yes, I know.  He held no civil post in the city.  But as its “chief pastor” he was extremely influential over the city council expecially after his return to Geneva.)

What was ironic was that during the conference I was reading the most recent scholarly biography of Calvin: Calvin by Bruce Gordon.  Gordon reveals Calvin warts and all.  It is by no means the typical evangelical hagiography, but neither is it in any way anti-Calvin.  The portions about the Servetus affair are especially interesting.  For example, many, if not most, of Calvin’s Reformed colleagues throughout Switzerland and the Rhineland harshly criticized him for it.  And he took full responsibility for it even though he preferred beheading over burning and technically the city council, not Calvin, condemned Servetus.

Of course, I knew much about the Servetus affair before reading Gordon’s biography.  But most of it was from Reformed hagiographies of Calvin.  The Calvin revealed by my research and by Gordon absolutely hated Servetus and others. 

Now most evangelicals like to say of Calvin that he was “a child of his times.”  Well, not exactly.  As I said, even other Reformed theologians and chief pastors criticized him for this medieval act.  Burning heretics was gradually becoming a thing of the past in much of Europe–especially in Protestant lands.  Exile was the more typical treatment.  I wonder if excusing someone’s hateful, vengeful and violent treatment of those with whom they disagree is really excusable just because they lived long ago? 

So, with regard to Augustine, Luther, Zwingli and Calvin (among others) I’m faced with a dilemma.  Are they in paradise now?  Are they enjoying the bliss of being in the presence of Jesus?  I am not their judge, but I would like to think so.  But that presses me back to considering some concept like purgatory.  Lull’s little dialogue book gave me the possible answer.  (Remember–I’m talking about a hypothesis and not a new doctrine.) 

What’s wrong with a Protestant believing that upon entering paradise a hate-filled Christian leader of the past who condoned torture and even murder (I don’t know what else to call the burning of Servetus even though it was technically legal–we still call “legal” stonings of women in certain countries “murder”) has to take a spiritually therapeutic “class” of correction?

I can imagine (only imagine, you realize!) Zwingli entering the pearly gates (imagery–because there’s no reason to believe paradise has gates!) and being greeted by Hubmaier who says “Ulrich, it’s nice to see you here.  I’ve completely forgiven you.  But Christ has assigned me as your tutor and guide during your orientation to paradise.  Here, sit down, let me offer you some correction about treatment of people with whom you disagree.”

You might wonder–why call that “purgatory?”  Well, don’t you suppose (as I do) that Zwingli would view it as a kind of purgatory?  That is–as a kind of purgation of his errors and hateful attitudes?  Imagine Zwingli having to sit at Hubmaier’s feet and learn from him!  Could this be the meaning of 1 Corinthians 3:15?

I have trouble exonerating Augustine, Luther, Zwingli and Calvin of their hate-filled diatribes against and treatment of those they considered heretics.  And I think typical evangelical (and other) treatments of them have been too gentle and even sometimes dishonest.  Last year I could not “celebrate” the life of the man Calvin.  From all that I have learned of him, he was a despicable character filled with hate against many, if not all, who criticized him.  With his blessing if not at his urging the city council arrested and jailed Genevans who criticized him.  But I could and did celebrate certain aspects of Calvin’s theological contribution–especially his strong emphasis on the Holy Spirit so often overlooked by his contemporary followers.

Purgatory?  Well, perhaps that’s not a felicitous name for the phenomenon I am imagining.  But I can’t think of a better name right now.  C. S. Lewis called it purgatory while distancing his idea of it from the typical Roman Catholic explanations of it.  (Although I suspect some contemporary Catholics think of it more along the lines I have outlined here than with the medieval imagery of it.  One Catholic priest explained it to my class as a kind of “counseling.”) 

Do I really believe in it?  Well, that’s another question.  I have no particular biblical basis for it, so, no, I don’t exactly believe in it in the same way I believe in the deity of Christ or the resurrection.  But I find it the only acceptable alternative, for me, anyway, to thinking of great Christian heroes of the past being in hell.

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