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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  • Vance

    Apparently, Wesley held a view similar to that of the Orthodox, who reject the Roman purgatory but believe that those who have departed this life are in a condition wherein growth and change can still occur. All the dead are in this “place,” which is really more of a condition than a place, and all are exposed to the love of God in a way much greater than they ever experienced while in the flesh. This is bliss for the righteous and misery for the wicked. Those who die in friendship with God but with some ugly warts on their souls will experience both joy and pain, but the pain will not be forever. Once the blemishes are cleared away through exposure to the divine light, they’ll know only the joy of their Lord’s presence. The incorrigibly wicked, however, are “locked in” to their wickedness. For them, unfiltered exposure to God’s love is hell. There is no hope of escape because the door is locked–locked, as C.S. Lewis said, from the inside.

    For anyone who believes the soul consciously survives the death of the body, this view of the intermediate state (between death and resurrection) makes much more sense than the view most fundamentalists hold.

    • Could you provide a reference to Wesley’s writings where these thoughts are expressed?

      • Vance

        The views I described are those of the Orthodox. Wesley *apparently* held similar views–i.e., that saved but imperfect souls could still change in the intermediate state. My source is Ted A. Campbell. In his book “Methodist Doctrine: The Essentials,” he writes, “John Wesley himself believed in an intermediate state between death and the final judgment, where those who rejected Christ would be aware of their coming doom (not yet pronounced), and believers would share in the ‘bosom of Abraham’ or ‘paradise,’ even continuing to grow in holiness there” (pp. 81-82). Campbell cites Wesley’s sermons on “The Good Steward” II:1-2 and “The Important Question” II:4.

  • jayflm

    Ah, now I understand a bit more the background of some of the “discussions” you imagined in “God in Dispute”. Yet your last paragraph here concerns me that you are neglecting the incredible gift of God’s redeeming grace by suggesting that the only satisfactory alternatives for dealing with sinful Christian leaders are purgatory and hell. I tend to suppose something more along the lines of a sudden enlightenment that simultaneously devastates and liberates us so that we fall before God in abject worship and adoration.

  • Preach it, brother!

  • Dr. Olson,
    Jerry Walls has spoken a lot on Protestants and Purgatory. Indeed, he may have even written some on the topic in his two volume set on Heaven and Hell. It’s been a while since I read the set and can’t remember if I read him on the subject or heard him.

    Thanks for the look at these characters in our sorted history. No one is a complete saint, but no one is complete Devil, either. Your concerns over these men are much needed in a contemporary context where theological preferences determine which aspects of their history we will take seriously.

  • What about forgiveness?

    God be with you,

  • “But I find it the only acceptable alternative, for me, anyway, to thinking of great Christian heroes of the past being in hell.”

    I see. You’re saying that the only two eternal options for Calvinists are either purgatory or hell, and since there is no Biblical basis for purgatory they must be in hell.

    How irenic of you.

    • sim

      how can you say that there is no biblical basis for purgatory? check it out Rev. 21:27,1 Peter 3:19 ,Heb. 12:11 yes you cnt find that word in the scripture but it doesnt mean its not true…..,,,what do you call that place meant in that verses? not everything that cant be found in the bible doesnt exist at all..,,, you cant find new york, CIA and the word internet in the bible but it is existing…

  • “What’s wrong with a Protestant believing that upon entering paradise … has to take a spiritually therapeutic “class” of correction?”

    Perhaps the fact that such speculation raises possibilities nowhere hinted at in the Bible and even opposed by what the Bible says about salvation in Christ?

    “I have trouble exonerating Augustine, Luther, Zwingli and Calvin of their hate-filled diatribes against and treatment of those they considered heretics.”

    Whether or not we have trouble exonerating (forgiving) people is not the issue. God has forgiven them by the blood of the cross. Any errors in their thinking, be it anti-semitism or other forms of hatred, be it open-theism or other forms of error, be it even speculations regarding purgatory, will be taken away from them when they become like Christ upon seeing him.

    Playing with unbiblical doctrine and defending it by calling it just a hypothesis is dangerous and will (not might) lead to error, especially when such speculation runs counter to what is already revealed in the Bible. If you believe these men were not fully prepared by the blood of Christ to enter Heaven, then they are in Hell. If you believe these men were covered by the blood of Christ, then nothing more is needed. Scripture does not allow anything extra and any speculation about something extra is simply unbiblical.

    • Well, you have stated very well the mindset of fundamentalist biblicism that I find obnoxious. Thank you.

      • “the mindset of fundamentalist biblicism ”

        Sticking with the Bible? I suppose I’m guilty as charged. You’re welcome!

    • James Clardy

      How dare you take the Bible literally! Great thoughts and as you can tell, no rebuttal.

  • Leslie

    Dr. Olson.

    I remember you using this idea in your book “God in Dispute” (which is a great book by the way, and I wish you’de write a sequel to it with more theologians featured, perhaps having some dialogue between Islamic and Jewish figures as well perhaps), and I found it to be a very interesting concept indeed.

    I do believe that when we go to be with the Lord that He will reveal to us our faults and correct us for what we did wrong. I also believe that some will be rewarded more so than others for their works that they did on the earth. 1 Corinthians does speak about some men’s works being burned up but the man himself shall be saved, as by fire. So I wouldn’t have any problem with this idea of yours being the truth, and it does no harm to speculate about it. You’re not affirming the concept of purgation that Rome espouses, so I don’t see why people would attack you over this.

  • Dr. Olson, what books would you recommend for Arminians regarding reading the lives of Augustin, Luther, or Calvin that are, in your estimation, fair and balanced.

  • Certainly Scripture seems to tell us that there will be a wiping away of every tear…I”m wondering if the tears being wiped away stem from our being corrected?

  • I am an evangelical very friendly to the idea of purgatory. A good bath makes sense to me and it keeps some relationship between the eternal state and my present sin without compromising the full and final salvation for the children of God. It does not contradict good reasoning and find some support in our moral consciousness. CS Lewis intuitively understood this, it seems to me, though not a RC. And thanks for commenting that “he was a man of his times” can only go so far in explaining Calvin. There were large numbers of Protestants who eschewed using the power of the state to enforce doctrinal discipline. After reading several biographies of Calvin in honor of his 500th, I came to be uncomfortable with the man though inspired by his writings. His comments upon the Bible must have been extraordinarily refreshing and of a singular kind in light of the scholasticism of the RC church. I find his capacity to “bleed bibline” of another order and a model for those who teach.

  • David Rogers

    We experience in this present age Christ’s forgiveness instantaneously.
    We experience in this present age Christ’s forgiveness over periods of time.

    Forgiveness is completed on Christ’s side of the matter; our experience of it occurs through moments of time.

    Many a parent forgives a child and yet imposes discipline. Why would our experience of Christ in the age to come necessarily be different? The relationship stands; the discipline is one aspect of the loving interaction.

    When the works of our lives are judged, and our works are deeply ingrained into our hearts, what biblical reasoning would necessarily say that this judgment does not take some time and have some disciplinary stressing in the consumption of the dross, even while the body is preserved?

  • Having grown up in a cult (Armstrongism) I spent a great many years with the satisfaction of thinking that the leader of that cult was eternally roasting in the deepest, darkest pits of Hell, condemned to an eternity there for the crime of being a False Prophet. However, once I began to fully understand Grace and forgiveness, I began to soften my views. Who am I to judge?

    There is such a thing as being sincere while still being sincerely wrong. If being theologically correct in all of your views is the requirement for salvation, then who can be saved? It appears to me that God judges the heart more than anything else.

    The idea of being instantaneously transformed to Godly perfection upon death seems to be a bit of a stretch for me, although Paul and John seemed to think it possible through analysis of some of their New Testament writings. It would seem apparent that there are many who sincerely believe in Christ for salvation who would need quite a bit more “correction” than others. Whether or not that change takes place in the “twinkling of an eye” or might indeed take a bit longer can be debated.

  • 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 suppose it would not be unreasonable to request even a single shred of scriptural support for such a notion? Seriously, Dr. Olson, what possible biblical basis would you have for advancing such a philosophy? Rather than awaiting opposition from conservative Baptists, you might encounter considerable raising of eyebrows from within the classical Arminian camp and I do not believe it would be due to some measure of bigoted or intolerant fundamentalism. Instead it might be founded on being aghast at such a departure from the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura unless perhaps you could make a scriptural argument for this rather unorthodox suggestion.

  • Myron

    Dr. Olson,

    I must admit that I’m not all that amenable to the idea of purgatory–of the Catholic or non-Catholic variety. I do, however, believe that on the occasion of our deaths and on the Day of Judgment there is some purging that will happen prior to our entry into the eternity with God, as per 1 Cor. 3:15 (as you’ve noted above). However, this purging has to do with two realities: (1) With respect to 1 Cor. 3:15, the purging Paul refers to seems to be a burning up of the fallacious things that people have used to prop up ministry in Christ’s name. Unless I’m mistaken, the context for 1 Cor. 1-3 has to do mostly with those who have chosen to build up (really puff up) Christian individuals, churches, and ministries with some means other than the gospel (though Paul had other charges against the Corinthians as well). (2) I believe that such a purging with also accompany a final “scrubbing” (please forgive the term) the redeemed in Christ receive upon being made truly free from the very reality and presence of sin upon meeting God face-to-face.

    I am wary of extending these two facets of purging (both of which are biblical) beyond what we can know and intuit from Scripture. This is a caution I hold to concerning many of the speculation over God’s post-mortem realities that occur prior to our entry into eternity with God or eternity without Him in hell. I would rather than the onus of God’s work on this score on the multi-faceted heavy lifting He is doing in this mortal coil to bring us to maturity through life in Christ in the power of the Spirit.

  • Phil Davidson

    What about the notion that in heaven, our knowledge of spiritual realities will be total, as in 1 Cor. 13:12? If this occurs unequivocally, then it will be immediate, and “classes” for correction won’t be necessary. When a dark room becomes illuminated, one doesn’t need a class to find one’s way around. The correction process of purgatory would become instantaneous. The newly-enlightened souls arriving in heaven will be convinced of sins committed in ignorance, by the same process that brings all other sins to light. What basis is there to think this process is delayed or prolonged?

  • Vance

    Tom1st wrote, “Jerry Walls has spoken a lot on Protestants and Purgatory. Indeed, he may have even written some on the topic in his two volume set on Heaven and Hell. It’s been a while since I read the set and can’t remember if I read him on the subject or heard him.”

    One place was the April 2002 issue of FIRST THINGS magazine. Walls’ thought-provoking article was entitled “Purgatory for Everyone.”

  • Wonderful job, Dr. Olson! You did a masterful job of showing us that God cannot be finished with us in this life. I have often thought about purgatory, not sure how to believe in it, but understanding how the idea had to come about. Back before the Protestant movement, in any given town in Europe, everyone would have been in the Catholic Church. That being true, it must have been obvious, as neighbors looked about, that there were some rough scoundrels in Christendom. No wonder there had to be a purgatory to serve as a remedial preparation for the heavenly kingdom.

    Your exercise here shows us that even our heroes of the faith had some serious shortcomings, issues that could use some intense interior work! I’ll accept God’s grace and will be grateful for whatever remedial class I have to attend in the afterlife.

  • Myron

    Dr. Olson,

    I retract my previous post. While I thought you were having some fun with purgatory as a metaphor, I kinda got my dander up because I know that Walls is doing some serious work on Protestant purgatory. Wrongly, I transferred some stuff onto you. I’m sorry for this. Thanks for your work on this blog.

  • Dr. Olsen – I wonder if you are tapping into the idea of a sense of fairness. I think that many Christians might be appalled at the idea that a horrible, terrible, despot, who was evil all his/her life could be standing at the throne worshiping God right alongside a righteous, wonderful, spirit-filled Christian who served the Lord his/her whole life. From the perspective of the second person, it would seem fair that the first person must be taught how to be holy or cleaned of all that filthiness.

    However, wasn’t the main thrust of the parable of the workers in the vineyard in Matthew 20 that all who labor in the vineyard receive the same reward? To me the idea of a training period certainly seems plausible but (IMHO) doesn’t seem probable.

    Yet, this is an intersting thought experiment. Thanks for getting me to think!

    • The difference I see between Dr. Olson’s suggestion and that of Romish purgatory is one of purpose. RCC purgatory is premised on penitence , a sort of “bad” purgatory” and Roger’s seems to be a philosophy of “good” purgatory. I don’t see any scriptural basis for any of it.

      • And yet, even Calvin (among many Protestant theologians past and present) believed in rewards in heaven. I always wondered (as I was taught this growing up) how it is that those who receive lesser rewards or none do not feel ashamed? And how is feeling ashamed consistent with traditional notions of heaven? Nobody could ever answer that for me except to say “Well, those who receive lesser or no rewards will be sheltered by God from knowing about those greater rewards they aren’t getting.” Lame. My suggestion of a kind of “purgatory” inside of paradise (not really purgatory at all in any Catholic sense) is not substantially different from belief in rewards and lack of rewards. Admittedly, it adds a dimension of speculation to that, but speculation labeled that isn’t necessarily bad (IMHO). Besides, as I explained, the whole point is to keep Calvin (et al.) out of hell. I would think some would appreciate that more! 🙂

        • W B McCarty

          Isn’t the imputed righteousness of Christ enough to keep anyone–even (alegedly) hateful Reformers such as Calvin–out of Hell? Or, do classical Arminians demand something else/more?

          • The Bible makes clear that repentance is the path to receiving the imputed righteousness of Christ. Did Calvin repent of his hate toward his critics or of condoning the burning of Servetus? Not to the best of my knowledge. In any case, I didn’t say he’s in hell. I hope he’s in heaven and I hope when I meet him there he will have passed his class of correction and love everyone around him–even those who disagree with him.

          • W B McCarty

            So, if one to whom righteousness has been imputed (as, presumably, was true of Calvin) sins and fails to repent, he is (or at least may be) condemned? Would that be the case only with respect to deliberate sin or might unconscious sin pose the same hazard?

          • That is the question, isn’t it? Can we say with any confidence that someone who remains in presumptuous, unrepentant sin to the end of his or her life ever had the imputed righteousness of Christ? I think the traditional Calvinist doctrine of “signs of grace” should answer this. A person who displays the opposite of signs of grace, for example rabid hatred of his critics to the point of wanting to murder them and actually participating in that murder without subsequent change of heart and true repentance, is usually considered not one of God’s elect in the first place.

  • S.D. Parker

    Well, it looks like I’m a little late here. But I thought I would add, though I’m not Catholic, that I have also given much consideration to the idea that there is something other than simple heaven and hell on the Other Side. Something between Limbo and Purgatory, perhaps. I’m compelled to think there is because although I accept the collective adequacy (regarding humanity) of the traditional idea that God has us living this physical existence to serve as a sort of testing ground and place for us to grow, in certain individual cases it clearly does not serve this purpose. When certain disasters strike, such as the death of a child, we say that the way we choose to respond to such an event is what defines us and allows us to grow or atrophy in heart, soul, and mind. As true is this may be overall for why God has not opted for shutting this whole experiment down once the Fall occurred, we cannot say that the child who has died has been able to learn from the experience of grief, or from life at large; he or she has passed away for goodness sake. Similarly what about those mentally handicapped, at least in extreme cases? While those of us who relate to people in such a condition can take some spiritual lesson from our experiences (e.g. being appreciative for the health God has allowed us to have), surely the victims of such circumstance typically cannot learn from life and the lessons life teaches us simply by virtue of their condition. Yet if indeed the reason for humanities continued existence on this plane, at least in part, has to do with our spiritual development, how are these other aforementioned individuals supposed to get this experience also — unless they receive it somehow outside this life?

  • John I.

    What about the penitent criminal on the cross beside Jesus (see quote below)? Jesus told him that he would see him in paradise that day. Doesn’t leave much time for correction school, or is paradise something different than heaven? Does paradise include correction school? Or does that scene imply that once saved there is no correction school?

    John I.

    Luke 23:39 One of the criminals who was hanging there railed at him, saying, “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!” 23:40 But the other rebuked him, saying, “Don’t you fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 23:41 And we rightly so, for we are getting what we deserve for what we did, but this man has done nothing wrong.” 23:42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come in your kingdom.” 23:43 And Jesus said to him, “I tell you the truth, todayv you will be with me in paradise.”

    • I thought I made that clear in my original post about “purgatory.” In my imaginative vision it is part of paradise. I’m beginning to think that some folks are responding to other peoples’ responses to my posts rather than to my posts.

  • Craig Hurst

    \But I find it the only acceptable alternative, for me, anyway, to thinking of great Christian heroes of the past being in hell.\ This statement is disturbing on many levels.

    • I’d be interested in knowing why.

  • And what about David? Is he in heaven? Or did he experience some kind of correction for his wicked sins against God? Or, let’s say, Peter, who while being a christian denied Jesus Christ? Was this a terrible sin against the son of God?

    The truth is all of the sins (past, present and future) were paid on the cross by our Lord Jesus Christ. There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ! We were perfectly saved by the son of God, our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ!

    • Both David and Peter repented. I have no reason to believe that some of the Renaissance popes or Reformers who condoned murder repented. I hope so. No Christian in my experience believes you can simply use the excuse that a person is saved (forgiven, justified, regenerated) and therefore can do whatever they please, including murder people, without repenting and yet be glorified. Even Reformed theologians argue that such a person, who uses the atonement and justification as license to “sin more” was probably never saved in the first place.

    • Leslie Jebaraj

      Oh, but Roger Olson seems to be concerned only about theologians who “hated” heretics! And he seems to have special dis-like for Calvin, for he could not even “celebrate” Calvin the man, though he did celebrate Calvin the theologian. I wonder what Olson would be taught in his purgatory lessons!

      • How can anyone “celebrate” a man who spewed hatred toward critics and heretics and even took credit for the murder of at least one?

  • If heaven is about learning enough to “get it right”, then I’m hopelessly lost. But if it’s about transformation by the resurrecting power of Jesus Christ, and the leaving behind of the sinful flesh which causes the behaviors you mention, then I’ve got a chance at it.

    The whole idea of “purgatory” is based on a flawed premise, no matter how many intelligent, educated, sincere people think otherwise.

  • John I.

    Maybe I got Dr. Olson and the others wrong, but I thought their point was that if there is something akin to purgatory, it relates to further transformation of people by Jesus.

    John I.

  • Dr. Olson,

    As a Catholic, it strikes me that you are trying to give due diligence to Paul’s words in 1st Corinthians 3 and to the notion of justice, not as judgement unto damnation, as a means to heal, purify and cleanse. For that I am grateful.

    Also, if anyone is interested St. Catherine of Genoa wrote a little book on Purgatory. The Catholic Church does not believe, teach or claim Purgatory as a “kinder, gentler, hell.” Purgatory is just that: a purging of the vestiges of already forgiven sin. Purgatory is also not a second chance at heaven. One may disagree with the Catholic teaching but if one does it is helpful to argue against the teaching and not caricatures.

  • Marshall Johnston

    So, am I to assume that this hypothetical purging (albeit politely perhaps) or post-mortem disciplinary period would likely be experienced by more than just some Reformers or proto-Reformers? Certainly other theologians/church leaders would need to be purged, such as Barth (adultery), Tillich (pornography), and Martin Luther King, Jr. (adultery) before you could \exonerate\ them (your word) of their sins. Would it also be required for a certain Arminian theologian at a Texas seminary, or is he certain that he is much more righteous than the one whose life he could not celebrate?

    • David Rogers

      I won’t speak for Dr. Olson, but I offer if there is a kind of “purging” time before Christ, then absolutely every last stinking one of us will have the dross drained out of us.

  • It is funny to see that Roman Catholics don’t even know what their church really teaches. Tom Riello said,

    ” The Catholic Church does not believe, teach or claim Purgatory as a “kinder, gentler, hell.”

    He thinks this is a caricature made by protestants. But what has the Roman Catholic church stated:

    Council of Florence (1439): DS (1304) “It has likewise defined, that, if those truly penitent have departed in the love of God, before they have made satisfaction by worthy fruits of penance for sins of commission and omission, the souls of these are cleansed after death by purgatorial punishments…”

    Is there punishment in purgatory? Well according to the Roman Catholic church there is. Why? Because the merits of Christ are not enough to reconcile people to God and not enough to make perfect every believer, contrary to Hebrews 7:25.

    Even Ludwig Ott, the catholic theologian says this in his “Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma,”

    “The temporal punishments for sins are atoned for in the purifying fire by the so-called suffering of atonement (satispassio), that is, by the bearing of the expiatory punishments imposed by God.” page 485

    So does Tom know exactly what his church teaches? Clearly not!

  • Roger,

    So essentially what you’re saying is that the objective side of Christ’s atoning work was not sufficient, and that somehow we need to bridge the gap ourselves somehow. This fits perfectly with an Armianian soteriology, but I can’t find justification for it anywhere in scripture.

    • You are reading much into my post that was not there. Go back and read it again.

    • John I.

      This reply appears to confuse and conflate atonement and sanctification. No version of Arminianism, including Roger’s, indicates that there is a gap in salvation that needs covering (either in this life or the next). What Roger is speaking to is the fact that we all end our lives short of the perfection of God, i.e. in need of further sanctification to be fully pure and holy. The questions then are, “does the further sanctification happen instantaneously upon death, or upon judgment, or upon receipt of the resurrection body”, or “is there some further process (i.e., a period of time) that happens after death whereby we are fully sanctified and made Christlike”. That issue applies to both Calvinism and Arminiansim, and also to all other forms of Christianity.

      John I.

  • Thomas F. Johnson

    Thanks, Roger. I have long told students that something like your version purgatory must be true, because of God’s work of progressive sanctification all our lives. I still have aspects of my character that require change toward holiness. This will not likely get done, even with the Spirit’s help, during my lifetime because of my imperfect but continuing repentance. So, there must be the possibility of continuous transformation into Christ’s likeness beyond death. I hope to go “further up and further in” when I reach other side, and I expect the place to be so real and true and good that my encounter with it will bring a desire to be completely transformed and a willingness to learn and change, whatever it takes. Moral transformation requires my participation, in this life and the life to come. God will not “snap his fingers” and change a yet-to-fully-repent Luther or Calvin, Johnson or Olson, into his image, with our heartfelt consent, our knowledge of our lack of that “holiness without which no one will see the Lord,” and our joyful-tearful repentance. You have encouraged my walk with your courage and honesty. Grace and peace, my friend.

  • Ed,

    You hit hard! 🙂 Nothing you quoted from the Church argues against what I said. Yes, Purgatory, as the name suggests, involves a purging, which, would be painful. However, as I said, and more importantly, as the Church has said, these are not the pains of the damned, but of the redeemed being purified and cleansed. The Church, from the very beginning, prayed for the souls who died in friendship with Christ. Great Saints, like Augustine to Chrysostom and in between. I will gladly submit myself to the Magisterium than make up my own doctrine to suit my fancy.

  • Michael Tyndall

    To follow up with Ed; I’m glad you mentioned Ludwig Ott. He’s one of my favorite theologians. I’m a former Wesleyan Methodist that got tired of the constant bickering and backbiting amonst progressives and conservatives, preTrib-ers and midTrib-ers (dispensationalists), who while calling each other heretics together opposed any form of historical premillenialism (or chiliast interpretation). And that doesn’t even begin to address the issues between Calvinists and Arminians.

    I love Wesleyan Methodism and still consider myself both Wesleyan and Evangelical, even though I’m now formally Catholic. And no, I don’t worship idols, I don’t cannibalize Christ every Sunday, and yes I do believe there is a state of being called the Intermediate State by Protestants and Purgatory by Catholics. John Wesley, my spiritual mentor (still to this day) not only believed in the Intermediate State, but also in the perpetual virginity of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

    But getting back to Ludwig Ott. If you understand anything about Catholic theology at all, you know that we have very few statements that are categorized as ‘de fide’ (requirements of the faith). Most of the teachings fall into the category of theological conclusions or theological opinions and are subject to not only development but outright change. The existence of a place (or state of being) called Purgatory by Catholics and the Intermediate State by Anglicans and others is a ‘de fide’ statement. But the text from Ludwig Ott concerning what happens during that period is not, and he makes that clear himself. He goes into great detail in the beginning of the book describing the distinctions between ‘divine truths’ and ‘church truths’ and degrees of certitude in reference to conclusions and opinions.

    I suggest you read John Henry Newman’s “The Dream of Gerontius” or Catherine of Genoa’s “A Treatise on Purgatory” for a more healthy and constructive opinion of what happens in the Intermediate State as opposed to opinions and conclusions of the Council of Florence. Not every sentence in every Church Council is an ‘de fide’ statement.

    Also, I’m a very big admirer of Roger Olson and I’d like to say thank you for all your patience, hard work, and stamina. I’ve read several of your books and continue to recommend you writing to my friends, both Protestant and Catholic.


  • Matt

    I will gladly submit myself to the Magisterium than make up my own doctrine to suit my fancy.

    After 40 years of being an evangelical I find the following formula most scary – ‘me, the scripture and the holy spirit = doctrinal truth’ – hence my interest in the historic church as an interpretive authority. Off topic – sorry

    • John I.

      It’s a good thing that “me, the scripture and the holy spirit = doctrinal truth” is not the evangelical formula.

      John I.

  • Bill Buntain

    I wonder if you are familiar with the teaching of dispensational reward and punishment as taught by Robert Govett, a Bible teacher of the nineteenth century whose writings were highly appraised by Spurgeon. Govett wrote extensively concerning the judgment seat of Christ and the dispensational reward or punishment of Christians during the millennium. He affirmed the security of the believer’s salvation and showed that many verses commonly misunderstood by those who hold that a believer can lose his salvation do not actually refer to eternal perdition but to a temporary discipline applied to Christians who did not cooperate with the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit to advance to spiritual maturity. What Govett propounds is not the same as the Catholic purgatory, and I don’t believe your musings envision that either. You are to be commended for raising the question, as this is a clear weakness in the purely forensic view of salvation. Salvation as presented in the Bible is not so simplistic. Romans 5:10 clearly states that in addition to our reconciliation to God through the death of Christ, there is an ongoing salvation in His life. To believe that as Christians we can escape if we neglect the “so great a salvation” prepared for us by the Lord (Heb. 2:3) is neither logical nor biblical. Both Romans 14:10 and 2 Corinthians 5:10 speak of believers being judged, and there are many words of serious warning to believers throughout the New Testament.

    Among Govett’s writings on the subject are Christ’s Judgment of His Saints, Entrance into the Kingdom, Kingdom of God Future, Kingdom Studies, Reward According to Works, and The Saints’ Rapture. All of these are available from Schoettle Publishing (with whom I have no connection). Govett was pastor of Surrey Chapel. He was succeeded in that post by D. M. Panton, who continued to teach in the same line. Panton wrote The Judgment Seat of Christ on the subject of the judgment of believers for dispensational reward or punishment. One member of the Surrey Chapel congregation was M. E. Barber, who later became a spiritual mentor to Watchman Nee, who, in turn, passed this line of teaching on to Witness Lee.

    • Richard Hellman

      GH Lang, GH Pember, DM Panton, Watchman Nee all held to an intermediate state were correction to the believer was administered and they wrote extensively on the subject.

  • Richard Hellman

    Here is a very good essay on purgatory by a protestant. Go to thelink and scroll down to essay 93.

  • Greg Milford

    The question is, what is the process by which our personalities are transformed such that we are utterly freed from our fondness for idolatry? Some comments here have touched on this suggesting an instantaneous transformation at death using the ‘Seeing through a Mirror…’ passage. I think that is a fair and reasonable path to take, but also fair are reflections for how this purification will be experienced by reflecting on the passage about being purified by fire.

    If this transformation is quick and easy at death, then there is less incentive to grapple with our depravity this side of Jordan than if we understand our lack of fidelity to be a problem that we will have to work through sooner or later.

  • I’ll try to make this simple for non-Catholics. Jesus forgives your sins IF you are truly sorry and TRY not to commit the same sin again. When you die, you have blemishes on your souls from sin. Would you want to meet God in a dirty or torn shirt? Of course not. You would want to look perfect! That is why Catholics have confession. We do penance for our sins. What do protestants do? I wouldn’t dare want to meet God in the state my soul is in until it is pure as it can be. Think about it! Would you honestly want God to see your stained soul until is was completely purified by purgatory and know that soon you will meet your Father and Creator with no stains from sin!

  • Carrie

    Roger, why have you turned into such an obnoxious asshole?

    • rogereolson

      If I knew who you are, I might care what you think. But….

  • JP

    I propose that all Arminians teach the doctrine that Tinkerbell will magically waive her wand over us at death and POOF! Finish the work that Christ’s atonement failed to complete! This is just as Biblically valid as purgatory, and children will enjoy it more in Sunday School!

    Arminian Purgatory? Nonsense… philisophical sophistry at its worst!

    • rogereolson

      You obviously didn’t read my whole post. Why do you bother to comment this way? It just shows your ignorance.