Response to a Good Book about Purgatory

Response to a Good Book about Purgatory March 19, 2012

Response to a Good Book about “Purgatory”

Some months ago I posted some thoughts here about purgatory. I endorsed an idea that had little resemblance to any traditional Catholic idea of purgatory, but some people are apparently so fixated on that word that its very appearance made them think I was affirming the Catholic idea of purgatory. I wasn’t. I admitted some sympathy with C. S. Lewis’ idea in The Great Divorce and other writings that perhaps there is a place after death for forgiven people where they can complete their spiritual formation. I represented it as educative rather than punitive. For me it was not part of hell or between heaven and hell but a part of paradise where people who die in Christ on account of God’s grace received by faith are brought to complete repentance and total transformation of character. In other words, it is a place for the completion of sanctification. Not because entire sanctification is a requirement for salvation (as forgiveness, reconciliation, heaven) but because it is a requirement for the full beatific vision of God. This idea of “purgatory” (which has little or nothing to do with medieval images of punishment” was expressed by Lewis in several ways. Here is what he wrote in Letters to Malcolm:

“Our souls demand Purgatory, don’t they? Would it not break the heart if God said to us “It is true, my son, that your breath smells and your rags drip with mud and slime, but we are charitable here and no one will upbraid you with these things, nor draw away from you. Enter into joy”? Should we not reply “With submission, sir, and if there is no objection, I’d rather be cleansed first.” “It may hurt, you  know”—“Even so, sir.”

This is quoted on page 164 of a new book by evangelical philosopher Jerry Walls. The book is the third in his series on life after death. The others were on hell and heaven. This one is entitled Purgatory: The Logic of Total Transformation (Oxford, 2012). In it he advocates Protestant embrace of an idea of purgatory that, in my opinion, has little to nothing to do with popular ideas of purgatory and therefore probably should not be called that. Toward the book’s end he says of his idea of purgatory “This is not purgatory as a frightful threat, but as a gracious promise.” (175) Here is the clearest statement of his thesis:

“Critics of the doctrine [purgatory] often have a tendency, sometimes inveterately so, to depict it as a matter of salvation by works and then to reject it highhandedly in the name of grace. However, to pit purgatory against grace is to fail completely to grasp that purgatory itself is very much a matter of grace. To draw this contrast is to ignore the fact that grace is much more than forgiveness, that it is also sanctification and transformation, and finally, glorification. We need more than forgiveness and justification to purge our sinful dispositions and make us fully ready for heaven. Purgatory is nothing more than the continuation of the sanctifying grace we need, for as long as necessary to complete the job, as Lewis put it.” (p. 174)

Walls basically endorses Lewis’ idea of purgatory and argues that it is not far from, if different at all from, post-Vatican 2 Catholic ideas of purgatory. I can verify this as I have had several well-informed Catholic theologians speak to my classes over the past thirty years and all of them (with one possible exception—a very conservative priest who still said mass in Latin) affirmed to me and my students that, for them, purgatory is not punishment but spiritual therapy and that it will be welcomed by those who spend time there.

Walls’ book covers goes into great detail about the history of the doctrine of purgatory, how the Catholic doctrine developed and differs from Eastern Orthodoxy’s idea of life after death (not purgatory per se but nevertheless a kind of spiritual formation such that prayers for the dead can be efficacious for them), and reasons for the Protestant reformers’ rejections of the doctrine (largely because in that time it was being taught as the reason for buying indulgences). Walls also covers all the biblical and philosophical reasons for purgatory. He admits that there is no proof for purgatory; it is a deduction and opinion only. He does not want Protestants to make a doctrine of it; he is simply presenting it as an option. One goal is clearly to ease ecumenical relations between Catholics and Protestants.

One thing about Walls’ book that will turn off even some Protestants who may sympathize with his idea of purgatory is his extension of that into postmortem opportunity for salvation for those who never have opportunity to accept Christ in life before death—for example children. One thing I find ironic here is that all Calvinists I know believe all children who die in infancy, or before the age of accountability, are elect and go straight to paradise. Where is the biblical proof of that? That seems to me a deduction from the goodness of God, but Calvinists who believe it don’t seem to think God’s goodness requires universal atonement! To me, the same logic that applies with children applies to the atonement. Anyway, it’s ironic that Walls, an Arminian, does not assume all children who die in infancy or before the age of accountability go straight to paradise while most Calvinists do!

I say Purgatory: The Logic of Total Transformation is a good book because it is well-researched and well-written and makes some very good arguments if not compelling ones. At the end, I still don’t think purgatory is the right word for this place Walls describes and it certainly isn’t a good word for what I believe—at least not without qualifications. I think at least some great heroes of Christian faith (e.g., Luther) will have to undergo some education before entering into the fullness of heavenly bliss. Not because they aren’t forgiven but because they said, wrote or did things so absolutely antithetical to the love of Jesus Christ that they will want to repent of them. I’m thinking, for example, of Luther’s anti-semitism and of his advice to the German princes to slay the peasants mercilessly (knowing full well what that would mean). Let me bring it home. I believe that, when I die and arrive in paradise, I will want my Savior to teach me how to repent more perfectly—especially of things I was not aware, during my lifetime before death, were sinful. I also want to be corrected by God himself for my false beliefs and attitudes. It will be humbling but pleasant, possibly painful (not physically) but much appreciated.

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