Purgatory and Evangelicals

For the past two weeks we have discussed the doctrine of purgatory in the Poiema ACG (Adult Community Group) at ECC. We worked hard to understand the doctrine of purgatory as articulated by the Roman Catholic church before we entered into critique. It was a very valuable exercise, for me especially. In the end, I concluded that the doctrine of purgatory as taught by the RC church should be rejected as because 1) it lacks clear biblical witness, 2) is tied to the concept of venial and mortal sins, 3) is tied also to an understanding of the sacraments that is unsubstantiated (namely baptism as washing away original sin, confession as a sacrament, etc), 4) leads to a dangerous reliance on works for salvation.

However, the discussion of purgatory doesn’t end there. Certainly, the Reformers soundly rejected purgatory as a dangerous invention of the pope (and few question the Catholic church had used the doctrine to promote all kinds of wild ideas and abuses). However, it is possible that the Reformers, in reacting so vociferously to the false version of purgatory, threw the baby out with the bathwater. In other words, it’s possible that in rejecting the false notions of purgatory, they went to far and rejected something biblical and with a long history within the church. It is possible that some concept of purgatory is taught in Scripture. It is possible that other versions of this doctrine exist that don’t fall prey to the above mentioned criticisms. In fact, several well know Protestants have been champions of a modified version of purgatory. CS Lewis is well known for belief in purgatory (though Lewis wasn’t exactly evangelical).

More recently Jerry Walls, professor at Asbury Theological Seminary, has written in advocacy of a Protestant version of purgatory. His article, Purgatory for Everyone, appeared in FirstThings back in 2002. Walls builds a case for purgatory as a continuation of process of sanctification. Salvation, argues Walls, is forensic and certainly involves forensic truths like the imputation of our guilt to Christ and his punishment in our stead and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to us sinner and our justification as a result. However, he continues, salvation is more than that. It also involves a transformation of our very being – our wills, our affections, our behaviors, etc. This is a process begun in this life, but according to Walls, finished in the next.

Wall points out the the church in the West (Roman Catholic) and the church in the East (Orthodox) developed the doctrine of purgatory differently. As we saw when we examined the Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory, it contains a penal element to it – individuals suffer the temporal punishment the forgiven sins deserve. In the Orthodox understanding, this penal element is missing and purgatory is viewed “as a process of growth and maturation for persons who have not completed the sanctification process.”

After reading through his article and a subsequent interview in Modern Reformation, there are some things I appreciate and some further questions.

First, Walls admits that purgatory is not a doctrine that is explicitly taught in Scripture, but believes it is “a reasonable inference from important truths that are clearly found there.” That is good. Don’t go fishing with bizarre exegesis to make texts support your purgatory. Instead, argue that other truths imply it. There is nothing wrong with that way of arguing, after all, that is how the orthodox church has argued for the doctrine of the Trinity. It’s not explicitly taught, but when you pull together the strands of clear biblical teaching regarding the oneness of God and the divinity of Son and the Spirit, you are left with the reasonable (necessary in this case) inference that God has eternally existed in a plurality but is still one.

Second, in building his case for purgatory avoids some of the errors of the Roman Catholic version. Namely, there doesn’t seem to be a penal element to Walls’ purgatory as there is in the RC understanding.

Third, Walls connection of purgatory to sanctification is viable. If, in this life, God uses means to sanctify us, why could he not use means in the next life to sanctify us. Of the means he uses here, we would of course include the Word, prayer, sacraments, the church, and also discipline and suffering (Rom. 5:3).

Fourth, I don’t believe that Walls’ version diminishes the value of Christ’s sacrifice or the fact of justification by faith alone through grace alone. Nor does it diminish the importance and value of the imputed righteousness of Christ. Even those with the highest views of the atonement and who believe we are justified on the basis of Christ’s imputed righteousness are quick to recognize that we are simultaneously sinners and saints and that God uses means to shape us into the saints we are. Horton writes, “The Reformers saw ‘Christ for us’ and ‘Christ in us’, the alien righteousness imputed and the sanctifying righteousness imparted, as not only compatible but necessarily and inextricably related” (The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way, 648)

Fifth, Walls is correct in pointing out that the long held position among Protestants that the process of sanctification is completed at death is not clearly taught in Scripture. It may be, he contends, implied from texts, but it isn’t fully explicated. Wayne Grudem is probably typical of evangelicals on this. He writes, “once we die and go to be with the Lord, then our sanctification is completed in one sense, for our souls are set free from indwelling sin and are made perfect” (Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, 749). In support he cites Hebrews 12:22-24, “But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” Honestly, from this text, it’s far from clear that souls are perfected at death. It could be argued that those souls who have been made perfect are the souls of believers who have come through purgatory and been made fit for heaven.

Having said that, I remain unconvinced by Walls’ argument. While it may fall into the category of possible, I don’t think it belongs in the category of probable. The first and primary reason for this rejection is a lack of biblical evidence for it. Walls has argued that it is implied by certain truth of Scripture, but he does not do a good enough job to convince me. Which truths from Scripture imply a purging after death. He argues philosophically that “there is no way of rendering such an abrupt transition [from unsanctified sinner to perfected saint] in essentially temporal beings conceivable” (quoting David Brown). That’s not a biblical argument, and I don’t even think it’s a cogent philosophical one (How long should it take? Ten years? How about 9 years and six months? How about 7 years? How about 7 minutes?). He argues from a position that “God takes our freedom seriously” (being a good Wesleyan-Arminian), writing, “considerable growth is required before such a stage [perfection] can be reached. And if this growth has not occurred in this life, purgatory seems necessary if God is to complete the job with our freedom intact.” While these might be good philosophical/theological arguments, they are not biblical in the strictest sense, and they are certainly open for debate. Thus, his contention that purgatory is implied in Scripture is weak.

Second, it seems the implications of Scripture point in another direction – that saints are perfected at death and enter into the joy of heaven (though in the temporary, penultimate, disembodied state). Here’s how I’d build that case:

1) Nothing impure can enter heaven. Of the New Jerusalem it is said that “nothing unclean will ever enter it” (Revelation 21:27) and the prophet Habakkuk says of God, ” You who are of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong, why do you idly look at traitors and remain silent when the wicked swallows up the man more righteous than he?”(Hab. 1:13).

2) Several people in the NT were said to have gone directly to heaven. Jesus promised the thief on the cross that he would be with Christ in paradise “today” (Luke 23:43). Moreover, Paul anticipates being with Christ when he dies (Phil. 1:21; 2 Cor. 5:6).

3) These believers who went to Christ upon death were not completely sanctified in this life. Certainly the thief hadn’t had a lot of time to grow and mature and be perfected. Walls deals with this by arguing that there “is no reason why paradise could not invole further growth, purging and the like”. That sounds reasonable, until you ask is an immature, unperfected believer sinful still? Yes. There doesn’t seem to be room in the NT view of heaven for sinners, like the thief on the cross, who are still dealing with their sins. Paul says of himself in Philippians 3:12″Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” This letter was written in the last stages of Paul’s life and ministry – and in the same letter where he expresses his hope to be with Christ when he dies.

4) There is clear biblical evidence that God does completely perfect some “in the twinkling of an eye” (1 Cor. 15:50-53). Walls contends, and is right, that this has to do with bodily transformation – those still alive when Christ returns will receive their new bodies quickly. But he continues, “it says nothing of relational of moral perfection.” This strikes me as bizarre. We have new perfected bodies, but we still struggle with sin? And where does this struggle take place? In purgatory? The context of 1 Cor. 15 is the final triumph and it would seem that believers with their new bodies would be in the new heavens and new earth. But does that square with Rev. 21:27?

On the whole, Walls argument deserves to be considered, but I find it wanting. I would love to chat with him for a few hours on it. Maybe together we can figure out how he would respond to my objections, or come up with more. Maybe…we could invite him to ECC to speak at a seminar?