Few contemporary philosophers have thought as deeply, nor written as clearly, about the Last Things as Jerry Walls. In 1992 he published his doctoral dissertation Hell: The Logic of Damnation. Ten years later he published Heaven: The Logic of Eternal Joy. And three years ago he completed the trilogy with Purgatory: The Logic of Transformation. On the basis of this last volume one might infer that Dr Walls is a Roman Catholic, but he in fact is a Methodist who has been powerfully influenced by the writings of C. S. Lewis. The “logic” in the subtitles alerts us that we may expect some pretty sophisticated philosophical reflection.
And now there is Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory. Walls brings it all together in a treatment intended for a popular audience. I am happy to commend it to you. Accessible, clearly and energetically written, argued with logical precision, filled with anecdotes—this is a book that pastors and laypeople alike will find instructive and helpful. It has the feel of an oral presentation. I wouldn’t be surprised if much of the book had been originally presented as talks in a parochial setting. In several respects the book reminds me of Peter Kreeft’s classic Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Heaven—the two could be profitably read side-by-side.
I have only one general criticism. The Bible functions as a decisive authority for philosopher Walls, but he does not address the difficult question of hermeneutics. How do we properly interpret the eschatological statements of the Scriptures? At various times he demonstrates his sensitivity to genre, literary form, and figurative speech, yet this alone is insufficient. Here’s what I have in mind: Are we to believe, should we believe, that God revealed to Jesus and his Apostles details of the afterlife? This is a question that rarely seems to be get discussed, yet we all “know” an answer, and this answer controls our interpretation and application of the relevant biblical passages. Consider, for example, our Lord’s parable of Dives and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). The parable is constantly mined by just about everyone for authoritative information on paradise and hell and the relationship between the two; but is it appropriate to do so? I imagine that Walls would reply that a discussion of hermeneutics would have been inappropriate in a book written for a popular audience, and I cannot disagree. Yet if we are going to invoke Scripture to resolve debates on the eternity of hell or the the possibility of universal reconciliation, we need to make explicit the principles that guide our reading. Perhaps Walls does so in his academic titles. I need to take a look.
Like my previous book reviews, I will be blogging on topics that presently interest me. This means that I will be skipping over some very interesting material. Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory is a much richer book than my extended review might lead one to believe.
Are you interested in the Last Things? Then Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory is a must buy, whether you are Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, or even non-Christian. It may well be the best popular introduction to the topic now available. We are fortunate to have a guide like Walls to help us in the navigation of the difficult terrain.