Jerry Walls: The Necessity of Purgatory

Purgatory—speak the word and Protestant Christians will quickly shake their heads with disapproval. Here is a doctrine that decisively undermines the good news of God’s gift of salvation in Jesus Christ. The Anglican Articles of Religion describe it as “repugnant to the Word of God.” The Westminster Confession as a “cunningly devised fable, invented by designing men to impose upon the credulous, and to fill their own treasures.” In the Smalcald Articles, Martin Luther declares that “purgatory, and every solemnity, rite, and commerce connected with it, is to be regarded as nothing but a specter of the devil.” The Eastern Orthodox Church, with significant qualification, has been equally firm in her rejection of what she believes to be a Latin innovation:

We the godly, following the truth and turning away from such innovations, confess and accept two places for the souls of the dead, paradise and hell, for the righteous and sinners, as the holy Scripture teaches us. We do not accept a third place, a purgatory, by any means, since neither Scripture nor the holy Fathers have taught us any such thing. However, we believe these two places have many abodes. (1772 Synod of Constantinople)

Yet despite this “ecumenical” rejection of the Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory, Methodist philosopher Jerry Walls dares to offer a robust defense of this controversial teaching in his new book Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory. The doctrine of purgatory, he believes, contains a crucial insight into humanity’s eschatological transformation in Jesus Christ. The challenge is to separate the revelation from its medieval distortions. “We have to have some sort of doctrine of purgatory” (p. 95).

But why? Because every presentation of the Last Things needs to account for two facts:

First, the perfect enjoyment of heaven requires perfect holiness. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God,” declares Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:8). The author of the Letter to the Hebrews speaks of “the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (12:14). Sanctity is not optional. If we would know and enjoy the communion of the Holy Trinity, our hearts must be purified of all egotism and sin. “Heaven is a place of total perfection, full of light, beauty, and goodness,” Walls explains. “Nothing impure or unclean can enter there. (Rev. 22:27)” (p. 93).

Second, few, if any, achieve perfect holiness in this life. The great majority of human beings die in a state of impaired communion with God. This is true even for Christian believers who have been justified by faith in Jesus Christ and regenerated in the Holy Spirit. “All have sinned,” writes the Apostle Paul, “and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23).

How then, asks Walls, do we interpret this second fact in light of the first? There are three possibilities:

(1) Anyone who fails to achieve perfect holiness in this life will be eternally excluded from the beatific vision.

(2) God will instantaneously make perfect all who die in a state of grace.

(3) God will continue after death the process of synergistic sanctification until perfect holiness is achieved.

Walls rightly dismisses the first possibility as unworthy of Christian consideration. The debate, therefore, must be joined on the relative merits of possibilities (2) and (3). In the words of 18th century Anglican Divine John Fletcher:

If we understand by purgatory, the manner in which souls, still polluted with the remains of sin, are, or may be purged from those remains, that they may see a holy God, and dwell with him forever; the question, Which is the true purgatory? is by no means frivolous: for it is the grand inquiry, How shall I be eternally saved? proposed in different expressions. (quoted on p. 95)

Who needs purgatory? Perhaps we all do.

(Go to “The Purgatory of Ebenezer Scrooge”)

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10 Responses to Jerry Walls: The Necessity of Purgatory

  1. Hey Fr. Aidan,

    Would it be safe to say for the Orthodox that what he defines as, “God will continue after death the process of synergistic sanctification until perfect holiness is achieved” would be bound up in theosis? If so would this mean then that his belief in purgatorial necessity could be subsumed by further sanctification and purification in the new heaven and earth and not in a middle place between heaven and hell?

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Michael, I think many Orthodox would speak of these matters precisely as you state. The problem is the intermediate state. Some, perhaps many, Orthodox have long believed that the disembodied souls in Hades, particularly those who have not fully repented of their sins, are reduced to a condition of utter passivity. They can be the beneficiaries of our prayers and the gracious action of God, but they cannot engage in synergistic sanctification. The Orthodox are not of one mind on this question.

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  2. Wow. Walls seems to be tearing to shreds the Methodist theology on holiness and sanctification. I mean unless I’ve misunderstood the Methodist theology on this but if Christians are those who have already reached holiness than there should be no need for Walls’s argument in defense of Purgatory because it runs contrary to Methodist teaching.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Daniel, I suspect that the old-time holiness religion to which you refer hasn’t been taught in mainstream Methodism for a long time.

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  3. AR says:

    I don’t have any convictions on the subject but I’ve found Walls’ second option unsatisfactory for a while now.

    I’m just not so sure about the process part. The third option seems to assume a fully processual existence beyond the grave. However a lot of NDE experience suggests that a disembodied mind is incredibly swift, experiencing its thoughts as actions, and its actions as instantaneous. It’s not as if sequence disappears. Just that one becomes less processual.

    I’m led to wonder whether our bodies generate time…

    …and whether a lot of matters might not be tidied up quite efficiently where that dynamic is not at work.

    I know we don’t like the toll houses, but the parabolic suggestion of a journey in which both the road and the destination are identical with one’s own changing states, makes some sense to me.

    Road-trip purgatory?

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    • 407kwac says:

      That #2 didn’t make sense to me was also a significant impetus for my journey to Orthodoxy. I needed a new reality-based way to understand the nature of my relationship to God, not the abstract ideological one I was taught.

      Though process may not quite fit the actual mode of the Eschaton, perhaps it is close enough to serve (like the toll-houses) by way of analogy for our earthbound minds. At least this does not seem inconsistent with the Orthodox understanding of the state of even those perfected in holiness in the Eschaton as one of never ending transfiguration toward the infinitude of God’s glory.

      Karen

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      • AR says:

        I see what you are saying. For me the idea of process is influenced by process philosophy. Granted, if a process is simply a sequence of steps then I don’t see why a journey wouldn’t be processual. But I’m not really objecting to the idea that we engage in process after our death. I think that we, as we experience ourselves right now, ARE processes, (rather than discrete objects floating down the stream of time) and I think that wouldn’t be so much the case without our bodies.

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  4. 407kwac says:

    “. . .we . . . ARE processes . . .” Yes, that seems a good way to put it.

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  5. tgbelt says:

    I don’t know where to land between (2) and (3). I admit the idea of (3) makes far less sense than it once did. But the whole question of disembodied minds being sufficient to adjudicate the kind of choices involved in (2) is, like AR, says, more and more difficult to imagine. I don’t find disembodied minds difficult to imagine per se, just ‘our’ minds, i.e., minds who have had their history, character and existence in an embodied state. Just the fact that we are resurrected at all suggests God’s intentions for us require the body, which leads me to wonder how we’re to supposed to function and develop in a disembodied state. At the same time I find the idea that the human mind is absolutely incapable of disembodied perception and volition quite strange as well. I don’t imagine the ‘body’ constitutes temporal becoming per se (I assume the angels are temporal qua created as well) but only that embodiment makes possible the particular epistemic distance that define our present existence.

    I’m babbling. Sorry.

    On a similar note, AR brought up the experience of time, and I’ve wondered (with a friend of mine) how the idea of time dilation (or something like the concept of the “specious present”) might shape the experience of those in (hell) judgment. We all have had experiences that we felt lasted a very long time (because we were so “in the moment” and unattentive to the passage of time) but which were in fact only moments long. What if, say, Hitler experiences hell (given the severity of his privation) as an excruciatingly prolonged period of time when in fact relative to the reality of the experience of the glorified it’s just moments long? Maybe there is no ‘objectively’ long eon of suffering. Perhaps the duration of one’s experience of hell is entirely subjective relative to privation. Perhaps in the eschaton, ‘privated’ physical states (like evil embodied minds/hearts) are incapable of ‘keeping up with’ glorified realities and so experience themselves very slowly (besides horrifically).

    AR, there’s a lot about Process thought I love, especially Charles Hartshorne. What a mind. I looked for a while to find some Orthodox thinker who had engaged Process thought and finally ran into Fr Thomas Hopko’s PhD dissertation on Process theology.

    Tom

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