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.