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“Should Evangelicals Embrace the Doctrine of Purgatory?” (Matthew Barrett)

In the most recent issue of Credo Magazine, “Purgatory: An Evangelical Doctrine?”, Matthew Barrett has contributed an article titled, “Should Evangelicals Embrace the Doctrine of Purgatory?” Barrett (Ph.D., The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is Assistant Professor of Christian Studies at California Baptist University (OPS). He is also the founder and executive editor of Credo Magazine. Barrett has contributed book reviews and articles to various academic journals, and he is the editor of Whomever He Wills: A Surprising Display of Sovereign Mercy, as well as the author of several other forthcoming books.

Here is the introduction to Barrett’s article:

Jerry L. Walls is without embarrassment a Protestant who believes in purgatory. And his most recent book Purgatory: The Logic of Total Transformation (Oxford University Press, 2012), which finishes his trilogy on the afterlife, is his theological apologetic.

Walls begins with a detailed survey of the history of purgatory, starting with pagan philosophers, moving next to a very brief treatment of the biblical text (specifically highlighting what texts advocates have appealed to), and then tracing the doctrine from the patristic period to twenty-first century advocates like Cardinal Ratzinger, now Benedict XVI. Though Walls admits that purgatory was not officially affirmed until the Second Council of Lyons (1274), he is convinced that the doctrine has a rich heritage prior to Lyons.

Chapter 2 then evaluates Protestant objections to purgatory, including both Reformed and Wesleyan traditions. Walls’s rejection of the Reformed view is no surprise, but what is fascinating is his critique of his own Wesleyan heritage. Walls believes adopting purgatory resolves the tension in Wesleyanism between the need to reach entire sanctification and instant glorification at death. “Purgatory extends the time available for the process of salvation to run its course, and is arguably a natural development of a view of soteriology that requires real transformation and human cooperation in achieving it” (47). The Wesleyan affirmation of glorification as a unilateral, instantaneous act of God at death smacks of Calvinism. Rather, argues Walls, would Wesleyans not be more consistent to affirm purgatory, whereby the sinner continues his cooperation with God until he reaches entire sanctification? (47) Walls is dumbfounded by John Wesley’s reasons for rejecting purgatory, namely, he agreed with his Reformed counterparts that the doctrine is “contrary to Scripture and antiquity.” Furthermore, for Wesley justification meant that there no longer is condemnation. Therefore, the believer is justified when he leaves this world and will have nothing laid at his charge in the life hereafter. Walls rebukes Wesley for thinking of salvation primarily in terms of justification.

Three Views of Purgatory

But lest we think all advocates of purgatory are uniform, Walls reminds us in chapter 3 that broadly speaking there are at least three views: (1) the Satisfaction Model, (2) the Satisfaction/Sanctification model, and (3) the Sanctification Model. In the Satisfaction Model, guilt may be cleansed by contrition, but punishment remains and must be dealt with. Hence the need for punishment not only in this life, but in purgatory, where one will finish paying the penalty (making atonement) for his sins committed after baptism. One must suffer the punishment one’s sins have merited (i.e., expiation). And the sins one did not atone for through penance and good works in this life, are then carried over into purgatory until one’s debt is paid. Walls rejects this first view not because it is inconsistent with Scripture but because it has no ecumenical potential since even Protestants who deny the imputation of Christ’s righteousness still affirm that “the gift of salvation through Christ pardons them of sin in such a way that they are no longer required to pay any sort of debt of punishment” (69). Also, in this first view, though there is a debt to be paid, nevertheless, at death the soul is still perfect. Walls considers such a tension “morally dubious” and “incoherent.” Walls believes he has the solution to this paradox, namely, perfection is received at the end of purgatory, rather than at the beginning. “It would make more moral sense if the souls in purgatory experienced punishment and pain precisely as the persons who still had the moral defects and blemishes as well as the guilt of their sins to expiate” (70).

In the Satisfaction/Sanctification model the payment of debt is the means by which God cleanses the soul and makes it spiritually healthy. This view tries to have its cake and eat it too since metaphors of cleansing/healing and debt/payment are adopted. Walls’s critique is multi-faceted: (1) This view fares hardly better for ecumenical dialogue, since Protestants will reject any notion of punishment to satisfy debt. (2) The correlation between satisfaction and sanctification is problematic, since a person may be healed of character flaws but still have to stick around to pay a sufficient penalty, or vice versa. (3) It is questionable that embracing a punishment is a sufficient condition for sanctification. (4) Advocates of this model affirm that pain in purgatory is worse than pain in this life. But for Walls, such an overwhelming amount of pain would negate the person’s libertarian free-will response which is necessary if one must experience genuine transformation. Freely cooperating is essential, says Walls, otherwise why wouldn’t God perfect all souls when they die? (5) Last, it is not clear how this model accommodates indulgences.

The Sanctification model is the one that Walls adopts. According to the sanctification view, one does not suffer in purgatory to pay a moral debt or “complete penance in order to satisfy divine justice” (82). Rather, suffering occurs to grow one into perfection. Walls argues that such a view “is not in any way incompatible with Protestant accounts of justification by faith.” By analogy, Walls appeals to the fictional character of Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. Dickens, a wretched, self-centered man, is slowly transformed in character when three spirits help “him to see others in ways he had not been able to before” (85).  Walls concludes that in his model Protestants should not hesitate to pray for the dead and their sanctification (88).

Postmortem Conversion and Apostasy

While Walls’s case for purgatory explores other territory as well (e.g., ch. 4: “Personal Identity, Time, and Purgatory”), we must focus our attention on perhaps Walls’s most dramatic modification of the doctrine in chapter 5, namely, purgatory and the opportunity for a “second chance” at salvation (i.e., postmortem conversion). Walls argues that if lost sinners have multiple opportunities before death to repent, why not after death as well? (127) Furthermore, if God truly loves all people, is he not willing to extend every opportunity? If not, argues Walls, is he truly willing to save them? (129; 137; 143) Assuming Molinism as well as an Arminian view of divine love, Walls concludes that “optimal grace” implies that “God is not content with merely giving everyone some chance for salvation, but desires to give everyone every opportunity” (129).

But perhaps Walls is most shocking of all not merely in his affirmation of postmortem conversion, but in the real possibility of a postmortem purgatorial apostasy as well. In other words, a believer in purgatory may very well lose his salvation. Rather than progressing to heaven, he may digress to hell! After all, “if we allow for people to turn to God after death, is there any good reason to think they cannot likewise turn away from him?” (147). Drawing from his Wesleyan-Arminian tradition, Walls places great weight on libertarian freedom at this point, arguing that the believer can resist “the demand for sanctification and transformation in purgatory and turn away from God” (147).  Walls concedes that his view is “somewhat speculative,” but this does not bother him since “Scripture simply does not give us detailed information either way on this question, and the best we can do is lay out the view that seems most likely, given what we think scripture does clearly teach” (150).

In the end, Walls concludes that his model of purgatory is perfectly compatible with Protestant theology and “makes better sense of how the remains of sin are purged than the typical Protestant account that it happens instantly and immediately at or after death” (90).

Read the rest of Barrett’s article today…

To view the Magazine as a PDF {Click Here}

This issue of Credo Magazine might come as a surprise. Purgatory? Really? I thought we addressed that back in the sixteenth-century? Think again. Not only is purgatory a hot button issue once again on the table, especially given the current excitement with some Protestants returning to Rome, but most recently there has been a renewed interest in purgatory among committed evangelicals. For example, in his new book, Purgatory: The Logic of Total Transformation, Jerry Walls addresses evangelicals today, arguing not only that Protestants should whole-heartedly embrace purgatory, but that such a doctrine as this can serve as an ecumenical bridge with Catholics. Spoiler alert: The purgatory Walls has in mind does not look exactly like your Catholic grandmother’s. You will have to read this issue of Credo Magazine to see why.

So what should we think about purgatory anyway? My guess is, most evangelicals know little about the history of purgatory, let alone how to jump into a debate over purgatory with their Catholic friends. And to complicate things even more, today we even have evangelicals incorporating purgatory within their Protestant theological framework. So the topic is a relevant one. To give just one anecdote, I was speaking at a conference on the topic recently and to my surprise a pastor approached me afterwards. He shepherds a congregation in a city where Roman Catholicism has a strong presence. Often he has Catholics in his pews, considering Protestantism for the first time. Among other doctrines, they want to know whether purgatory is a biblical “yes” or “no.” Perhaps that is you. Or perhaps you are that pastor. Either way, this issue is for you.

Contributors include: R. C. Sproul, Gregg Allison, Matthew Barrett, Chris Castaldo, James White, Lee Gatiss, David and Sally Michael and many others.

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