Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory

Jerry Walls, Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory: Rethinking the Things that Matter Most. Michigan: Brazos, 2015. 240 pp. $19.99

Although two and a half centuries of Enlightenment naturalism have eaten away at the western world's faith in the afterlife, the question of our eternal destiny has certainly not faded from the scene. Indeed, each new year seems to bring more books and films on the subject: from Don Piper's bestselling 90 Minutes in Heaven to the unexpected Clint Eastwood film Hereafter; from To Heaven and Back: A Doctor's Extraordinary Account of Her Death, Heaven, Angels, and Life Again to Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon's Journey into the Afterlife; from the joyous Heaven Is for Real (later made into a film) to the sobering 23 Minutes in Hell (not likely to be hitting movie screens any time soon).

In Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory: Rethinking the Things that Matter Most, Jerry Walls takes up this renewed conversation about our eternal destiny and carries it into a much needed arena where careful scholarship meets public accessibility. Walls, professor of philosophy and scholar in residence at Houston Baptist University (where I have taught since 1991), is no stranger to the topic of the afterlife. He has already published a trilogy of academic books on the subject: Hell: The Logic of Damnation, Heaven: The Logic of Eternal Joy, and Purgatory: The Logic of Total Transformation. In his current book, Walls synthesizes the heart of his trilogy and then recasts it in a more popular mode that promises to reach a wider and more diverse audience. 

Walls, like Dante before him, connects heaven, hell, and purgatory by showing how each stands in relationship to God's love for us and our love for him. "Heaven is the joy of being at home in the presence of a God of perfect love. Hell is the misery of choosing persistently to resist that love. And purgatory is the transformation of our character as we open our hearts to that love" (p.115). 

Walls's discussion of heaven should provoke the least controversy, though it should challenge believers and unbelievers alike to question themselves on the nature of the greater cosmic story of which we are a part. Is that story primarily a tragedy or a comedy? If the atheists are right, then there can be no happy ending to the human drama: just illusion, despair, and meaningless. But if heaven is real, if human history will end, like a Shakespearean comedy, with a great wedding (that between Christ and the Church), then we have reason to hope that our yearnings for love, beauty, and meaning will, in the end, find fulfillment. It is the atheists, not the Christians, whose account of reality is thin, paltry, and, ultimately, anti-humanistic. 

Walls's discussion of hell should prove somewhat more controversial, though not to those who are fans of C. S Lewis's work, especially The Great Divorce. In keeping with Lewis, Walls critiques those who think that if God were loving enough to reveal himself to us, we would all repent and enter heaven. That is simply not how things work. Each time we choose ourselves over God, we take a step away from God, and thus from heaven. "These steps add up and over time can cover quite a distance" (pp.80-81). More vitally, these steps, taken together, "form a character. And the more we have a character that is comfortable with sin, the less we will be inclined to repent and be reconciled to God" (p.81). And the less we will desire to enter heaven, even if it were offered to us again and again. 

Walls is wise to discuss heaven and hell before taking up purgatory. Readers who grant the premises of his earlier chapters will be more likely to give him a hearing when he turns to the far more controversial topic of purgatory. Though the vast majority of Protestants reject the Catholic doctrine of purgatory, Walls says that they should not. There are, after all, many Protestants who believe, in one form or another, that at the moment of our death we are purged fully and enter heaven. To believe such a thing, Walls argues, is to accept the need for purgatory, even if it only lasts for an instant.

And that's when Walls closes the net. Having grabbed his reader on this point, Walls proceeds to construct the most powerful analogy of his book. Who does not know the story of Scrooge, of how he was visited by the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future, and, through the experience, became a radically different man? Well, Walls asks, what if Scrooge had gone to bed on Christmas Eve and then woken up the next morning a different man--without going through his three painful interviews with the Ghosts? 

We would not buy it, Walls asserts. And even if we did, we would have to conclude that the reformed Scrooge had little to do with the previously unrepentant one. True change cannot happen in an instant; if it did, there would be no continuity between the changed person and his former self. Reformation is an act that takes time, work, and, usually, pain. 

At this point, many Protestants, especially evangelicals like myself, will suspect that Walls is a closet "papist" who would throw out Luther's noble fight against indulgences. But they would be wrong to do so. Walls, like Luther, does reject the medieval Catholic belief that purgatory exists as a means for satisfying God's wrath and our own debt. This, Walls makes clear, was accomplished once and for all by Christ. Purgatory exists, not for the purpose of satisfaction, but to enable us to complete our sanctification and thus be fully prepared for heaven. 

Walls explains this vital distinction and its consequences in a passage that sparkles with Lewisian common sense: "If what is at stake is a debt that needs to be paid, then others can help us pay the debt, as long as it is paid [hence, the Catholic system of indulgences that Luther opposed]. But if purgatory is about cleansing and purification, it makes no sense how anyone could to that for us or on our behalf. If I am dirty and need a bath, it will not do me any good for you to take a bath" (p.98).

Purgatory is neither a place of retributive punishment nor a place for completing Christ's salvific work on the Cross. It is a place desired by saved souls who want to wipe away the dirt so that they can more fully receive the grace and glory of God.

Is Walls's position, then, consistent with reformed Protestant theology? Yes and no. The distinction he makes between satisfaction and sanctification and his rejection of indulgences will certainly resonate with most evangelicals (including reformed ones), as will the imaginative power of his analogy to Scrooge. On theological grounds, however, he simply does not take seriously enough the doctrine of imputed righteousness. He mentions it, but does not wrestle with it firmly enough or take seriously enough its centrality to Protestant theology. Yes, he is right--in human terms--about change taking time, but he doesn't give enough credence to the power and mystery of that process by which Christ's righteousness is imputed to us.

Walls's insights into heaven, hell, and purgatory are profound and deserve to be read, weighed, and debated by Protestants in general and evangelicals in particular. Still, these insights do not exhaust the richness and usefulness of the book. As a supplement to his discussion of the three realms of the afterlife, Walls takes up two vital issues that are themselves worth the purchase price of the book.

First, Walls bravely confronts the controversial issue of post-mortem salvation. Though the almost universal consensus of the church has insisted that our chance to accept Christ and be saved ends with our death, Walls encourages us to give this view a second look. Not only is the biblical case against post-mortem salvation thin to non-existent; the logic of this admittedly traditional position is faulty. Does it really make sense that God's mercy ends one second after we die? Does God pour out his grace throughout our life and then, at the moment of our death, withdraw that grace forever? 

Whereas many believers ascribe to God's "sufficient grace"--that is, God's willingness to give every person at least one chance for salvation--Walls himself champions God's "optimal grace"--that is, his desire to leave no stone uncovered in the quest to win our soul. While maintaining his biblically-based belief that there will be those who will reject God's love and spend eternity in hell, Walls insists that "in principle all could be saved, since Christ died for all and God sincerely desires all to be saved" (p.209). Indeed, both the existence of hell and its eternality are not due "in any way to the lack of grace and opportunity but rather to the rejection of grace and opportunity" (p.209).

Along with his advocacy of purgatory, this element of Walls's book should prove the greatest stumbling block to reformed theologians--and for good reason. Though he is right that there are very few verses that actually address this issue, the clarity of Hebrews 9:27, that "it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment" (NASB), has certainly been understood by all Christian traditions (not just the reformers) to place a limit on our access to grace. Scripture abounds with a sense of urgency, of choosing this day whom we will serve, and Christians, of whatever denomination, risk opening a Pandora's Box by too quickly extending the possibility of salvation beyond the grave.  

The second issue Walls explores, the modern rejection of altruism, stands, I believe, on firmer ground. According to both Kantians and Darwinists, people either act out of self-interest or perform deeds that are completely selfless. Sadly, many Christian have bought into this unbiblical distinction: many going so far as to think that if they enjoy a work of charity, it is no longer charitable. 

Second, Walls explores the modern rejection of altruism. According to both Kantians and Darwinists, people either act out of self-interest or perform deeds that are completely selfless. Sadly, many Christian have bought into this unbiblical distinction: many going so far as to think that if they enjoy a work of charity, it is no longer charitable. 

In sharp contrast to this line of thinking, Walls remind us from scripture that "it was for the joy set before him that [Christ] endured the cross. . . . In commending Christ as a model in this regard, this passage [Heb 12:2] is encouraging Christians who suffer for their faith to do so with confident hope that the God whose nature is love will reciprocate their costly obedience. Self-interest in this regard is a straightforward component of Christian moral motivation" (p.184).

The ultimate origin of our capacity for sacrifice comes not from a rejection of self-interest but from the fact that we were made in the image of a Triune God who submits within himself: Son to Father, Spirit to Son. Our sacrifice does carry a reward, if not in this life, then in the promise that, in heaven, we will participate in the triune life of God. 

I hope that the flood of books and films about heaven will continue, but only if they can manage to move beyond sentimentality and wishful thinking to engage the kind of realism, dynamism, and high seriousness that animates Jerry Walls's fine book.

Louis Markos (www.Loumarkos.com), Professor in English and Scholar in Residence at Houston Baptist University, holds the Robert H. Ray Chair in Humanities; his books include From Achilles to Christ: Why Christians Should Read the Pagan Classics and Heaven and Hell: Visions of the Afterlife in the Western Poetic Tradition