Book Review: Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory

Heaven, Hell and Purgatory: A Protestant View of the Cosmic Drama by Jerry L. Walls

Brazos | Amazon | CBD

Jerry Walls, who has published widely on Christianity’s teaching on the afterlife (though this is not a uniform concept), here seeks to articulate and defend a Protestant view of purgatory.

Early on, Walls makes a couple of astute points that are more commonly found in academic circles, but are still struggling to find a foothold in the church. For one, Walls comments that “popular writing about the afterlife is often sentimental, simplistic, and emotionally manipulative” (14). This is especially evidenced by the flood of journey-to-heaven books and movies to the Christian media market.

In his seven truths about heaven (based on Revelation 19–22), Walls dismisses the notion that heaven is an escape from earth. Redemption concerns more than just human souls—it concerns the entire cosmos (30). I have come around to this particular view of salvation, that God’s work of redemption in/through Christ entails the preparation of those who have been justified by faith in Christ for the fullest realization of the kingdom of God—the redemption of the created order as the dwelling place of God.

On these (and other more general points) I found Walls’ arguments agreeable. However, the main idea of the book is that the concept of purgatory is a defensible position for Protestants to hold and Walls spends the first third of the book turning the soil into which he will plant, sow, and reap a Protestant view of purgatory. Walls suggests that every theology needs a purgatory, not just that of the Roman Catholic tradition (93). The assumption underlying this idea is that prior to “entry” into heaven (which I take to simply the entry into God’s immediate presence) souls are still stained with sin, thus, they need to be fully purged. Walls makes clear that the very word purgatory bears the negative connotation that drew the ire of the Reformers, which was a justifiable response. However, Walls contends that the concept of purgatory had been perverted and is in fact a rather gracious work of God, not on men. Walls’ contention seems to be that the necessity of repentance requires some measure of purification between death and entrance into the heavenly kingdom.

As far as the biblical evidence for his position, well, there’s little discussion of that. Walls’ work is more philosophical in nature and does not deal adequately with the biblical data, which is its biggest weakness. Scripture is referred to, but only in such a way as to leave readers wanton for more substantive interaction with the sacred text. Walls is certainly shows himself adept in his interactions with theologians, philosophers, and writers (Dostoevsky, for example) on this issue, but if he had addressed the Scriptures more substantively this book would have been much stronger. As it is, it remains a largely philosophical enterprise, which is not necessarily a critique, but an observation as to its approach.

Deep down I want to believe that there is some post-mortem opportunity for those who die without having surrendered to Christ to repent and enjoy life eternal, but I simply can’t get around the biblical data that suggests otherwise. I’ll admit that perhaps some texts could hint at the concept of purgatory as articulated by Walls, but I think the overwhelming testimony of the NT is that life is the time of opportunity and to miss it means separation from God. I want there to be another chance, but I can’t convince myself there is and Walls’ book, while thoughtful and well written, does not sway me in this matter. However, despite the fact I’m not persuaded by his arguments, Walls is a good writer and makes his case for purgatory well enough, just not strong enough to persuade me.

Αυτω η δοξα

3 thoughts on “Book Review: Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory

  1. Jason:

    I just happened upon your blog and must say I quite enjoy what I’ve seen thus far. I did have a thought, though. Above you stated:

    “Deep down I want to believe that there is some post-mortem opportunity for those who die without having surrendered to Christ to repent and enjoy life eternal, but I simply can’t get around the biblical data that suggests otherwise. I’ll admit that perhaps some texts could hint at the concept of purgatory as articulated by Walls, but I think the overwhelming testimony of the NT is that life is the time of opportunity and to miss it means separation from God.”

    I’m a Roman Catholic (converting from the PCA as a teenager) and currently working on my PhD in Biblical Studies at Ave Maria University. I just wanted to drop you a line and say that actually, you’ve articulated rather nicely the Catholic doctrine; the Church teaches emphatically that death seals the fate of the soul, for eternity with God or eternity without Him.

    Far from being one more opportunity to say yes to Christ, Purgatory is merely the first stage in the process that can only end with the Beatific vision. Purgatory is just that, the stage of the soul’s purgation from the effects of sin, and the fulfillment of the temporal punishment incurred during one’s life.

    Not having read Wall’s book I don’t know if his position is that purgatory may/must include the element of choice, but the Catholic doctrine excludes this: death seals one’s fate.

  2. Thomist: Thanks for the comment! I don’t recall at this point if Walls deals with element of choice. Nevertheless, I think Walls sought to make the idea of purgatory more palatable for Protestants. Perhaps I should go back and re-read some of this one to get a clearer grasp of the arguments. Thanks again for commenting!

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