This post is part 4 of the series Four Views of Hell which summarizes the Counterpoints book of the same name. My goal is to faithfully represent each of the four views as described by their authors, keeping my view out as much as possible. In my previous post, I covered the Christian Universalism view.
Jerry Walls provided the chapter on purgatory.
What is the purpose of purgatory?
Purgatory has often been understood in its relationship to hell because the two often share images of suffering and punishment. But it might be better understood in its relationship to heaven, as a temporary stage “for those who die in a state of grace and will eventually make it into heaven” (146).
Purgatory is an attempt to answer the question “how is it that persons who died in a state of grace, but are less than fully perfect, are made fit for heaven” (146)? The question arises from passages like Rev. 21:27 which says that nothing unclean will enter heaven and Heb. 12:14 which describes holiness (for which we are to strive) that is required to see the Lord.
Many Protestants might argue that such a purification happens the moment we die, but the doctrine of purgatory provides a fuller account.
Purgatory isn’t a place of probation that determines one’s final state. All who are in purgatory will eventually make it into heaven.
It’s also not, at least in the traditional definition, a second chance for those who reject Christ in this life. That choice is final.
Instead, it’s a place where those who have not been sanctified in this life, will have the grace to receive sanctification before entering heaven. In a death bed conversation, for instance, that conversion is accepted (the person is justified) but the process of sanctification still needs to happen, and will happen, in purgatory.
Purgatory, by creating a third possibility between heaven and hell,
purgatory expands the hope for the number of people who will be finally saved (more on this later).
Two Reasons for Purgatory: Satisfaction and Sanctification
Purgatory can be understood as accomplishing two goals (1) sanctification and/or (2) satisfaction. Sanctification refers to the process of being made holy by purifying (purging) the person of impurities. Satisfaction refers to undergoing punishments to satisfy the justice of God. Roman Catholics at the time of Luther and beyond focused on satisfaction.
Protestants reject purgatory because the satisfaction model, which plays an integral part in Roman Catholic theology, goes against Protestant teaching that Jesus has fully satisfied the justice of God through his death on the cross. However, it is possible to reject that satisfaction model and keep the sanctification model.
But is It in the Bible?
While not addressed directly by Scripture “the doctrine of purgatory can be rightly considered biblical in the broader sense that it is a natural implication of things that are clearly taught in Scripture” (152). Furthermore, some specific passages seem to suggest purgatory.
For instance, 1 Cor 3:11-15 describes the Day (of judgment) as a day when our works will be revealed for what they truly were. Some on that day will be saved but will suffer loss as those “escaping through the flames.” Through this process, they will be sanctified by the truth (John17:17). “Watching the fire burn would bring home the truth to us, and as we accepted and came to terms with it, our sanctification would go forward” (154). So, there is a process within the final judgment that involves coming to terms with the truth, which leads us to sanctification.
Purgatory and the Process of Sanctification
C.S. Lewis observed that our problem is not just the guilt incurred from following our sinful habits and tendencies, but those habits and tendencies themselves. Therefore, salvation is not just about receiving forgiveness and being cleansed of guilt (justification). More than that, we need to be completely healed of our sinfulness to truly see God. Sanctification requires human cooperation, takes time, and involves suffering.
Human Cooperation over Time
God has given humans the freedom to accept or reject him, to cooperate with his will, or to thwart it. Human freedom is so valuable to God because of the good things it makes possible (love, joy, etc.). “If God can give us the goods of love, goodness, and joy unilaterally at the moment of death without our free cooperation, it is hard to see why freedom is necessary in this life to achieve these goods, particularly given all the evil that results from the misuse of our freedom” (158).
The sanctification in this life, which springs from our free cooperation with God, takes time. It is the result of “innumerable choices.” If sanctification is a process that requires our free cooperation in this life, perhaps it will continue to be so after we die.
Suffering and Transformation
Is suffering essential to purgatory and, if so, does it imply an element of satisfaction, which Protestants reject? Pain is essential to the moral transformation required for us to enter heaven, but that pain isn’t for the purpose of punishment, but because it is the result of transformation. “[T]he pain is due essentially to the radical transformation we must undergo in order to become persons who could truly welcome a God of perfect holiness to take up residence in every part of our lives” (163).
Like in the renovation of a house, where the contractors need to perform some demolition before they add on, so it is with our hearts. Walls of sin and selfishness need to be demolished – a painful process – before we attain the holiness required for heaven.
“Our self-centered attitudes badly skew our perspective on reality and put us out of joint with it. Our disordered loves close our hearts to Love himself” (165). That “disjointedness” causes discomfort and, until we are transformed, it will continue to cause us pain. We will not be able to enjoy heaven until we are transformed, and that transformation involves a level of pain.
But isn’t this still salvation by works?
Our salvation, justification and sanctification, gifts of grace, and both are required to enter into heaven. “We should be under no illusion that our entrance into heaven is fully assured by justification or having the righteousness of Christ imputed to us. Sanctification is not an optional matter… [but] a necessary condition for all of us who want to experience joy in the presence of God” (166).
As noted above human cooperation is a necessary component of sanctification. However, that doesn’t mean that sanctification is any less a gift of God. “Sanctification is a gift for which God is ultimately responsible, but this does not preclude human cooperation” (166).
The plausibility of purgatory rests on a few questions. First, are we able to disentangle the satisfaction view of purgatory from the sanctification view? Second, how seriously do we take sanctification? Third, do we believe that sanctification requires human participation? Purgatory “will be a theologically viable option for Protestants to the degree that they have a holistic view of salvation by faith that emphasizes that sanctification is a work of grace just as much as justification is” (168).
Expanding purgatory hope even further?
Early in this essay, we said that purgatory was not a “second chance.” In its traditional sense, it is not. However, this view is worth questioning. “Why is repentance at the very last moment of death always accepted, but repentance a moment after death too late? Indeed, what is objectionable about the idea of a ‘second chance,’ especially since many people have countless chances in this life?” (170)
Perhaps the gap spoken of in Luke 16:26 is unbridgable only to the extent that the rich man refuses to repent. If so, even someone in hell could be forgiven and sanctified.
A view consistent with God’s character of love and justice is that God only damns to eternal hell those who have decisively chosen evil. But for such a choice to be a true choice God gives them “optimal grace,” which is “the measure of grace that is best suited to elicit a positive-free response to God” (171). Optimal grace will be different from person to person. Since it is unlikely that everyone receives optimal grace in this life, it is plausible that they might receive such grace in Purgatory, leading to post-mortem repentance.
Purgatory, then, makes sense of how we who are less than fully sanctified could enter into heaven in a way that honors human cooperation in sanctification. And, it’s worth asking whether this “expanded hope” could extend even to those in hell, providing them a path to repentance and salvation.