Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory: Rethinking the Things that Matter Most
by jerry l. walls
brazos, 240 pages, $19.99
The opening sentence of this book declares that it “deals with the most important questions you will ever think about.” Jerry Walls—a philosophy professor at Houston Baptist University—has, prudently enough, spent a good deal of his career thinking about such questions. Walls gives a popular overview of his central arguments for why Christians in general and Protestants in particular should embrace the doctrines of heaven, hell, and purgatory—topics he has previously covered at length in a trilogy of well-received academic monographs.
What kind of story is the drama of human existence? For those who believe in heaven, it is a comedy in the classic sense—a story with a happy ending. One reason why this interpretation of the human drama deserves very serious consideration, Walls argues, is that it sheds light on the deepest desires of the human heart. Heaven is about happiness and love, and humans are clearly addicted to happiness and in constant search for love. Not even those who believe that ultimate happiness is unattainable can stop yearning for it, which means that “coming to terms with the loss of heaven is a painful operation.” Secular versions of the human story require us to stifle our highest aspirations, and to let go of the idea that truth, goodness, and beauty are harmoniously united.
But is heaven really believable? While many might be inclined to see it as a product of wishful thinking, Walls turns the hermeneutics of suspicion around and argues that an inability to believe in heaven might have to do with an inability to believe in love. If ultimate reality is the Trinity—a God who in himself is loving relationship, and who has loved us enough to die for us—then a state of complete happiness and consummate love is a logical conclusion to the human drama.
The book’s defense of heaven as a key to human nature is followed by an account of hell as the “distorted mirror image of heaven.” Like heaven, hell is a consequence of God’s love. Life with God requires that we love him back, and love cannot be forced or pre-programmed. This is why it is possible freely to cut oneself off from heaven—why it is possible to go to hell. Hell is a self-chosen abode; its doors are locked on the inside. Walls defends the eternity of hell, but only because Scripture seems to say that some people will actually choose to stay there forever.
But why would anybody want to do that? Drawing heavily on C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce, the author argues that hell has its own pleasures, such as that of “getting one’s way.” Instead of righteousness, hell offers self-righteousness. Those whose characters have been distorted and gradually confirmed in evil by a life of wrongful choices might actually prefer the perverted pleasures of hell before heaven.
The book’s account of hell is not uncontroversial from the perspective of traditional doctrine (I will come back to this below), but the emphasis on hell as voluntary separation is surely sound, and apologetically effective. Purgatory, which is treated next, is in itself a controversial notion in Protestant contexts. Walls, however, contends that a doctrine of purgatory is needed in any credible account of the cosmic drama. Past sins can be taken away by divine forgiveness, but most people die without having been completely sanctified—on their deathbeds, they still have character flaws and sinful desires. Nothing sinful can enter heaven, however. So either most people go to hell, or God must have some way of transforming sinners into saints after, or at, death.
The question is whether he does this instantaneously (by a “zap”), or through a process of gradual transformation. The author argues, convincingly, that the latter makes more sense. If God respects human freedom in this life, so that he wants us to cooperate freely with his grace in order to become holy, why would he not continue to respect our freedom after death? Moreover, if God would “zap” us into saints in an instant, what would happen to our personal identity? Would we even be capable of recognizing ourselves?
The case in favor of purgatory is perhaps the book’s most important contribution (in close competition with its imaginative defense of heaven), not least because of its ecumenical implications. The argument is driven by a narrative and relational understanding of personal identity that fits well with the author’s overall framing of human life as a cosmic comedy. A central claim is that the doctrine of purgatory is fully compatible with Protestant sensibilities, provided that the purpose of purgatory is understood as sanctification (moral transformation), and not as satisfaction (fulfillment of divine justice).
Something that contributes to the persuasiveness of Walls’s account of heaven, hell, and purgatory is the way in which he uses these doctrines to elucidate important philosophical issues. One example is the relationship between altruism and self-interest, which is a source of great vexation in modern philosophy. Walls argues that if altruism or selfless giving is a reflection of God’s inner life, then altruism is a foretaste of heaven, and thereby is in harmony with our deepest self-interest. Another highlight of the book is its debunking of claims to moral superiority by those who protest against the idea of heaven out of sympathy for history’s victims. Ironically, this kind of “love” seems to be willing to write off, as forever beyond repair or rehabilitation, the lives of these victims. “If one is truly concerned for the suffering of innocent victims,” the author argues, “then one should at least hope that there is a God and an afterlife.”
There are also some problems with Walls’s account of the cosmic drama, however, and I will point out two. First, his attempt to disentangle the sanctification model of purgatory from the satisfaction model has strange consequences. Suppose Hitler repents on his deathbed, and ends up in purgatory. Would he be in for a rough ride there? Walls is certain that he would. Hitler would have to “feel the pain and hurt that he caused,” so that he can repudiate it in the depth of his being. It is at least logically possible, however, that Hitler’s transformation into a saint could take place without any suffering whatsoever. Since Walls denies that purgatory has anything to do with divine justice and satisfaction for sins, he is committed to saying that this would be totally acceptable. It does not matter at all if Hitler’s time in purgatory would be like a Caribbean cruise with mild therapy sessions now and then. What counts is only that Hitler is made fit for heaven.
That this violates a deep-seated intuition indicates that the dimension of satisfaction and justice cannot be eliminated in any reasonable account of purgatory. In the encyclical letter Spe Salvi, Pope Benedict XVI emphasizes the “inter-relation between justice and grace.” With purgatory in mind, the pope writes: “The judgement of God is hope, both because it is justice and because it is grace. If it were merely grace, making all earthly things cease to matter, God would still owe us an answer to the question about justice—the crucial question that we ask of history and of God.”
A second problem in the book has to do with Walls’s claim that the doors of hell are locked on the inside. This view leaves open the possibility of postmortem conversions, which Walls explores in terms of what he calls “optimal grace.” If God really wants to save everybody, and if he does everything in his power to do so—short of overriding people’s free will—then will he not continue to offer his grace to persons who did not accept it in this life, and who are now in hell?
The affirmative answer that Walls gives to this question requires further doctrinal adjustments. In a hell that is only locked on the inside (and that therefore overlaps with purgatory), the possibility to repent will exist forever. This means that people can be converted even after the last judgment has taken place—a possibility that seems to transform the last judgment into something like an intermediate judgment. Walls does not address this doctrinal consequence in the present book, but he does so briefly in his study on purgatory, Purgatory: The Logic of Total Transformation, where he writes, “The verdict of the last judgment does not change that those who reject Christ are lost and excluded from heaven, while those who accept him are admitted to eternal joy. If any of those in hell repent, it is they who have changed, and not the reality or the terms of God’s ultimate judgment on our lives.”
This seems to mean that the drama of redemption will never come to an end. Christ, at the last judgment, will say to some people: “Depart from me—for now.” This is one point where Walls’s account goes against the grain of the biblical witness. The logic of his argument for “optimal grace” also seems a bit suspicious. Can we really reason from the claims that God is love and wants all people to be saved to the conclusion that he will continue forever to give us chances to repent? I am not so sure. Perhaps God takes human freedom so seriously that he even allows us to choose definitive separation from him.
Mats Wahlberg is associate professor of systematic theology at Umeå University, Sweden.