Jerry L. Walls
Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory: A Protestant View of the Cosmic Drama
Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2015. Paperback $19.99
(*I was provided a review copy by Brazos Press and am under no obligation for a positive review. The following comments and opinions are my own.)
Walls makes an observation that what is fundamental to human motivation is the desire for happiness (20). Some people question if it is achievable while others celebrate whatever form it may take in their lives. Is complete happiness possible or is it an addiction we are chasing? Walls posits that there is a connection between the desire for happiness and for love. This is part of what drives us to the eternal hope we have in an afterlife: in heaven. I think Walls is agreeable here, for whatever my opinion is worth. We are most satisfied when we find our satisfaction in God.
It is God who says that he is the Alph and Omega (Rev 21:6). God as the creator of everything and the ultimate end for which everything exists. Walls is certainly correct that this has important implications. The origin of things is not the big bang, even if that was the method used, the origin is the eternal love of God. Its end is the satisfaction of our happiness and desires without quenching them (28).
Heaven is the perfect end to the cosmic love drama, as Walls puts it so well among his 7 truths about heaven. Whether or not the earth will be new or renewed, heaven will be on earth (Rev 21:2-11). We believe in a resurrected body, not a specifically new body. We eagerly await this resurrection now and after death; until God’s final salvation (30). Heaven is a conclusion but not a final stop. “God’s plan of salvation is much larger and more comprehensive than saving human souls or even human beings.” God is in the process of redeeming the entire creation (Rom 8:22).
Atheistic views that argue heaven is an untenable reality receive good interaction in Walls’ work. He critiques the philosophical claims of some such as Bertrand Russell, Richard Taylor, Thomas Nagel, and Keith Parsons. What Walls asserts is that even though some reject the belief in heaven, they still pursue it other ways (50). Russell admits that there is a part of him that searches beyond the world for something infinite. Taylor claims that we’re living out a type of Sisyphus drama; finding satisfaction rolling the rock because it is our obsession. Walls argues that this view is implausible because many, if not most, do not find lasting satisfaction with “the tasks and accomplishments of this world” (56). Nagel has said that it is precisely because we can take a step back and examine ourselves and our lives that affords us the ability to realize our mortality (58). Walls argues that this “signs the death warrant” on our dreams and aspirations and does little to comfort us as Nagel intends. Parsons opposes the view that everlasting life provides the ultimate meaning for life (59), but we should value our finite time by finding meaning and creating meaning in our lives. Walls’ critique of this view is that it attempts to install meaning into fleeting passions. What provides meaning in Parsons’ type of view is destined to come to an end.
If heaven is the intended and ultimate end, why would there be a hell?
God loves us so why would he want anyone to go to a place of torment. C.S Lewis answered this question with human freedom; highlighting that the doors of hell are locked from the inside. It is the ultimate end of rebellion. It is a successful end for those who wish to reject God (73). Rob Bell also affirms this: that love demands freedom and we can have all the resisting, rejecting, and rebellion that we want. Though some philosophers, even Christian philosophers, don’t ascribe to this view. They argue that it is not the sort of respect God should afford to his creatures. The gap between God and his creature is too enormous: like that of a mother and her infant. Would she allow the child to crawl into fire for freedom’s sake? Walls argues that God repeatedly gives commands and expects obedience. I think he is right. We are not like infants who do not have the capacity to understand enough to obey. We have the capactiy to obey.
Walls continues to repond to some rejections of the reality of hell and uses the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. I found it refreshing and actually worth the price of admission, so no spoiler here. But he continues to discuss C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce and that true repentance has always been a requirement of genuine conversion. Without that, words becomes excuses and insincere attempts at self-justification.
One of the reasons Walls suggests that purgatory has received such resistance is that it was included in the points of disagreement that led to the Reformation. The Roman Church was profiting by selling indulgences to those who were concerned about the afterlife and whether they or their loved ones would be freed from purgatory. There are additional reasons for the negative views of purgatory such as how it is viewed as opposite of the cry, salvation by grace through faith alone.
Walls shares several arguments in support of purgatory and I will not treat them all here. One is that heaven can only contain fully pure, holy people and that “doing evil must be impossible for the redeemed in heaven” (94). He quotes Hebrews 12:14. Since none are fully holy when they die, they cannot enter heaven in that condition. But to use a parable Walls already makes use of, Lazarus was comforted while the rich man was not (Luk 16:25). Also, Scripture says the Devil came to be cast out; along with his angels (Rev 12:9). There had to have been a time of rebellion until they were evicted. I wasn’t convinced by this A = B therefore C argument because I don’t think A has been established. Even if only the holy can enter, the redeemed may not finally be in the place God the father occupies (Rev 21:3), but rather the renewed earth.
Walls highlights that a popular writer and thinker among evangelicals, C.S. Lewis, believed in purgatory and denied the penal substitution view of Christ’s atonement. We are being transformed into holiness and this continues into the afterlife. Purgatory is not about punishment, but rather about love. Because God loves us he desires with our souls that they be clean before entering heaven. Love continues to be a key working principle for Walls.
There is much to consider in Walls’ good work. I wish that the work based arguments from Scripture a little more. Though Scripture is referred to, the arguments tend to be philosophical. Even if one disagrees with his arguments and conclusions concerning purgatory, I don’t doubt Walls’ heart and intention to rightly discern the word of truth and make a meaningful contribution to the Church.
One area that wasn’t addressed in the sense I had hoped was concerning the separation from the body in the afterlife. He does have a discussion, but what I was looking for was concerning the question of sin being condemned in the flesh and how our separation from the body affects that relationship to sin? Would sin still have the same draw? How does Christ’s atonement square with that idea? How would the atonement be insufficient to set us truly free and make us truly holy when loses its draw as we expect in the resurrection?
There is a lot of meat to deal with and I believe it is a great interaction with the doctrine of purgatory from a Protestant perspective. Walls accomplished what he set out to do. Agreement is not required for this to be a good work and worthy of our time. For those who are interested in the discussion, you will find substantive treatment to sharpen your theological acumen.