Evangelical Purgatory: Towards A Post-Reformation View of Purification

By: Jason Wermuth
Tuesday, April 12th, 2011

Evangelical Purgatory. The words flow together like the words “fire” and “water”, Calvin and Arminius or Rob Bell and Mark Driscoll. Nevertheless, some evangelicals have put forth proposals for a new vision of post-mortem purification which I think demands our attention. Please note that I am only proposing an imaginative hypothesis and am not setting forth my own theological conclusions on this matter. Nevertheless, I will attempt to argue in the affirmative for a kind of evangelical purgatory in what follows. Please engage respectfully in the comments section below.

By evangelical purgatory, I do not mean years of suffering whereby God forces Arminians to read Calvin’s Institutes for thousands of years… (me genoito). Nor do I mean the traditional Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory. Rather, what I mean to discuss is a purification of the character and heart of a person which begins now, but may continue on into the afterlife. This need not be a punishment per se, but an act of divine pedagogy which takes place in the presence of God. I call it “Evangelical” to distinguish it from Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, because I consider myself an Evangelical Charismatic, and to reflect that it is not indeed in conflict with what I understand to be the central tenants of evangelicalism, namely the reformation ideas of sola scriptura, sola gratia, sola fide, solus Christus and soli deo gloria. Furthermore, I do not believe what has been and will be proposed below violates the following evangelical sensibilities: a strong emphasis on evangelism, the need to be born again, a high regard for scripture, and a Christocentric and cross-centered theology (Defining the Term, Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals).

I believe in Purgatory. Mind you, the Reformers had good reasons for throwing doubt on the ‘Romish doctrine concerning Purgatory’ as that Romish doctrine had then become . . . C. S. Lewis, Letters To Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer.

Now I am aware that Dr. Lewis did not necessarily regard himself as an Evangelical, nevertheless, he has become a sweetheart theologian for many evangelicals, so his comments here are relevant.

Lewis goes on:

. . . The right view returns magnificently in Newman’s DREAM. There, if I remember it rightly, the saved soul, at the very foot of the throne, begs to be taken away and cleansed. It cannot bear for a moment longer “With its darkness to affront that light.” Religion has claimed Purgatory. Our souls demand Purgatory, don’t they? Would it not break the heart if God said to us, “It is true, my son, that your breath smells and your rags drip with mud and slime, but we are charitable here and no one will upbraid you with these things, nor draw away from you. Enter into the joy?” Should we not reply, “With submission, sir, and if there is no objection, I’d rather be cleaned first.” “It may hurt, you know”—”Even so, sir.”

I assume that the process of purification will normally involve suffering. Partly from tradition; partly because most real good that has been done me in this life has involved it. But I don’t think the suffering is the purpose of the purgation. I can well believe that people neither much worse nor much better than I will suffer less than I or more. . . . The treatment given will be the one required, whether it hurts little or much.

My favourite image on this matter comes from the dentist’s chair. I hope that when the tooth of life is drawn and I am “coming round,” a voice will say, “Rinse your mouth out with this.” This will be Purgatory. The rinsing may take longer than I can now imagine. The taste of this may be more fiery and astringent than my present sensibility could endure. But . . . it will [not] be disgusting and unhallowed.

The first objection to this idea, I suspect, would be that any intermediate period of purification after death undermines Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and the righteousness that believers receive as an act of faith. On the contrary, this idea does not assume that justification is by anything other than faith. Let me try to outline what I mean:

All who have faith in Jesus Christ are justified (reckoned as in the right) and are thus in Christ and filled with the Holy Spirit (see Romans 3 and 8). However, Jesus, Paul and all of the other New Testament authors (as far as I can tell) speak about how a Christian must live now in order to inherit the kingdom of God. For example, Jesus says that “unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:20). Paul tells us in Galatians 5:19-20 that people who commit the following sins will “not inherit the kingdom of God”: “fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.” Furthermore, in 1 John 2:3-6 we are told “Now by this we may be sure that we know him, if we obey his commandments. Whoever says, ‘I have come to know him’, but does not obey his commandments, is a liar, and in such a person the truth does not exist; but whoever obeys his word, truly in this person the love of God has reached perfection. By this we may be sure that we are in him: whoever says, ‘I abide in him’, ought to walk just as he walked.” There are many more passages to this effect in the New Testament, which brings me to the question: If Christians are actually justified by faith, why does the New Testament teach that they also must live a righteous life to enter the kingdom? Logic would seem to conclude that only one of the following statements could be true given what we know already (please forgive me if I have missed something obvious in this list, simply correct me below in the comments):

  1. Those who have faith in Jesus Christ are justified through the free gift of God’s grace and thus can do no “work” either positive or negative that could in any way effect their status before God. Thus, a person who is “saved” is one who, because of Christ’s death on the cross and his resurrection, will be with God forever in paradise because of what they believe in their mind. (This I would contend is what most American evangelicals believe)
  2. Those who have faith in Jesus Christ are justified through the free gift of God’s grace but must do certain “works” that positively effect their status before God. Thus, a person who is truly “saved” will reflect their salvation through right living and good works. Without these, a person will not be able to enter the kingdom of God. (In my view, this is still justification by works, unless God is a master puppeteer who causes people who are saved to then act in right ways. The problem with this is that is does not appear to be true, or very very few will enter the kingdom.)
  3. I would like to propose, with others, that there may be a middle way of viewing this issue: Those who have faith in Jesus Christ are justified through the free gift of God’s grace and thus can do no “work” either positive or negative that could in any way effect their status before God. Thus, a person who is “saved” is one who, because of Christ’s death on the cross and his resurrection, will be with God forever in paradise because of what they believe. However, belief is not simply a function of the mind, but is reflected in a person’s whole being. So a person who has faith begins to reflect the image of Christ and the fruit of the Spirit. Consequently, very few people will actually have completed the process of purifying heart transformation before their death. As such, it seems plausible that there could be a time after death when those who are in Christ will be  purified of the effects of sin once and for all. Their character and heart will be transformed into the image of Christ and they will fully reflect the fruit of the Spirit.

This, I believe is what C. S. Lewis is referring to above and what Roger Olson has called a “spiritual therapeutic ‘class’ of correction.” Greg Boyd has proposed that “purification is not optional and this judgment is not avoidable. Whatever is not completed now will have to be completed at the judgment seat of Christ –  but again, it’s in our best interest to complete this process now.”

Why is purification necessary? Because we are told in Revelation 21:27 that “nothing unclean will enter it [the new Jerusalem], nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.” One might ask, but isn’t it through Christ that we are made clean? I would say yes but… We are are reckoned as “in the right” because of Christ’s life, death, burial and resurrection (Romans 3:21-31; Eph 2:8) but the actual work of sanctification is a process that involves cooperation with Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:9-11; Phil 2:12; 2 Cor 7:1; Rev 19:7). Now while it is possible that at death, the process of purification will happen instantly (as many have concluded) – it seems that this would conflict with the very reason for purity in this life and the logic of justice. It also fails to locate the effects of sin in the heart and regards them as merely a condition of the flesh.

In the next post I will deal with what I mean by the last sentences and whether scripture actually points to an intermediate state of purification before the resurrection.

Do you think C. S. Lewis and the others are right or wrong? Can an Evangelical even ask these questions? What are the positive or negative implications of this sort of thinking? Do you think scripture supports this hypothesis or not?

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Jason Wermuth
This entry was posted by on Tuesday, April 12th, 2011 at 3:46 pm and is filed under Biblical Studies, Faith & Culture, Theology. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

12 Responses to “Evangelical Purgatory: Towards A Post-Reformation View of Purification”

  1. Matthew Brake says:

    I take your point; however, the New Testament text (including the 1 Corinthians passage about the judgment of believers) seems to indicate that believers will be judged by their works. THAT seems to be the purpose of the believer’s judgement. This is opposed to the idea that our SINS will be punished. Moreso, Romans seems to indicate a paradoxical struggle now between flesh and Spirit. 1 Corinthians 15 talks about all of the corruptible being put off at the resurrection. Even 1 John talks about God being greater even when our own hearts condemn us.
    I think Scripture points to the idea that this life is a chance to gain rewards, not to prevent future chastisement and purgation.

  2. Jay W says:

    Matt, I think the passage you mention in 1 Cor 15 is referring to putting off the corruptible in terms of the physical body which is perishable and putting on an eternal body. I don’t think Paul is talking about sin when he talks about that which is corruptible. As for your point about rewards, I get that there are supposed to be “rewards” but that does not nullify the idea that at the judgment our works will be tested and that in some way determines our eternal fate. The works being judged in 1 Cor 3 is certainly not about who will get more crowns or a big mansion.

  3. Nick Daniels says:

    The question I would have to ask is who has a chance at this “purification?” That is, does one need to be justified in this life in order to take part in the process of “purification” in the next? In other words, does one need to begin sanctification in this life or is there a possibility of being justified in the afterlife as well? If this is so, then this begins to look like universalism. If not, the question is if sanctification can happen after death, then why can justification not happen after death? Moreover, perhaps I missed it, but is “evangelical purgatory,” as it may be called, in the direct presence of God, or is it in a separate place? In other words, is “evangelical purgatory” like a leper being temporally cut off from the Hebrew community until they are clean (Lev. 14)? Just some questions… thanks for this enlightening article my friend!

    • Nick, I think of this purification as a part of the judgment. But rather than the judgment being when I get my “bling.” What I am saying above is that one must already be a member of the family of God to be permitted to enter the kingdom period. I will try next week to deal with that happens to those who don’t make it. I’d rather not touch the universalism problem with a ten foot pole just yet ;)

  4. Carey Oster says:

    Jason, while reading your blog (and I have read the blogs you posted of C.S. Lewis, Roger Olson and Greg Boyd on this topic) I kept thinking of Jesus telling, “But don’t be afraid of those who threaten you. For the time is coming when everything will be revealed; all that is secret will be made public” Mt 10:26 [see also Mr 4:22, Lu 8:17, 12:2, 1 Cor 4:5, Ro 2:14-16 NLT]. Maybe the time after death and preceding entering the Kingdom of Heaven we will have to deal with the secrets we thought we could “take to the grave.” I know this thinking doesn’t go exactly with your thoughts but I had to throw this into the mix. I truly know, from my own experience, that allowing Jesus to heal our hurts or “secrets” is much better than trying to ignore and hope that they will be gone after this life is over. I feel too strongly that this doesn’t happen and would rather let Him refine me now than later…even IF there is a time after death of pedagody.
    I appreciate you bringing this idea forward and agree it is well worth discussing!

    • Carey, I think that could very well be a part of the Divine pedagogical method of purification that I mentioned above. Olson hints at such and idea in his post. It is imaginative and speculative though.

  5. John says:

    Are you closet-Catholic or a secret spy who has successfully infiltrated the evangelical world? Maybe in another life…

    Jason, I like your points here. As far as I Cor. 3.15, it is highly debated (mostly among protestants) whether Paul was talking about Purgatory here, but this verse, for nearly 2000 years has supported the notion of a “state of purification.” I find myself agreeing with you on just about every word you wrote (!)

    I believe some of the above comments are improperly eisegeting their own interpretation of what they would desire the text to say. Unfortunately, this forces them not only to be unfair to Paul, but unfair to the many brilliant Christian writers who *have* properly exegeted this text in previous generations.

    May I never express arrogance to say that I, without doubt, have figured out what God’s Word is saying whilst ignoring the painfully obvious historical context and authorial intent.

    Well done, Jason. Good words.

    • John, I am definitely not a closet-Catholic. I am not opposed to catholic ideas though if they make sense. I think that Pope Benedict’s vision of purgatory actually fits within the stream of what I am saying. But, as I understand it, the traditional Catholic doctrine which includes punishment for sins is not quite what I am proposing. As for 1 Cor 3.15 – I will try to deal with that next week. I agree with Fee who says it is surely not talking about purgatory in the traditional sense, but I think Thiselton leaves enough room to fit it into what I am proposing.

  6. jesse says:

    dude, you’re awesome. i wanna take it one step further. (farther?) i’ve been agnostic about purgatory but what the purgatory, here we go, i believe in purgatory. for now, i’m gonna roll with Dante on it. i find that in the lyrical, the beautiful, and the poetic my doubts melt and free my imagination for belief. the strictly theological approach is too modernistically rational to give me that freedom. maybe that’s why Mr. Jack, whose specialty was literature, could set sail for that shore. and perhaps why those flying the banner of Radical Orthodoxy can as well.
    bring me that horizon…

  7. Matt says:

    As a Catholic who has stumbled upon this page I feel that I should add my two cents (firstly I must say that the entry is very well thought out and well balanced in my opinion). I have always found that CS Lewis’ views on purgatory seem to do the Catholic doctrine the most justice, and I don’t know of anyone who thinks that it contradicts the Catholic doctrine in any way. However they do conflict with certain Catholics’ poor understanding of purgatory as a literal place that takes place in real earthly time, (something the Church has never held as doctrine, but some have held as opinion). Personally I was always very hesitant about believing in Purgatory until I came to see it in the light that CS Lewis and others (Pope Benedict XVI in Spe Salvi mentions a few ideas) explain it. Also reading the definition in the Catechism of the Catholic Church helped:

    “1030. All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.”

    I cannot see how such a definition would conflict with most Evangelical Christians’ understanding of justification and sanctification. But perhaps many see this as a clearly heretical teaching that should be cast into limbo. I often think that ever since the reformers and their successors burned down the ‘Romish doctrine of purgatory’, Evangelical Christians have been too afraid to go back and look over that ground again to see if there is something could have been salvaged that might have be of some use. Hurray for greater openness to purgatory (well the doctrine of purgatory)!

  8. Patrick Gray says:

    If you’re interested in an Orthodox and/or Patristic perspective on this question, you should check out a new book by Archbishop Hilarion Alfeyev, titled _Christ the Conqueror of Hell_.

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