Purgatory for Protestants

Why should Catholics have all the fun? I mean, Purgatory has been a source of consolation and trepidation, but also artistic inspiration, from Dante to Paulie Walnuts (full text of that great theologian's disquisition on Purgatory at the end of the post). 

Now a number of Protestant thinkers have been urging their co-religionists to take a second look at Purgatory, and I explore the trend -- plus the resistance -- in a story ahead of this weekend's memorial feasts.

An excerpt:

[Jerry] Walls, and other theologians giving purgatory a second look, make three main points:

1. The word “purgatory” isn’t in the Bible, but the idea is there

The New Testament makes it clear that you have to be holy to enter heaven: “Without holiness no one will see the Lord,” as the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Hebrews says. “Nothing impure will ever enter” paradise, adds the author of the Book of Revelation. The usual Protestant explanation is that this transformation takes place in an instant, at the moment of death.

“So everyone believes in purgatory,” said Walls. “The only question is how long it lasts and how it happens.” For Walls, purgatory (or whatever you want to call it) is “a natural theological implication” that “makes sense of things that are taught in the Bible.”

2. It’s still about grace, not works

Critics of purgatory say it was an invention of medieval Catholicism, and in fact Rome only explicitly defined the doctrine in the 13th century. Dante wrote his “Divine Comedy” a few decades later, which cemented the popular image of purgatory (and hell as the “Inferno”).

By the 15th century, purgatory was being exploited as a moneymaking scheme by the likes of Johann Tetzel, the German friar whose sale of indulgences for the remission of sins sparked the ire of reformers like Martin Luther. “They preach only human doctrines who say that as soon as the money clinks into the money chest, the soul flies out of purgatory,” as Luther put it.

But Catholics argue that the earliest Christians prayed for the souls of the dead, and purgatory shouldn’t be dismissed simply because it was abused.

Walls agrees. He adds that time spent in purgatory is not a matter of “earning” one’s way to heaven but is an extension of the journey toward holiness. Believers voluntarily cooperate in that process while alive, with the aid of grace, and it makes sense that they would do so when they die. “If you think God takes our freedom seriously, it’s unlikely he would unilaterally zap us at the moment of death,” Walls said.

3. Purgatory isn’t God’s torture chamber

For a long time, purgatory was seen as a matter of discipline, a kind of experiment in controlled pain that a soul endured before being allowed to pass into paradise (after some number of years that was often the subject of convoluted calculations about the relative value of mortal and venial sins).

In recent years, the emphasis has swung from “satisfying” the justice of God through painful reparations to one of sanctification, or becoming holy.

Read the rest here.

I'm an adult convert, and while Purgatory wasn't a prime driver of my conversion, I always found the doctrine very reasonable and appealing. I learned much more in researching this story and talking to Jerry Walls, and I wonder if many other Catholics have notions about "Heaven's waiting room" that don't line up with current thinking. Purgatory often seems to serve as fodder for jokes (entertaining as they can be) more than a spur to praying with and for the dead.

In any case, here are some readings I came across that others might be interest in checking out:

  • John G. Stackhouse's essay on Walls' book in a June 2014 Christian Century (Stackhouse is an evangelical at Regent College).
  • Roger Olson, a theologian at Baylor University’s seminary, also gave Walls’ book a sympathetic review, in Christian Century.
  • C.S. Lewis, a hero to today’s evangelicals, believed in purgatory.
  • Scot McKnight, a popular author and New Testament professor at Northern Seminary, has written a series of blog posts on Walls’ writings from an evangelical perspective (and remains unconvinced).
  • The online magazine Credo last year dedicated an entire issue to the question, which is titled: “Purgatory: An Evangelical Doctrine?” (The upshot was decidedly negative).
  • I just saw that Mark Vernon has a piece in the latest Tablet about secular uses of Purgatory, namely how the concept could be deployed in psychotherapy.
  • BTW, "conditionalism" has been getting a good bit of press lately -- see Mark Oppenheimer's NYT story. But that is quite different -- it is about God sort of euthanizing your soul so you don't suffer in Hell forever. The anti-Purgatory, you might say.
  • "9 Truths about Purgatory" by Our Sunday Visitor.
  • Also: I did not have room to note, though the question probably emerges in readers' minds, that Purgatory is distinct from Limbo, and is a doctrine, unlike Limbo.

Finally, here is perhaps the definitive explanation of the calculus of Purgatory, from a "Sopranos" episode in which Paulie Walnuts is taking to Christopher Moltisano, who is recovering in the hospital:

Paulie: You didn't go to hell. You went to purgatory, my friend.

Christopher: I forgot about purgatory.

Paulie: Purgatory--a little detour on the way to paradise.

Christopher: How long do you think we've got to stay there?

Paulie: That's different for everybody. You add up all your mortal sins and multiply that number by 50. Then you add up all your venial sins and multiply that by 25. You add that together and that's your sentence. I figure I'm gonna have to do 6,000 years before I get accepted into heaven and 6,000 years is nothin' in eternity terms. I can do that standing on my head. It's like a couple of days here.

 

 

David Gibson is the director of Fordham’s Center on Religion & Culture.

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