Another stop on the glory train?

THE MOST FAMOUS WORK ever written about heaven, of course, is Dante’s Divine Comedy. Only its third book, however, is explicitly about heaven: Paradiso. Ironically, even more famous than Paradiso is Inferno, Dante’s colorful account of hell. 

Heaven and hell are like salt and pepper, or better yet, good and evil, or Batman and the Joker. After all, right in the middle of the most glorious account of heaven in the Bible (Rev. 21–22) comes a brief, somber description of the lake of fire (Rev. 21:8). To think of one naturally leads to thoughts of the other, and Christians have generally agreed that heaven is not the inevitable destiny of all people, but that some, perhaps many, will wind up in its shadowy counterpart.While heaven is what God intends for us, it is possible to reject God’s will and choose hell.

But there is a third part to Dante’s famous poem, sandwiched between these two: Purgatorio. More widely read and known than Paradiso, it represents by far the most famous account of another region of the life beyond. But where purgatory is concerned, consensus among orthodox Christians breaks up sharply. There is a heaven and there is a hell. But is there a purgatory?

The doctrine of purgatory stirred up controversy in the Western church, playing a key role in sixteenth-century disputes that led to the Protestant Reformation. Dominican monk Johann Tetzel, whose fund-raising skills rivaled contemporary televangelists, perfected the art of describing the miseries of purgatory in graphic detail. Relatives of the deceased were pressured to buy indulgences, an act guaranteed to send their loved ones straight to heaven. Supposedly Tetzel convinced them with the famous words: “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings / The soul from purgatory springs.”

Martin Luther challenged such claims, and several of his Ninety-five Theses were directed at dubious notions involving purgatory. At the time of the theses, he still accepted the doctrine itself, focusing his criticism only on the abuses surrounding it. Later, he rejected the doctrine altogether, as did Calvin, who wrote: 

Therefore, we must cry out with the shout not only of our voices but of our throats and lungs that purgatory is a deadly fiction of Satan, which nullifies the cross of Christ, inflicts unbearable contempt upon God’s mercy, and overturns and destroys our faith. For what means this purgatory of theirs but that satisfaction for sins is paid by the souls of the dead after their death? 

Calvin left no ambiguity in his complaint that the doctrine “nullifie[d] the cross of Christ” by teaching that Christians are required to pay for their sins after death if they have not made adequate penance for them in this life; the death of Christ does not sufficiently provide “satisfaction” to God, but rather Christians must play a part in satisfying the justice of God by suffering after death before entering heaven. So understood, the doctrine of purgatory was starkly at odds with the Reformation emphasis on justification by grace through faith alone.

The abuses of purgatory as embodied by Tetzel cast a long shadow for many Protestants, who still hold today many of the same objections Calvin raised. But the sixteenth-century version of the doctrine, while its effects were profound, did not represent the whole picture. There were historically two emphases in the doctrine of purgatory: sanctification (cleansing, purification, and healing) and satisfaction (satisfying a debt of justice through punishment). 

Before the coin rang in the coffer

Purgatory, from the word “purge,” arose from two parallel beliefs: we must actually be holy to see the Lord, and most, if not all, Christians are far from perfect when they die. But how can Christians purge the remains of sin and imperfection? Patristic writers like Origen and Augustine argued that they will after death complete the purification of their souls begun by the trials and ordeals experienced on this side of death. Even if this involves suffering as part of moral and spiritual growth, the point of the suffering for these authors was cleansing and transformation, not penal retribution. As Origen wrote: 

For if on the foundation of Christ you have built not only gold and silver and precious stones; but also wood and hay and stubble, what do you expect when the soul shall be separated from the body? Would you enter into heaven with your wood and hay and stubble and thus defile the kingdom of God? . . . It remains then that you be committed to the fire which will burn the light materials; for our God to those who can comprehend heavenly things is called a cleansing fire. 

But by the time the doctrine was first formally affirmed at the Council of Lyons in 1274, elements of satisfaction were present: 

Those who have died in a state of charity, truly repentant but before they have brought forth fruit worthy of repentance, their souls are purified after death by cleansing pains. The petitions of the living, the sacrifices of Masses, prayers, almsdeeds and other pious services. . . . are profitable to them for the lifting of these pains. 

The focus on transformation clearly remains at the forefront in Dante’s famous account, completed by 1319. But Dante was going against the grain (see “God’s love that moves the sun and other stars,” pp. 8–14). By the time of the Reformation, the doctrine was construed in terms of penal suffering for the sake of satisfying the demands of justice. This version of the doctrine lent itself readily to abuse, and against it the Reformers reacted strongly. 

But later Protestants still found themselves wrestling with the issue of human transformation. Eighteenth-century Anglican theologian John Fletcher, famous for developing and defending John Wesley’s theology, wrote in his Checks to Antinomianism:

If we understand by purgatory, the manner in which souls, still polluted with the remains of sin, are, or may be purged from those remains, that they may see a holy God, and dwell with him forever; the question, Which is the true purgatory? is by no means frivolous: for it is the grand inquiry, How shall I be eternally saved? proposed in different expressions.

Protestants offered different answers to this question; most were variations on the claim that purgatory happens at or immediately after death. As distinguished nineteenth-century Princeton theologian Charles Hodge put it, “The Protestant doctrine is that the souls of believers are at death made perfect in holiness.” 

While the emphasis on satisfaction remained prominent in Roman Catholic thought for centuries after the Reformation, twentieth-century Catholic theologians began to rediscover the original emphasis on purification. And at the same time, a reappraisal of purgatory emerged among some Protestant traditions, especially from those that focused on free choice and cooperation as essential to salvation and to sanctification. 

They argued that emphasizing sanctification, even after death, is perfectly compatible with the Protestant doctrine of justification by grace through faith alone: whereas justification is about forgiveness of sin and restoring us to a right relationship with God, the process of sanctification is about transforming humans to achieve that “holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14). 

C. S. Lewis espoused this version of purgatory, writing in Letters to Malcolm:

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.

Lewis’s ecumenical appeal may have played a key role in paving the way for some evangelicals and other Protestants to take a fresh look at the doctrine. 

At any rate, as the shadows of Tetzel fade, it is likely notions of purgatory will resurface in the years ahead whenever Christians think and talk seriously about heaven, and what is required to enter its gates. CH

By Jerry L. Walls

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #112 in 2014]

Jerry L. Walls is professor of philosophy at Houston Baptist University and the author of four books on hell, heaven, and purgatory.
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Issue 112

Christian History Magazine #112 - Heaven

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