book report: Heaven, Hell and Purgatory by Jerry Walls (2015)

This book surprised me.

Jerry Walls has condensed his three separate books on hell, purgatory, and heaven into this single 240 page volume. I am not saying this is a reader's digest version, just cut and pasted excerpts, it stands on its own, but he has made his thinking on these three topics available for those with commitment issues.

What is surprising is his traditional, evangelical understanding of heaven and hell. However, he favors and interacts regularly with C.S. Lewis's thoughts on hell and purgatory. I was unaware that Lewis considered purgatory a theological possibility for non-Catholics. However, I have read Lewis' Great Divorce, a fictional treatment of hell, in which he asserts the door is locked from the inside. It's inhabitants merely need to walk out into heaven. In Lewis' book, the narrator asks the guide what is hell about if people do choose to leave it for the heavenly city. The guide replies that for those who choose to leave, it is purgatory, but for those who choose to remain, it is hell. Walls' affirmation of this point was one surprise for me.  He writes,
The suggestion here is that the lines between hell and purgatory are somewhat blurry if the doors to hell are locked on the inside. Anyone who wants to leave the “grey town” and embrace true repentance and transformation can do so, and for them the “grey town” is purgatory. Only those who persist forever in keeping the doors locked tight remain in the “grey town,” and for them it is hell. p. 208
Walls' explanation of methods of purgatory is vague. I've been developing the concept of it as the final processing of restorative justice in which full fellowship is restored between all humans and God, a process that starts in this life. Walls keeps it to the place of God's final preparation for our entrance into heavenly perfection. Where I think there is a necessary reconciliation and forgiveness, Walls leaves it in the Biblical terms of fire. I am glad Walls is pleading with evangelicals to reconsider this aspect of theology, certainly abused as a fund raiser in the medieval church, but not abuse does not negate use.

The other surprise Walls gave me is the idea of salvation after death. He asks how someone can be a wicked sinner all their lives and repent with their last breath, guaranteeing their entrance into heaven, but someone does not have that opportunity is faced with an unmerciful God. Does God's mercy turn off like a spigot at our death? He writes,
However, it does seem theologically objectionable to think God’s attitude toward us would change in anything like this manner merely because we had died. There is no obvious reason why justice requires God to cease having mercy at death and to punish those who have not repented by that time. p. 193
Walls notes a couple theologians who have also developed this concept. Rob Bell is not the first to ask if love wins.
A contemporary example is the Reformed evangelical theologian Donald Bloesch, who believes that there is an interim state (Sheol in the Old Testament and Hades in the New Testament) in which those who die outside the faith await the resurrection and coming judgment. Bloesch argues that there is support from both Scripture and patristic sources for the belief that persons in this interim state will have a chance to be converted. He cites in this connection the doctrine that Christ descended into Hades when he was killed and the view held by a number of church fathers that he preached the gospel to the dead and offered them salvation. He agrees with these patristic sources that Christ’s descent into Hades opened the door of salvation to those not yet in the family of God. Bloesch states quite explicitly his belief in postmortem repentance and salvation: “It is my contention that a change of heart can still happen on the other side of death. Nothing can separate us from the love of God, not even sin and damnation (Rom. 8:38–39), and God’s love goes out equally to all (Matt. 5:45; John 3:16).” And like Forsyth, moreover, Bloesch connects this suggestion with the doctrine of purgatory: “I believe that the restoration of hades as an intermediate state in which we wait and hope for Christ’s salvation may speak to some of the concerns of those who embrace purgatory.” p. 206
I did not expect my thinking on hell was not so radical after all. For further reference, Bloesch's book is The Last Things: Resurrection, Judgment, Glory (2004). I also was surprised by Walls defense of hell, as a real option, but letting it stand next to universalism as also a real option for the evangelical. If repentance after death is possible, then all can be saved. His caveat is the possibility that over eternity, some will refuse, and continue to choose hell. I do not think that myself, but I do think, in effect we share the same outcome, all will be saved.
I have reiterated a number of times my agreement with C. S. Lewis that the doors of hell are locked on the inside. But Bloesch is right, I think, to frame this point with the contrasting observation that the gates of the Holy City remain open day and night. And more hopeful still is the profound truth that Jesus has the keys to hell. The God whose mercy endures forever is a God we may hope never tires of putting his keys in the lock and bidding those within to leave it behind, naming it purgatory as they turn their faces toward the gates of heaven. p. 212
I enthusiastically holler "Amen" to this.

His conclusion addresses the modern concern of boredom in eternity. How enjoyable can eternity be, we ask. "To believe in God is to believe not only that love is stronger than death but also that joy is stronger than boredom." p. 220 Again, I will holler "Amen." This life is only a nursery, where we crawl in our cribs, cry, giggle, and begin to stand. The next life is beyond our wildest dreams.


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