Every Theology Needs Purgatory (an Excerpt from Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory by Jerry L. Walls)

The following is an excerpt from chapter four of Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory: Rethinking the Things That Matter Most  (February 2015) by Jerry L. Walls.


So here are the basic facts every theology needs to account for. First, heaven is a place of total perfection, full of light, beauty, and goodness. Nothing impure or unclean can enter there (Rev. 21:27). To enter heaven, we must be completely holy. The book of Hebrews urges us to “pursue peace with everyone, and the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14 NRSV).

Notice a couple things about this holiness. In the first place, it is necessary to see the Lord. It is not optional nor merely a recommendation for “super saints” that the rest of us can ignore. Moreover, even though the persons to whom the author is writing are Christians, he does not assume they are already holy in the sense he has in mind. That is why he urges them to pursue holiness. It is essential to see the Lord, but they do not already possess it, at least not fully.

To use a classic theological term, those in heaven must be fully perfect in character in such a way that they are “impeccable,” which means they can no longer sin. Doing evil must be impossible for the redeemed in heaven.

Now here is the second basic fact. The great majority of persons—all, according to many theological traditions—are far from perfect when they die. This is true despite the fact that they are justified, forgiven by God, and restored to a right relationship with him. And it is true despite the fact that they have been regenerated by the Holy Spirit and made a new creation in Christ. Indeed, this is true even on the assumption that everyone has made at least some progress in the pursuit of holiness, some more than others. The obvious fact remains that most are not completely holy, let alone impeccable, when they die.

So, in brief, here is the question. What do we say about the second of these facts in light of the first fact? Well, there are broadly three possibilities. First, we could say that anyone who is less than fully perfect when he or she dies is lost and goes to hell. Second, we could say that God will instantly perfect us at the moment of death as an act of sovereign grace. He could simply zap us and thereby perfect us. Third, we could say that God will continue the sanctification process after death with our free cooperation until we are fully and completely perfect.

We can rule out the first option rather quickly. It has been held by some Christians but is a tiny minority view, and I shall not consider it any further. The real contest is between options 2 and 3. Option 2 is the view held by most Protestants, and option 3 is held by Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and a minority of Protestants.

But either way we go on this matter, we have to have some sort of doctrine of purgatory. Consider this quote from John Fletcher, an Anglican theologian of the eighteenth century: “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.” Fletcher’s point is that every system of theology must have an account of how we are “purged” from the remains of sin.

On the view of most Protestants, this purging takes place in an instant, whereas for Roman Catholics and others, it requires an ongoing process that still requires time. But both views have a doctrine of “purgatory” in the sense that they provide an account of how the remains of sin are purged and we are made completely holy and impeccable in our character.


©2014 by Jerry L. Walls. Published by Brazos Press. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.