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Conversations ~ Jerry Walls on Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory

Recently we spoke with Dr. Jerry Walls about his new book “Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory: A Protestant View of the Cosmic Drama.”  While the United Methodist philosopher of religion has published individual academic volumes on all three topics, this new work is specifically written to be accessible to the lay reader, and it certainly hits the mark, offering profound truths in a simple way from a distinctly Wesleyan perspective. More than any other of his publications, “Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory” manages to channel C.S. Lewis’ ability to communicate compelling truth in profoundly simple and winsome prose.

Recommended for personal reading, small group studies or Sunday School classes, “Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory” reads like a modern-day classic, likely proving to be a pivotal volume for several decades to come.

Wesleyan Accent: There are many areas of faith that many North Americans put in the “unknowable” pile – especially when it comes to something like the afterlife. How can Christians feel confident in discussing the rationality of something that many people believe can only be speculated about by faith? Do people often seem surprised that subjects like the afterlife can be considered logically and not just on a personal, emotional level?

Jerry Walls: Well, the Christian doctrine of the afterlife is simply integral to Christian doctrine, period, and indeed, the faith as a whole makes no sense if the life to come is ignored or trivialized. The heart of the Christian faith is the incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ, which provides salvation and redemption for God’s whole fallen creation. Central to that salvation is the salvation of human persons, the very persons responsible for the fallen condition of the world in the first place. And that salvation defeats not only sin, but death, and restores us to an eternal fellowship with God, which is what God intended from the beginning. You simply cannot take Trinity, incarnation, and resurrection seriously and minimize or trivialize the life to come.

Now I come at these doctrines as a philosopher of religion, and I am particularly interested in answering philosophical challenges to these doctrines, but more positively, I believe these Christian doctrines of the afterlife provide powerful resources to make sense of some of the perennial big questions like the problem of evil, the foundations of morality, and the very meaning of life. And again, insofar as we think Christianity is true because it makes sense of things, we also have reason to think the doctrines of the afterlife are true, since they are integral to Christianity.

And certainly some degree of speculation is inevitable if you are going to have a robust theology of the life to come. But the sort of speculation I mean is not simply arbitrary or up for grabs. Rather, it is disciplined speculation that is constrained by scripture. We cannot propose anything that is ruled out by scripture. But we can engage in disciplined speculation that explores the implications of what is clearly taught in scripture, along with what we may know by empirical evidence and so on. My defense of purgatory is along these lines. I think it is a reasonable inference from some things that are clearly taught in scripture, as well as things we know from empirical observation.

WA: Your basis for belief in a loving, all-powerful God and in the existence of hell hinges on free will: that part of being human is exercising the will to accept or reject the love of God. In terms of the Holy Spirit and intercession, how do you think that praying for other people meshes with their choices? Do you, like C.S. Lewis, pray for the dead? How might we as Christians pray for the sanctification of others?

JW: Well, I would say it meshes with their choices in something like the way any of my other interactions with someone meshes with his choices. Suppose I try to persuade someone to believe something, or propose something to them, or invite them to some event. Or more pertinently, suppose I witness to him and encourage him to accept Christ. In doing so, I am facing him with a choice to which he can freely respond.

Perhaps in prayer, we are in some sense participating with God as his prevenient grace is at work in the lives of people. Perhaps as we pray, we participate in God’s conviction of sin, his drawing them to Christ, and so on. Now in such cases, persons are free to respond, just as they are in the interactions I described before. To be sure, intercessory prayer is somewhat mysterious, but I don’t suppose it poses problems for human freedom any more than other sort of interactions, invitations, attempts to persuade and so on.

As for how we should pray, I would take Jesus’ prayer in John 17:17 as a guide. There he prays: “Sanctify them in truth; thy word is truth.” Notice in verse 14, he says “I have given them your word.” So prayer for sanctification should accompany the giving of God’s word. Our prayer should accordingly be guided by scripture, particularly scripture that the persons for whom we pray have been taught. We should pray that the Holy Spirit would witness to that truth and impress it on their understanding, their hearts and their wills.

And yes, I have no problem with praying for the dead. I do not believe death breaks the communion of the saints, and so prayer is as appropriate for the dead as it is for the living.

WA: Do you think, unlike philosopher Bertrand Russell’s comment about finding truth on “the firm foundation of unyielding despair,” that Wesleyan theology is inherently optimistic?

JW: Indeed, Wesleyan theology is incomparably more optimistic than the naturalism represented by Bertrand Russell in his famous quotation in which he commends “the firm foundation of unyielding despair.” By contrast, one of my favorite descriptions of God, which I quote in the book, is Wesley’s when he pictures God as “the fountain of happiness, sufficient for all the souls he has made.” The view that ultimate reality is a fountain of love and joy grounds our hope that history is headed for a glorious end rather than the sort of cosmic death to which Russell was resigned.

But Wesleyan theology is also optimistic that even now we can experience a foretaste of heaven as we anticipate the final redemption of the world. Wesley believed not only that holiness is possible by grace, but also that holiness correlates with happiness. As we grow in holiness, we also grow more deeply and truly happy. So the prospects for human happiness are as large as the resources of that “fountain of happiness, sufficient for all the souls he has made.”

WA: Have you yourself ever had a vision or experience of a supernatural quality? Do you know anyone first-hand who has experienced some kind of near-death experience? What might be some strengths and potential pitfalls of the current preoccupation with firsthand experiences of heaven?

JW: No, I have not had such a vision of heaven, nor do I know anyone personally who has. I think such accounts can provide encouragement insofar as they are compatible with scripture and confirm biblical teaching. The danger of preoccupation with such stories in an experientially oriented age is that many people do not know biblical teaching or know how to exercise discernment concerning them. Such stories are often emotionally appealing and even sentimental, and that makes it even more unlikely that biblical and theological discernment will be exercised when weighing them.

WA: If you could encourage pastors to preach from a rational, philosophically and theologically informed position on the afterlife, what points might you encourage them to hit (and which points might you encourage them to avoid?!)?

JW: Well, for a start, I would encourage more pastors to preach on heaven and hell, period! It is remarkable how seldom we hear thoughtful, theologically substantive sermons on these issues.

Indeed, one of the best compliments I got on my book was from a good friend who is an accomplished biblical scholar and he said reading my account of heaven made him want to preach on heaven, something he had never done.

The key is simply to think these things through seriously as integral components of our faith, as I noted above. When we see this, we will realize just how pertinent they are to those big issues I mentioned, like the problem of evil, the nature of personal identity, and the meaning of life. Serious biblical and theological preaching will inevitably address these issues because the Christian faith is a holistic worldview that is very much concerned with these fundamental questions.

So in short, the Christian doctrines of the afterlife have enormous implications. It’s really just a matter of taking those doctrines seriously as truth claims. When we do, we will inevitably see those explosive implications and that will take us into some pretty serious theological and philosophical territory.

WA: It seems that the Protestant view of purgatory that you suggest – especially given Lewis’ example of the soul that “demands” purgatory – is highly relational: where the Catholic view of satisfaction feels like a ledger of columns, the sanctification view that Lewis helps to frame is all about the love of God with a very personal feel to it. The soul that “demands” purgatory reminds one forcefully of the up’s and down’s of a small child’s bathtime – an intimate moment between parent (inevitably getting wet) and slippery child, crying at getting water in his eyes or ears but loving the connection of bath time nonetheless. The parent almost becomes servant at this point, washing feet. If so, then how might this almost familial take on purgatory connect with a Wesleyan theology of holiness?

JW: Well, that’s a great comparison! When I wrote my book on purgatory, the third of my trilogy on the afterlife, I was trying to come up with a good image for the cover. Most of the images of purgatory that I found pictured it in punitive terms that conveyed the satisfaction model more than the sanctification model. Purgatory looked more like hell where a debt was paid than a place of gracious cleansing by a God of holy love. I shared this with a friend, and he came up with a creative suggestion, namely, that I use a picture of Christ washing the feet of the disciples. That’s what I did, and at the front of the book, I have the verses from John 13:6-9, spelled out in the shape of wash bowl:

He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, ‘Lord, are you going to

wash my feet? Jesus answered, “you do not know now what I am

doing, but later you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You

will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash

you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said

to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my

hands and my head!”—John 13:6-9


That passage depicts not only our initial resistance to sanctification, like a child sometimes resists his bath, but also our eventual joyful embrace of it. As we come to understand our need of a bath in order to have a “share” with our heavenly Father, in order to be fully at home in the heart of his love, we will welcome the cleansing like a child who comes to love his bath.

Indeed, I am convinced that when Christians take sanctification seriously, they will find the doctrine of purgatory to be a very reasonable implication. The doctrine of purgatory rightly understood underscores the point that sanctification is essential, not merely an optional matter for the super spiritual, and that we must cooperate in our sanctification. We cannot ignore the call to holiness our whole life and expect that God will zap us and perfect us the instant we die. But again, the demand for holiness is the demand of a loving God who wills our true happiness and flourishing, and he insists on cleaning us up not as act of punishment, but as an act of gracious love.