Roger Olson follows C S Lewis in proposing a “Protestant purgatory” . . . heated discussion ensues


H/t to scientia et sapientia for alerting me to Baylor prof Roger Olson’s suggestion that perhaps Protestants today should take C S Lewis’s cue and consider the possibility of a purgatory-like intermediate state between death and heaven. You’ll see a variety of responses, some quite heated, at Roger’s blog. Also, scientia links a thoughtful critical response from Dallas Seminary grad and theological educator Michael Patton.

Roger’s proposal emerges from his understanding that there are “saints” in the history of Christianity–he singles out Augustine and Calvin, among others–who did terrible, hate-filled things. Do those people (or anyone else with such extreme “baggage”) get to leap straight from their deathbeds to the presence of the Holy God? Here are a few brief excerpts from Roger’s reflection:

In a wonderful little book entitled My Conversation with Martin Luther the late Lutheran theologian Timothy Lull described his imaginary dialogues with Luther in which he discovered that the German reformer had to take classes in paradise about Judaism to correct his anti-semitism.

The question that bothers me is this: How can we picture men (and perhaps some women) who absolutely hated people entering into the joys of paradise without some kind of correction?  Of course, as a committed Protestant I cannot imagine paradise or heaven as a place of completion of one’s salvation.  But I can imagine a justified person being greeted at the gate by St. Peter (imagery) saying “Hello.  Yes, you’re name is in the book.  But before entering fully into the joys of this place you’ll need to take a class taught by [so-and-so] and experience correction and reconciliation.”  And I can imagine every truly saved person saying “Yes!  Of course.  Thank you.  Let’s get started.”  In other words, I don’t envision this “purgatory” as suffering except in the sense that all correction involves some suffering.  But for the truly saved person true correction is also a blessing.

. . .

Zwingli invited Anabaptist leader Balthasar Hubmaier to Zurich for a debate.  When Hubmaier arrived Zwingli had him arrested and tortured.  During the torture Zwingli stood in the room calling on Hubmaier to recant his “heresies” which he did.  (Later, after being released, Hubmaier recanted his recantation.)

. . .

I can imagine (only imagine, you realize!) Zwingli entering the pearly gates (imagery–because there’s no reason to believe paradise has gates!) and being greeted by Hubmaier who says “Ulrich, it’s nice to see you here.  I’ve completely forgiven you.  But Christ has assigned me as your tutor and guide during your orientation to paradise.  Here, sit down, let me offer you some correction about treatment of people with whom you disagree.”

You might wonder–why call that “purgatory?”  Well, don’t you suppose (as I do) that Zwingli would view it as a kind of purgatory?  That is–as a kind of purgation of his errors and hateful attitudes?  Imagine Zwingli having to sit at Hubmaier’s feet and learn from him!  Could this be the meaning of 1 Corinthians 3:15?

. . .

Purgatory?  Well, perhaps that’s not a felicitous name for the phenomenon I am imagining.  But I can’t think of a better name right now.  C. S. Lewis called it purgatory while distancing his idea of it from the typical Roman Catholic explanations of it.  (Although I suspect some contemporary Catholics think of it more along the lines I have outlined here than with the medieval imagery of it.  One Catholic priest explained it to my class as a kind of “counseling.”)

Do I really believe in it?  Well, that’s another question.  I have no particular biblical basis for it, so, no, I don’t exactly believe in it in the same way I believe in the deity of Christ or the resurrection.  But I find it the only acceptable alternative, for me, anyway, to thinking of great Christian heroes of the past being in hell.

You can read the entire reflection here, including the many comments it spurred. Again, Michael Patton’s response is here.

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8 responses to “Roger Olson follows C S Lewis in proposing a “Protestant purgatory” . . . heated discussion ensues

  1. Don’t Protestants believe in purgatory anyways? It’s just shorter and less interactive. :)

    Seriously, though, all theological traditions must deal with the fact of the real sin that affects our real life exists until we die. Even if my heavenly bank account is full of the merit of Christ and I am therefore not condemned in God’s courtroom, I still struggle with the sin that remains in my body of flesh. Where in the world does that go when I die? It seems for Protestants that death is the instantaneous purgative event which prepares us for the presence of God. Am I off, or does that make sense?

    • Yes, awordaboutwords (by the way, can you provide a first name by which I can address you? Your handle’s a bit unwieldy :) ), I think you have the Protestant position pretty much spot-on. In fact, that’s why Wesley felt he could argue with such force that if we were suddenly purged of all sin at death, then why not a minute before? And if a minute before, then why not a year or decade or five decades before? Thus was “entire sanctification” born. I don’t agree with the doctrine, but the logic seems good! :)

  2. Thanks for the pointer to Prof. Olson’s blog. I didn’t know he had entered the blogosphere. :)

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