Thursday, October 16, 2014

In Defense of Purgatory

Today's post is courtesy of Scott Wheeler, philosophy major, Bethel University Class of 2007.  Scott is the guy on the right in the picture below.  (The guy on the left is Dr. Alvin Plantinga.  This picture captures one of the finer moments in Scott's life.)  He is writing in defense of purgatory. 

Over the last couple years I've come to terms with the fact that doctrinally I'm not as Evangelical as I previously suspected.  This has caused me to start thinking more seriously about doctrines that are atypical within Evangelicalism. To this end, I recently came to a startling revelation: some great Christian thinkers take the doctrine of Purgatory seriously, so perhaps I should too.

I want to give an argument I've been thinking about that makes me think it fairly likely that Purgatory exists.  I'm still just experimenting with the doctrine, so I won't be too shocked if it turns out I'm wrong.  I'll give it my best shot anyway.

Here are some controversial beliefs assumed in my argument that I won't attempt to defend:

Christian orthodoxy, some sort of mind/body dualism, inclusivism, progressive sanctification, theosis.  There are probably some others as well, but these are the ones that come to mind for now.

I'm taking my understanding of Purgatory from the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
1030 "All who die in God's grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven."

1031 “The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned."

I want to try to reason through why I believe Purgatory may be exactly the kind of place we would expect an omni-benevolent God to create.

If God is omni-benevolent, He would provide a possibility for the salvation of the unchurched. Otherwise, He creates certain people (a great many people, in fact) without any possibility of avoiding damnation, then holds them accountable for it. I doubt this can be reconciled with a loving creator. The great theologian Karl Rahner spoke of “anonymous Christians.” This term refers to non-professing-Christians who are saved by the grace of Christ. This is to say that many who have never heard the gospel, have only heard a distorted version of it, lack the mental capacity to grasp it, etc. may nevertheless be saved by in some way appropriating God's grace.

Under the assumption that anonymous Christians exist, here is my argument.

As a first premise, I'll simply state what we know about anonymous Christians: they will have had no opportunity to undergo any real process of sanctification in their earthly lives. After all, how can one undergo a process of becoming more Christlike or of conforming her will to Christ's if she has neither heard of Christ nor been introduced to His teachings? So my first premise is just that anonymous Christians will end this earthly life without having undergone sanctification.

Second premise: some degree of sanctification is required to be in communion with God. “Communion with God” can be a pretty loaded term. When I use this term I'm thinking about remaining in the presence of God post-judgment. This belief is firmly entrenched in the history of Christian thought, and is a part of any version of the ordo salutis. I don't have room for exegesis here, so if anyone wants to dispute this interpretation of the verses that follow she is welcome to do so. Here's a little rundown of texts that I think support this claim: Lev. 11:44, Rom. 6:22, 2 Cor. 3:18, 1 Thess. 5:23, Heb. 12:14, and Rev. 3:15-20.

The argument thus far is this:

1.  Anonymous Christians will end this earthly life without having undergone sanctification.

2.  Sanctification is required to be in communion with God.

Now let's add one more:

3.  Anonymous Christians will eventually be in communion with God. I take this to be obvious. The definition of an “anonymous Christian” is just someone who is not a “Christian” by creed, but who is, in fact, saved. If one is saved, she will eventually be in communion with God.


4.  Anonymous Christians will end this life without having undergone that which is  required to be in communion with God. (1,2)

5.  Those who will eventually be in communion with God will end this life without having undergone that which is required to be in communion with God. (3,4)

The conclusion must be that that which is required for communion with God (sanctification) will happen at some point other than this earthly life. Continued sanctification, especially in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, is the primary purpose of Purgatory. It also meets the qualification of not being part of this earthly life. I think, then, that if one shares my intuitions about anonymous Christians/inclusivism and the benevolence of God, she should very seriously consider the doctrine of Purgatory to be a live option in her theology.

Though my argument above is specific to inclusivists like me, please don't make the mistake of thinking Purgatory is only an option for inclusivists. It isn't. The example that comes to mind is the thief on the cross with Jesus. Surely the thief will have no time to undergo sanctification prior to his death. Should we say he will never undergo sanctification and will thereby skip an important step in the ordo?  Perhaps purgation is a simple theological solution even for exclusivists who want to retain strong notions of the necessity of sanctification for communion with God.


Ray VanArragon said...

Scott, good post. I'm wondering why the argument depends on the notion of "anonymous Christians." Wouldn't some NON-anonymous Christians also likely require the kind of sanctification that purgatory could provide, that would make them more suitable to stand in the presence of God? I'm not sure what you mean by sanctification, and how anonymous Christians would need it but non-anonymous Christians wouldn't.

Wheelz said...

Ray - thanks for the comment. Yes, I definitely agree that some (in fact, many and probably most) non-anonymous Christians would require the kind of sanctification purgatory would provide. I think my argument is more that if one is an inclusivist, she should probably also believe in purgatory. As I said in my final paragraph, though, I think purgatory is an option for the exclusivist as well.

As for sanctification - I think both anonymous Christians and non-anonymous Christians need it equally. I just think that if sanctification is understood to be a process that happens over time in the life of a Christian, non-anonymous Christians will have more opportunity to undergo sanctification in this life than will anonymous Christians.