Continually Sharpening

A theological blog by Janelle Zeeb

Purgatory for Protestants?

I've come across something strange in several books I've read. Certain Protestant authors are actually considering the idea of purgatory as legitimate, and even advocating for it to be included as a part of Protestant eschatology.

It's because, they say, some Christians die who are not yet holy enough for heaven; and so Christians have to finish being sanctified (made holy) in some place before they can enter heaven.

I've seen this idea now a few different places, and it's somewhat troubling, for it implies that while we're saved by God's grace, we're sanctified partly by our own efforts, and this sanctification is mandatory before we're allowed into heaven.

Of course, usually Protestants say that no one achieves perfect holiness in this life (except Wesleyans who sometimes claim people can be 'entirely sanctified'). But that would mean that nearly everyone who is saved must endure some amount of purgatory before entering heaven.

In the book Four Views on Hell (1996), Zachary J. Hayes argues the Catholic view of purgatory is a "state of purifying suffering for those who have died and are still in need of such purification" (93). As expected, two other Protestant authors use Scripture to challenge Hayes.

But Clark Pinnock, a lifelong Baptist, says, "Hayes got me to thinking about this as an area of evangelical doctrine which may need opening up," specifically, because he claims "it is obvious that Christian character is not perfectly transformed at death," although Pinnock offers no scriptural evidence for this supposedly 'obvious' statement besides further unproven claims that sanctification always requires our active cooperation.1

And Jerry L. Walls in his book Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory (2015) also seems to support the possibility of purgatory as a place where people finish their sanctification, based on Hebrews 12:14, and because he also claims that personal repentance and cooperation is necessary for genuine moral transformation, and so God can't just 'zap' people and make them instantly holy.2

I think that sometimes, legalistic threats of hell are used to motivate Christians to behave according to a pastor or theologian's standards, by saying things like if our faith doesn't lead to good works then we're not really saved at all.3 Usually what follows is a subtle (or not so subtle) hint that Christians need to do more to ensure their faith is real - such as volunteer more at church, get involved with the church's pet projects, or give more money to charity and/or the church.

It seems to me that this new use of purgatory is very much the same: to threaten Christians with future time in purgatory if we don't become holy enough by the time we die! Conveniently, of course, this holiness would be demonstrated by what we do in this life, and so again: more volunteering, more giving, more [insert desired behavior here].

All this does is throw Christians back onto the treadmill of constant performance that we have barely just escaped, or adds one more layer on to it, for those who still think their works have something to do with their eternal salvation.

Even one of my favourite theologians, Gregory Boyd, disappointingly endorses the idea of a place where people finish being sanctified before moving on to heaven.

But, I think that what he says about purgatory is actually inconsistent with other very helpful things he says about sanctification, and in fact, his views on sanctification can support the idea that we do experience instant perfection at death, so that no purgatory is necessary!

Boyd's work clearly illustrates some problems that every theologian who seriously wants to advocate for purgatory will have to address.

Gregory Boyd on Purgatory

The first I read about the idea of a sort of 'purgatory' in Gregory Boyd's work was in Satan and the Problem of Evil (2001), titled "Appendix 3: On Incomplete Probation Periods."

Here, Boyd argues that because love requires a free choice, but some people die before they reach the point when they can make that choice (or may never reach it at all in this life due to mental disability), there must be some time after death for these people to develop to that point where this choice is possible. For he says that no one can be in heaven who did not choose to participate in God's love, but these people also have not chosen to reject God, and thus they are not fit for hell either.

I do think this is an interesting attempt to solve this issue.

However, he goes on to say that there is also need for a place where "believers whose sanctification is not completed in this life may somehow be completed and made fit for the kingdom of God in the next". He refers to Matt. 5:25-26, which he interprets as "we either make things right now or we get them made right later, and getting them right later is going to take time".4 He suspects this could be part of the judgement of believers that takes place in 1 Cor. 3:13-14 and may involve "refining chastisements".5

He expands on this idea in a blog post written in 2009, titled "Purgatory and the Judgment Seat of Christ" where he seems to use the idea that we have to finish being perfectly sanctified - either in this life or the next - as a way to discourage Christians from committing suicide. He says suicide is not a short-cut to heaven, because we don't just enter heaven immediately, but have to endure purgatory where our character is made entirely holy.

He says "While your faith in Jesus in principle reconciles you to God, your character has to be refined before you enter heaven. It's like Christ's death on the cross lets you out of prison but you still need to have your criminal character reformed before you are fit for the heavenly society. And there's simply no short cut to this process of character reformation."

He fears that the idea that we are perfectly sanctified at death would encourage Christians to give up and commit suicide when they tire of the ongoing struggle of sanctification in this life, or else, would discourage Christians from even bothering to pursue holiness at all, since they will automatically become perfect at death, and gives Christians license to continue living in worldly/sinful ways.

I wondered if his views have changed on the topic since that time. However, in a recent June 2018 podcast titled "Between Here and Heaven: What are Your Views on Purgatory?" he repeats the idea that our character is perfected in purgatory before we enter heaven. He suggests that the amount of time that this process takes depends on our willingness to cooperate with it, and that it may involve suffering (as all sanctification does, he claims).

Gregory Boyd on Sanctification

However, I think that what Boyd has said about purgatory is actually inconsistent with what he has said elsewhere about the process of sanctification.

I really like what Boyd says about sanctification. He clearly locates where the struggle is within Christians in a way that I think makes perfect sense of Romans 7:14-25, and in this way, helps us understand what we're struggling with and how to overcome it.

Not only this, but I think that his statements on sanctification actually do support the idea that we are instantly perfected at death, and therefore, no purgatory or further sanctification will be necessary!

I will lay out the logic of some statements I've found in several of Boyd's blog posts to paint a picture of how he understands sanctification.

(If you just want a summary you can skip down to the next section).

First, Boyd argues that when we became Christians, "All that is part of our old self, all that is sinful and contrary to God, has been crucified. It is dead (Rom 6:2-11; Gal 2:20)." Next, we are entirely remade and so become new creations (2 Cor. 5:17).6

So Christians are made entirely holy and perfect in our inner spirits/souls the moment we're born again, through the work of the Holy Spirit. There is no "sinful nature" that remains as part of our spirits/souls.

However, we do not experience this transformation instantly:

"God doesn’t destroy who we are with all of our memories, our habits, or our past associations when he re-creates us in Christ Jesus. He rather seeks to transform all of our memories, habits and past associations on the basis of our re-created identities. We do not automatically see and experience ourselves as we truly are in Christ. Therefore to some extent we continue to think and act as though what is true about us in Christ were not true." Thus, we must try to put off the 'old self' (Eph. 4:22), which is a constant struggle between our 'spirits' and our 'flesh' (Gal. 5:17).7

This struggle occurs in our minds. He says God's design is for our spirits to control our minds, our minds then control our bodies' actions, and our actions make an impact in the world. But, Satan tries to reverse this, using our experiences in the world and other people's influences on us, which we take in through our bodily senses, to influence how we think about things (like ourselves, God, sin, etc.), hoping ultimately to keep us spiritually alienated from God.8

Boyd specifies that our minds are connected to our bodies, for he says our thoughts are rooted in our physical neural-nets:

"The spirit of the regenerate person genuinely wants to live in relationship with God and to do his will. All that God says is true about us in Scripture is true on this level. We are in our innermost being identified with Christ and are holy, blameless, filled with all the fullness of God, etc. But the proper spirit >>> mind relationship is not automatically restored. On the contrary, because they are rooted in our physical neural-nets, our thoughts and emotions continue on in their autopilot fashion, however they’ve been programmed to run, for good or for ill. This is why we don’t automatically experience the truth of who we truly are in Christ."9

If you're interested to learn more about these connections in our brains and how they are built, there's a really fascinating article I read titled "How Porn Changes the Brain" which gives a great introduction to this, and shows how it works in the case of the neural connections that human brains produce when viewing pornography, which are either reinforced or decay depending on if a person chooses to continue viewing pornography or not.

So if what we think about literally changes the connections in our brains, then Paul's suggestion to think only of whatever is good, true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and praiseworthy (Phil 4:8) totally makes sense!

Therefore, Boyd interprets the term "flesh" which Paul uses to describe what opposes the desires of our holy spirits/souls (Gal 5:17) not as something sinful or evil due to our existence as physical beings, but as "a deceptive way of seeing and experiencing oneself and one's world and thus a deceptive way of living in the world. It is that way of thinking, and experiencing, and living that is conformed to 'the pattern of this world'".10

Thus, the problem is that we struggle against our "flesh", literally - that is, against our sinful neural connections encoded within our physical brains.

Summary of Boyd on Sanctification

So, here's my three-point summary of what I understand Boyd is saying about sanctification:

  1. When we're saved, we are instantly made new creations and are made perfectly holy in our inner spirits/souls. We cannot be made any more perfect in our inner spirits/souls than we already are the moment we first believed in Christ as our savior.

  2. But, our thoughts are still being influenced by our physical brains, which have sinful neural connections that have developed due to all our years living in this sin-filled world and being told lies about ourselves, others, God, what we're made for, what our value is, and all sorts of other false messages we take in on a daily basis. On top of this, there are also our own sinful actions and thoughts that have ingrained these sinful neural connections in our brains which make it very easy to continue to sin.

  3. Therefore, sanctification is the on-going process of "renewing our minds" (Rom. 12:2), literally, by trying to avoid repeating those sinful patterns of action and thought, thus, letting those old sinful neural connections decay, while building new neural connections involving patterns of thought and action that are in alignment with God's will for our lives - that is - loving God and loving others (Mark 12:29-31).

What Does This Have to Do With Purgatory?

Now, this is where I think Boyd's position on sanctification can endorse a view of instant sanctification at death.

For, if as seen above, our problem with sin as Christians is not based in our spirits/souls (which are instantly made holy when we first accept Christ). Instead, it's due to our physical brain's residual sinful neural connections.

But obviously, when we die, our brains die too! The spirit/soul separates from the body temporarily and goes to be with Christ in heaven (2 Cor. 5:6-8; Phil. 1:23-24), until the time when we are resurrected with perfect new bodies (1 Cor. 15:42-44; 15:51-54).

Therefore, the brains we have now are not the same brains we will be resurrected with.

After all, anyone who has had a brain injury or disease, or anyone who was born with a physical deformity of the brain will be made perfect and whole when they are resurrected (for these things are a result of this fallen sinful world), and thus, their new brain will not be the same as the old brain they had when they died. But, they will still be the same person, even with a new brain.

Thus, who we are in our spirits/souls must be, in some way, independent of our physical brain structure.

So, I think there's no reason why God has to resurrect us with brains that contain the same sinful neural connections as when we died, in order to keep our personal integrity intact.

It would make no sense for God to resurrect our brains with our old sinful neural connections, just to make us have to spend time in purgatory to finish re-wiring and purging these sinful connections from our brains before we can live in heaven, if He can just instantly re-create our brains without them.

Therefore, I think it's better to say that the moment we die, our perfectly holy spirits/souls will be freed from the remaining sinful patterns of thought and action ingrained into these brains we have now, and we will indeed be perfectly free of sin. Our new resurrected bodies will match with the holy nature of our spirits/souls.

Thus, no purgatory is necessary, and we get instant sanctification at death. Heb. 12:14 will be fulfilled, for everyone in heaven will be perfectly holy (not that we must be perfectly holy before we make it into heaven!).

And remember: Jesus told the thief on the cross that "Today you will be with me in paradise" (Luke 23:43).

Not "After you've had your character refined for some unspecified amount of time in purgatory, only then will you be with me in paradise"!11 If anyone was a prime candidate for some need of sanctification in purgatory, wouldn't be a criminal who is saved just before they get the death penalty?

Also, I cannot see how purgatory could possibly fit with 1 Thess. 4:14-17 and 1 Cor. 15:51-52. When taken as referring to the same event, these verses seem to indicate that at Christ's next appearing, Christians who are still alive will have their bodies instantly transformed, are caught up to heaven, and from then on "will always be with the Lord". There is clearly no time for purgatory here, because some Christians will skip the intermediate state between death and resurrection altogether! These verses also give further support to the idea that the problem of sin is related to these current bodies, which is rectified when these Christians' bodies are instantly transformed.

What about the claim that personal cooperation or choice is necessary for sanctification?

As I discussed in my previous post, love for God includes love for Love (since God is Love), and thus, when we love God we will love to act in loving ways, in our innermost spirit/soul (Rom. 7:22). The only reason we can't love perfectly now, is due to the above problem with remaining sinful neural connections in our physical brains (the 'flesh').

This is a source of grief for Christians who recognize we are not acting the way our spirits/souls actually do want to act (Rom. 7:16-17; 7:24). Therefore, we will gladly and freely consent to our instant post-mortem sanctification.

There will not be anyone in heaven who says to God "Hey, wait a minute, I would rather continue to have those sinful fleshly desires running around in my thoughts, causing me to sin and bringing suffering on myself and others - so give me back my old sinful brain!"

Therefore, I think Gregory Boyd's work here shows that anyone who advocates for purgatory as a place for finishing our sanctification will need to deal with several issues.

First they need to consider exactly where is the problem with sin is located - our spirits/souls, or our bodies?

If it's our bodies, they need to consider what happens when we leave these bodies at death, and also consider the differences between our bodies now and future resurrected bodies.

If they want to claim the sin problem is in our spirit/soul, then they're going to have to make a case for that based on Scripture, which I think will be difficult to do.

A Better Option: Heavenly Rewards

But what about the criticisms that holding to a view of instant sanctification at death encourages Christians to either contemplate suicide as a short-cut to holiness, or allows Christians to ignore the need for sanctification in this life?

Instead of thinking we have to threaten people with either hell or purgatory in order to encourage sanctification, I think the Free Grace emphasis on heavenly rewards is a better solution to encourage sanctification. A good summary of how some Free Grace proponents discuss heavenly rewards can be found here.

Instead of interpreting 1 Cor. 3:10-15 as Boyd does - as some sort of purgatorial refinement of our character - we should see that what is clearly being judged here is our works.12

Whatever was worthy of heavenly reward will endure God's judgement and is represented as gold and jewels, but whatever we did in our lives that was unworthy or was just an utter waste of time, will be "burned up" and do not earn any heavenly rewards. This matches with 2 Cor. 5:9-10.

So then, once this evaluation of our works is complete, we will be left with a metaphorical pile of heavenly rewards, larger or smaller, depending on our lives. Scripture hints that these rewards may be expressed as different levels of ruling privileges with Christ on the New Earth (Luke 19:16-19; Matt. 25:21-23), or maybe other rewards we can't even imagine now.

Therefore, if we can only earn heavenly rewards in this life, and these rewards will last for eternity, then we shouldn't cut our time short through suicide, and shouldn't waste our time and opportunities by thinking what we do now doesn't matter.

Instead, heavenly rewards encourage us to make the best use of our lives now, by not resisting the Holy Spirit's prompting and enabling to overcome sin and become more like Christ, which will then enable us to do the things God has called us and enabled us to do (Eph. 2:10), for which we will be eternally rewarded.

Of course, this is not the only reasons why Christians should not commit suicide or skip out on sanctification. But if someone wants to claim that there are going to be negative consequences for this in the afterlife, the only Biblical one I can think of is missing out on heavenly rewards.

(I did send an email to Gregory Boyd's contact on his blog a while ago about this issue, but he never responded. Dr. Boyd, if you happen to read this, feel free to email me and let me know what you think of my critique).

Footnotes:

  • 1. Clark H. Pinnock, "Response to Zachary J. Hayes" in Four Views on Hell, eds. Stanley N. Gundry and William Crockett (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996), 130.
  • 2. Jerry L. Walls, Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory: Rethinking the Things That Matter Most (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2015), 151-153.
  • 3. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion Book 3, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 3.16 and 3.2.11-12.
  • 4. Gregory A. Boyd, Satan and the Problem of Evil: Constructing a Trinitarian Warfare Theodicy (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2001), 384.
  • 5. ibid, 385.
  • 6. Gregory A. Boyd, "9 Things That Are True of Us When We’re Saved", posted on ReKnew on March 30, 2015.
  • 7. Gregory A. Boyd, "Why Do Christians Keep Struggling With Sin?", posted on ReKnew on April 1, 2015.
  • 8. Gregory A. Boyd, "I’m Saved, but I Still Struggle. Why?" , posted on ReKnew on August 21, 2014.
  • 9. ibid.
  • 10. Gregory A. Boyd, "What is 'The Flesh' or 'The Sinful Nature'?", posted on ReKnew on July 10, 2014.
  • 11. If someone wanted to argue that "paradise" here means purgatory, it would indicate that purgatory is a very different sort of experience than what is usually implied in purgatory (i.e. refining/purgatorial suffering).
  • 12. When discussing 1 Cor. 3:13-14 Boyd does use the term works, but just a few lines down from this he seems to swap out works for character. He says "God's chastisements that refine our character in ths life are done out of love and do not compromise our salvation by grace .... Why think differently if similar refining chastisements occur after death before the judgement seat of Christ?" Boyd, Satan and the Problem of Evil, 385.