Should Protestants affirm a doctrine of purgatory?

Recently, I’ve observed within evangelicalism a new sympathy for some sort of purgatory in the saving process. For instance, one might take from a statement by Roger Olson in a blog post today, that he has moved in this direction. Here is the paragraph I have in mind:

 “This touches on a subject I’ve raised here before. To what extent should we let historical figures off the hook just because of the cultural context and the times in which they lived—especially when they claimed to be Christians and had their Bibles and read them? Should we excuse Zwingli for having the Zurich city council torture Hubmaier? By all accounts Zwingli stood in the torture chamber and demanded that Hubmaier, who had come to Zurich at Zwingli’s invitation for a debate assuming protection, recant his Anabaptist views. And, of course, Zwingli fully supported the drowning of Anabaptist men and women. Shall we say “Well, those were harsh times?” I don’t think so. Either Zwingli is in hell or he had to go through a purgatory-like process before entering heaven. If you don’t believe in anything like purgatory (even C. S. Lewis’ highly Protestantized version), I don’t see how you can avoid putting Zwingli in hell.”

It is possible that Roger is not one who thinks that there is room for us to allow for some form of purgatory in our eschatology. Perhaps, he actually assumes that there is no purgatorial intermediary step for any believer, and consequently he knows that Zwingli is in hell. That is possible, but it does not look to me to be the most plausible reading of Roger’s statement. I look forward to thoughts from readers, in that regard.

My intention here, however, is not to critique Roger’s theology, but to discuss the theological principle that takes him to his final sentence in the paragraph. That principle is explicitly stated in the second last sentence:

 “Either Zwingli is in hell or he had to go through a purgatory-like process before entering heaven.”

This does look like a clear affirmation of the basic principle at work in a doctrine of purgatory, though it may be abstracted from the traditional Roman Catholic framework that posits meritorious works as necessary for the temporal punishment that sinners incur by their sins (as distinct from the eternal punishment which is covered by Christ’s death). Some such difference in the doctrine would presumably be assumed in a “Protestantized version” of the doctrine of purgatory.

What I am trying to get a handle on is what theology of salvation informs this Protestantized principle, which states that some believers who die free of the penalty of hell, thanks to Jesus’ atoning work, still need an unusual purging in order to be ready for heaven. (I take it to be unusual because I sense that Roger views Zwingli’s actions in this case as unusual for a true child of God.) But what understanding of forgiveness of sin grounds this judgment?

I can’t get from what I see in the NT to this Protestant form of a doctrine of purgatory. The text that comes most immediately to my mind is 1 Corinthians 15:51-58. At the last trumpet, which is part of the complex of events in Christ’s return, those who died in Christ will be raised with new bodies, imperishable and immortal. But, more significantly here, those of us who do not die before that time “will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye” (15:51-52). Paul’s statement was a generalization which would apply regardless of when Christ returned. Had he come back before Zwingli died, Zwingli would have been changed bodily in an instant, into the new form of body, but he would also be transformed spiritually and prepared for life with God. This is the next step in our sanctification process, and it is the same for all believers. This is a consequence of our having died and risen again with Christ, spiritually, and eventually physically, including total transformation of our sinful selves into perfect holiness. It is a marvelous hope.

In my eschatology, therefore, if Zwingli was a true believer then he too would have been transformed by God’s grace, as the final fruit in the process of God’s transformation of him, as a sinner who had fallen short of the image of God, into the perfect image of God – made like Christ. Roger Olson happens to be an Arminian who does not believe that true believers can apostasize, so he and Calvinists are on the same page in this regard. Given Olson’s statement in this blog post, if there is no unusual purgatory for particularly grievous sinners, then Zwingli’s acts condemn him to hell and indicate that Zwingli had never been a true believer.

That is what I make of what I read, but if you think I am misconstruing something, share your thoughts.


By Terrance Tiessen

I am Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Providence Theological Seminary, Canada.

6 replies on “Should Protestants affirm a doctrine of purgatory?”

Your reading of Olson makes sense to me. I wonder if we can affirm the phrase “a purgatory-like process” – but then affirm that this “process” is actually an instantaneous work of God which takes place in the believer when they die or when Christ comes again. Further, we’d need to clarify in what way this is “purgatory-like” – in terms of “transformation of desire” but not being based on the extra merits of other saints, or prayers & works of the church.

From my understanding of Roman Catholic doctrine, it seems like both Protestants & RC’s are in agreement that the soul must be changed, to be fit for glory. The difference is that, for various reasons, RC doctrine supposes that this change must take place over some period of prolonged time, and that this change must somehow be affected by the merits and works of various other saints (not based entirely upon the completed work of Christ on the cross).

Am I understanding these differences properly?

Yes Chris. I think that you have properly represented the difference between Protestant and Roman Catholic understandings of the manner in which believers are finally sanctified or glorified.

I have not (yet?) read Jerry Walls’ book (Purgatory: The Logic of Total Transformation [OUP 2011]), but I suspect that his is the most thorough effort to present an evangelical version of Purgatory. As my post indicated, I am presently committed to the traditional Protestant belief that God transforms believers instantaneously at death or the return of Christ. For me to change my mind, I would need to become convinced that Scripture indicates that this transformation may, in some (possibly even most) instances, happen over a period of time. I just noticed that The Catechism of the Catholic Church (1031) cites a text from Gregory the Great in which he appeals to Mt 12:31:

“He who in truth says that whoever utters blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will be pardoned neither in this age nor in the age to come. From this sentence we understand that certain offenses can be forgiven in this age, but certain others in the age to come.”

That seems to me a bit of an exegetical stretch, but it is an interesting effort.

I think that item 1032 in the Catechism is much more significant to common belief and practice, namely, the appeal to the practice of prayer for the dead, and the commendation of “almsgiving, indulgences, and works of penance undertaken on behalf of the dead.”

If sympathy grows within evangelicalism, I’ll need to give attention to the work of Walls, but right now it is not high on my priorities of things deserving my time and work. That can change.

I don’t think that the protestantized purgatory from either Lewis or Olson is about punishment or forgiveness, but about becoming ‘fir for heaven’ in everyday language, or growing in holiness, a rewiring of the persons desires and other things that would not be able to exist in a place where all evil is erased….
The last comment on Roger Olson’s blog at the moment is roger himself saying ‘My idea of purgatory is that, if it exists, it would be educative and corrective, not punitive.’

Jerry Walls developed his argument earlier in the April 2002 issue of First Things. His basic argument there was that God’s method of sanctifying us involves a process and our cooperation, which leads him to see that same process continuing beyond this life. Secondarily, he argues that the idea of instantaneous perfection after death is incomprehensible, even though it is not incomprehensible for me, and I don’t see why it is so hard for a Wesleyan! There is, I think, not much biblical material that deals directly with what happens after death, but that is because the biblical focus is on resurrection at the Parousia and not on the intermediate state. But I think your point about 1 Cor 15 is well taken, and the same could be inferred from 1 John 3.1-3. Jesus’ comment to the thief on the cross is also relevant, I think. I haven’t sensed any interest in the purgatory issue in my circles, but it will be interesting to see if it does develop.

Good grief. Talk about mistaking molehills for mountains. I don’t see that RO’s rhetorical side comment can be made to bear the weight that you put on it. RO was using rhetorich to emphasize the significance of the evil as part of making a point about how historians and theologians and others excuse some great evils but not others. He may or may not believe in purgatory personally, but over the course of his blogged musings he has made the point that the issue of purgatory is a secondary doctrine that should not divide Christians. His blogging is pointedly about musing, and in that sense he has mused about how far a distance, if any, a protestant could take the concept of purgatory. He clearly rejects a salvic role for purgatory, but speculatively allows that a non-salvic role could possibly exist within a protestant theology of salvation. Not that it does, only that it could and that it’s possible to investigate this possibility without being a heretic. If you needed a jumping off point to discuss protestant views of purgatory, there are other blogs by RO that would’ve been more suitable, but since protestant views of purgatory are not not high on your priorities of things deserving your time and work, why raise it at all? Especially in relation to what is a rhetorical comment that is not key to RO’s substantive point. I don’t take from RO’s comment that he has moved in the direction of a belief in purgatory at all, and I think it uncharitable to make such an inference especially since you are uncertain yourself whether he has so moved (you write “one might take”). Given the inflammatary nature of the internet, and the way that comments are taken out of context and used to defame and libel, it would have been the better part of valor (i.e., discretion) to make your point without dragging RO unnecessarily into what is, for many, a volatile topic.

My two cents on why I think this post was improper. Others may disagree, but I’d think they were wrong too.

John Inglis

I agree completely with what you said. We are baptised by one spirit into one body. Scripture says in Hebrews 9:27 that we are appointed once to die and then we are Judged. No where in Scripture does God hint at a waiting room. Our Glorification was Pre-ordained along with our justification. Romans 8:29-30.

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