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Jerry Walls: Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory

Intimacy with God is the greatest possible good anyone could ever experience and living in God’s infinite beauty and goodness permanently will surpass all suffering and wrongs ever experienced in a victim’s earthly life.

Chapter 6 reconsiders arguments against a literal heaven, the attainment of bliss in heaven, and the wiping away of tears of pain, sorrow, and suffering.  Walls begins with Dostoevsky’s “high moral ground” as a reason for rejecting the Christian notion of a real heaven. In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky describes a number of horrendous evils and cruelties, which, as he opined, no theory of heaven could ever “resolve these horrible outrages” (p. 141). Dostoevsky cannot imagine how an “idealistic nonsense” of heaven could provide justice and “profound moral hope” for victims who may meet their repentant rapists, murderers, tyrants, and perpetrators (pp. 141-149). In response, Walls builds upon the Apostle Paul’s view of the immeasurable weight of glory (Romans 8:18; 2 Corinthians 4:17) and Marilyn McCord Adams’ claim that an intimacy with God is the greatest possible good anyone could have ever experienced, to argue that living in God’s infinite beauty and goodness permanently will surpass all suffering and wrongs ever experienced in a victim’s earthly life (pp. 146-148). Even so, a repentant perpetrator “will understand with full clarity the pain he caused and the wrong he did, and he will hate his sin, just as God does, and deeply regret ever committing it” amid the full transformation into Christ’s likeness (p. 152). As to whether those in heaven can truly enter fully into happiness and tears of pain and mourning fully wiped away (cf. Revelations 21:4) whilst knowing that some will be eternally damned (cf. philosopher Eric Reitan), Walls takes his cues from nineteenth century Scottish writer George MacDonald to claim that hell possesses no power to veto, manipulate, or destroy the bliss of eternity (pp. 156-158). Rather than a Calvinist reading of God’s sovereign grace that elects some (and by implication of double-predestination, damns others), Walls urges that “the lost have elected themselves for hell; God has not done so” (p. 158).

On post-mortem salvation, Walls’ exegesis of Hebrews 9:27-28, Luke 13:23-30, and 2 Corinthians 5:8, among other texts, leads him to assert that God’s saving grace and mercy does not preclude the possibility of the departed and disembodied souls repenting and returning to Christ after their physical death (chapter 8). God’s salvific mercy is read with a subtext: “even beyond the grave” (p. 187). One may read Walls to say that divine judgment comes only at the end, and not at death. Thus, even though normative Protestant view is that salvific grace ceases upon the death of a sinner who did not turn to Christ, Walls holds that “death is hardly a barrier” for God to save. Walls postulates that instead of merely dispensing “sufficient grace”, God could and would grant “optimal grace” for the sincere post-mortem repentant who truly desires salvation (pp. 200-205). Walls demonstrates, albeit too briefly that P. T. Forsyth, Donald Bloesch and C. S. Lewis, too supported the possibility of salvation even for the demise (pp. 205-208).

Although the book is lodged as a Protestant contribution, some of the ideas in the book would seat uneasily with conventional positions of Protestant orthodoxy. For instance, Walls’ reception of the present good life (chapter 1), the purgatory (chapters 1, 4, and 8) and the possibility of receiving repentance and post-mortem salvation in the afterlife (chapter 8) remain debatable even though Walls also demonstrates his case from recognized Protestant and Evangelical theologians of the past. As a minor critique, Walls did lean too much on Dante’s treatment (which Evangelicals, Protestants, and Pneuma-Renewalists would likely frown upon) even as his refutation of Nietzsche follows too closely many overtly critical Evangelical and Protestant reading of the said philosophical-father of contemporary nihilism. Otherwise, at a preliminary stage, Walls’ arguments seem plausible, despite the deviations from historic Protestant confessional views. Further analyses are needed to ascertain whether Walls’ interpretations are within or outside of the bounds of Christian orthodoxy. The other aspects presented in the book would likely find broad acceptance especially among confessional Protestants who have not been persuaded by non-theistic scientific, biological empirical and philosophical theories (cf. chapter 7). Still, whether Walls’ Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory would inspire a new generation of scholars, theologians, and believers to dig deeper into their faith, and consider broader views, particularly with contravening views from interdisciplinary resources, I heartily invite readers to join the conversation.

Reviewed by Timothy T. N. Lim


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Category: In Depth, Winter 2018

About the Author: Timothy Teck Ngern Lim, M.Div. (BGST, Singapore), Ph.D. (Regent University), is a Visiting Lecturer for London School of Theology and Research Tutor for King's Evangelical Divinity School (London). He is on the advisory board of One in Christ (Turvey) and area book review editor for Evangelical Review of Society & Politics. He is an evangelical theologian ordained as a Teaching Elder with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). He has published in ecclesiology, ecumenical theology, and interdisciplinarity. A recent monograph published entitled Ecclesial Recognition with Hegelian Philosophy, Social Psychology, and Continental Political Theory: An Interdisciplinary Proposal (Brill, 2017).

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