Should Arminians believe in purgatory, or should Jerry Walls say that they create a major problem for the goodness of God? It sounds like maybe it’ll have to be one of those two options.
Jerry Walls is a Protestant who believes in purgatory. His version of purgatory (unlike some of the more punitive visions of purgatory that have been common historically) is, at least in part, a place or state after death that ensures that everybody has an opportunity to respond to the grace of God and be saved (it has other functions too, but this is the one that I am interested in just now). In short, it reduces the number of people who go to hell, which Walls envisions as a state of eternal torment to which God consigns people who reject his love. Purgatory is God’s way of ensuring that everybody gets “optimal grace.” Say what now? What’s that? As Walls put it in an interview:
In short, optimal grace is whatever form and measure of grace is best suited to elicit a positive response from us, without overriding our freedom. Because we are all different, the exact nature of this will vary from person to person. But the important idea is that if God truly loves each one of us, and truly desires our salvation, he will offer his love and grace to each of us in the way that is optimal to elicit a positive response.
Pretty clearly, not everyone has such grace in this life, and that is one of the reasons I believe in postmortem grace and repentance. What this means is that in the long run, everyone has an equal opportunity to be saved. In the afterlife, God can find ways in his infinitely creative wisdom to give everyone the best opportunity to respond to the gospel.
What this underscores is that no one goes to hell because of ignorance or lack of opportunity to be saved.
He’s probably right about something: “Pretty clearly, not everyone has such grace in this life.” That seems to be the case. There are people who have never, ever heard about Jesus and indeed cannot respond to him. We can appeal to the fact that everyone has a natural knowledge of God, which is certainly a biblical idea. But it’s also a biblical idea that everyone has a basic knowledge of what God requires, and that in spite of that, we all sin. So we need saving grace, and Walls observes that not everybody gets the opportunity in this life to respond to the Gospel.
Calvinists are aware that this is the case. They maintain, as Walls points out, that “some people get irresistible grace by which they will inevitably be saved, and others are completely passed over with respect to saving grace, and are inevitably damned.” This doesn’t seem fair, says Walls. “The unequal distribution of grace here is poses insurmountable problems for God’s goodness.”
But here’s what I want to draw attention to. Most Protestants don’t believe in Purgatory. Arminians believe that “prevenient grace” will do the job that Walls sees done in purgatory: namely, giving people the chance to repent and be saved. Briefly: People are sinners and they aren’t going to respond faithfully to God. So, Calvinists maintain that God steps in and saves some of them, transforming them so that they love him and come to him. Arminians, on the other hand, think that God gives people a special gift – something they wouldn’t have in their natural sinful state – that sort of enhances their fallen abilities to respond faithfully to God. That gift is what’s called prevenient grace (Calvinists believe in “prevenient” grace as well, on the proviso that it always does the job of successfully drawing a person to God). As Roger Olson described it, “it is an operation of the Holy Spirit that frees the sinner’s will from bondage to sin and convicts, calls, illumines and enables the sinner to respond to the gospel call with repentance and faith (conversion).” In an Arminian view, whether or not a person is saved depends on what that person chose to do, given that they have received prevenient grace to make them able to make the right decision. Crucially, prevenient grace doesn’t save people. Peoples still need to make use of that grace and respond in faith and repentance, because people, with or without prevenient grace, are still sinners. And so the problem of those who have never had the opportunity to respond remains.
Walls is not a Calvinist, and he has a place for prevenient grace to work for everyone. Not everyone hears the Gospel in this life, so giving them prevenient grace to respond to it is a bit like giving somebody a fishing rod in the desert. They aint catchin’ nothing! There’s no Gospel to respond to. But what if you take purgatory away. I’m putting words into Walls’ mouth here, but once we grant with walls the fact that some people just don’t get the chance in this life to respond, it seems that if you deny that there is a further chance to respond after this life (namely in purgatory), then you’re in the same boat as the Calvinist: People are sinners and God simply passes over them without even giving them the chance to be saved, so that the distribution of grace is uneven: Some people have heard the Gospel and others have not.
So actually, given Walls’ view that not everybody has had a chance to be saved in this life, Arminianism is in the same boat and subject to the same objection as Calvinism here: The distribution of grace isn’t fair! Of course, a Calvinist just bites this bullet hard: Nobody deserves eternal life, and God chooses to give it to some. If you don’t like it, talk to the hand. Now, Walls can say, of course, the Arminian who doesn’t believe in a second chance after death has a wider base of people who can be saved: namely all those who have heard the Gospel in this life. But still, there are some who, as Walls puts it, have not “had such grace in this life.” Based on what has happened in this life, Walls thinks, they can’t be saved. So Arminians have a problem that is surely only better in degree than the problem had by Calvinists, but which is the same in principle (assuming there’s a problem here, as Walls does).
Of course, some Arminians seek to get around the problem (again, if there is a problem) by adopting inclusivism: The view that you might know nothing at all about the Gospel and still be saved, based on some mystery of mercy and perhaps divine knowledge of what you would have done, had you had the chance to hear the Gospel. But Walls cannot take this line. If he did, then this argument for purgatory (namely that it provides an opportunity to those who have never heard, and who otherwise could not be saved) would evaporate.
- So in the first place, even on Walls’ view, both Calvinism and Arminianism (provided Arminians don’t believe in Walls’ version of purgatory) result in an “unequal distribution of grace,” and an unequal distribution of grace poses “insurmountable problems for God’s goodness.”
- Secondly, the most widely used defence by Arminians at this point (namely that those who have never heard can still be saved) must be rejected by Walls, or else this argument for purgatory fails. So Walls really must accept that Calvinists and Arminians have the same problem here (whatever other problems he might think Calvinism has).
- Thirdly: Arminians, how do you get around the unequal distribution of grace thing? Do you just bite the bullet and say that if people don’t hear then they miss out? Or do you think that even though people lack repentance and faith, they can come to God some other way? Let’s hear from you.