I agree with John Hick (about purgatory)

This post is mostly about purgatory rather than John Hick, I just thought I’d catch people’s attention this way. Still, on this point I am in considerable sympathy with Hick, and have been since reading Evil and the God of Love some time back (did you know that the Oriel copy was actually donated by the author back in ’66?). But more of that later.

The first point to note is that the Oxford course doesn’t really go in for eschatology in a big way, and nor have I heard very much discussion of eschatology outside of my course. It’s sort of a theological elephant in the room – or more precisely, an elephant obstructing the way out of the room. It is, nonetheless, fantastically important – not just as a matter of personal concern (what will happen to me/my parents/my pets after death?), but also because the really grand and gruesome question of suffering can only start finding at all satisfactory answers in the light of the eschaton.

Today, I would like to defend the idea of purgatory – for the moment defined as an intermediary state after physical death during which the process of deification (= however you  happen to understand 2 Peter 1:4 ‘you may become partakers of the divine nature’) is fulfilled.

First, a brief review of scripture and tradition to make the negative point that purgatory is not a wild innovation alien to the faith. Purgatorial ideas can be found in both Augustine and Gregory of Nyssa (see http://www.churchfathers.org/category/salvation/purgatory/). Purgatory has been an established doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church for centuries. While it is not shared by the Eastern Orthodox Church, it is not categorically denied either. Some authorities are happy to speak of the cleansing of sin after death, so long as this cleansing is not regarded in punitive terms (see . Mark of Ephesusfirst homily against the Latin doctrine of purgatory, and Ware’s The Orthodox Church).

Of course, purgatory is not explicitly taught in Scripture – but then neither is the double consubstantiality of Christ, etc etc. 2 Maccabees 12:46 speaks of the living delivering the dead from sin, and Matthew 12:32 suggests that some sins might be forgiven in the world to come. There also various passages (e.g. 1 Corinthians 3:11-15) which have often been interpreted in favour of purgatory. Notably, some passages from the Old Testament have also been given this sort of interpretation in the Jewish tradition (see http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/6558-gehenna).

I think the foregoing indicates that purgatory is at least an acceptable opinion. The important question is, should we accept it? I think we should, though I understand that my reasons for accepting are not exactly conventional. But to me they seem compelling. As I see it, the problem is as follows. There is a great deal of contingency involved in who gets exposed to the Gospel. Some people never hear the Gospel, and many others are raised in such a way that they develop quite naturally presuppositions that are alien to the Gospel. This seems to pose a dilemma. If the people born into the wrong circumstances don’t receive eternal life, then God seems worryingly casual about whether His creatures end up separated from Him. If they do, then it seems to undermine the importance of repentance, faith, and transformation in this life.

The issue is neatly framed in 2 Peter 3:9 ‘The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering towards you, not wishing that any should perish, but all should come to repentance’. God wants all His creatures to enjoy eternal life with Him, and He wants everyone to repent, apparently as a necessary preparation for eternal life. How is this dilemma to be resolved? Through God’s longsuffering. Since God wants all to repent, He will do all in His power to ensure the repentance of all. Since it is within God’s power to allow those who have not repented in life to do so after death, and He must allow this if all are to repent, then He surely will allow this.

And so back to Hick: ‘The  present life sees the beginning of this process of the bringing of human personality to maturity and wholeness, though the progress which different individuals make is extremely varied…We must suppose that beyond this life the process continues in other environments offering other experiences and challenges which open up new opportunities of response and growth’ (Death and Eternal Life, p 253). This seems to right to me. Now Death and Eternal Life is a long book, and glancing through, it looks like Hick offers a lot of dubious speculation. I, no doubt in contrast to Hick, would want to stress the necessity of repentance in orthodox Christian faith (i.e., in accord with Conciliar dogmatic statements up to at least the promulgation of dyothelitism at Constantinople III – yes, I  really do believe that acceptance of dyothelitism is necessary for salvation. Had I not been writing this blog post, perhaps I would have explained why in an essay by now) . But the basic insight – that not all God’s purposes in creating us are fulfilled in this world, and, God being all powerful and long suffering, we should expect God to work towards the fulfilment of those purposes in other worlds than this rather than give up on them at the time of anyone’s death – I think is sound.

What objections can be adduced against it? Firstly, that it diminishes the force of the call to repentance now. 2 Peter 3:10 continues ‘the day of the Lord will come as a thief’. Accepting Christ’s message is presented throughout the New Testament as a matter of immediate life or death. If it is God who waits for us to repent, rather than we who wait for God to judge, then the act of repentance becomes less significant and the struggle to bring ourselves and others closer to Christ loses its meaning.

I am not moved by this objection. Repentance matters, and it matters that it happen immediately, but because it is God’s will. Sin offends God and distorts us. The sooner we are reconciled to God, the better. The properly religious attitude to Christ’s call is not to seek to save our own skin, but to see ourselves as Christ sees us – broken, desperate, and far from the perfection of our Father in heaven. Just the sort of people who would seek to save our own skins, in fact, rather than turn to God because of who He is. The real reason we should be prepared for the Day of the Lord is that it comes every day. We stand eternally under God’s judgement, and are denied life for as long as we deny Him who is Life.

A related objection is that this simply is not the teaching of scripture or tradition. While this may be true, it is also worth noting that, historically, the Church has shied away from promulgating strict dogmas on eschatology. This area above all is the arena of God’s mystery. As for scripture, it should be remembered how strong the evidence is that the Incarnate Word Himself was in error over eschatology (which error, naturally, was proper to His humanity). The teaching of Jesus does not appear to have been that judgement would come at the hour of death, but rather before, when the Son of Man comes soon in glory. The very fact that this expectation had not been fulfilled was what prompted the discussion in 2 Peter, and, as we have seen, a compelling explanation was available. I am merely extending the logic of that explanation.


A more analytic case for the same point.

Consider the following inconsistent triad:

1. Only those who repent in Christ are saved.
2. None repent after death.
3. Some who fail to repent in Christ before death are saved.

I take it we must accept 3 if we can speak of God’s love, mercy, justice etc. with a straight face. Admittedly, there are some sophisticated work arounds, such as Lane Craig’s middle knowledge predestination or allowing wide scope for mysterious pre-mortem conversion, but these strain credulity.

Of the remaining propostions, 1 is much better attested by scripture. Repentance is at the heart of Jesus’ message in the Synoptic Gospels, as faith in Christ is at the heart of Paul’s message. Both ideas are consistently presented as being closely tied with salvation. While I admit there are many references to a time limit for repentance, indications that that limit is death are few indeed. John 9:4, Hebrews 9:27, and the story of the rich man and Lazarus are suggestive of this idea, but they are not particularly explicit. Then there is 1 Peter 3:18-20, which suggests that Christ preached to the dead (and not the good kind, either: those ‘who did not obey in former times’, apparently the very same who were destroyed in the flood because the thoughts of their hearts were only evil continually).

Further, the inherent plausibility of 1 is greater than that of 2. If 2 is true, then either we are unable to repent after death, or God will not accept any such repentance. If He does not accept it, then His love is as much, if not more, in question as if 3 is false. Why we should not be able to repent, however, is quite mysterious. I cannot see that there is any reason to think us incapable of post-mortem repentance, apart from the meagre scriptural evidence already considered.

There is, however, a very plausible argument on behalf of 1.
P1: All have sinned.
P2: Sin disrupts our relationship with God.
P3: None will be saved unless their relationship with God is restored.
P4: Because the relationship with God is personal, it can only be repaired by a personal transaction involving (in some sense) the co-operation of both parties – i.e., on our side, an act of repentance.
C: None will be saved unless they repent.

Add the further traditional claim that the repentance that counts is repentance in Christ, and we get 1.

In sum, we should accept post-mortem repentance, because if we do not we must either admit that God’s really a bit of dick, who can at best be justified by tall tales of human devising, or we must discard a plausible and scriptural claim for an implausible and rather less scriptural one.


One thought on “I agree with John Hick (about purgatory)

  1. From Francis Hall’s Theological Outlines:

    4. Many have confounded certain things which should be distinguished, viz.: (a.) probation, which occurs in the body and requires no greater light and grace than all men possess: (b.) opportunity of receiving the knowledge and means of salvation through Christ, which may or may not form one of the elements of probation: (c.) the process of salvation, which in any case goes on after death and in some circumstances possibly does not begin until probation is over with. If the first opportunity of salvation occurs after death in any instance5, it need not constitute a new probation, but may be rather a revelation, through the manner of its reception, of the bent of character which has already been fixed under other and more rudimentary moral conditions. In short the opportunity must be, in effect, a reward to those whose lives, when on trial, have enabled them to accept it, and a judgment to those whose perversity has become too great for them to appreciate or take advantage of Divine love. Dissolution of soul and body ends the period within which the bent of man’s character can be changed (cf. Q. 167. 4, 5).6

    A most salutary distinction. If in doubt, distinguish!

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