Waiting for heaven

Romans 5:12-21

12 Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned.

13 To be sure, sin was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not charged against anyone’s account where there is no law. 14 Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who is a pattern of the one to come.

15 But the gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many! 16 Nor can the gift of God be compared with the result of one man’s sin: The judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation, but the gift followed many trespasses and brought justification. 17 For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ!

18 Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people. 19 For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.

20 The law was brought in so that the trespass might increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, 21 so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Congratulations, you have made it to the half-way point in our sermon series on hell and life after death! I’ve felt like this series has been challenging for me the last couple of weeks for a number of reasons. One, nobody really talks about hell, and it makes for some pretty awkward conversations on the way home from church with young children. Two, it has been challenging because I am questioning everything that I was taught growing up, and I’m sure I am questioning much of what you were taught about hell growing up as well. Today we are looking at two very different views of life after death, and these views present an entirely different challenge for me as a preacher and a teacher. We are looking at Purgatory and Universal Salvation today. One view says that after death those who are Christians will need to be sanctified through punishment before entering heaven while the other says that all will eventually be saved. The challenge that these views present for me is that I can more quickly affirm aspects of Eternal Conscious Punishment, which we studied last week, and Conditional Immortality, which we will look at next week, than I can affirm Purgatory and Universal Salvation.

That’s right. Today I am going to be arguing for the merits of two different views that I don’t believe in.

That may sound quite strange, but let me assure you that I actually think that this is a good practice, not just for the topic of hell, but for all challenging theological matters. I’ve found it very helpful to try to understand difficult issues from the perspective of others, and in doing so it is much easier to maintain a relationship with people, even Calvinists. It turns out that not everyone who believes in predestination has a staunch, double predestination view where God chooses who goes to heaven and hell before the creation of the world. There are other ways to understand predestination. I believe that they are wrong, but some forms are more acceptable to me than others. And it has been really good for me to try to understand from the perspective of others.

Recall that I taught you a very important theological word last week: perhaps. To say that something is perhaps true does not mean that you fully embrace that view. It means that you believe there to be between a 1 and 99% chance that it is true. So let us approach Purgatory and Universal Salvation in the spirit of perhaps, regardless of whether you are closer to 1 or 99%.

There are several things that we need to consider when we think about Purgatory. The first is that we need to remember that Purgatory is not really hell. It is a hellish place where there is pain and suffering. But Purgatory is for the saved, it is a place where Christians go after they die to be sanctified, to be made holy, so that they can enter into the presence of God.

Think about it this way. You may have accepted Christ at an early age, maybe before you were a teenager. You’ve been a Christian for most of your life, going to church, praying, studying your Bibles, and giving to those in need. But how many of you would say that you are perfect, that you never sin and have no personality issues whatsoever. Would you describe yourself as holy in every last way? If you do, you are misleading yourself.

As Christians, we believe that God forgives us, through Jesus, for our sins, past, present, and future. That doesn’t mean that we are perfect. Or as the bumper sticker says, being a Christian doesn’t mean I’m perfect, but forgiven.

We can all agree that we are not perfect. Now let’s string a few Bible verses together. Revelation 21:27a tells us, “Nothing impure will ever enter [heaven], nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful.” Hebrews 12:14, “Without holiness no one will see the Lord.” Got it? Sure, we are forgiven, but are we holy? Are we impure? There is a difference between being forgiven and being holy, or being “sanctified.” Here’s one more passage, this one from Romans 5, which begins by saying that we are justified by faith, but that our “suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.” That development of character is the sanctification process, it is our being made holy. And Romans says that it comes about through suffering. That suffering, some would say, takes place in Purgatory.

One of the criticism of Purgatory is that those who hold to this view are saying that Christ’s sacrifice is insufficient to save us. But a Purgatorian Christian will respond by saying that there is a difference between satisfaction and sanctification. Jesus’s sacrifice “paid it all,” and in the process the satisfaction for our sins was accomplished on the cross. But this does not make us sanctified. That happens in Purgatory.

A Purgatorian Christian will quote Malachi 3:2-3a, “But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver.” And Matthew 3:12, “His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”

For a Purgatorian Christian, the refiner’s fire and the burning of the chaff aren’t references to eternal punishment in hell. These are metaphors for God’s purifying act for unsanctified Christians in Purgatory. Yes, Christians have been forgiven, but we are not yet made holy. The refiner’s fire and burning of the chaff will make us holy so we can enter the presence of the Lord for eternity in heaven.

I’ve avoided saying what denomination tends to hold the view of Purgatory so far, but I’m sure most of you are aware that this is a traditional Catholic teaching and that most Protestants reject this view of the afterlife. Protestants who engage the need to be sanctified tend to say that it will happen instantly when we die before we enter heaven. Perhaps that is true, and that is what I tend to believe. But we can’t simply dismiss the idea of Purgatory because it is a Catholic view. Let us remember that this was the dominant view of all of Christianity for close to 1500 years and is still adhered to by the largest Christian denomination in the world. Furthermore, Purgatory makes more sense in the Catholic tradition and worldview, especially in medieval times, than it does in our modern-day Protestant world.

First of all, one of the clearest teachings on Purgatory is found in 2 Maccabees 12:43-45. I won’t bother posting the text, because obviously, you all know this one by heart. Oh, why don’t we know this one? Because 2 Maccabees isn’t in our Bibles. It is a part of what we call The Apocrypha. Whose Bible contains 2 Maccabees? It is in the Catholic Bible.

When Martin Luther began the Protestant revolution, one of the things that he protested was the abuse of the doctrine of Purgatory. The church was getting rich by saying that people needed to pay money to get their loved ones out of Purgatory and into heaven. That’s how they paid to build the beautiful cathedrals we find throughout the world. What a great fundraiser! There is an old say, “When a coin in the coffer rings, another soul from Purgatory springs.”

So we Protestants don’t even view 2 Maccabees as a part of the Bible, and that is why many Protestants don’t believe in Purgatory. But not all Protestants reject Purgatory. Notable scholars like CS Lewis and Jerry Walls are or were Purgatorian, Protestant Christians.

Let me just say quickly that Purgatory also makes more sense in medieval Christianity than it does today. Remember that when Christianity began spreading quickly through the world, you were considered a Christian simply for being born in a Christian nation. You were born, you were baptized, and you were immediately and legally considered a member of the church. So every European was considered a Christian, regardless of how you lived your life. You were maybe a backslidden Christian, but you were a Christian, nonetheless. So if you were under the grace of God, but you lived a sinful life, you weren’t quite ready to go to heaven when you died. You need a little cleaning up, even if it only happened after you died. This is obviously different from our Anabaptist framework, which says that we must make the decision every day to follow Jesus.

So what about Universal Salvation? Is this really a Christian view of hell, or is it just some hippy-dippy, lovey-dovey ideology? Let me preface this by saying that I am not a Universalist, for reasons I will share with you shortly. I understand the arguments for Universalism, and I agree that there are scriptures that point to a Universal Salvation. But I’m unconvinced. And this is one of the few things that I hope that I’m wrong about.

Universalism is not a new idea. Robin Parry begins his essay in Four Views on Hell by naming church fathers all the way back to the early church that wrote of a universal salvation. So like all of these views of hell, Universalism is not something that our modern minds thought up because of some kind of objection to the idea of hell.

Universal Salvation is also not the same thing as Religious Pluralism, which says that all religions are essentially the same, that they are simply different paths up the same mountain. Universal Salvation is the belief that all people will be reconciled to God through Jesus’s death on the cross. Salvation is only through Jesus, but it is for everyone.

We can see that the idea of a universal salvation is indeed biblical by looking at our passage from Romans 5. I sometimes hear people talking about Original Sin, the doctrine that Adam’s sin is passed on from one generation to the next, usually through the seed of the man. That part is important, because if Original Sin was passed on through the woman, Jesus would be liable to Original Sin, but we know that he was without sin. So, there’s that.

When people talk about Original Sin I like to ask them if they are also a Universalist, because they often are building their theology on Romans 5. Verse 18 says, “Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people.”

Paul says that the one trespass, the sin of Adam, resulted in the condemnation for all people. Paul also says that the one righteous act of Jesus resulted in justification and life for all people. Sure, Paul also says later that this justification is for some, but in those verses he often also says that the sin of Adam led to condemnation for some. So if we really believe that Adam’s sin led to the condemnation of every man, woman, and child, then we should probably also believe that salvation has come to every man, woman, and child.

There are two versions of Christian Universalists. One group says that everyone is just automatically saved through the death of Jesus, and that there is no need for a response from the individual. You could be a really rotten person, die, and you will be surprised when you come to in heaven.

I really don’t want to spend much time considering this view of Universalism, because this perspective just seems to skip over all of the references to hell in the New Testament. I simply don’t think that we can ignore the twenty-some individual references to hell, many of which come from the very mouth of Jesus himself.

However, there is a view of Christian Universalism that I find very interesting, even if I’m not convinced. Let’s remember that the basic understanding of justification by grace through faith is that those who believe in Jesus will be with him for eternity in heaven. This group of Universalists will affirm that basic doctrine. But they will also say something that takes the scriptures that we have very seriously and asks a question that I’m not hearing from the other views of hell. They say, The Bible teaches that hell is real. The Bible also teaches that all people will be saved. How do we reconcile this discrepancy?

Let’s look at more of “Paul’s” writings. Philippians 2:9-11 says, “Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

Every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord. That sounds like Universal Salvation to me. And this idea can be found in the Old Testament as well (see especially Isaiah).

So how do these Universalists reconcile the discrepancy that the Bible teaches both a literal hell and a universal salvation? By suggesting that there will be an opportunity for a post-mortem conversion, that is, people in hell will be given the chance to profess faith in Jesus.

Look again at the passage from Philippians 2. Every knee will bow and tongue confess that Jesus is lord in heaven, on earth, and under the earth. And consider 1 Peter 3:18-20a, “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. After being made alive, he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits— to those who were disobedient long ago.”

The Universalists who teach the potential for a post-mortem conversion say that yes, there will be punishment in hell. But whenever someone is ready to accept Christ, they will be saved.

So I ask you, are Purgatory and Universal Salvation viable options for life after death? Perhaps. But I’ll offer a few critical points. A critique is offered of this view that is similar to a popular critique of Purgatory, and that is that there is no clear biblical teaching on Purgatory or post-mortem salvation. One has to arrive at that position through reason and deduction. But the Universalists will counter that by saying that there is no clear teaching on the Trinity or on the Incarnation, yet these are commonly accepted doctrines of the church.

I find the case for Universal Salvation and post-mortem salvation more compelling based on the biblical witness, but to say that it is more convincing doesn’t mean that I am convinced. I’m still somewhere in that 1-99% convinced range.

Ultimately, I can’t affirm Universal Salvation because I believe in freewill. If everyone will ultimately be saved, then did anyone ever really have a choice? Or to look at it differently, if people spend their entire life rejecting God, and I’m speaking specifically of those have heard the gospel and rejected it, why would we think that they wouldn’t reject God in the afterlife? And if God did force people into heaven, would that not be hell for those who spent their entire lives rejecting God?

I don’t have much room for Purgatory in my view of the afterlife. I believe that we will be made holy, or sanctified, instantly. 1 Corinthians 15 says that we will be changed in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye. 1 John 3:2 says that “when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” If Purgatory exists, it is as quick as a flash. Jesus paid it all, and we will be make like him.

I’m sure that I have messed with your beliefs about the afterlife a little more today, maybe a little more than you are comfortable with. But I ask you now a question concerning all three views that we have considered so far. Are Eternal Conscious Punishment, Purgatory, and Universal Salvation biblical? Yes, some more so than others. Are they true? Perhaps. But as you may have guessed, I’m saving my favorite, which has its own issues, for last. Next week we will consider Conditional Immortality.

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About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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