Roger Olson is my favorite Evangelical Arminians. He has a unique ability to be an anchor of doctrinal stability and a provocative juggernaut of theological inquiry that causes us to scratch our heads and, many times, reshape our paradigms. I have used his The Mosaic of Christian Belief in The Theology Program for over six years and I don’t plan on changing it any time soon. He has been on Converse with Scholars (twice I think). He is a great and well respected Evangelical author and professor. All of this to say, I have much admiration and appreciation for Roger Olson…he keeps us on our toes.
Having said this, his recent blog post about Protestant Purgatory makes me wonder what is going on.
Don’t take the title of this post seriously. It comes from Roger himself when he says, “Once again, as I write, I am aware that some critics out there may rip what I say out of context (because they have in the past) and publicly accuse me of adopting a Roman Catholic doctrine. I can see the (admittedly small) headline in some state Baptist newspaper now: “Baptist seminary professor Roger Olson headed toward Rome!” Well, this is not a Baptist newspaper, but it’ll do.
While I am a fan of Roger Olson, I am a contemplative critic of his thesis here. I don’t really know where it has come from. The very idea of Purgatory goes against everything that the Reformation was about. Let me back up. In essence, this is what I am hearing Olson say: “There are some Christians who have done some really, really bad things and had some really, really bad attitudes. Therefore, I am considering that these Christians have to enter into an educational corrective half-way house before entering Heaven. Let’s call this a ‘Protestant Purgatory’.”
For those of you not familiar with Purgatory, this is a doctrine held by Roman Catholics but rejected by Protestants and Eastern Orthodox. It is taken from the Lat. “purgare” meaning to purify. Officially and without internal debate, it can be said that Purgatory is a place that those who die in the grace of God (i.e. in a justified state) go to in order to be purified from the venial sins. “Venial” sins, as opposed to “mortal” sins, are sins that do not remove the justifying grace of God. They are the “small” sins, the white lies, calling in sicks when we were not sick, the candy thefts, and the “holy *%$# Batman’s” of our life. They are all those things that we forgot to do penance for (or simply did not have time!).
There is internal debate among Catholics concerning the nature and duration of Purgatory. Traditionally, it was a place of fire that could last millions of years. However, contemporary Catholicism has lightened the load quite a bit. Some current (and more palatable) descriptions I have heard include “a washing up before dinner” and “a timeless, instantaneous, and virtually painless purging of our wicked nature.” Either way, the idea is that there will be a time of suffering that all non-sainthooded Christians go through before entering Paradise. Very few escape its purging. But take heart, if you make it there, you are guaranteed to make it to Heaven eventually!
Biblically, Purgatory is very difficult to defend without reading the Tradition of the Roman Catholic church into certain passages. Theologically, the idea is that we must be completely clean before we get into God’s presence. No dirt under the fingernails. If we die and are “covered” legally by the blood of Christ, we need to have our fallen nature purged actually.
Protestants, including myself, believe that this amounts to a price-cut on the power and efficiency of the Cross. It is sort of a crucifix deflation. We believe that Christ paid for all sins and that there is simply no condemnation for those who have placed their faith in him (Rom. 8:1). Believers have been justified through the alien righteousness of Christ which was “imputed” or credited to our account. There is simply no way for us to atone for our own sin, not matter how big or small. Therefore, when God sees us, he sees Christ. Its that simple. No further cleansing needed.
Olson most certainly believes in the imputation of Christ righteousness and justification by faith. However, he seems to have fallen into this category that we all often trip into. Its a category that makes us pick up a bit of the load. Its a category that wants others to carry some of the load. Its a category that says “Grace is too radical.” Its the “other brother” in all of us that says “Father, this is not fair. He has just done too much wrong not to get punished at tincy bit.”
Using Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, and Augustine as examples, Olson puts on display their dark side. No, not their dark side before accepting Christ, but their dark side post-Christian. In essence, this is what it comes down to:
Luther: Advocated the total annihilation of the Jews.
Augustine: Advocated the total annihilation of heretics.
Zwingli: Arrested and tortured Hubmaier until he recanted of his heresy.
Calvin: (you knew it was coming) Advocated the burning of the anti-Trinitarian Servetus.
Olson does not like these historic Christian titans acting in such a way. Without getting into the details involved here or the cultural toleration and advocacy of such, let’s just say that none of us do. Its Olson’s “solution” that that makes me scratch my head. While not assigning them to the fires of Purgatory, he does not want them to get a “free” pass. He thinks that some intellectual atonement needs to be made before they are granted access to paradise. In his words:
“[W]ith regard to Augustine, Luther, Zwingli and Calvin (among others) I’m faced with a dilemma. Are they in paradise now? Are they enjoying the bliss of being in the presence of Jesus? I am not their judge, but I would like to think so. But that presses me back to considering some concept like purgatory. Lull’s little dialogue book gave me the possible answer. (Remember–I’m talking about a hypothesis and not a new doctrine.)
What’s wrong with a Protestant believing that upon entering paradise a hate-filled Christian leader of the past who condoned torture and even murder (I don’t know what else to call the burning of Servetus even though it was technically legal–we still call “legal” stonings of women in certain countries “murder”) has to take a spiritually therapeutic “class” of correction?
I can imagine (only imagine, you realize!) Zwingli entering the pearly gates (imagery–because there’s no reason to believe paradise has gates!) and being greeted by Hubmaier who says ‘Ulrich, it’s nice to see you here. I’ve completely forgiven you. But Christ has assigned me as your tutor and guide during your orientation to paradise. Here, sit down, let me offer you some correction about treatment of people with whom you disagree.'”
What is wrong with hate-filled Christians going through corrective therapy as a consequence for their sinful thinking? Really? Are we being serious here? If Olson had simply said that we will all be learning in heaven, if Olson had said that all our thinking be instantaneously sanctified upon entering Paradise, maybe if this was not in the context of Purgatory, I might have been able to follow him a bit more. But to suggest that certain people are just too bad to get a true free pass evidences how difficult it is, even for someone as astute as Olson, to comprehend how radical God’s grace is and how sinful we all are. To single out these fellas is problematic as it seems, like the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory, to place a breaking point on the grace of God.
I can’t help but think of the brother of the prodigal son who simply could not accept the free acceptance of his brother. I am sure the brother would not have complained had his father made the rebellious son go through some corrective training on family etiquette and loyalty. But the Father did not. There was no punitive correction of any kind. Grace is that crazy.
Are they in Paradise now? Are the enjoying the bliss of Jesus? I am not sure if Olson is truly teetering here between “maybe” and “maybe not”, but, by the grace of God, Christ purchased them and covered all their pride, murders, and ill-will toward others with his blood. A corrective course for those few who were really bad Christians is not the icing on the cake to the cross, even if they were taught by Jesus. There is simply no condemnation for those who are in Christ.