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A Feature Review of
Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory: Rethinking the Things That Matter Most
Paperback: Brazos Press, 2015
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Reviewed by Andrew Stout
I must admit to being suspicious of much of the writing that gets labeled as “apologetics.” Too often these works do not take objections to the Christian faith seriously enough, represent dissenting position accurately enough, or adequately acknowledge the deep mysteries that accompany any serious inquiry into religious questions. More often than not, apologetics requires a fundamental reorientation to the world rather than a tit for tat exchange of objections and responses. John Milbank has claimed that the problem with much modern apologetics is the fact that it naively concedes ground to a purely secular rationale, stating that “any successful exercise of apologetics…must contain a strong confessional element which convinces precisely because it persuades through the force of an imaginative presentation of belief.”(Imaginative Apologetics, xiv).
Jerry L. Walls’ Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory is a book that fits well within Milbank’s vision for “imaginative” apologetics. The book condenses and popularizes Walls’ academic books on heaven, hell, and purgatory. Walls notes that despite the pronouncements of many intellectuals – including theologians – that Western culture has shed its obsession with eternal destinies, polls and popular books indicate that contemporary fascination with heaven and hell remains persistent. More than the issue of popularity, however, Walls believes that “the Christian doctrines of the afterlife involve a set of profoundly substantive truth claims with explosive implications” (14). Walls is not overly dogmatic about the shape of these doctrines, but he does insist that “The Christian story…is radically incomplete and ultimately unsatisfying without a robust doctrine of the afterlife, and one simply cannot seriously affirm Trinity, incarnation, atonement, and resurrection without going on to heartily affirm ‘the life everlasting’” (15). Far from being tangential issues, the nature of heaven, hell, and the intermediate state are an important part of the framework of the Christian drama.
The allusions to story and drama are important. Walls is working in the mode of analytic philosophy. Through much of the book his treatment of these doctrines deals with their relevance to philosophical questions, addressing “such perennial issues as the problem of evil, the nature of personal identity, the foundations of morality, and, ultimately, the very meaning of life” (16). However, as one of the subtitles – A Protestant View of the Cosmic Drama – indicates, Walls is very concerned to keep the dramatic and narrative character of classical Christian theology at the forefront. You could say that Walls does analytic philosophy in a dramatic framework; his analytic investigations of Christian doctrine are directed toward establishing the coherency of the Christian story. This point is emphasized by the literary illustrations that run throughout the book.
Walls starts with a discussion of heaven, and then precedes to hell and purgatory. His rationale for this progression is that “Heaven is the fundamental reality, and we cannot really understand hell unless we understand heaven first, just as we cannot grasp the idea of a fallen world unless we start with a world that is originally good” (17). An examination of Revelation 21 serves as the foundational picture of the nature of heaven, pulling out the ways that the doctrines of the Trinity and of creation determine our expectations for heaven. The biblical portrait of heaven is shown to appeal to our deepest human longings and to hold out the promise that the human drama is ultimately a comic one. Through an understanding of Trinitarian love as the “bedrock of reality,” we see that love is at the heart of reality and that “when perfect love achieves its ends, we may hope to find the perfect happiness we crave, the perfect comic end of the cosmic drama” (46). Walls looks at several secular objections to the doctrine of heaven, attempting to show that Christian theology provides a more coherent dramatic picture than secular alternatives.