Recently, I’ve observed within evangelicalism a new sympathy for some sort of purgatory in the saving process. For instance, one might take from a statement by Roger Olson in a blog post today, that he has moved in this direction. Here is the paragraph I have in mind:
“This touches on a subject I’ve raised here before. To what extent should we let historical figures off the hook just because of the cultural context and the times in which they lived—especially when they claimed to be Christians and had their Bibles and read them? Should we excuse Zwingli for having the Zurich city council torture Hubmaier? By all accounts Zwingli stood in the torture chamber and demanded that Hubmaier, who had come to Zurich at Zwingli’s invitation for a debate assuming protection, recant his Anabaptist views. And, of course, Zwingli fully supported the drowning of Anabaptist men and women. Shall we say “Well, those were harsh times?” I don’t think so. Either Zwingli is in hell or he had to go through a purgatory-like process before entering heaven. If you don’t believe in anything like purgatory (even C. S. Lewis’ highly Protestantized version), I don’t see how you can avoid putting Zwingli in hell.”
It is possible that Roger is not one who thinks that there is room for us to allow for some form of purgatory in our eschatology. Perhaps, he actually assumes that there is no purgatorial intermediary step for any believer, and consequently he knows that Zwingli is in hell. That is possible, but it does not look to me to be the most plausible reading of Roger’s statement. I look forward to thoughts from readers, in that regard.
My intention here, however, is not to critique Roger’s theology, but to discuss the theological principle that takes him to his final sentence in the paragraph. That principle is explicitly stated in the second last sentence:
“Either Zwingli is in hell or he had to go through a purgatory-like process before entering heaven.”
This does look like a clear affirmation of the basic principle at work in a doctrine of purgatory, though it may be abstracted from the traditional Roman Catholic framework that posits meritorious works as necessary for the temporal punishment that sinners incur by their sins (as distinct from the eternal punishment which is covered by Christ’s death). Some such difference in the doctrine would presumably be assumed in a “Protestantized version” of the doctrine of purgatory.
What I am trying to get a handle on is what theology of salvation informs this Protestantized principle, which states that some believers who die free of the penalty of hell, thanks to Jesus’ atoning work, still need an unusual purging in order to be ready for heaven. (I take it to be unusual because I sense that Roger views Zwingli’s actions in this case as unusual for a true child of God.) But what understanding of forgiveness of sin grounds this judgment?
I can’t get from what I see in the NT to this Protestant form of a doctrine of purgatory. The text that comes most immediately to my mind is 1 Corinthians 15:51-58. At the last trumpet, which is part of the complex of events in Christ’s return, those who died in Christ will be raised with new bodies, imperishable and immortal. But, more significantly here, those of us who do not die before that time “will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye” (15:51-52). Paul’s statement was a generalization which would apply regardless of when Christ returned. Had he come back before Zwingli died, Zwingli would have been changed bodily in an instant, into the new form of body, but he would also be transformed spiritually and prepared for life with God. This is the next step in our sanctification process, and it is the same for all believers. This is a consequence of our having died and risen again with Christ, spiritually, and eventually physically, including total transformation of our sinful selves into perfect holiness. It is a marvelous hope.
In my eschatology, therefore, if Zwingli was a true believer then he too would have been transformed by God’s grace, as the final fruit in the process of God’s transformation of him, as a sinner who had fallen short of the image of God, into the perfect image of God – made like Christ. Roger Olson happens to be an Arminian who does not believe that true believers can apostasize, so he and Calvinists are on the same page in this regard. Given Olson’s statement in this blog post, if there is no unusual purgatory for particularly grievous sinners, then Zwingli’s acts condemn him to hell and indicate that Zwingli had never been a true believer.
That is what I make of what I read, but if you think I am misconstruing something, share your thoughts.