Eternal Possibilities: A Review of Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory for Brazos Bloggers

Nathan P. Gilmour

Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory: A Protestant View of the Cosmic Drama

By Jerry L. Walls

219 pp. Brazos Press. $19.99

Written theology, in my own experience with the faith, serves me differently during different seasons of life, and I’ve noticed that the benefit I derive from theology books is basically Aristotelian in character: the books that benefit me in one season push me away from this harmful extreme in my theological thought, but books that push in precisely the other direction stand to help me in other moments.  Sometimes I need reminded that some philosophical categories need to give way to the narrative particularities of the Bible, and sometimes I need reminded that precisely Greek or German or even Scottish philosophy might help me to be the sort of reader who can read Scripture faithfully.

I realize now, having read Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory, that for some time I’ve been compartmentalizing my own theological reflections on what happens when human existence as we know it ends.  Sometimes I try to think as a Dantean and sometimes as a late-modern student of the New Testament and sometimes in the mode of Cappadocian thought that David B. Hart recommends in The Beauty of the Infinite but rarely in all three of those registers at once.  I wasn’t entirely aware of it, but Jerry Walls brought to my attention that I’ve not dedicated much thought to how those two ways of thinking might inform one another.

Such is precisely the project of Jerry Walls’s career, and he has brought the work that went into a life’s work on the theology of the afterlife, a volume each on Hell, Heaven, and Purgatory, into this readable and fascinating book.  The most satisfying thing about this book is that Walls moves precisely in the order that the title promises, beginning with a theology of Heaven rooted firmly in the text of the New Testament and the scholarship first-century notions of resurrections that students of N.T. Wright will find familiar.  With that in place, he suggests a theology of Hell strongly informed by Dante and C.S. Lewis but which also takes into account that whatever the final beatitude of the redeemed might be, it must be a return to a re-created “earth at its best” (40), not an escape from the world of matter.  Finally he makes a case for Purgatory not for Catholics only (or mainly) but for all who profess the sort of “mere Christianity” that was C.S. Lewis’s famous aim in his radio talks, a plea rooted in Biblical categories and aimed at evangelicals.  Along the way he not only makes a strong case that just about everyone who believes in Heaven also believes in some kind of Purgatory (whether it’s instantaneous or involves duration) but follows that up with a strong argument that Protestants should rejoice in this particular inheritance from medieval theology.

And that’s just the first half of the book.

In the second half Walls addresses problems with the doctrines of the Resurrection and Renewed Creation (which is inextricable from his account of Heaven) that arise from the problem of evil (especially as articulated in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov), proposes a theology of divine gift that reconciles the philosophical notion of altruism with confession of rewards and misery in the afterlife, and articulates a theology of postmortem repentance that insists that indeed no power, neither life nor death, can ultimately stymie divine love, though the possibility for refusal remains ever-present.

This is a book I needed to read.  I’ll admit that I tended–and perhaps still tend–to read the theologies of free will that I find in Dante and C.S. Lewis as historical artifacts and perhaps allegories for human existence but not as serious engagements with the New Testament, which I tended–and perhaps still tend–to read as somewhat insulated from the centuries between the first and twenty-first.  This book reminds me what I’m supposed to be about as an intellectual, certainly learning from the best of contemporary, historically-conscious scholarship but never cutting off the possibility of learning to read the Bible more faithfully from the least likely of discussion partners.  (And for someone trained in late-modern Biblical studies, the least likely partners might just be the medievals.)  Jerry Walls gleefully ignores the artificial–do I say walls?  Yes I do–walls that separate us Biblical studies folks from us medievalists when we talk God together.

Yes, you read that last sentence right.  This book is good medicine for me precisely because it invites me (as constituted by my Biblical studies education from roughly 1998 to 2002) to live at peace with myself (as constituted by my medieval studies from roughly 2004 to 2010), to seek not compartments but fruitful tension, to entertain possibilities for theology that happen when lions lie down with lambs, the clean with the unclean, the Greek and the Scythian, and yes, the Old Testament student with the Plato reader.  I recommend this book for anyone who would like to see what those sorts of creative tensions are free to do what they do.

The Christian Humanist Podcast, Episode #155: Honor in the University

Nathan P. Gilmour

14119377855lor9Nathan Gilmour leads Michial Farmer and David Grubbs in a discussion of Stanley Hauerwas’s cranky 1991 speech “Honor in the University.”

Christian Humanist Profiles 27: The Pietist Vision of Higher Education by Chris Gehrz

Nathan P. Gilmour

135837292661ws5From the lips of many a professor at many a Christian college the words “integration of faith and learning” sound as natural as “liberal arts” or “critical thinking.”  Yet, as Chris Gehrz and a number of scholars argue in The Pietist Vision of Christian Education, that phrase, inflected as it is by twentieth-century Calvinism, stands to benefit from a lively and challenging encounter with Pietism, the strain of Protestant Christianity variously ignored, dismissed, or even opposed as anti-intellectual in many Christian-college circles.

Chris joined Christian Humanist Profiles for a conversation about Pietism, Christian colleges, and how attention to a “usable past” can bear good fruit for the practices of teaching and learning.

Book of Nature, Episode 4: Faith and Reason

Dan Dawson

In episode 4, it is a period of civil war.  Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base… wait, wrong franchise!

Ahem, in episode 4, Dan Dawson hosts a discussion with Todd Pedlar and Charles Hackney on the relationship between faith and reason.  The trio holds forth on the nuanced (and, yes, reasonable) definitions and practices of faith among Christian believers over and against the simplistic caricatures that abound in popular secular critiques.  Despite conversing for almost 90 minutes, they barely scratch the surface of this complex yet incredibly important topic in today’s world.

  • Opening banter about the weather (what else?).  And Dan still doesn’t know where Charles lives.
  • Listener feedback:  Where have we been? The Christian Humanist Network gremlin. Requests from Chen Bu Lei for future episode topics.  Radioactive robot zombies.
  • Dan throws out dictionary definitions of faith.  Todd describes faith as expounded in scripture and compares with these definitions.  Proper interpretation of the greek noun “p’istis”. What does Hebrews 11:1 mean?
  • Charles discusses treatment of faith in the psychological literature, including one psychologist’s change of heart from “faith is ridiculous and will eventually disappear” to a more nuanced and respectful position towards faith and people of faith.
  • Dan throws out dictionary definitions of reason, and the trio critiques them and their relationship to faith as discussed previously.  Consensus on a proper Christian understanding of faith as a belief grounded in–yet not reducible to–evidence and reason.
  • Dan quotes popular “New Atheist” definitions of faith.  Is faith belief in the absence of, or even in spite of the evidence?  Todd criticizes this stance. Dan mentions 1 Peter 3:15 as apropos.
  • Todd and Charles repudiate atheist philosopher Peter Boghossian’s claim that the vast majority of believers indeed operate under the “without evidence” definition of faith.  Dan and Charles discuss a recent debate on Premiere Christian Radio’s podcast “Unbelievable” between Boghossian and Christian philosopher Tim McGrew.
  • Wrap up.  Advice to young Christian intellectuals struggling with the apparent dichotomy between faith and reason.  How even a “childlike” faith is based on reason and experience.

A Different Take on History: A Review of The UNKingdom of God for SpeakEasy Bloggers

Nathan P. Gilmour

The UNKingdom of God: Embracing the Subversive Power of Repentance

by Mark Van Steenwyk

184 pp. Intervarsity Press. $16.00.

The New Testament deals with empire at every turn, whether the centurions and the tax collectors and the crosses that define the written gospels or the thrones and dominions against which Saint Paul calls us to struggle in the closing parts of Ephesians.  In The UNKingdom of God Mark Van Steenwyk begins from the assumption that, in our own moment, a new sort of Empire has appropriated the symbols and vocabulary of Christianity, ripping them from their historical roots and pressing them into the service of Capitalism and militarism and nationalism.

This book’s main business, though, is not to lay out abstract global theories but to suggest ways to live.  After all, abstraction is a tool of empire (44), a way of thinking that allows the local and the particular to yield importance to grand global schemes for a “better world” without concern for what one can see at ground level.  Such abstraction leads people to worry about “illegal immigration” and national “territory” (52-53) instead of the human beings who need food and shelter and community, and it makes Jesus into a flexible icon to be made in our own image, a Scandanavian Jesus for white people and a free-market Messiah for consumers (58).

Van Steenwyk skillfully maps the alien into which modern American culture has drawn Jesus, even if his critical eye does not extend to his own intentional community’s ways of life.  For instance, the culture of public protest, which Van Steenwyk holds forth as a good matrix for Christian existence (13, 134-35), derives its intelligibility not from the culture of consensus that other parts of the book holds up as a good way to live but precisely from the culture of modernity that derives power not from convincing the unconvinced but making their lives uncomfortable enough that they concede to demands that they do not deem rational in their own right.  Such is not to say, of course, that someone couldn’t make a case for political protest as a valid form of Christian discipleship; this book just doesn’t do that work.

Along similar lines Van Steenwyk notes that he calls a local park “Oppressor Park” rather than Minnehaha Park and that his son has taken to naming it likewise (134).  Such subversive naming opens up the consciousness to the fact that the Americans celebrated at certain public shrines in fact won the land in wars and by trickery from the tribes that came before them, the Dakota.  But once again, that’s as far as the examination goes.  Relatively little further reflection goes into the possibility that the Dakota might not have been autochthonous, that they might have driven previous tribes out, or to the fact that the practices of Jubilee and distribution of land to families, both of which Steenwyk holds up as good precedents for economic justice (157-58) themselves rely upon a previous act of military conquest, even as that military conquest is the work of liberated slaves overrunning walled and economically stratified cities.  Once again, to thicken these arguments and to address these degrees of complexity are not impossible, but neither takes place in the course of this volume.

In broader terms, though I agree with this book that there is an anarchic strain running through the Bible (98), it stands in tension with other parts of the Bible which are just as much parts of the canon but which Van Steenwyk tends to dismiss by means of clever hermeneutical moves (see, for instance, his reading of Romans 13 as applying only to just rulers (106-7) or his reading of “render unto Caesar” as relegating nothing at all to actual human government (108-9)).  Such wouldn’t be as much of a problem if, in another chapter, he didn’t counsel that Christians submit to the discipline of asking themselves, “What excuses are stirring in our minds as a way of justifying that we shouldn’t do likewise?” (122)  In other words, Van Steenwyk is a very skillful critical reader of culture who seems unwilling or unable in this short book to turn that critical eye on the practices that his own community undertakes as a mode of contrast to the world.  Thus I find myself firmly in his camp at some points even as I wonder whether some more careful self-examination might not have resulted in a less strident book.

And there’s where I hang up as I decide what to think of this book.  I can affirm what Van Steenwyk and his friends are doing in intentional community, and my sense (and I think this is Alasdair MacIntyre’s influence) is that small communities dedicated to a particular way of life are precisely what the Church needs in a new digital dark age.  On the other hand, I’m not sure that another book pointing to one’s own way of life as truly and radically Christian, as opposed to other folks’ ways of life, is what anybody needs.  After all, with the right Facebook friends and blog subscriptions, there are plenty of opportunities to feel guilty about not being radical enough.  We didn’t need another.

So in sum, I’ll admit that I don’t know what to think about this book as a whole.  In most of the book I can join Mark Van Steenwyk’s rallying cry: we both see consumerism as one of the great vices of 21st-century Christianity, and neither of us finds much to commend in a vision of Christians’ encounters with our neighbors that goes as far as private charity but no further.  My own practices of Bible reading, like this book’s tend to see relationships between truth and power, between world-hoped-for and world-endured, and as a result, my ecclesiology, like Van Steenwyk’s, is semiotic to the core: the mission of the church is not merely to swell the ranks of the DNC or the GOP and claim Jesus as the spiritual motivation of the party but to challenge, in its modes of existence, the assumptions and the expectations and the power structures that the nation-state and the multinational corporation rely upon to keep their own existence intelligible.  And above all, I’m glad that Van Steenwyk’s community exists so that we have a way of life to behold and think on that isn’t more of the same thing, over and over.

But I can’t think those things without complication.  I tend to see the history of Christianity not as a global failure punctuated by moments of Francis of Assissi but as a story that begins in complexity and never gets simple.  Yes, the Church accommodated itself to the Empire, but it’s just as true that, in the middle ages, nothing like a Caesar cult or a practice of publicly crucifying one’s enemies were intelligible precisely because the Empire accommodated itself to the Church.  Van Steenwyk asserts that Christianity has been “an excellent imperial religion” (35), yet those in the Enlightenment and after decry Christianity as the fall of the Empire, and David Bentley Hart among others has argued that the trajectory on which Empire was traveling in the first century was bent forever away from its own glory by the rise and prominence of Christianity.  And I think of all monastic movements, in the Egyptian desert and the Gallic hills and the projects of Minneapolis, as always striving towards but never achieving the right sort of separation from and the right sort of service towards a corrupt world.  None of this is to say that one ought to be a cheerleader for Christian empire, but it does speak to a history more complex than what I see in this book.

Likewise I think that the Church can indeed learn a good deal from the mid-twentieth-century culture of public protest and consciousness-raising, but I also think that the thinly-masked cultural elitism of the protesting class is a profound danger to loving one’s neighbor.  In other words, while I can’t deny that this book is skillfully wrought, ultimately it describes a Christianity with a much simpler relationship to history than I can accept.  That doesn’t make this book anything other than worth a read, but it does mean that it leads me to more questions than to answers.

Of course, if you know me, you know that those are precisely the books that I find most interesting.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.


Christian Humanist Profiles 26: Dianna Anderson, Damaged Goods

Marie Hause

A crushed rose. An unwrapped, dirt-encrusted lollipop. Something that has lost its value: goods that have been damaged beyond repair. We’ve all heard these sorts of descriptions applied to people, especially women, who engage in sexual activity outside of marriage. The teachings on purity that lead to these kinds of illustrations are frequently seen as an immutable part of evangelical Christianity. But can the Bible and Christianity offer a different view of sexual ethics, one in which no one is encouraged to see themselves or others as damaged goods? In her debut book, Damaged Goods: New Perspectives on Christian Purity, Dianna Anderson argues for this alternative Christian sexual ethics.

You can find the episode on iTunes, or you can listen through the links to the show in the menu above.

Image credit: Taté Walker, 2013. Used with permission.

The Christian Feminist Podcast, Episode # 18: Tina Fey and Amy Poehler

Victoria Farmer
  • Intros
  • Listener Mail


  • Quick bio of Amy Poehler
  • Quick bio Of Tina Fey
  • Highlights of their shared careers


  • Our connections to Fey and Poehler
  • Leslie Knope v. Liz Lemon
  • The feminism of a famous friendship
  • The Christianity connection

Passing On

[Note: Something went wrong with our audio files, so you won’t hear all the recs, but here they are]



Wittgenstein Wednesdays, Session 6: Philosophical Investigations sections 171-215

Nathan P. Gilmour

Want to read along with us? Get Philosophical Investigations from

Wittgenstein, in this session’s readings concerns himself with relationships between our general terms and the ranges of realities to which they relate.  Once again in his sights seem to be philosophies of language that treat “pure” language as a desirable (even if impossible) outcome and regard as defective philosophies of language that either optimistically suggest a theory that will govern all “pure” language or nihilistically say that, since no such rules seem to govern language, that language must be an utterly random cluster of phenomena, not subject to any sort of judgment.

Among the first examples he produces is the phrase “to be guided.”  As with other such examples, Wittgenstein produces a range of possible experiences that might coincide with “to be guided”:

  • being blindfolded and having someone tug at your hand to signal whether to go right, left, forwards, and so on
  • having your hand pulled towards someplace you don’t want to end up
  • taking a partner’s lead in a dance and trying to be responsive
  • walking with someone on a path and “going wherever he does”
  • “walk[ing] along a track in a field, letting yourself be guided by it” (172)

To say that “to be guided” is only one of these, or primarily one of these and only secondarily the others, is to situate the concept within one form of life to the exclusion of others (173), which in some sense happens when the phrase is actually doing something helpful but does not account for the fact that the phrase does work in the other contexts as well.  But beyond the plurality there’s the difficulty of the phrase itself, as Wittgenstein demonstrates with the simplest of examples:

Make some arbitrary doodle on a bit of paper. — And now make a copy next to it, let yourself  be guided by it. — I’d like to say: “Sure enough, I let myself be guided here.  But what was characteristic in what happened? — If I say what happened, it no longer seems to me to be characteristic.”

But now notice this: while I let myself be guided, everything is quite simple, I notice nothing special; but afterwards, when I ask myself what it was that happened, it seems to have been something indescribable.  Afterwards no description satisfies me. (175)

Such is the tension between events, embedded as they are within particular forms of life, and explanations for those events after the fact: when they’re in the process of doing work, words and phrases don’t present any particular philosophical problem, yet they slip out of our grasp whenever we try to conceptualize them.

Likewise with the sentence “Now I can go on” (179).  When we learn a mathematical formula that generates a sequence (think the sequence of odd numbers), Wittgenstein wants to know what we mean when, after generating 1,3,5,7, and 9, we say “I can go on from there.”  Certainly nobody has every odd number in mind, all at once, but also someone who could go out to 17 but not to 19 doesn’t really have the ability to “go on,” right?  Thus the concept of having a formula “present” in one’s mind is nowhere as simple, when we try to explain it, as the task of counting odd numbers is (184).  The upshot of the thought-experiment is that, at every point in the sequence, the person who “can go on” must make a decision about how to proceed (186), thus making the notion of “knowing the sequence” at best an imprecise shorthand.  Yet we continue to teach math students how to use formulas, and few of them have the sort of trouble using the formula that we have saying what it means for a formula to determine a sequence (190).

I should pause here and note what I’ve realized about Philosophical Investigations this time around (my third time reading the book but the first when I could articulate this): looking for a single thesis to the book misses the point entirely.  Likewise treating it as a repudiation of all “rules” and systems governing language doesn’t really understand what’s going on.  Instead, the book leads readers (and interlocutors, if we read it together, as we’ve been doing at Emmanuel) through a series of linguistic quests, where we struggle against philosophical difficulties, not with the mindset that we fail if they remain unsolved but perfectly aware that, as we wrestle with them, we’ll become aware, at least when we’re paying attention, of the places in which both the history of philosophy and so-called common sense neglect the real character of our existence as language-using beings.

But back to the book: Wittgenstein returns again and again to the tension between language as doing work within most forms of life and language when the form of life is itself doing-philosophy.  The sense I get is that Wittgenstein doesn’t want to say that philosophy isn’t a valid form of life so much as to say that philosophy, when we remember that we are a form of life and not hovering above all possible forms of life, has its own way of following our own “customs” (198).  Language is always part of a life, and with that in mind Wittgenstein reminds us thus: “To understand a sentence means to understand a language. To understand a language means to have mastered a technique” (199).  To relay meaning might be one task for which we develop techniques, but others might likely be more numerous.

Thus Wittgenstein connects the philosophical problems surrounding rules to those connected to languages as techniques.  Because every language stands as a technique for some kind of living, Wittgenstein suggests that interpretation of rules, as a life-practice, means to substitute one expression of a rule for another (201).  Ways of following a rule include interpretation, but not every relationship to a rule involves that act.  Both “following a rule” and “not following a rule” are primarily public things, unlike thinking that one is following a rule (202).  The triangle occurs again: we can name easily enough moments when folks follow and do not follow a given rule, just as we can name moments when we or other folks have had to interpret rules.  The mistake, Wittgenstein reminds us, happens when we make the claim that every relationship to a rule is an interpretation.  To do so ignores the reality that “interpretation” is not a state of being, always, but sometimes something that one does in this moment when one wasn’t doing so in that one.

And to show just how well such networks of concepts work normally, Wittgenstein melts our faces with an example that defies the ways we’re accustomed to relating them:

As things are, I can, for example, invent a game that is never played by anyone. — But would the following be possible too: mankind has never played any games; once though, someone invented a game — which, however, was never played? (204)

I reckon that’s as good a place to end a Wittgenstein session: a reminder, by reduction to absurdity, of the ways in which our languages work perfectly fine, often without any reflection, yet when we try to articulate rules that govern that language (prescriptively or descriptively, lest anyone fall back on that old binary), language’s structures elude us.  Yet we know full well that, in those cases on the margins, when we must resolve conflict that involves words, that’s precisely what we must do.  Such is the life of language-using beings.  And such is the joy of reading Wittgenstein.