Ever heard a Protestant case for purgatory? You’re about to.
Surveys indicate chastity is popular amongst white evangelical adolescents, but few practice it. This yawning gap between belief and behavior is not an insurmountable problem. It has several solutions, including the possibility of purgatory. That’s right – a gaping chasm between profession and practice makes a plausible case for purgatory.
There are few gaps as wide as the one between believing in chastity and behaving that way. In a survey of some 3,400 13-to-17-year-old white evangelicals, Mark Regnerus found religion to be a good indicator of attitudes toward sex, but a poor one of sexual behavior. A sociologist at the University of Texas at Austin, Regnerus discovered that the vast majority of evangelical adolescents – 74 percent – say they believe in abstaining from sex before marriage. But only between 12 and 20 percent actually practice it.
Of course, no Christian “gets” everything right, but this is an especially wide gap. There are many ways to bridge it, the first being the church ought to ‘fess up. Chastity is a desire requiring bookends – design and destiny, or creation and consummation. We are designed to be the bride of Christ and destined to consummate this union. Turning desire all the way up is the only way to feel the goodness of abstinence. Chastity is not so much the suppression of lust as it is the total orientation of life toward a goal. When churches preach “two-chapter” gospels, the bookends are missing, so chastity collapses.
Much of modern evangelicalism ought to also ‘fess up to ignoring the issue of culture. Scripture as well as neuroscience indicates it is difficult to shape individuals without shaping influential institutions. The modern church routinely ignores culture, aiming to mostly change the mind. For example, it points to research indicating people living together prior to getting married are more likely to have marriages that end in divorce. That’s true, but as Jonathan Swift astutely observed, it is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he never reasoned his way into. Culture-shaping institutions produce items and images that bypass reason, overriding beliefs. This is why evangelical adolescents sleep around as much as other youth.
Churches might also consider backing off. File this under Jesus’ “log and speck” solution. Jesus said take the log out of your own eye before worrying about others’ blurred vision. Chastity gets a bad rap mostly because of Reality TV programs such as the Bachelorette. This show “gets” the design end – we’re wired for sex – but it’s clueless concerning the destiny bookend – sexual consummation as a picture of union with Christ. Without design and destiny, abstinence collapses. But what else should Christians expect after decades of a “two-chapter” disembodied gospel?
Another solution is reminding married couples how they are to model chastity. In I Cor. 7:3-5, Paul urges married couples to be chaste when needing to realign sexual desires. He said a husband and wife should never “deprive one another” of sex “except by agreement for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer, and come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.” There are times in a marriage when a husband can be impatient and selfishly try to get a “quickie.” Or a wife can lose her desire for sex, often after giving birth or during menopause, and try to avoid it. Neither is healthy. Paul urges struggling couples to agree to be chaste for a defined period of time and deal with desires withered or gone awry. It would benefit singles to see married couples practicing chastity. It’s not only for unmarrieds.
And speaking of being unmarried, believers would benefit from being reminded that they are “betrothed to Christ,” already married (II Cor. 11:2). Sadly, most believers don’t feel betrothed to Jesus. The tragedy of a disembodied faith is believers not feeling the essential them, their truest identity, to be revealed “when Christ, who is our life, is revealed” (Col. 3:4). Every believer is guaranteed ecstatic nuptial union with Jesus. Practicing chastity is not missing out on sex – it is saving yourself for The Best Sex Ever.
This is why the yawning chasm between evangelical profession and practice makes a plausible case for purgatory. In his book The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God, Dallas Willard writes: “I am thoroughly convinced that God will let everyone into heaven who, in his considered opinion, can stand it.”1 If chastity – saving yourself sexually – is one indicator of eagerly anticipating nuptial union with Christ, what do soaring evangelical failure rates indicate? Do they tell us most evangelicals can’t “stand” to be married to Christ at this point in their life? If this is so, what is the solution? It’s hard to imagine Christ forcing himself on his bride. And it’s hard to imagine Jesus “zapping” his bride into submission the moment she appears in heaven, settling for a sort of Stepford Wife. A more plausible solution seems to be purgatory.
On June 23, 1824, at the ripe old age of 25, John Henry Newman delivered his first sermon, titled “Holiness, Without Which Man Shall Not See God.” Preached at Over Worton Church, Newman said “even supposing a man of unholy life were suffered to enter heaven, he would not be happy there; so that it would be no mercy to permit him to enter.” Heaven is the consummate coupling of holiness and happiness. If by behavior – not professed beliefs – many believers indicate they don’t desire nuptial union with Christ, the sensible solution would be purifying their desires. While I’m not Roman Catholic, this is how I understand purgatory. I could be wrong, but Roman Catholic teaching seems to indicate it’s less about punishment and more about purifying.
I’m not prepared to go to the cross on this issue, but it would be ironic if populating purgatory were the primary outcome of present-day Protestant evangelicalism. Of course, we won’t know until the final restoration, but it might ultimately be how God is planning to bridge the present yawning gap between evangelical belief and behavior.
1 Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1998), p. 302.