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Jerry Walls on Postmortem Repentance

Last weekend, I finished reading an interesting, new book by Jerry Walls titled Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory: rethinking the things that matter most (Brazos, 2015). Walls is professor of philosophy and scholar in residence at Houston Baptist University. He is the author of dozens of articles and reviews as well as books on the topics of Calvinism, hell, heaven, and purgatory. I have read many of his writings and find him to be a careful thinker and a clear writer.[1]

Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory is a popular-level book that has many strengths. For example, Walls’ presentation on seven truths about heaven from Revelation 21-22 is excellent (24-39). The book deserves to receive thorough reviews. My purpose in this brief post, however, is not to review the book but to highlight one issue: Walls advocates for postmortem repentance.

In chapter 8, titled “His Mercy Endures Forever—Even Beyond the Grave?”, Walls writes, “God gives everyone some chance to respond to his revelation, and everyone encounters Christ and responds to him in the moment of death” (201). Walls acknowledges that this view is not explicitly taught in Scripture, but that it was articulated by Terrance Tiessen in Who Can Be Saved? (IVP, 2004).

Walls writes,

“I would suggest that postmortem repentance is a theological proposal that deserves serious consideration.”


“The same God whose mercy is such that he welcomes sincere repentance in the last moment of life is the God who would rejoice at the sincere repentance of a sinner after death.” [2]

Walls provides a similar defense in chapter 3 of Heaven: The Logic of Eternal Joy (Oxford, 2002) and in a chapter he co-authored with Kyle Blanchette, “God and Hell Reconciled,” in God and Evil (IVP, 2013), ed. Chad Meister and James Dew. Rather than provide an extended reply, I will offer a few thoughts on the matter.

Jerry Walls teaches that God extends an opportunity for sinners to repent after death. In Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory, Walls anticipates objections to his view of postmortem repentance. These objections are based on Hebrews 9:27-28 and Luke 13:23-30. Regarding the text in Hebrews, Walls explains the verse does not say judgment comes immediately after death—only that judgment comes after death. Regarding the parable in Luke 13, Walls states, “At most, the parable may rule out postmortem conversion for those who had every opportunity to truly know Christ in this life but only came to know him in a superficial sense of the word” (204). Walls’ explanations regarding these verses may only prove convincing to those who are already inclined to affirm postmortem repentance.

I am sympathetic to Walls’ method of attempting to address issues not explicitly addressed in Scripture. That is the nature of the theological task. However, there are good reasons to think that one’s eternal destiny is fixed at physical death. In the story of the rich man and Lazarus, Jesus quotes Abraham telling the rich man, “And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us” (Luke 16:26 ESV). Although some debate whether the story is a historical account or a parable, that issue seems less important since Jesus affirms its truthfulness. Also, some debate whether the story is relevant when considering the doctrines of judgment and hell, because the action occurs during the intermediate state (the period after death but before the return of Christ). However, the existence of a “great chasm” separating those in paradise from those in torment which cannot be crossed after death seems highly relevant to whether a person can repent after death.

The Bible contains repeated commands to repent (as examples, see Matt 3:2, Luke 5:32, and Acts 3:19). These statements were made to audiences composed of people who were alive at the time of each call to repentance. What evidence does Walls provide from Scripture that a person can repent after death? Walls retells the story of the Roman emperor Trajan in Dante’s Divine Comedy (195-97) as an example of a “second chance” after death. But Walls does not—and cannot—provide any examples of postmortem repentance from the Scriptures. Postmortem repentance is not a view that can be established from the Scriptures, and seems contrary to the impulse created by the urgent call to repentance in the Bible. The need to repent in this lifetime seems rooted in the view that one is unable to repent after death. Walls’ advocacy for postmortem repentance, in my estimation, tarnishes an otherwise fine book.

[1] Earlier this year, I submitted a review of his book Purgatory: The Logic of Total Transformation (Oxford, 2012) to an academic journal.

[2] Both quotes are found on page 205 of Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory (Brazos, 2015).

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