Randal Rauser, an associate professor of historical theology at Taylor Seminary in Canada, wrote a column on Tuesday for the Christian Post, called “Should Christians believe in ghosts?” He began by showing that the ancient Israelites believed in ghosts (Rauser points to the conjuring of Solomon in 1 Samuel 18), and that the Apostles believed in ghosts, quoting Mark 6:48-50,
He was about to pass by them, but when they saw him walking on the lake, they thought he was a ghost. They cried out, because they all saw him and were terrified.
And Luke 24:36-37,
While they were still talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost.
Rauser then shows, by telling his readers that “Gregory the Great” (that is, Pope Gregory the Great) discussed a number of alleged ghostly apparitions in 585 A.D.
But the question, not of ghosts per se, but of ghosts roaming the world, is a bit troubling theologically. Shouldn’t they be in Heaven or in Hell? Professor Rauser’s response to this problem was fascinating to me:
Many Christians have understood ghosts, or at least some of them, as enduring a purgatorial existence. But this does not exclude other possibilities such as some “lost” ghosts who are engaged in malevolent mischief (e.g. poltergeist activity) or ghosts who are regenrated but engaged in particular missions on earth. Moreover, even the purgatory option is open to Protestants, so long as it is qualified appropriately (i.e. some views of purgatory are inconsistent with Protestantism but others are not).
I found two things fascinating here:
- That Rauser was willing to acknowledge the possibility of the existence of some form of Purgatory. He leaves the question at this, without explaining which forms of Purgatory are compatible and which are not.
- Conversely, the notion that some views of Purgatory are “inconsistent with Protestantism” is something of an odd claim, these days. Is there anything under the sun that isn’t consistent with some form of Protestantism? And who’s in charge of Protestantism, to decide which things are authentic manifestations or reforms of the Protestant tradition, and which things are deviations?
Purgatory, boiled down to essentials, is constituted by the following claim:(1) the process of sanctification in the regenerate continues posthumously.That’s it. All you need for purgatory is (1). You can always add additional claims like “this posthumous process of sanctification expiates the guilt of sin” but a claim like that is not essential to the doctrine of purgatory.There is no inconsistency between the core claims of Protestantism and (1). Therefore, it follows that Protestants can accept a doctrine of purgatory.Just to hammer this point home, let’s assume that a Protestant has absolutely impeccable credentials because she holds to the following very traditional, mainstream Protestant claims:(2) Penal substitution: Christ suffered in the place of the elect, taking the punishment that was owing to them.(3) Double imputation: at the moment of regeneration/conversion the guilt of the elect person is imputed to Christ and his righteousness is imputed to the elect.(4) Justification: at the moment of double imputation the elect person is justified.There is simply no conflict, or even discernable tension, between (2)-(4) and (1). Thus, a Protestant who has reason to believe that the process of sanctification continues posthumously should have no problem accepting (1) whilst retaining.
Given that Catholics don’t think that Purgatory is something apart from the work of Christ, I’m at a bit of a loss for how “some views of purgatory are inconsistent” at all. The real difference appears to be, not with Purgatory, but with how Protestants and Catholics understand justification and sanctification.
Within Catholicism, God doesn’t simply declare us righteous, He makes us righteous, though the Holy Spirit. Anything less would be akin to God lying. In contrast, Lutheranism claimed that God merely declares us righteous, while we remained depraved sinners – Luther compared it to snow covering a dunghill. Another analogy would be a white shirt stained red with sin. Luther’s view of justification would just have God putting a white shirt over the stained shirt,* and pretending the stained shirt didn’t exist; Catholicism views God as actually washing away all the filth.
This renders sanctification nearly meaningless in Lutheran theology. It’s simply not necessary for salvation at all. Instead, sanctification is simply the result of being saved, just as within Calvinism, both justification and sanctification are results of being saved. So sanctification is helpful for convincing yourself you’re saved, but it doesn’t do anything. If that’s all sanctification is, there’s no reason for Purgatory.
The reason that Purgatory doesn’t fit well within a Protestant schema isn’t that it adds something to the work of Christ. It’s that if God cares enough about our sanctification to continue to work on us until we’re actually cleansed, then it must be more important than mere evidence of our justification, and it seems to be necessary to enter Heaven (Rev. 21:27). If all that’s true, forensic-only justification, the most important doctrine of the Reformation, is almost certainly wrong.
Having said all of this, I’m actually not saying that Rauser is necessarily right about ghosts, or about ghosts being in Purgatory (my own inclinations match Jimmy Akin’s), but only that if he is, then it seems to me that he’s showing why the Lutheran understandings of justification and sanctification are wrong, or at least incomplete. If Rauser gives serious examination to the problem of Purgatory, it seems almost certain that he’ll find himself confronting the Catholic question soon enough. I’m pleased to see him going down that road, and pleasantly surprised that the Christian Post is permitting him to do so.
*While I disagree with Luther on justification, this was more or less my approach to my wardrobe for many years.