This is the weekly Q & A blog post by our Research Professor in Philosophy, Dr. William Lane Craig.
Hi, Dr Craig, thanks for the work you do for "mere Christianity." I follow your books, debates, and your Defender's Podcast.
My question has to do with an issue I read in the book by Jerry Walls entitled "Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory." It is an interesting book and Jerry makes a lot of great points. The issue I have is about post-mortem repentance. He makes a defence of the possibility that God - because His love endures forever - continues to reach out to the lost even in purgatory/hell. He discusses what kind of grace does God have - is it sufficient grace or optimal grace? Sufficient grace is enough for a just God to justify sending someone to hell. Optimal grace gives all possible opportunities for everyone to come into repentance. An example is if a man starts getting interested in Christianity and has not yet given his life to Christ but suddenly dies, will not God give him the opportunity to turn to Christ completely?
The author gives a lot of other theoretical situations and explains some of the scripture that seems to be open to the possibility to post-mortem repentance. And I tend to somewhat agree that our God has optimal grace rather than just sufficient grace. But this gave me a problem. If post-mortem repentance is possible, why did God command us to preach the Good News? I feel it also cheapens the value of all our endeavours to reach the lost. Not only that, but it also makes our current life somewhat cheap - if God will allow sinners in hell to repent and go to heaven, why be a Christian now? Thanks again for your ministry!
Dr. William Lane Craig's Response
Let me say right off the bat, Tom, that I haven’t read Jerry’s book, so that my response here is to be taken as a reply to your question and not to the book.
First, a theological correction: people in purgatory (assuming there is such a thing) are already saved; they aren’t being given a second chance at salvation. They’re just being purged of their sin in order to become fit for heaven. Rather the question concerns whether those condemned to hell have a second chance to escape damnation.
Your question hinges on the distinction between sufficient and optimal grace. You characterize optimal grace as follows: “Optimal grace gives all possible opportunities for everyone to come into repentance.” So characterized, optimal grace is logically incoherent, since it is impossible for someone to be created in all possible circumstances. If I am created as a medieval peasant, for example, I cannot have the opportunity of hearing Billy Graham preach the Gospel. Given my particular circumstances, innumerable opportunities to come to repentance will not be available to me.
Fortunately, you go on to give a more coherent illustration of optimal grace: “An example is if a man starts getting interested in Christianity and has not yet given his life to Christ but suddenly dies, will not God give him the opportunity to turn to Christ completely?” Here I think that a Molinist perspective provides a better account of optimal grace than post-mortem repentance. The Molinist holds that our circumstances are not the result of historical and geographical accident. Rather God determined the circumstances in which we are born and raised, and He provides everyone with sufficient grace for salvation. (Note that this is a different sense of “sufficient” than your use! I mean something like “ample.”) If we want, we can say more: God via His middle knowledge ensures that no one is placed in such circumstances that if he fails to come to repentance before he dies, he would have come to repentance and been saved had he lived longer. If God knew that prolonging his life would have resulted in his freely coming to salvation, then God would not have placed him in circumstances in which his life is cut short. Thus, on this view, if anyone fails to come to saving faith before he dies, then he would not have come to saving faith had he lived longer. God is too good, too merciful, to allow a person who would be saved to be cut off prematurely.
This Molinist solution is not available to Dr. Walls because, as a classical Arminian, he denies, or at least does not believe in, divine middle knowledge. Thus, to solve the problem he is forced into implausible exegesis of biblical texts in order to justify solutions involving post-mortem repentance. This is just one more illustration of the theological power and fecundity of the doctrine of middle knowledge.
Tom, I do not at all agree that the doctrine of post-mortem repentance “makes our current life somewhat cheap - if God will allow sinners in hell to repent and go to heaven, why be a Christian now?” This betrays the opinion that the sinful life is a better life than the Christian life. That strikes me as plainly false. It underestimates the self-destructive nature of sin. Ask yourself, what kind of person do you want to become? One who exemplifies the character of Christ or one that is centered on self and sinful gratification?
On the other hand I think you’re absolutely correct that the doctrine of post-mortem repentance undermines the motivation and urgency of the missionary enterprise to take the Gospel to all the world. It’s easier to stay at home and let God deal with these people in the afterlife.
This Q&A and other resources are available on Dr. William Lane Craig's website.