Excerpted from his splendid little book, For All the Saints? Remembering the Christian Departed.
Purgatory, in either its classic or its modern form, provides the rationale for All Souls’ Day. This Day, now kept on 2 November, was a tenth-century Benedictine innovation. It clearly assumes a sharp distinction between the ‘saints’, who have already made it to heaven, and the ‘souls’, who haven’t, and who are therefore still, at least in theory, less than completely happy and need our help to move on from there.
The arguments regularly advanced in support of some kind of a purgatory, however modernized, do not come from the Bible. They come from the common perception that all of us up to the time of death are still sinful, and from the proper assumption that something needs to be done about this if we are (to put it crudely) to be at ease in the presence of the holy and sovereign God. The medieval doctrine of purgatory, as we saw, imagined that the ‘something’ that needed to be done could be divided into two aspects: punishment on the one hand, and purging or cleansing on the other. It is vital that we understand the biblical response to both of these.
I cannot stress sufficiently that if we raise the question of punishment for sin, this is something that has already been dealt with on the cross of Jesus [emphasis mine]. Of course, there have been crude and unbiblical versions of the doctrine of atonement, and many have rightly reacted against the idea of a vengeful God determined to punish someone and being satisfied by taking it out on his own son. But do not mistake the caricature for the biblical doctrine. Paul says, in his most central and careful statement, not that God punished Jesus, but that God ‘condemned sin in the flesh’ of Jesus (Romans 8:3). Here the instincts of the Reformers, if not always their exact expressions, were spot on. The idea that Christians need to suffer punishment for their sins in a post-mortem purgatory, or anywhere else, reveals a straightforward failure to grasp the very heart of what was achieved on the cross.
[W]hat the standard argument fails to take into account is the significance of bodily death. We have been fooled, not for the first time, by a view of death, and life beyond, in which the really important thing is the ‘soul’—something which, to many people’s surprise, hardly features at all in the New Testament. We have allowed our view of the saving of souls to loom so large that we have failed to realize that the Bible is much more concerned about bodies—concerned to the point where it’s actually quite difficult to give a clear biblical account of the disembodied state in between bodily death and bodily resurrection. That’s not what the biblical writers are trying to get us to think about—even though it is of course what many Christians have thought about to the point of obsession, including many who have thought of themselves as ‘biblical’ in their theology. But what should not be in doubt is that, for the New Testament, bodily death itself actually puts sin to an end. There may well be all kinds of sins still lingering on within us, infecting us and dragging us down. But part of the biblical understanding of death, bodily death, is that it finishes all that off at a single go.
The central passages here are Romans 6:6–7 and Colossians 2:11–13, with the picture they generate being backed up by key passages from John’s Gospel. Both of the Pauline texts are speaking of baptism. Christians are assured that their sins have already been dealt with through the death of Christ; they are now no longer under threat because of them. The crucial verse is Romans 6:7: ‘the one who has died is free from sin’ (literally, ‘is justified from sin’). The necessary cleansing from sin, it seems, takes place in two stages. First, there is baptism and faith. ‘You are already made clean’, says Jesus, ‘by the word which I have spoken to you’ (John 15:3). The word of the gospel, awakening faith in the heart, is itself the basic cleansing that we require. ‘The one who has washed’, said Jesus at the supper, ‘doesn’t need to wash again, except for his feet; he is clean all over’ (John 13:10). The ‘feet’ here seem to be representing the part of us which still, so to speak, stands on the muddy ground of this world. This is where ‘the sin which so easily gets in the way’ (Hebrews 12:1) finds, we may suppose, its opportunity.
But the glorious news is that, although during the present life we struggle with sin, and may or may not make small and slight progress towards genuine holiness, our remaining propensity to sin is finished, cut off, done with all at once, in physical death. ‘The body is dead because of sin,’ declares Paul, ‘but the spirit is life because of righteousness’ (Romans 8:10). John and Paul combine together to state the massive, central and vital doctrine which is at the heart of the Christian good news: those who believe in Jesus, though they die, yet shall they live; and those who live and believe in him will never die (John 11:25–6). Or, to put it the way Paul does: if we have died with Christ, we shall live with him, knowing that Christ being raised from the dead will not die again; and you, in him, must regard and reckon yourselves as dead to sin and alive to God (Romans 6:8–11). ‘Being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ … and we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God’ (Romans 5:2).
I therefore arrive at this view: that all the Christian departed are in substantially the same state, that of restful happiness. This is not the final destiny for which they are bound, namely the bodily resurrection; it is a temporary resting place. Since they and we are both in Christ, we do indeed share with them in the Communion of Saints.
I respectfully suggest that is because we have collectively forgotten just what a wonderful thing the gospel is: that ‘our own departed’ are themselves ‘heroes of the faith’ just as much as Peter, Paul, Mary, James, John and the rest. What makes ‘the great ones’ great is precisely that they, too, knew human grief and frailty. The double day [All-Saints and All-Souls] splits off so-called ordinary Christians from these so-called ‘great ones’ in a way that the latter would have been the first to repudiate.
The salvation being ‘kept in heaven’ is God’s plan for the new heaven and new earth, and the new bodies of the redeemed; and this plan is safe and fresh in God’s storehouse, that is, ‘heaven’.
[T]he commemoration of All Souls, especially the way it is now done, denies to ordinary Christians—and we’re all ordinary Christians—the solid, magnificent hope of the gospel: that all baptized believers, all those in Christ in the present, all those indwelt by the Spirit, are already ‘saints’. Where did all that All Souls’ gloom come from? Are we not in danger of grieving like people without hope, instead of grieving, as Paul instructs us to do in 1 Thessalonians 4:13, like people who do have hope? There is all the difference in the world between hopeful grief and hopeless grief, and All Souls’ Day can easily encourage the latter rather than, with All Saints’ Day, the former. Many churches now put a black frontal on the altar for All Souls’ Day; where did that idea come from? Why should the service end in solemn silence? Why should we sing the Dies Irae (‘Day of wrath, that dreadful day’) for our friends and loved ones, if it is true that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus? Where is the gospel there?
The Christian hope, as articulated in the New Testament, is that if you die today you won’t be in a gloomy gathering in some dismal and perhaps painful waiting-room. You won’t simply be one more step further along a steep, hard road with no end in sight. You will be with Christ in paradise; and when you see him, you won’t shout, like poor Gerontius, ‘Take me away’. You will, like Paul, be ‘with Christ, which is far better’. How can there be any sense of foreboding, for those who already know the love of God in Christ, in coming face to face with the one ‘who loved me, and gave himself for me’ (Galatians 2:20)?
Wright, N. T. (2003). For All the Saints? Remembering the Christian Departed (pp. 13–54). London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.