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Interview with Jerry Walls

In this interview for MoralApologetics.com, David Baggett interviews his dear friend, former teacher, and collaborator, the one-of-a-kind, iconoclastic Dr. Jerry Walls, a leading and prolific Christian philosopher and professor of philosophy of religion at Houston Baptist University. Questions canvass Dr. Walls’ education, early interest in philosophy, his graduate work at Princeton, Yale, and Notre Dame, his interest in eschatology, and other book projects in which Walls is engaged.

  1. When were you first drawn to philosophy?

The first time I can recall becoming really fascinated by philosophy was one summer in high school when I was bored and looking for something to read, and picked up a book my dad had bought at a second hand book store by Francis Schaeffer entitled Pollution and the Death of Man.  It was a book about ecology, which, frankly, did not interest me much.  But I was fascinated by how he analyzed the issues in the ecology debate in terms of basic presuppositions and worldview.   During the next several years, I read all of Schaeffer’s books as they came out, and that is how I was first introduced to things like epistemology and came to see that Christianity makes big truth claims about ultimate reality, and is among other things, a philosophy that provides answers to all the big questions.

  1. When did you become interested in issues of the afterlife, especially hell?

Well, I was raised in Knockemstiff, Ohio, and “hellfire and damnation” was often preached about in my little country church, especially during revivals.  Listening to the sermons at Bethel Chapel, there was no doubt that issues of life and death were at stake in how one responded to the gospel.  I was converted at age 11 in response to a sermon on the text, “there is but one step between death and thee.”   Several years later, I went to Princeton seminary, and many students as well as faculty were dubious about the idea of hell, and some rejected the afterlife altogether.   The clash between my religious formation and my formal theological training was existentially riveting for me, and provoked me to think seriously about heaven and hell and whether there really are good reasons to believe in them or not.  After graduating from Princeton, I went to Yale Divinity school, where I wrote a master’s thesis on hell, and I have been thinking and writing about these issues ever since!

  1. Is it true you were a teenage preacher?

Yes, I preached my first sermon when I was thirteen, and had preached well over a hundred sermons by the time I graduated from high school.

  1. Tell us about your education at Princeton and Yale and Notre Dame. Who most influenced you among your teachers, and how?

Well, as I said above, Princeton was rather diverse in its theological commitments, and posed a number of challenges to my evangelical background.  We had a student group made up of evangelical students at Princeton called the Theological Forum, and I was President of the group.  Some of my best learning came from this group.  We had a number of notable speakers, including John Stott and Cornelius Van Til (who had not, I believe, been back at Princeton until we invited him) and others.  (One of the students who was in our group by the way, was Bart Ehrman, who was still an evangelical at the time.)  But the most memorable speaker was Alvin Plantinga, who we were able to get because his brother Neal was doing his PhD at the seminary at the time.  It was the first time I had met Plantinga and he gave a lecture in which he dismantled the theology of Gordon Kaufman, the Harvard theologian who labored under Kantian strictures concerning what we can say about God.  It was both a gutsy and a galvanizing talk, and an enormously encouraging breath of fresh air and it elevated the enormous respect I already had for Plantinga.  As for my teachers at Princeton, I learned a lot from Diogenes Allen, though he was a difficult personality and I did not have much of a relationship with him.

At Yale, where I did a one year STM, I worked almost exclusively with Paul Holmer, whose main interests were Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein, though he also wrote a little book on C. S. Lewis. Holmer was a delight to work with and he encouraged my interest in the doctrine of hell. Holmer was very dubious of what he called the “bright chatty” sort of students, and I remember when I first met him and told him I wanted study with him, he was reserved until he asked me what I was interested in.  When I told him I wanted to write about hell, he immediately got excited and encouraged me to come to Yale.

Notre Dame was simply an ongoing intellectual feast and was by far the greatest educational experience of my life.  I had the privilege of taking courses with the very best people who did philosophy of religion, starting with Plantinga, and including Fred Freddoso, Tom Flint, and Phil Quinn.  I did a reading course with Quinn, by the way, on divine command ethics, a foreshadow of our work together.  Quinn, of course, wrote an important book on divine command ethics.  Plantinga’s courses were extremely stimulating and mentally challenging and you always left feeling like your brain had just had a strenuous workout that pushed you beyond your limits.  But my most influential teacher at Notre Dame was my mentor Tom Morris, who was something of a force of nature with all the interesting stuff he was producing at the time.  I learned a lot from him not only about how to do philosophy, but also how to teach, and that still influences everything I write.

  1. How did you end up writing not just about hell, but also about heaven and even purgatory?

Well, after writing about hell, I came to see that heaven poses its own distinctive issues that deserved addressing.  Moreover, heaven was almost entirely ignored by philosophers at the time so I wrote a book entitled Heaven: The Logic of Eternal Joy.  I wrote a chapter on purgatory for the heaven book, having become convinced that a version of the doctrine makes theological sense for Protestants as well as Catholics.  I had no thought of writing more about purgatory at the time, but again, further reflection led me to see that it too poses distinctive issues that deserve discussion.  I was fortunate to receive a Research Fellowship in the Notre Dame Center for Philosophy of Religion for the 2009-2010 academic year and I wrote the book that year.

  1. How big an influence has C. S. Lewis been on you?

In short, it has been incalculable.  I vividly recall the first time I read The Great Divorce, a book that has had a profound influence on all of my thinking about the afterlife.  I was at Yale working on my STM thesis on hell, and struggling to make sense of how eternal hell can be compatible with the perfect love and goodness of God.  I remember reading that book into the early morning, and finishing it before I went to bed.  What was stunning to me was the way Lewis made moral and psychological sense of how human beings can prefer evil, how they can choose to remain in hell, even if given every opportunity to repent and embrace the love of God.  That recast how I thought about hell, and it would eventually help me to think more clearly about heaven and purgatory as well.

  1. You’ve published with Oxford University Press, but you can also write very accessible books. Should more philosophers try to write books for wider audiences than just fellow philosophers? Why isn’t it done more?

Well, the best and most interesting philosophy deals with big issues that matter to every thoughtful person.  Even if the immediate issues we are writing about are highly technical, if they really matter, it is because of their connection to bigger questions and concerns.   I wish more academically accomplished philosophers would keep these big issues in mind and attempt to write books that address them for a wider audience.   Such books, of course, are not a substitute for academically rigorous books, and should not be mistaken for them but they play an absolutely vital role in communicating the central ideas of philosophy to the broader culture.  Not everybody can do this, but those who can should, in my view.  The failure to do this has the effect of marginalizing philosophy and even trivializing it in contemporary culture.  The vacuum of course, has often been filled by popular books that are superficial and often poorly informed.  And many philosophers accordingly shy away from writing popular books because they do not want to be identified with such superficial books.  Moreover, such books gain little recognition in the academy, and may even hurt your reputation.   But the solution, I think, is for more philosophers to try to do both, to write serious books but also write books that communicate the central ideas in an accessible but responsible fashion.  If we fail to do that, we should hardly be surprised if philosophy is seen as increasingly irrelevant to the overwhelming majority who lack our specialized training.

  1. Tell us about your most recent book on heaven, hell, and purgatory.

Well, in short, it is my attempt to distill the central ideas of my academic trilogy into a more popular form for a broader audience. The book explores heaven, hell and purgatory in light of the big philosophical issues like the problem of evil, the nature of personal identity, the ground of morality, and the really big one: the very meaning of life.  I attempted to write it in such a way that any thoughtful reader who would like to understand these issues better could read it with appreciation.  I will be interested to see if I have succeeded.

  1. What other book projects are you involved in?

Lot of things.  I just wrote a long essay on purgatory for a new Four Views of Hell book that is forthcoming.  My son Jonny and I have a book of essays coming out shortly entitled Tarantino and Theology.   Another book I am excited about is Two Dozen or So Theistic Arguments, which I am co-editing with Trent Dougherty.  It is based on Alvin Plantinga’s famous paper of that title, and will explore each of his arguments, several of which are new ones that have yet to be developed.  A colleague here at HBU and I are working on editing a collection of essays on issues in sexual ethics.  Another book I am co-authoring is Why I am not A Roman Catholic.  I am co-authoring this one with Ken Collins, a church historian.  Not to mention a history of the moral argument I am co-authoring with Bag.   So it looks like I’ll be busy for a while.

  1. Why do you think the book you and I are wrapping up, the sequel to Good God, is important?

Well, it deals with huge issues of urgent practical concern, just for a start!  Contemporary culture is morally confused to put it mildly, and seems increasingly bereft of moral foundations.    Christian theism provides not only a rationally powerful, but also an existentially appealing account of moral truth that beautifully answers to our deepest yearnings for ultimate meaning.   We advance in this book an abductive moral argument that brings together an array of powerful considerations that have not, so far as we know, been advanced in this fashion.  These considerations, taken together, provide a powerful case that God makes sense of the crucial features of morality far more convincingly than secular alternatives.

Photo: “Conversation” by John St John. CC License. 

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