In an Instant or Not?

Protestants argue that humans are instantaneously transformed at death/at the judgment into a condition — let’s call it holiness and love — that is fit for dwelling with God in God’s perfect kingdom. It is unclear for most Protestants how this happens, but it does happen. Put differently, Protestants react against any notion that there is a period during which this transformation occurs. Catholics, on the other hand, believe in purgatory and see it as the time during which God purges the human from his or her sins and beliefs and idols, etc.

The issue here then is the jump from our sinful condition to a perfect condition. How does that happen? Do all experience the same perfect condition?

This is the general view, but there are Protestants like Jerry Walls (Purgatory: The Logic of Total Transformation), who believe in purgatory.

What is your response to Walls’ defense of purgatory in this post? Do you think virtue ethics entails purgatory?

Before I get to his view, let me pound a few stakes into the ground. First, I believe those who believe in virtue ethics — the view that habits are performed that morally transform a person’s character — should be inclined to believe in purgatory. Why do I say this? Since heaven is about character, and since moral development is about habits-disciplines-character, then it is (at least) logical if not necessary for that character to be fully formed to be fit for heaven/kingdom. If now, why not in the postmortem condition?

Second, Calvinists cannot believe in purgatory though I think there’s a bit of a loop in their theology on this one. Calvinism believes justification and sanctification is entirely a work of grace. (Though some Calvinists to me seem to make sanctification a matter of human discipline, and this is the loop — the more they do, the more purgatory would be logically compatible.) If they see both justification and sanctification to be a work of God’s grace, then glorification/purification would be as well.

Third, Arminians — if they are true to Wesley — do not believe in purgatory, though their emphasis on free will/choice or cooperation in sanctification might incline them toward purgatory, and Walls would be one example.

But Walls’ theology seems to be shaped as much by yet another issue: personal identity. How does “David” get from a sinful state to a radically changed holy/love state as a sudden act and still sustain identity?

Walls has an extensive discussion of personal identity and how to sustain one’s personal identity between death and resurrection. Tom Wright, for instance, denies purgatory, believes in a conscious personal existence, and resurrection. Dualists — the variety here is large — believe in a soul that is conscious, capable of choice, etc. Materialists can believe in conscious identity between death and resurrection, that “fission” theory still not the same as resurrection, and that view is compatible with purgatory, too.

But for Walls the issue comes down to this: moral transformation, the kind required for a person to become fit for God’s presence, requires these elements:

1. Character development, which takes time and involves a process. [Hence, purgatory.]

2. Free will, or cooperation, so that the person’s transformation is genuinely engaged. [Hence, time and purgatory.]

3. Instantaneous, colossal transformation — think of the deathbed convert — would create a person and identity so at odds with a person’s previous identity and character that the person would not recognize herself/himself. [So, purgatory is needed in order to maintain one's personal identity and character transformation.]

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • http://www.educatingbrian.com Brianmpei

    Our relationship with God in this covenant has never been based on moral perfection so I don’t understand why it would be instant when we die or Jesus comes back. If we’re already in the Kingdom, even if it’s not yet fully consummated, why is sudden moral perfection perceived as necessary? I think we will continue to be in process and you can call that purgatory if you want to but it should only be a label for a stage of Kingdom life rather than a destination before our ultimate arrival.

  • T

    I think Walls is right to consider the fundamentals of human personality and the mechanics of changing it. Further, I find it very interesting that a chief difference, if not the chief difference, b/n Protestant and Catholic ideas here is how long the process takes.

    For my part, I am sympathetic to some kind of purging experience, but rather than think in terms of time (which is easy to support logically, but not biblically), I tend to think in terms of intensity (which is easy to support both logically and biblically).

    I’m thinking, by way of comparison, of the experience of a rape, or a terrible traumatic accident, or even something like Paul’s meeting with Jesus on the road. None of these experiences are necessarily “long” in terms of time, but they are all capable of enormous and lasting transformations of the persons involved. I think we all know this to be true, for good and for ill.

    Now, what of the process of death and resurrection? What of the experience of seeing Jesus, and our lives, as they actually are, with all forms of deception and denial made impossible? I don’t know if many of you have witnessed someone who leads a double life being confronted with the merging of the two ‘worlds’, but it can be surprisingly traumatic, even shockingly so. And that’s still with only limited removal of our denial and self-deception. I really can’t even imagine what it will be like to have every form of deception (self inflicted and otherwise) taken away from us all, but I believe that such a reality is inevitably involved in “the testing of each man’s work” and of meeting God face to face. Further, I don’t think any of the prior experiences that I mentioned will match the experience of coming face to face with Christ and his judgment in terms of intensity. The consummation of the age is worthy of the prophetic apocolyptic imagery and then some. There is reason and mercy to God’s patience.

    So, yes to a purging experience and the sanctifying hope and reason for it, but I am skeptical about the need for much in the way of time, given the intensity of the “revealing” experience of having everything hidden being made known, and the testing of each man’s work, and seeing the face of Jesus, not in part, but fully, as he actually is.

  • Shane

    Would this not be the same as sanctification? If so we are in purgatory now..

  • T

    Let me mention a personal side note. These discussions of purgatory have had a few surprising effects on me. The first is that I have come to think that a purging experience is even necessary and/or likely! The second is that rather than inspire fear, it has inspired hope and encouragement in me. Hope in thinking of God’s ultimate victory, even over me and my evil tendencies, as everyone’s. But it’s given me even more encouragment to pursue God’s way in the present, given my inevitable destiny. Knowing that there will be pain that gives way to joy in my transformation and subission to Christ’s way, whether in this life or the next, why not dive in now? The fear of pain and the love of pleasure (over God) is at the heart of addcitive and disobedient behavior.

  • Randy Gabrielse

    Given that there is nothing we can do to effect this, the whole topic seems entirely speculative.

    That said, I will share the findings of a late-night talk with my Best Man the night before I got married. (October 27, 2000).

    We considered that one is “wooshed” (a precise theological term) at the moment that one prays the sinners’ prayer and accepts Christ as their savior. (We should point out that wooshing is the moment of transfer from the “out list” to the “in list,” that is, one need not wait until death, so despite the sound made by the sound of the soul moving from heaven to earth, that is not the moment of wooshing. We consider “wooshing” to be an instantaneous event that saves one once and for all. (Perseverance of the saints and all that).We consider that anything else would require works righteousness, and so would be entirely out of bounds -He agreed with me on this last part despite being an ordained UMC Deacon.

    PS: This conversation actually happened over two hours on the date indicated and was referenced during the Best Man toast the following day.

    Randy Gabrielse

  • Norman

    I think there tends to be too much human philosophy involved in this question that really has no biblical clear cut answers. Purely an exercise in futile conjecture IMHO when we are simply told we can expect the gift of eternal life as a consequence of walking in God’s covenant. The scriptures practically speaking are concerned primarily about Kingdom living in the here and now to bring about God’s heavenly standards for humanity. Our lives are expected to reflect the Heavenly principles before we receive our everlasting reward.

  • Dana Ames

    T,

    Same thing happened to me while reading B. McLaren’s “The Last Word and the Word After That”. This was a few years before I began investigating EOrthodoxy. This is about purgation as an aspect of development, not Purgatory as a place. And in EO we are certainly advised and helped to start getting rid of that self-deception and denial now.

    I think there will be some sensation of a larger amount of “time” needed for those who have to recover from larger amounts of fear and self-deception; that kind of makes sense to me. How much “actual” time passes? No clue – and, to me, not so important.

    Also like you, this gave me huge amounts of hope! I started thinking that maybe there was some “news” to the Gospel that was actually Good News!

    Dana

  • http://trinitariantheodicy.wordpress.com Trin

    Followers of Christ are IN him; they are adopted by the Father; they are not only in Christ, but are also in the Father; they ARE coheirs with Christ. Christ said “TODAY you will be with me in paradise.” Yes, we can wonder about the cessation of the experience of time at death, and therefore what does ‘today’ mean; however, I am unaware of any idea of purgatory in Christ’s teaching or in the NT. If it is there and I’ve missed it, please let me know.

    The Jewish view was of resurrection at the end of time/dawn of God’s reign. Christ showed God’s kingdom had in fact come, now. I find the idea of purgatory contrary to 2nd temple Jewish thought (again, it could be there and I’ve missed it; please let me know) and the NT.

    I don’t see purgatory as a ‘bad’ idea; I just don’t see a case made for it.

  • T

    Dana,

    Awesome. I love hearing your voice here and that you are “convert” (sure there’s a better term; sorry!) to EO. I’m happily finding that much (not all) of the picture that was painted for me of Catholicism and other branches of the Church was inaccurate. The idea of purgatory is a good example.

    Trin,

    The place where I would see some biblical support in the NT would be several of the predictions regarding the judgment. Specifically, as I mentioned above, the passage about each man’s work being tested, and whatever had been built with lesser materials will be destroyed. The believer who has built poorly will “suffer loss” even as he himself is saved as one saved “through” flames. This passage and many others that talk about all that is hidden being made known, and every tongue giving an account for everything we’ve done, etc.–all these passages persuade me that there is going to be some degree of existential pain at the judgment, even for the believer, even though such pain will give way to joy. The pain the NT speaks of (for the believer) is “suffer[ing] loss” over the consuming judgment of work that was not eternal. Again, this pain is not inflicted physical punishment, but the pain of loss, of being separated from something of this world to which we were inappropriately attached. Whatever we call this experience, the NT does teach it. I think calling it “purgatory” is as good as anything else.

  • http://trinitariantheodicy.wordpress.com Trin

    Thanks, T.

    So now one would wonder whether we are, after death, in time or out of time. Hmmm…could get interesting. ;-)

  • Elizabeth

    T – I love this thought: “Knowing that there will be pain that gives way to joy in my transformation and submission to Christ’s way, whether in this life or the next, why not dive in now?”

  • PaulE

    Am I wrong in understanding that people in Purgatory no longer sin? On New Advent I read:

    They were “not so good as to be entitled to eternal happiness”. Still, for them “death is the termination not of nature but of sin” (Ambrose, “De obitu Theodos.”); and this inability to sin makes them secure of final happiness.

    So it seems like at least in the traditional Catholic doctrine of Purgatory the jump to the perfect condition is the same whether one passes through Purgatory or goes straight to heaven. In which case, Purgatory is only about making atonement for sins not paid for in the previous life rather than the transformation of one’s character?

  • PaulE

    It seems like Dr. Walls understands purgatory to be a place of soul formation. Even accepting this idea of it (though, see my question above), I have different priors that don’t logically lead me down the same path as him. They kind of address each of his three points:

    1. I don’t see suffering as the fundamental driver of character development. In fact, in Scriptures like Rev. 16:10-11, great suffering has seemingly no positive effect on the character of those who endure it. Instead, it is by the Spirit that we put to death the misdeeds of the body (Rom. 8:13). It is the Spirit who bears in us the fruits of love and righteousness (Gal. 5:22f). And the Spirit strengthens us in our inner being so that Christ dwells more fully in our hearts (Eph. 3:16-17).

    2. I do think we participate in our purification – by faith. But my view of this process pushes me away from purgatory. It seems to me that purgatory requires we have a single nature that is gradually made better. Instead I think of it as having within us two natures that are at war with one another: one of flesh and one of Spirit. Right now I am of the practice of putting to death the one of flesh, something which I believe will be consummated either in my death or at Christ’s coming. But once that sin nature has been destroyed, why would I need to pass through flames to be refined still?

    3. Our true identity is already in Christ. In fact, this is the reason for our present sanctification – we want to live as much as we can as our true selves even while we wait for our righteousness to be revealed. “Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.”

  • Hector_St_Clare

    Re: First, I believe those who believe in virtue ethics — the view that habits are performed that morally transform a person’s character — should be inclined to believe in purgatory. Why do I say this? Since heaven is about character, and since moral development is about habits-disciplines-character, then it is (at least) logical if not necessary for that character to be fully formed to be fit for heaven/kingdom. If now, why not in the postmortem condition?

    That’s a very good point. I do believe in virtue ethics, and that’s probably closely linked to why I believe in purgatory. Becoming like Christ is a long process, and a painful one, and that transformation can’t happen in an instant. It (hopefully) begins in this life, and is completed in the life to come. And yes, it usually involves remedial, medicinal suffering.

    Re: I don’t see suffering as the fundamental driver of character development. In fact, in Scriptures like Rev. 16:10-11, great suffering has seemingly no positive effect on the character of those who endure it

    It’s more, ‘the penitential acceptance of suffering, and the effects that has on our character’ that’s the issue here. Obviously, if you don’t accept expiatory suffering with a penitential heart, then it isn’t going to help make you a better person. It’s not the suffering itself so much as our response to it.

    Re: Instead, it is by the Spirit that we put to death the misdeeds of the body

    Yes, but the gloss you’re putting on that seems to be that salvation is a purely passive process, something that God does for us, instead of an active process in which we co-operate with God through our own choices and actions. I can’t accept the passive, Calvinistic view of salvation.

    Re: I find the idea of purgatory contrary to 2nd temple Jewish thought (again, it could be there and I’ve missed it; please let me know) and the NT.

    I’m not sure that second temple Jewish thought is particularly relevant to us as Christians (we aren’t Jewish, after all), and we know that Jesus taught many things which aren’t in the New Testament. I think that the church was expressing a belief in some sort of purgatory pretty early on (e.g. in ‘The Passion of Felicity and Perpetua’) and that church tradition is a guide to the truth as much as scripture is, so it doesn’t bother me that it isn’t explicitly in the New Testament.

    Having said this, I do read passages like these, as fairly unambiguous reference to purgatory (I’m not sure what else they could be referring to).

    “Agree with thine adversary quickly, whiles thou art in the way with him; lest at any time the adversary deliver thee to the judge, and the judge deliver thee to the officer, and thou be cast into prison. Verily I say unto thee, Thou shalt by no means come out thence, till thou hast paid the uttermost farthing.” (Matthew 5:25-26).

    “When thou goest with thine adversary to the magistrate, as thou art in the way, give diligence that thou mayest be delivered from him; lest he hale thee to the judge, and the judge deliver thee to the officer, and the officer cast thee into prison. I tell thee, thou shalt not depart thence, till thou hast paid the very last mite.” (Luke 12:58-59).

    Re: We considered that one is “wooshed” (a precise theological term) at the moment that one prays the sinners’ prayer and accepts Christ as their savior. (We should point out that wooshing is the moment of transfer from the “out list” to the “in list,” that is, one need not wait until death, so despite the sound made by the sound of the soul moving from heaven to earth, that is not the moment of wooshing. We consider “wooshing” to be an instantaneous event that saves one once and for all. (Perseverance of the saints and all that).We consider that anything else would require works righteousness, and so would be entirely out of bounds -He agreed with me on this last part despite being an ordained UMC Deacon.

    Right, and that’s consistent belief system. I don’t share that understanding of salvation, of course, which is again, reflected in the fact that I do believe in purgatory. I see salvation as a process, not an instantaneous thing.

  • Chris White

    I think the flaw in Wall argument,based on what I read in the OP, is equating moral transformation with character development. Are they the same? At what point do we stop being in purgatory? When we are absolutely perfect? Could there not be character transformation as we go about our duties in the new heavens and the new earth? What about the change that happens in a twinkling of an eye? And the question a previous commenter brought up–will we sin in purgatory? If not–then why are we there and not in the new earth?

    By the way, where God is–is heaven and His will is done there. Why would one think we would not do his will there? Isn’t that our prayer: His will be done, on earth as it is in heaven?

    Besides, at the second coming, those who are dead will come with Christ and those who are alive will meet Him (and them) in the air, and we will always be with Christ. Where does purgatory fit into 1 Thes.4:17? Comfort one another with these words v.18.

    Can’t see purgatory as a pre-place before entering into God’s presence.

    Peace.

  • T

    PaulE,

    I think Walls would say (according to previous posts) that there are a few views of purgatory, with some being putative, others purifying, and others are a mix. Walls sees the purifying (only) as consistent with Protestant theology.

    Regarding your point 1 regarding suffering, I would agree that suffering is not “the” fundamental driver of character development, but you protest too much if you are arguing that it doesn’t play some role according to the NT. Even Christ learned obedience by the things he suffered and was thereby “perfected”, according to the scriptures, and Paul also makes several ties b/n our joining in Christ’s sufferings to our (and sometimes part of) sharing his mission and glories.

  • PaulE

    T,

    It seems to me that Dr. Walls’ view of purgatory is inconsistent with his Arminianism. If purgatory is a place where we are not yet holy and therefore can still sin, what keeps those there from committing apostasy? Or does the Calvinist doctrine of the perseverance of the saints obtain for those in purgatory? If so, how can number 2 be satisfied? But if they can commit apostasy, then in what sense is purgatory even purgatory anymore? It just seems like a set of second chances in some sort of life after death and a moral tryout for heaven.

    Also, I agree with you that suffering has some link to holiness. My point, however, is that there is obviously no power towards holiness in suffering itself (lest we all become ascetics). Rather, if that power is instead located in the Holy Spirit, then I think there is every reason to believe in instant transformative power just like we see all over in Acts (e.g. 15:8-9). New creation type stuff.

  • NathanS

    It is my understanding that when we begin our walk with Christ, we have accepted His offered forgiveness FIRST. So we’re starting that relationship with a clean slate and then daily we are transformed to LIVE like Christ. In other words, it’s through forgiveness that our image is restored to that of Christ, but its our lifestyle and choices that are transformed daily in our walk, to more closely reflect the image that has already been granted us. It is this restoration that allows God to live in us, to be in our presence and allow us in His. So, no moral transformation after death is necessary. Therefore, no purgatory is necessary.

    Ultimately I think to better understand purgatory (and IMO why there isn’t one), we need to further discuss and understand forgiveness and perhaps stop chasing perfection and start chasing Jesus.

  • Scott Gay

    Purging is related to perfection. We should all give Wesley some kudos for dealing with it, despite people thinking it is ridiculous/can’t happen. Wesley was very clear that by being perfect he was talking about love and not sinlessness. Living the Jesus Creed is very real. Because of His grace, the practices in the past will forge eternal loving relationships. Love is perfect and we get to participate, be it now or some opportunity later. Now love can be misconstrued. It ain’t John Lennon or Tina Turner love. God is love. God isn’t objectivifable or subjectivifable. Are they words? As a word God is Jesus. When he talked it was mostly in metaphors that only some could understand, and had seeds that took root later, which gives me alot of comfort.

  • T

    PaulE,

    Some of the issues you raise is why I think it’s important to view purgatory as an experience, and specifically as an experience that coincides with and is brought about by being in the presence of Christ and his judgment/revelation of all our works. While the inappropriate love of and connection to various kinds of sin is present within us (hence the need for any transformation of character), the ability to self-deceive or be deceived by others is gone. It’s lies that initiate and sustain our idolatries, but what happens when we don’t or can’t buy these lies anymore? We grieve that we ever have; we will have been transformed by the renewing of our minds; we will have changed directions, never to go back, because there will be no lie within or without to lure us.

    So, I see purgatory as an experience of looking into the mirror of God’s Word, but being unable to forget what everything really looks like. So I don’t see much sinning going on, but lots of change from glory to glory.

  • C

    Interesting. I think what matters is that one day all of this will be redeemed. Just how or when or what happens in the meantime doesn’t really bother me. God can transform me in an instant or he can take a million years to do it in purgatory. Either way, the one who started the good work will be faithful to complete it.

  • http://www.spirithome.com/theopneu.html Bob Longman

    On #1, there is no need for a ‘purgatory’, unless *all* are saved. Transformation can be seen as a course of *life*. done while alive, completed after it **as part of regular living in the Kingdom**, without some sort of special phase – an unfolding, if you will. Or, God can complete instantaneously, too, since his work’s already been under way while living (as outposts of the Kingdom in our current world).

    The question then is, what is there for those who have put their foot down all life long and said “I’ll have no part of what you’re doing, God.” They define themselves out of the Kingdom, but does God give *them* a ‘second-chance’ phase – maybe a purgatory, maybe (as some universalists might think) a reincarnation, to work on it some more? I don’t see either option in the Bible, but I’ve been wrong before.

    #2, again, may well just be life itself, and the rest as part of regular Kingdom-living.

    As for #3, all of us will be ‘at odds with ourself’ with the Kingdom, just to different degrees. The one thing needed finally fell in place, and after that who can look at themselves the same old way? It’s *you*, but it’s a *new you*. Christians of all stripes believe that people can change, even in the most revolutionary ways.


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