Holiness in Heaven: The Need for Purgation

I just started reading Jerry Walls's new book Purgatory: The Logic of Total Transformation. (H/T to Scot McKnight for his posts on the book which is where I came across it.)

My interest in purgatory comes from the fact that my vision of universal reconciliation--that God will one day be "all in all"--has a family resemblance to the doctrine of purgatory.

The key location of overlap has to do with holiness in heaven. Specifically, sin is more than skin deep. Trouble is, the main problem Protestants tend to worry about when it comes to sin isn't the sin. It's God's anger over sin. Because of this Protestants aren't really all that interested in escaping sin. They are mainly preoccupied with escaping hell. Thus, for many Protestants the answer to our "sin problem" isn't holiness but forgiveness.

Put more crudely, Protestants are more interested in being saved than in being good.

The results of this emphasis, if you look around, are pretty obvious.

The trouble with this view is that sin goes deep. Sin is describing ways we have become morally damaged and disordered. As Walls writes, "The more we sin, the more complicated and extensive the damage we do to ourselves, and correspondingly, the more is required for repair and rehabilitation." Getting this all fixed--repair and rehabilitation--is going to take some time. And more to the point, few of us complete the journey of sanctification (and quite a few Christians don't seem to be making any progress at all) before we die.

So while we might be forgiven at the moment of our death we remain very much steeped in sin. If so, how does that sin play out in heaven? Are we even allowed into heaven if we are not perfectly holy? Walls cites this passage from the book of Hebrews:
Hebrews 12.14
Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord. 
That's the issue, isn't it? If we aren't holy at the time of our death how are we to "see the Lord"?

Walls says there are four different ways we might answer these sorts of questions:
Faced with what seems to be this obvious empirical reality [that we all die still infected by sin], the question remains about the fate of such persons. There are four broad possibilities. First, we might say that they go to heaven with their sins, imperfections, and the like intact, so heaven is not in fact essentially sinless. Second, we might think they will simply be lost and never make it to heaven if they die without becoming completely holy. Third, we might say that at the moment of death, God makes people holy by an instantaneous and unilateral act, however imperfect, sinful, and immature in character they may be. Fourth, we may say that the sanctification process continues after death with our willing cooperation until the process is complete, and we are actually made holy through and through.
Walls quickly notes that few Christians believe in options one and two. The debate focuses on options three and four. Does God, on Judgment Day, wave a magic wand making us instantaneously holy? Or is there a process and season of purgation? A time of healing, reconciliation, confession, peace-making, education, repentance, forgiveness, repair, rehabilitation and even punishment?

I find the former possibly implausible for a host of theological and psychological reasons. Consequently, I opt for the developmental view.

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27 thoughts on “Holiness in Heaven: The Need for Purgation”

  1. Hi Dr. Beck, you know that my beliefs about heaven, hell and Universalism are still up in the air...  So that's my disclaimer for what I'm about to say.  (Please forgive my ignorance in advance.)

    Here goes:  I got stuck at paragraph three.  My experiences with conservative evangelical Protestants -- which I don't pretend that I transcended by any means (still recovering) -- is that punishment for sin is very much believed to be meted out in the here and now, as well as in hell for eternity.  Of course punishment in this life is "spun" as good and necessary for the sinner, as well as for God's glory, of course.

    If god is an angry, wrathful, punitive being, who loves by violent means, how is he better/holier than sinful, imperfect human beings?  I'm a little taken aback (though nothing should surprise me anymore) that retributive justice, especially from a perfectly holy and loving being, would be on your list of possibilities here, Dr. Beck.  But, O:K.  Let me work on coming to terms with that...

    I have been, probably naively, hoping that god is more good and creative than I/we tend to be in resolving the messiness of humanity.  If we see God's character most completely through Jesus, how do we get from compassionate, non-violent savior to angry/wrathful and violent punisher?  This is justice?  I know you said more about the purpose of purgatory, but see how I get stuck on the negative.

    I am reading 'Speaking Christian' by Marcus Borg at the moment.  It is the first book by this author that I have read, and I must admit that I'm a little startled by his openness to questioning just about everything we read in the Bible, and a lot of what has come down the pike in church history/tradition.  I'm trying not to totally freak out, when I read the suggestion that the resurrection was a metaphor!  Okay.  :-)  What if?  What would be the ramifications to my faith, *if* I did at least allow that possibility?  In my daily meditations from Richard Rohr, I am also reading that we can differentiate between the historical Jesus and the cosmic Christ.  Okay.  :-)  And then, too, I was reading another wise man's thoughts recently, who suggested that the Apostle Paul's letters were more reflective of his own struggle to make sense of Christ in the context of 1st century Judaism, and, as instructive to a particular, immediate group of people (hint:  not us!)  In all of these encounters, I realize the degree to which I am still circling around in the same old dogmatic thinking; it's very hard to teach an old dog new tricks.  The old dog is willing, but she practically needs a miracle, or a complete lobotomy.  Maybe in heaven (wherever/whenever that is), we just get to start over, without all the baggage.


  2. "Instantaneously" or "process and season"... 

    What if it is noit either/or but  both/and?  God is not bound by time.  What if the process of death is a kind of "baptism by fire" where the sinful flesh is consumed? 1 Cor 3:12-15

  3. Yes, on God's end I don't know if time makes any sense. I'm thinking more of the experience on our end. For example, one of the problems I have with "instantaneous" transformation has to do with psychological integrity and identity. If I'm radically different at Time 2 from Time 1 how can I "own" and identify with myself? I'd have no memories linking these two selves. More, the new things within me would be foreign and strange, like a different person residing in my body and out of joint with my prior self/memories/identity.

  4. Hi Susan,
    A clarification. When I listed punishment I wasn't thinking of retributive punishment. I punish my children but that goal isn't retributive, it's rehabilitative. More, punishment can come in many forms. For example, I'd argue that when the father gave his inheritance to the prodigal son that that was a form of punishment, allowing a certain set of choices to play out and reach their natural and painful conclusion. Sometimes a parent will step back and allow life to punish the child. "Okay, have your own way. But I don't think this is going to work out the way you think it will..."

  5. Much abstract thinking required here.  Perhaps there is more than one meaning to the word "holy"?

    "Few of us complete the journey of sanctification before we die"?  That would imply that somebody did.  How do you know this?  How can you contemplate a developmental view of something which happens completely outside of Time?  If Eternity "exists", then by definition it is outside of Space-time, and therefore one cannot grow, learn, progress, or develop in the sense that you mean once one has been blinked there.  Or am I being too literal and concrete?

    In order to remain consistent (if this is at all important in a theology or worldview), it seems to me the only answer here is that humans go immediately from one level of existence to another -- there is no waiting, no progression, no school.  I don't think Christians (only Protestants?) are more concerned about the consequence of sin rather than sin itself because they fear God, but because they understand at the deepest level the futility of wishing it away.
    "Sin", as you instruct, is not just a noun or a verb -- it is a state of being.  As long and hard as I wished and earnestly prayed for blessed relief from disease as a child, I woke each morning once more to the same twisted body.  Any change then or now would indeed require instantaneous transformation.  I don't believe there is a Proaxis Rehab Center in the sky. 

  6. Yes, that was a poor (offensive) choice of wording on my part.  So sorry.  :-(

    Words and meanings.  Oy!

    So we can call it "restorative justice?"

    Is violence still a part of that restoration?

    If God does it, why can't we, and still be good in terms of God's holy standards?

    I'm very confused about all this.  (Needless to say.)

    Using the parenting analogy, is corporal punishment a good and necessary as a discipline tool, then?

    If so, then why wouldn't we assume that a punishing god is good?  Especially if he means it for our benefit.

    As far as stepping back, sometimes as a parent, I have done all I can do to persuade my child, and they will do what they want anyway -- against my wishes.  I can't stop them from doing that.  But I don't step back, in the sense of withdrawing my love (or compassionate, merciful presence).

    I'm so confused!?!  It's at times like these that I can understand why a person would become an atheist.  This god seems no better than us, to be honest.

  7. Hi Sam,
    Great points. A clarification.

    I'm actually not all that interested in focusing on the afterlife and positing a Proaxis Rehab Center in the sky. What I'm trying to do is envision what this salvation thing is all about, from start to finish. Specifically, how Christians envision salvation "then" impacts and gets imported into how we envision salvation "now." So I'm really only interested in getting the "then" worked out insofar as it affects the "now." This goal of mine appears at the top of the post in my criticisms of how Protestants typically think about salvation in this life (i.e., being more interested in being saved than in being good).

  8. Hi Susan,
    I'm thinking about the parental discipline, and how my own views have changed over the years. When my boys were small, I was well-indoctrinated with the more strident forms of discipline. My upbringing probably had a lot to do with it.  But as they grew, so did I, and my understanding of discipline evolved. And so my understanding of God's discipline changed also. The disjoint between trying to correct my kids in a controlling fashion, and the fact that God seems (mostly) nonexistent in the face of some really bad stuff in this life where a lot of people are thoroughly harmed doesn't make a lot of sense, unless there will be a day when it becomes clear that it really does matter what we did. I think the problem with the hard control is that it never lets a person become who they are supposed to be.  When I backed off, and allowed my kids to make mistakes, and then clean up the mess afterward, it made a bigger impact than trying to prevent them from making a mess in the first place. They were more internally motivated not to cause a mess that they would have to clean up. So I wonder if it's not like that with God, too. That we're allowed to screw it all up, but we will each be cleaning up our own messes until it's right. Which may be pretty rough, given how damaging people can be to one another. But there are some who, since they think "saved " means all will be cleaned up Mary Poppins style that they don't have to worry about it. Which is why, like Richard says, certain belief systems are more about being exempt from punishment than changing themselves into people who do the right thing in the first place.
    I'm rambling out loud here.

  9. Dear Susan,

    IMHO, you are closer to the Truth than you may realize.  I cherish your tender and self-effacing approach.  You wonder if God has two natures, two personalities.  From Scriptures -- logically, yes!

    "I was reading another wise man's thoughts recently, who suggested that
    the Apostle Paul's letters were more reflective of his own struggle to
    make sense of Christ in the context of 1st century Judaism, and, as
    instructive to a particular, immediate group of people (hint:  not us!)"

    Now you sound exactly like the poster known here as "David".  He and Dr. Beck debate this very issue a lot, with neither one being able to influence the other.  To me, watching the debate is far more instructive than voicing the issue itself. 

    "I'm trying not to totally freak out, when I read the suggestion that the
    resurrection was a metaphor!  Okay.  :-)  What if?  What would be the
    ramifications to my faith, *if* I did at least allow that possibility?"

    Indeed.  That question runs through this and other books and websites.  And it makes me question the concept of "faith" every day.  You are not alone.  You focus on Jesus.  This to me is the only sane alternative.

    "I'm so confused!?!  It's at times like these that I can understand why a
    person would become an atheist.  This god seems no better than us, to
    be honest."

    We were not made by God -- we invented him/her/it?  What a novel concept!  I am not an atheist, because I just don't know.  Atheism is a secular religion, with all the attendant beliefs, rites, and rituals, and I cannot go there.  Most days the best I can do, if I must label, is be an honest agnostic.

    Blessings and peace.

  10. Thank you, Sam.  And Patricia.  I have read your responses (quickly), and cherish your friendship and good thoughts.  I am off to celebrate my baby's birthday.  We will be total hedonists today!  :-)  I just wanted you both (and Dr. Beck) to know that I hadn't gone off mad, or to have a complete nervous breakdown somewhere (off-line).  I will return to read and ponder the conversation more thoroughly tomorrow.  Blessings to all.  ~Peace~

  11. Richard,
    I agree that an instantaneous transformation would pose significant problems with sense of self. Which is why I also wonder about resurrection resulting in either a "resurrection" body or bodiless soul, depending on your theology. Having a transformed body or no body at all also poses the same problem with sense of self. I would be interested in a post where you explain more  fully your  reasons for a developmental approach. The developmental approach at least seems more consistent with how we typically transform ourselves this side of heaven, principally by the discipline of consciously making the right choice in how we behave or think or meditate, often in the face of suffering and trials.  

  12.  Thank you.  I don't understand your "then" and "now".  Is "then" 2,000 years ago and "now" right now?  Or -- is THIS "then", and the afterlife "now"?

    I like what you said to *Gem* about Time1 and Time2, except that logically there really cannot be a Time2.  We have only so many tools at our disposal to contemplate this, so I understand, and think this is a good point.

    " More, the new things within me would be foreign and strange, like a
    different person residing in my body and out of joint with my prior

    This transformation you allude to sounds very much like being "born again" in this life.  Perhaps this is why we wonder about any of this at all?

  13. In the usual reading, Sin is something like an essential part of our Human nature (I don't mean "total depravity"). I like to view this world as a forging practice, but if God took away all the scars and restored all the eroded away places, would what is left be recognizable as me? (... as others have remarked ...) But much of my sinful nature is situational: I am battered by the surf of events. So I can imagine being given a simple task in Heaven that I could handle, like trimming the wicks in the Temple. Where I am not confronted with the objects of my uncontrollable addictions, whatever they may be. (looks like option 1, I retain my sinful nature, but it is inoperative.)

    Or it might be that I simply fly into the arms of Jesus; that what remains in Eternity is my lived experience, flawed as it might be, and the active principle is resorbed into God's consciousness whence it arose. ... really, this is an alternate view of the previous.

    ... BTW, I think this makes me twice-born rather than once-born; sick, but healthy-minded. Taking care with exercise and diet.

    nt here.

  14. If salvation in this life is about knowing God, then salvation and transformation "now" is progression to "then."  When we come into the presence of unveiled perfect love, we will experience a crisis of truth.  However, in that state, the healing and transformation of whatever sin and blindness we have carried may be more sudden and complete than we can now imagine, but it would fully involve our cognition and mindful acceptance of truth. I believe that what we experience then will be with our full and willing cooperation, not a unilateral act upon us by God.

  15. For me, I wouldn't say that salvation is about knowing God, or just that. It's about becoming like God, holiness. Here I'm thinking of theosis. So, as I see it, there is much more involved than a "mindful acceptance of the truth." Though that is certainly a huge part of it.Regardless, it is an interesting question to wonder how "cleansing" the Beatific Vision will be and if everyone will (eventually) see it.

  16.  Agree.  To clarify, I use "know" in the relational sense and consider it vital to theosis.  As we behold Him, we shall be like Him.  Our restoration ultimately will be to the core of our being - mind, emotions, identity - and with our full desire and cooperation.  Will everyone experience this as beautiful and loving?  I hope so.  I have a lot of faith in the irresistible nature of God's love and its ability to heal whatever has marred our experience of His love. 

  17. Richard,

    "Beloved we are God's children now: it does not yet appear what we shall be , but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.  And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself  as he is pure." 


  18. Sam and Patricia's responses are excellent. Let me just add a little something.

    Restorative justice is an excellent term. George MacDonald has a lot to say along these lines. I don't see any reason why physical violence would have to be a part of that. God would be pretty unimaginative if resorting to violence were all He could come up with to deal with sin. Kind of like a 3 year old lashing out when someone takes their toy. Sadly I guess a lot of adults and most nations tend to lash out violently when their toys are taken too.

    Greg Boyd will be coming out with a book titled "The Crucifixion of the Warrior God" in the not too distant future that should really go a long way in addressing the violence attributed to God in scripture. I think it should also shed light on the future violence of God (apparently) predicted by scripture.

    Greg Boyd is temporarily blogging here by the way: http://gregboydreknew.blogspot.com/

  19. I am deeply intrigued by the question of what actually happens when we die.  My mother was a deeply committed Christian and a wonderful Bible teacher who loved people and affected many lives in a positive way.  The last 2 years of her life she lost her memories entirely, and with that loss went her sense of "self-identity" as well as any clue about God and all the things she had spent her life loving.  Mom died a year ago this month. I often wonder what it looks like where she is and exactly what she's doing.  I'm also very curious about what she felt & thought when she woke up on the other side. Did her "self-identity" suddenly return?

    Another thought-- although my Christian beliefs never included the possibility of reincarnation, I'm not as definite about that anymore.  Jesus himself commented that John the Baptist was actually Elijah--and some historians I've studied reflect that the concept of reincarnation was contemplated (certainly not considered heresy) by some in the early days of Christianity. It was eventually culled out in the 3rd century as Christianity merged with Rome and both the church and the government found it advantageous to their power to discard any notion of "second chances."

    But I can't buy the magic wand theory for sure.  And I'm not at all certain that the person I currently refer to as "myself" is the only "self" I've ever been.  I wonder if there isn't more to me than that... if perhaps my true Identity is far greater than the limited years I spend in this lifetime.  

    I'm a chaplain at a hospital. When a baby dies in its mother's arms, where is its identity?  It has no memories, no reference points, no ego notion of "self"--so what happens then?  What identity does it have in heaven?  Does it go through a choice process and potentially "sin"--or does it never get that choice at all? 

    These are deep complexities.  Personally, I like to think that baby can return to live another day....that there is more to that baby than a few days or weeks of life.  And I like to think that there is more to me, as well.  

    Whatever the story actually is, I feel sure there are multiple dimensions--and that the process of our spiritual evolution will continue.


  20. Hi Gary, 
    Well, I guess it's easier to presume "they" will get "theirs." Far harder to swallow one's own accountability, especially when one considers oneself elect/saved in a belief system where belief is merely a mental checklist. I mean, look at the pharisee's mentality, "Lord, I thank thee that I'm not like that tax collector over there." Piety breeds posturing.

    Have you noticed how the kids of the fundamentalist religious elites turn out, though? They've been sat on so hard by their parents they either rebel outrageously as to make the "unsaved" kids look downright righteous, or live too scared of sinning to really try anything. Which, of course, isn't living at all, just existing. More observational rambles ...

  21. This reflection reminded me of this passage from Paul's first letter to the Corinthians.

    "But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?” How foolish! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else. But God gives it a body as he has determined, and to each kind of seed he gives its own body. Not all flesh is the same: People have one kind of flesh, animals have another, birds another and fish another. There
    are also heavenly bodies and there are earthly bodies; but the splendor
    of the heavenly bodies is one kind, and the splendor of the earthly
    bodies is another. The sun has one kind of splendor, the moon another and the stars another; and star differs from star in splendor.
    So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.

    If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. So it is written: “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit. The spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual. The first man was of the dust of the earth; the second man is of heaven. As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the heavenly man, so also are those who are of heaven. And just as we have borne the image of the earthly man, so shall we bear the image of the heavenly man.
    I declare to you, brothers and sisters, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed— in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When
    the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal
    with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death
    has been swallowed up in victory.”

    “Where, O death, is your victory?
        Where, O death, is your sting?”
    The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ." (1 Cor. 15:35-57)

    The suggestion I get from this, is that 'what happens' at the point of salvation (and therefore the answer to the question, "Is there still sin to be worked through in heaven?") is we are recreated as new persons through our faith. Sin can't continue, as sin is bound to flesh and un-faith. In God we will 'bear the image of the heavenly man' (i.e. Christ the faithful one). That is to say, in Christ we have victory over death and sin. All this seems to be at odds with the Hebrews passage.

    Which reminds me of this from Karl Barth's commentary on Romans:

    “That we are
    does not mean that we have progressed to a higher stage of religion or of life;
    nor must our new existence be confounded with those eschatological illusions in
    which the union of ‘here’ and ‘there’ is anticipated in our imagination. All
    such illusion is damned at its source. In so far as we are anything except that
    which we are not, in so far as we do not believe and are not enlightened by the
    death of Christ, we remain within this world, outside the peace of God and outside
    the reconciliation which He has wrought.”


    For Barth, there is no 'holiness' apart from that which we have by faith which is a type of non-having. Therefore, whatever happens at the close cannot be predicated on holiness apart from the holiness of Christ alone. We are not, therefore, holy in ourselves, but made holy only through our trust in Christ. What holiness (beyond this life) we have remains Christ's. The rest is mystery.

  22. I had a similar initial reaction to Walls' four alternatives. It seems to me that the only distinction between 3 and 4 is a temporal one, which could be meaningless from a divine perspective. However, from a human perspective it seems an important distinction. I have problems envisioning how the pre-death person could be "saved" in any meaningful sense if (s)he is instantaneously changed into someone who is different. Likewise, I fret over the seeming non-participation that would be involved on the human side of the equation in scenario 3.

  23.  NT Wright seems to have an appreciation for this problem. He provides a nuanced and (for me) satisfying explanation in The Resurrection of the Son of God. If you want to avoid slogging through RSG, you can also pick up most of his argument in Surprised by Hope. In short, he believes the experience of resurrection is one of becoming me-plus-more, rather than a transformation into something that is unrecognizable.

  24. Hi Coachsusan, I was thinking of reincarnation too.  In Hinduism, reincarnation tied together with dharma and kharma, similar to our Christian concept of holiness/sanctification.  In other words, if one is good, according to the Hindu code of conduct, the hope is to keep advancing to a higher level -- closer to God.  My late father-in-law, a Brahmin (priest/teacher caste) passed away almost a decade ago, and the family is still praying annually at his death anniversary for his soul to be released from the cycle of rebirth.

    I was also thinking of Harry Potter.  Having a part of Voldemort within him as he did, it was necessary for him to die in order to defeat the dark lord.  Along the lines of that story, I wondered if death couldn't be enough to "purge" us of the potential for evil and make us acceptable in God's presence?  It seems like as good a theory as any to me.  :-)

    You must be such a blessing to those who grieve in your work as a chaplain.  Thank you.  ~Peace~

  25. Hi Patricia, my parenting style has changed over the years too.  Hopefully, for the better.  :-)

    I really find the word "punish" to be very unhelpful.  By definition, I can't reasonably see how punish can be equated with love.  Love does not "punish."  If God *is* love, then that does not compute.  Even in the sense that purgatory is a kind of detention center -- what, like a "time out" until we can behave rightly?

    The thing is, I cannot believe in (or "belove") a god who is described as punishing.  Perhaps worse yet, I lose faith in a person whose apologetics includes such a sentiment.

    However, I don't wish for even those who have told me such things to be treated harshly by God.  I would rather that God treat them lovingly with a compassion that does not fail.  My compassion often fails, in the sense that I move away from those who put the hurt on me.  I hope that God would not ever move away from those who need his love.  And who can we say doesn't?  ~Peace~

  26. Hi Susan,
    I agree -- punishment doesn't convey love, it instills fear. And perfect love casts out fear. Punishment is an external, fear-based motivator, Hence, those who believe that fear of ECT in hell is a necessity for Christianity. Their motivation for "believing"  is hell avoidance, not love and grace and pursuing a holier life. Children raised in an environment where mistakes are met with punishment, criticism and shaming are quite different from those who know they are loved and cherished, and while mistakes are and always will be a part of life, they're not the end of the world nor the end of their parents' love.

  27. Yes, I am thinking that in theological terms, threat of punishment (whether temporal or eternal) may be an effective law enforcement tool but not persuasive as far as believing in love.

    If I were the father of the prodigal son...  Oh my.  I would have mourned the going away of that boy; and prayed for his well-being (not punishment!) and for his safe return.

    Any teaching that casts doubt on the infinite, unfailing love of God is, imho, the epitome of a stumbling block to faith.  Even if, as Dr. Beck's subsequent post expresses, our sins are collectively forgiven through the faith *of* Christ, unless we apprehend that truth, *in* faith, I don't see how it can "save" us here and now.  ~Peace~

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