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In the Twinkling of an Eye

By David Baggett

In a course I taught this term on evil, suffering, and hell, one of the books we read was Jerry Walls’ Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory, a distillation of his scholarly and groundbreaking work on eschatology over the last few decades. Mention of purgatory immediately tends to make evangelicals go a bit apoplectic, raising the specter as it does of Catholic indulgences, religious abuses, and satisfaction models of purgation that undermine the sufficiency of the cross. But Walls makes it clear that the model he endorses instead is a sanctification model.

The intuition behind his approach is this. To be fit for heaven, we have to be perfect. The biblical admonition to be holy as God is holy is actually to be taken with dreadful seriousness. None of us at death, however, has achieved such a state. So some amount of posthumous transformation is necessary—for some more than others, but some for all of us. Most evangelicals would agree, but embrace a model of instantaneous transformation—and refuse to call such a process “purgatory.” (If, though, purgatory is thought of as this transformation itself, then purgatory it is, but not much rides on this semantic point, beyond the observation that some of the visceral opposition to Walls’ argument might be opposition more to a perceived pejorative than the idea.) Walls demurs, since such a “zap” model isn’t typically how moral transformation takes place. And such complete immediate radical transformation may well raise intractable identity questions without a coherent enough narrative of how it takes place and a sufficiently gradual process of transformation that salvages an ongoing sense of self.

Walls asks us to re-envision the plot of A Christmas Carol, this time featuring Scrooge going to bed a selfish miser and waking up a new man, with an entirely new moral orientation, but without all the intervening plot twists that explain the transformation. Looking in the mirror the next morning, the “new” Scrooge might understandably ask who he really is.

So Walls pushes the need for a process of transformation that, intuitively, takes time, as events are wont to do. But many would resist his suggestion and opt instead for an instantaneous model of transformation because they’re inclined to think the Bible teaches such a thing. So no matter how clever, how philosophically adroit and logically coherent Walls’ approach may be, it is runs afoul of the Bible. Of course the resistance is based on a relatively few number of verses; on their surface, at least, other biblical verses seem to resonate a great deal with Walls’ suggestions, such as this one: “And I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns” (Philippians 1:6).

At any rate, a verse adduced to undermine Walls’ argument is likely to be this one: “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” (I John 3:2). Walls notes that John Polkinghorne, reflecting on this verse, writes that “there is a hint of a salvific process, for we can scarcely suppose that Christ will be taken in at a glance” (emphasis added). But some might find this unpersuasive, and remain adamantly committed to belief in instantaneous transformation after death.

Such people may be right, but, even so, they wouldn’t be right for a reason often cited, namely, that merely shedding the body makes glorification inevitable. That idea seems to be predicated on a pretty big mistake, the clearly unbiblical idea that the body is somehow inherently corrupt. Though an impeccable Gnostic view, it’s not a biblical one, and if instantaneous posthumous transformation is possible or actual, it’s surely not for that reason, which overlooks that our worst sins tend to be entrenched sins of the heart, like pride.

 Though an impeccable Gnostic view, it’s not a biblical one, and if instantaneous posthumous transformation is possible or actual, it’s surely not for that reason, which overlooks that our worst sins tend to be entrenched sins of the heart, like pride.

At any rate, another biblical reference some might wish to adduce to reject a process view is I Corinthians 15:52: “[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 many this seals the deal, precluding any suggestion that a process is needed, despite Walls being surely right that, when considering the logic of moral transformation, most all of our experience seems to demand such a process, one in which we come to terms with the truth, undergo genuine penitence and a change of heart, growth in sympathy and empathy and compassion. We can be forgiven in a moment, but wholesale changes to character don’t generally occur instantaneously. Significant crisis moments can happen, but going from being radically imperfect to totally perfect is nothing any of us has even remotely experienced. And I say this despite my Wesleyan inclinations that make me open to belief that, in an instant, God can fundamentally orient a believer’s heart toward Himself.

So what do we do with this impasse? Complete transformation requires a process incomplete at death, sometimes quite incomplete indeed, but that also arguably has to happen, potentially anyway, in the twinkling of an eye. Is this dilemma intractable?

What I would like to do is tentatively offer an effort at rapprochement. Suppose we grant both that (1) a process is needed, and that (2) it happens in the twinkling of an eye. Are these inconsistent? Only if we assume that the process needs more than the twinkling of an eye. As Corey Latta, author of When the Eternal Can Be Met: The Bergsonian Theology of Time in the Works of C. S. Lewis, T. S. Eliot, and W. H. Auden, puts it, “I imagine the twinkling of an eye to be both anthropomorphic, of course, and an ancient glimpse into a cosmological truth.”

What cosmological truth? Well, it’s natural to think of any process as requiring time, and an elaborate process quite on occasion, but there may be a reason to question this is always the case. Purgatory’s opponent seems to be presupposing a proposition like this: (3) Significant processes require a significant amount of time. If there is reason to doubt this in some important sense, then there may not be much tension at all between glorification taking place in the twinkling of an eye and its requiring a process, perhaps even a protracted one.

Much of the issue pertains to time. So consider a quick insight from science. As Bruce Gordon puts it, “If you were traveling at the speed of light time would not stop in your reference frame, but your clock would appear to have stopped to anyone who could see it from another reference frame (the ‘rest frame’) relative to which you were traveling at the speed of light. Of course, by relativistic length contraction in the direction of motion, the length of your spaceship would also have shrunk to zero as observed from the rest-frame (while nothing would have changed from your perspective). And also of course, unless you managed to transform your spaceship and yourself into massless particles, you wouldn’t be traveling at the speed of light anyway, because resistance to acceleration (mass) increases without bound as the speed of light is approached, so the speed of light can never be reached by massive objects because their mass would become infinite.”

So here’s the point for present purposes. Time would not stop in my reference frame even at the speed of light (bearing in mind that this is a counterfactual). And the closer to the speed of light I go, the more my clock appears to slow down from the perspective of someone in the “rest frame.” Thus, even a short interval, given this “plasticity” of time, might contain plenty of chance for transformation requiring an interval of time, perhaps a significant interval. To stick with the science example, someone traveling close to the speed of light might to me look like he’s experiencing just seconds (if I could see his clock onboard), while to him the experience could be days or weeks or months. So what might seem a mere moment to an observer might contain, for the person experiencing it, ample opportunity for a transformative process of some sort and longer duration.

I don’t presume to have a scientist’s grasp of relativistic implications of time, but this doesn’t undermine the claim that there’s a potential rapprochement between a posthumous process of radical transformation and a near instantaneous event. If time is so difficult to understand, especially after death, why assume that the “twinkling of an eye” precludes a process of transformation? Such an assumption strikes me as presumptuous, the assumption that we have a good bead on how time works after we’ve shuffled our mortal coil. What we do know of time seems to call such sanguine confidence into serious question. So perhaps the resistance to Walls is based less on what the Bible says, after all, and more, perhaps unwittingly, on what someone is supposing to be true about time, and ambitiously assuming at that.

What does the Bible mean when it says that a thousand years in our sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night? Is there not perhaps at least an intimation that time is more fluid or plastic than we might have imagined? C. S. Lewis played with this idea when, after the kids came back from Narnia, just a few minutes had passed, while their experience in Narnia had canvassed years. And an analogous spatial example can also be found in Lewis: Consider in The Great Divorce, when it’s revealed that hell inhabited but a speck of space. In that speck was the entirety of hell. For all we know the whole universe could be contained at the head of a pin; it wouldn’t make flying to London from New York go any quicker. And what might the twinkling of an eye contain? 
For all we know the whole universe could be contained at the head of a pin; it wouldn’t make flying to London from New York go any quicker. And what might the twinkling of an eye contain?

Arguably the Bible hints that God’s relation to time is fundamentally different from our own, and science seems to hint too that time is not what it at first seems. And apart from those considerations about time itself, there is also the fascinating issue of our subjective experience of time, rife with mysteries of its own. People who seem to “see” their lives flashing before their minds when they think they’re on the brink of death, or the subjective experience of time seeming to slow down in certain emergency situations; it’s not the case, presumably, in these cases, that time itself is showing its plasticity, but it goes to show the relativity or plasticity of our subjective responses to time. For present purposes, again, this is relevant, because it points to the possibility of a great many events transpiring in rapid succession, all within a short interval of time.

If a story is at least possible in which a process can occur in but a moment, then much of the evangelical angst over Walls’ proposal, predicated on the presumption we understand time better than we do—assumptions about how time works that are controversial indeed—may turn out to be misguided. Perhaps we can indeed experience an extensive, elaborate transformative process in a timeless moment, or at least in the twinkling of an eye.

Image: “Time goes by so fast” by J. Ramsden. CC License. 

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