Let’s try a thought experiment: upon reading this sentence, you experience a massive heart attack and die (God forbid!); but because you believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, you awaken into the dazzling presence of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (glory to God!). You are in heaven! At that moment you discover that you have been delivered from all of your hatreds, lusts, vices, pettiness, and disordered desires. You are filled with a passionate love for every human being, including your mean-spirited supervisor at work. You love everyone, you forgive everyone, you rejoice in everyone. You deeply regret all the injuries you have afflicted on others. Perhaps most surprisingly, you find that you actually love your God, not out of obligation but freely and spontaneously. You are truly a new creation!
Would you recognize yourself?
Would your mother recognize you?
Would you be you?
The problem is this: the greater the change, the greater the discontinuity between your earthly self and your eschatological self, the greater will be your difficulty in grasping the unity of the two. Jerry Walls puts it like this:
Simply put, the only way I can know who I am in the present is by knowing my past as well. In particular, I must understand the connection between my past and my present. How did my present grow or develop out of my past? If I cannot answer this, I do not really know who I am now. …
Here is where purgatory comes in. Most of us are not perfect now, nor will be when we die, but we will be perfect in heaven. So what we need is an account of how such imperfect people can be transformed in a way that preserves their identity. Such change must be gradual enough and intelligible enough that continuity is maintained with our past as we grow toward perfection and actually achieve it. (Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory, p. 133)
Walls elaborates upon this problem of identity by a brief re-telling of the story of Ebenezer Scrooge but omitting the visits by the ghost of Jacob Marley and the three spirits of Christmas. Scrooge awakens on Christmas morning an utterly changed man. Miraculously, inexplicably, he desires to shower gifts upon Bob Cratchett and his family and to visit his nephew for Christmas dinner. Walls suggests that Scrooge would be utterly bewildered by his transformation:
But even more to the point, Scrooge himself is utterly baffled at his own thoughts and behavior. He remembers his actions and attitudes of the previous day, and indeed, many similar thoughts and actions over the past several years. As he reflects on these memories, he cannot fathom what has happened to him so that he now thinks and feels so radically different than he did just the day before. “Who am I?” he asks himself with true bewilderment, looking in the mirror as he dresses for Christmas dinner.
Now it is obvious that to alter the story in this way totally destroys its integrity. Such dramatic change would leave readers as bewildered as it would Scrooge and his maid. The power and beauty of the story is due to the account of how Scrooge undergoes his radical transformation. The reason the story appeals to us is that it makes not only dramatic but psychological and moral sense of how the most despised man in town “became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew.” … The point is that if he woke up radically different from the way he was the night before, with no sense of continuity, no realistic sense of how that happened, he would not even know himself. He would face a serious identity crisis.
The point for emphasis here is that Dickens’ account of Scrooge’s initial transformation is presented as a process. Indeed, Scrooge gets a tour of his whole life, including his future yet to come. He gets to see how he had “become” the sort of man that he was and how his life would end up if he did not change. He has the chance to review the crucial choices he made by which he came to love money more than people. … As he revisits these crucial episodes, he begins to see things in a completely different light; as a result, his hard heart begins to soften. (pp. 135-136)
Charles Dickens portrays Scrooge’s metamorphosis not as a magical event but as a process by which Scrooge is enabled to reassess his life in the light of everything he has learned about himself and those with whom he shared a history. His conversion thus makes narrative and personal sense: “Dickens presents Scrooge’s transformation as the result of a deep repentance that goes all the way to the roots of who he is and how he has become the person that he is” (p. 137).
Thought experiments like this do not prove anything, but they do have suggestive value. Scrooge would have preferred a condensed encounter with the ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Yet to Come (“Couldn’t I take ’em all at once, and have it over, Jacob?”); but his repentance required the temporal process of three distinct visitations. In his book Purgatory: The Logic of Transformation (which I highly recommend), Walls avers that the story of Scrooge “can be taken as a narrative argument that moral and character transformation cannot happen all at once, but happens incrementally and progressively as truth is discovered, acknowledged, and elicits the appropriate change in attitude, values, and behavior” (p. 121).
Perhaps ole Ebenezer has something to teach us about how God will perfect us in his kingdom.