The Problem of Heaven

The article below is a brief of a much long essay in progress:
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The problem of heaven emerges on the back of the problem of evil, or more specifically once a certain answer to the problem of evil is suggested: namely, the free will defense. This defense explains many of the world’s evils on the basis of human free will. However, this raises a further problem: is there free will in heaven? If there is, then will there be sin and evil in heaven? Isn’t heaven to be a place of sinlessness? If it is indeed a place of sinlessness, then how so if the people there are free? Even more problematic: if those in heaven are not free why didn’t God create the world like this from the start? If the people in heaven are free and yet somehow never sin, then the same question arises: why didn’t God create free people who always do the right thing from the start.

There seem to be four possible options:

1.There is free will in heaven but no-one ever sins.
2.There is no free will in heaven and no one ever sins.
3.There is free will in heaven and some freely choose to sin.
4.There is no free will in heaven and some sin.

Number 4 would be ruled out on two grounds. Firstly, the concept of sinning requires free will on the part of the agent, and so there cannot be sin where there is no free will. Secondly, if there is no free will and people do “bad” things (perhaps like a robot programmed to kill) then God would appear to be the cause of this sort of marred heavenly existence, which Christian theism must rule out.

Number 3 may avoid the first problem faced by 4 above but it doesn’t appear to be a live option for the Christian, given biblical teaching about heaven which appears to make sinlessness a prerequisite.

So, the live options for the Christian are 1 and 2. There is no sin in heaven, and the issue is whether or not there is free will. However, whichever option we decide is correct faces a problem: if there is free will then how can there be no sin? Surely given enough time someone will freely choose to do wrong. On the other hand if there is no free will then we must ask why there was ever free will. Why didn’t God create humans like this from the beginning and thus avoid the whole mess of sinfulness and the fall?

The nature of free will is crucial. What we must acknowledge from the outset is that free will is not absolute. We are more or less free with respect to certain actions or doings in certain specific contexts. For instance, let’s say I’m in a helicopter flying over the city and the pilot invites me to jump out. Am I free to jump to my death? Well, yes, in the sense that I could if I desired jump out of the helicopter and plummet to by doom. People do after all die in similar circumstances from time to time. There are no external constraints preventing me from doing so. However, in another sense, I’m not free to jump out. I desire to live and this desire is so strong that I will not jump out, even though doing so is certainly logically possible. Alternatively, if I go to a restaurant with my wife and the menu lists 3 options – liver, steak and chicken – then I know my wife will choose chicken, despite the fact that she does so freely. And so it seems to me that our level of free will is not absolute in all circumstances, but is context dependent.

With this conception of free will briefly sketched out we can re-approach the heavenly throne. Might it be possible that there is free will in heaven and yet no-one ever choose to sin? Or might there be free will but not free will to sin? On Christian theism it isn’t difficult to imagine the context in which this is possible. Theologians have long spoken of the “beatific vision.” This concerns the intense experience of God’s presence directly to the saints in heaven. Our union with God will be so overwhelming that sin is no longer a live option for us. Imagine being on an island which is so beautiful, and which contains everything we need and desire. One day a boat docks and the captain invites the islanders to leave for another island – a place of desolation and hardship (and, oh, there is a mighty storm presently out at sea!). Who would choose to leave? Surely no one would. And yet, isn’t it correct to think that we do indeed freely stay on the island? I suspect something analogous holds with respect to heaven. This means that our having free will has the same practical outcome as having none at all – sin just isn’t a real possibility. So, while it may be broadly logically possible to sin, it simply is psychologically possible under heavenly circumstances, anymore than a starving man would freely leave a banquet before eating.

But, the Christian theist is not yet out of the woods. For now he must answer the question: why didn’t God create the world like this from the very beginning? Why not fully manifest his being to his creation and avoid all the sinful mess in the first place? Why not create this kind of world – one charged from the beginning with the tangible presence of God – rather than the world we behold?

To begin answering this question we should note first of all that heaven is not in fact a total state of affairs. It is a partial state of affairs that, crucially, pertains on the back of another state of affairs, which together make up the total state of affairs. If heaven is something that must be freely chosen then it simply isn’t the case that God could have created the world like this from the beginning. The intense and overwhelming presence of God would remove creaturely free will such that no-one could freely choose or freely reject God. In Christianity heaven is something of a reward for those who have chosen Christ in this life. Those who say “no” to God in this life do not reap the heavenly benefits. In order to allow morally significant freedom for his creatures God has created us at “epistemic distance.” His presence under these circumstances is not therefore coercive. God really can be rejected if that is what a person wishes to do.

So, God remains partially hidden in this life. Pascal suggested that the presence of God is balanced in this world such that those who want to know God will find Him, while those of a contrary disposition will not. Such can go their own way if they please. To the faithful – those who have freely chosen God – He grants heavenly blessedness. In this new state of affairs, however, his presence (the reward of their faithfulness) is now so overpowering that they can no longer turn against Him. In this way their lack of freedom with respect to sin and God was freely chosen.

There is much more to unpack here, but hopefully enough has been said to show that it is not implausible to suggest that the saints in heaven do not have free will (at least with respect to sinning), and that there is good reason – in the preservation of morally significant human freedom – for why God did not create the world like this from the beginning.

Stephen J Graham

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