Short Article (5) – The Fall, Free Will & Heaven: a Thought Experiment

The so-called “problem of heaven” emerges in the context of solutions to the problem of evil which call upon the free will defense. Moral evil – and sometimes even natural evil – is often explained by the creaturely abuse of free will. However, there are problems lurking here. I once heard a philosopher make the following argument: Adam and Eve were created in a perfect paradise, had free will, and sinned. Since heaven is once again a perfect paradise, in which we have free will, won’t there be the high possibility of someone sinning?

This philosopher obviously had in mind the traditional Augustinian understanding of creation and the fall. The idea of an finite but perfect human pair created to live in a perfect paradise is not one that I adhere to. Not only does it face strong empirical difficulties, but it makes the origin of sin an utter mystery. How is it that a perfect being in a perfect environment freely chooses to sin? That suggests the beings in question weren’t perfect to begin with. Anyhow, since I accept that there is a large proportion of Christendom that embraces this notion, or at least something very similar to it, I’m going to grant it for the sake of argument and ask if there is any incoherence in the notion that we are free to sin in heaven but that no-one ever will despite the fact that the first humans did so in a similar perfect environment.

Imagine an island that to passing ships looks like a beautiful utopia. The island has an uncanny charm that seems to draw people to it. However, when smaller ships try to sail close the waves and the currents tear them to pieces and leave the sailors stranded on the island. What looks like a beautiful utopia from the sea is soon discovered to be anything but. The sailors must live on a diet of sour sea slugs and bitter berries, and at night time they must sleep in trees to avoid being eaten by the terrifying wild dogs which inhabit the island and hunt in packs at night. Sadly these trees are invested with mites which cause severe itching and boils, a plight which is only a little better than being torn apart by the dogs. One day a huge naval vessel spots smoke from a fire lit by the sailors and sends in a helicopter to rescue them. Suppose 5 years later one of these sailors is captaining a ship sailing in this same area. One of his shipmates points to the island and suggests a visit to it. It seems so incredibly alluring despite warnings the sailor has heard concerning it. Now, the captain is certainly free to visit the island, but there’s no way he will do so. He has lived experience which tells him to keep away at all costs. He has lived for the past 5 years in relative luxury and has no desire to return to that accursed island.

Might not something similar hold in heaven? Firstly, the inhabitants of heaven will experience what theologians have called the “beatific vision” – an intense and direct awareness of the loving presence of the almighty God to whom they owe everything. Secondly, it’s not implausible to think that the saints will retain a memory of this fallen world with all its sorrow, suffering, worry, death, and struggles. This contrast – or so it seems to me – would easily be enough to ensure that no-one in heaven ever sins, despite remaining free to do so. Just as the captain will never relinquish his comfortable life to visit the deadly island a second time, so the saints in heaven will never abandon their glorious life for the miseries they experienced during their fallen existence. They know too well from bitter experience the full consequences of rejecting God.

Interestingly, this means that only a fallen and redeemed person would be in the position of being free whilst not actually sinning. Adam and Eve – on the traditional understanding – had no knowledge of the fall, no experience of the misery it would cause; the fallen existence was not one they knew from bitter experience prior to their temptation and sin. In some ways they are like the captain of the ship when he sees the island for the first time, whereas redeemed sinners would be like the captain of the ship who had been rescued and sees the island sometime later.

So, even though I don’t ascribe to the traditional Augustinian understanding of the fall, I think that view can survive the criticism that is made of it in this case. Whether it can stand up to other problems is a question for another time.

Stephen J. Graham



Filed under Creation, Free Will, Heaven, Problem of Evil, Saint Augustine

2 responses to “Short Article (5) – The Fall, Free Will & Heaven: a Thought Experiment

  1. How is it that a perfect being in a perfect environment freely chooses to sin? Great question. And how did a perfectly good being like God even come up with the idea of evil and sin? Or were both of them a complete surprise to God? Can God be surprised?

  2. I am not sure the example has much to do with “free will” as if a conscious being without free will wouldn’t come to the same conclusion as to how deadly and irritating some things or behaviors can be, and react by staying away from them.

    How does one define “free will,” unless nonsensically, it is the ability to make decisions other than the ones you would have made anyway, given one’s current experiences and level of education and ingrained habits and prejudices and cognitive biases, acquired in one’s lifetime, and including also any number of minuscule tipping factors like the butterfly’s wing effect. Instead, I think people change when the pain of remaining the same becomes too great. Will doesn’t have to be “free” in the absolutely “free” libertarian philosophical sense to simply be will. Every animal makes decisions, and keeps moving and reacting to stimuli, and makes more. Besides, there’s no way to test for absolutely free libertarian free will since there is no way to place someone in exactly the same space-time situation more than once including every other factor duplicated, so we can never know if that person would have “chosen differently.” I also think making WELL INFORMED decisions is something we should all concentrate on rather than boasting we have made “free will” decisions. And let’s say we COULD make the experiment I mentioned above, putting a person in exactly the same space-time place and we could see that person make a totally different decision even with all of the zillion factors remaining exactly the same. That might only prove that one’s “will” functioned unpredictably like spinning a wheel of fortune, making every decision a gamble, based on no solid connections even with your own memories and past experiences. And that’s not a meaningful way to live. Better to stress remaining well informed in our decision making, remaining connected to the past and future. So, meet different people, read literature, study history and nature, look through telescopes, study and learn, and may we all make well informed decisions, or at least better informed ones over time.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.