Category Archives: Free Will

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

Lego & Philosophy

Most of my philosophical teaching and learning occurs in all-adult contexts. But the past few months I’ve discovered how wonderful a tool Lego is for firing the philosophical imaginations and musings of kids. I’ll illustrate a few simple examples from my own experience of playing with my 7 year old son, who’s played with nothing but Lego for about 9 months now – mostly Lego Star Wars and Lord of the Rings. Fine by me! (My nickname for my son is “Mo Chara” which is Irish for “my friend.”)

Lego has presented quite a few lead-ins to philosophical thought. Here are four examples of conversations I’ve had with Mo Chara.

1. Creation

This is probably the most obvious connection. When we play with Lego we are the gods of the Lego world. Nothing gets built but at our hands. Here is a pile of bricks. Here is another pile of bricks, this time in the form of a house. How did that happen? Did mummy empty the box and the bricks by chance came out already built into a house? Nope, reckons Mo Chara. That must’ve been built by someone. Does this concept transfer over to the universe itself? Is the universe the sort of thing we look at and draw similar conclusions about? Mo Chara thinks the answer to that question is fairly obvious. This isn’t surprising since there is psychological research which shows that – contrary to the typical Internet Atheist claims that children are born atheists – children readily and naturally attribute all manner of phenomena to agency, as if such an intuition is hard-wired.

2. Personal Identity

What is a person? What makes me me and you you? If you lose a leg are you still you or just partly you? If we take Darth Vader’s head and swap it with Darth Maul’s head which one is Darth Vader and which one is Darth Maul? Likewise, if my brain goes into your body and vice versa, then which one is me and which one is you? Mo Chara’s current solution is that neither Darth Vader nor Darth Maul exist any longer; we have simply created two new creatures: Darth Mader and Darth Vaul.

3. Providence & Freedom

In discussion with a “strong” Calvinist I once parodied his view of God’s providence over the world by comparing it to my providence over the Lego world. The orcs kidnap elves because I make them do so. Dwarves wipe out orcs at my command. When I call out the storm troopers they cometh from the east and the west. When I send Yoda into battle, into battle does he go. When I command Saruman’s Uruk Hai to attack Rivendell, the trees crash like the mighty cedars of Lebanon. It all happens because I make it happen. So, what room then for responsibility? Are the orcs responsible for what they do? Aren’t we unjust to have them punished by Gandalf? Mo Chara disagrees with me on this point. He seems to think that while the orcs only do what they do because we make them do it; they are bad by nature and would do bad things anyway. So, punish away Gandalf. Thy judgment is just.

4. Ownership & Property

I built a cave out of Lego bricks last week. Do I own the cave? Well, the bricks weren’t mine to begin with. But, then again, the fact that the cave now exists is due to my time and effort spent in developing it. Does that give me ownership rights over the cave? We live in a world full of natural resources. Who owns those resources and why? I confess to being a tad put out when Mo Chara pulled my cave to bits to build a pyramid without so much as a by your leave. “I own the Lego, because it’s in my toy room.” “But I bought the Lego and the room is in the house.” “Shut up Daddy. It’s mine!” Well, you can’t expect them to be philosophical all the time!

But it’s all good…the conversations aren’t forced…it’s part of the fun…who’d have thought Lego could turn out to be so philosophically friendly? If only you could construct a worldview out of it.

Stephen J. Graham

Leave a comment

Filed under Free Will, God, Lego

The Problem of Heaven

The article below is a brief of a much long essay in progress:

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

Leave a comment

Filed under Free Will, Heaven