Category Archives: Heaven

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

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

Will the Ancient Greeks be Saved?

I love ancient Greece. I adore the stories they told about heroes and gods, and delight in how they displayed these stories in stone works and painted objects. My desktop background on my computer is an image of Zeus throwing a thunderbolt. Admittedly I am far more fascinated by ancient Greece than ancient Israel, my religious forebears.

I should point out that I’m using the phrase “ancient Greeks” rather loosely – to refer to everything from the Mycenaean empire to the classical Greece of the philosophers. What has happened to these people? Where are they now? For atheists the answer is simple: they have gone the way of all flesh; dead and decomposed, leaving only a selection of artworks and old ruins to testify that they ever existed. They have been, as we one day will be, gnawed away by the savage teeth of time.

However, for theists – and Christians in particular – the answer is not so simple. Christians traditionally believe that when we die our soul will (prior to the final resurrection) abide either in the presence of God – Heaven – or a place of punishment – Hell. Some might hold to a belief in some form of purgatory, and others might adhere to the notion of “soul sleep,” whereby the dead unconsciously rest awaiting the final resurrection and judgement at the end of time. Regardless, even if we can’t answer the question “heaven or hell?” now, most Christians would agree that the ultimate fate of every person is either heaven or hell – the presence of God, or His absence (sometimes thought to be annihilation, but more commonly conceived as conscious torment). And so the question remains: what of my beloved Greeks? The Greeks lived long before Christ, so knew nothing of the gospel. Moreover, they knew nothing of Yahweh or the Old Testament covenants. Their world was much smaller than ours. Greeks believed that most people went to Hades after death – a ghostly shadowy existence. If you were a particularly great hero you might make it to the Elysian Fields, or even get promoted to Olympian immortality, a la Heracles. But what should Christians think? Will the ancient Greeks go to heaven or hell?

I want to look briefly at four common Christian answers, (though please note this is far from an exhaustive list).

1. The Strict Calvinist Answer

God has preordained the lives of all people. Some are preordained to everlasting life, others to everlasting damnation. Since the ancient Greeks were not part of God’s elect or his chosen people, they are condemned to Hell. God has chosen, in his sovereignty, not to disclose Himself to them and save them. He has chosen to leave them in their wickedness, their fallen human state, a state we see clearly from the poverty of their religious ideas. This is not unjust, on the contrary God is right to punish them as sinners. I confess I have a difficult time with Calvinist explanations such as this one. That God creates millions of people without any hope of salvation and destined for eternal conscious torment is a rather disgusting doctrine that every fibre of my moral sense resists. Of course, it might turn out to be true, but given how the doctrine flies in the face of our sense of morality and justice I think we are justified in looking at other answers.

2. The Qualified Universalist Answer

This view holds that whilst everyone who hears the gospel and rejects it is hellbound, those who have never heard it – such as the ancient Greeks – get a free pass through the pearly gates by dint of ignorance. This view can be heard often enough at the popular level, but it isn’t one I’ve heard from any Christian theologian, since it suffers from one fatal problem: If it’s the case that ignorance of the gospel gives a free pass to heaven then there seems fairly strong moral case against evangelism. Preaching to those who have never heard the gospel puts them at serious risk. The way to populate heaven would be to keep the gospel to yourself, hide all the Bibles, close the churches, and suppress the gospel message as far as possible.

3. The Liberal Universalist Answer

On this view people such as the ancient Greeks will go to heaven because ultimately everyone does anyway. This obviously avoids the problem with qualified universalism by dispensing with the eternal punishments of Hell, but does it threaten the importance of preaching and mission? Many Christian theologians think it does, but I think that might be hasty. Admittedly, if all religions are equally good paths to God, then the importance of preaching and mission with a view to conversion is unnecessary. However, that idea is not essential to universalism. Perhaps a universalist could hold that whilst everyone ultimately goes to heaven, there are different ways of getting there and some are better than others. Perhaps Christianity is the pinnacle of God’s self-revelation to the world, and perhaps those who embrace it get further along on the journey. This, however, strikes me as speculative and with little basis in Christian tradition, despite the best efforts of excellent thinkers – such as John Hick – to give it a theological basis.

4. The Standard Answer

Here the notion is that those who have never received the gospel are simply judged by the light that they do have, and thus some of the ancient Greeks are bound for heaven, whilst others bound for hell. What is it to be judged by the light one has? Well, it means that each person is held to a standard suitable for their moral and spiritual knowledge and awareness. Has some given person done well with the knowledge he or she had available? Take some ancient Greek – perhaps a priest of Apollo. He believes in the gods, has a sense of right and wrong which he seeks to live by, desires to worship the gods in the way he sees as proper and fitting, and in particular wishes to see Apollo exalted and honoured and the people who come to worship him blessed. He does not know Yahweh, but he does have some religious or moral awareness which he seeks to follow as well as he can. Is it not plausible that such a man will be saved? I cannot of course say that he will or he won’t – humans are poorly placed indeed – morally and epistemologically – to make such judgments, but I don’t see that we can rule it out and it strikes me as a solution to the problem which should satisfy most believers.

Perhaps then one day I might just shoot the breeze with Plato or have a good laugh with Aristophanes.

Stephen J. Graham

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Filed under Calvinism, Eternal Life, Heaven, Hell, Salvation, Universalism

Eternal Life: Meaningless & Boring?

The full text of a reflection (for a popular Christian audience) on the common charge that eternal life would be boring and meaningless. Text awaiting publication.

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A friend of mine once quipped that eternal life would never get boring, since his wife would always find something for him to do.

But not everyone is so optimistic. In his essay, “The Problems of the Self,”[1] philosopher Bernard Williams argues that eternal life is not desirable and death is something we should welcome and appreciate. If we never died life would become one big bore-fest, and would, reckons Williams, ultimately be meaningless. Williams cites a story by Karel Copec (1890-1938), in which the character Elina Makropulos drinks an elixir of life. The story joins her at 42 years old, the “age” she has now been for 300 years. Her life is presented as having become meaningless and boring.

Such a complaint is often found on the lips of unbelievers, and I must confess that often we Christians have spoken of eternal life in ways which make it a less than thrilling proposition. One preacher speaks of “singing one glorious hymn after another for all time.” Does that excite you? For many folks this sounds as thrilling as flossing for all eternity. Presenting eternal life as one never-ending church service has done the notion of eternal life incredible damage in the eyes of an unbelieving world, most of whom struggle with an hour on a Sunday a few times a year. How then should we speak of eternal life?

I should point out straight away that reflection on eternal life – even for us Christians – will always be somewhat speculative, and we can really offer little more than some imaginative suggestions (hopefully more imaginative than singing one glorious hymn after another). We do after all only see through a glass darkly and cannot possibly fathom what God has prepared for those who love him. But I think reflecting on this is still worthwhile, if only to help change the popular perception that life eternal would be a meaningless bore-fest.

It might be useful to start with what we do know: our own earthly existence. Let’s put ourselves in the shoes of Elina Makropulos. Would life really become boring and meaningless, even after a mere few centuries?

I want to deal with the charge of boredom first. I find it almost unthinkable that eternal life would become boring. Firstly, this world, as the creation of God, is an amazingly fascinating place. If I lived 300 lifetimes I couldn’t imagine anything other than barely scratching the surface of the riches God has made and given us access to.

Take just a few simple examples. My son loves the museum, and when we visit I find myself overwhelmed with interest in so many different things. I’d love to know more about things like the dating of fossils or to be involved in finding and studying them. How fascinating are Egyptian hieroglyphics! How wonderful it would be to study archaeology and head off to exotic locations on a “dig” (complete with Indiana Jones hat, of course). If you visit a museum and don’t come away with a sense of how fascinating and wonderful our world is then you haven’t opened your eyes!

Or consider all those places you see from the air as you pass over in a plane en route to your destination, places you just don’t have time to visit. The earth is full of fascinating places, most of which we’ll never see in one – or even 100 – lifetimes. Think of the wonders of the world both natural and manmade: Niagara Falls, the Taj Mahal, Mt Everest, the Grand Canyon, the Sinai desert, the Great Wall of China, and the Amazon rainforest. The earth is full of such glorious riches! And we’re not even off the planet yet! Consider the immensity of the cosmos, the stars and the galaxies. Physics is constantly bringing us face to face with new wonders, and showing us all the time how incredibly awesome – and often wonderfully weird – the cosmos is.

Imagine having lived from the time of Christ until today – 2000 years. There are so many fascinating and amazing events you could have witnessed or been a part of. This life, our planet, the biological world, the cosmos, is far too wonderful and immense to grow bored with if we view it with open minds and open eyes. And that’s before we consider all the great books we could read, plays we could watch, campaigns to fight, and people to meet. Or I think of one of my own loves: philosophy. One of my great frustrations is having to skip over ideas and personalities simply because I just don’t have time for indulging such curiosities and heading down every intellectual rabbit hole that takes my fancy.

Lastly, I should also mention what I call the “joy of mere being.” This has nothing to do with doing anything or going anywhere or striving for any goal. It’s the joy we derive simply from being alive. I’ve experienced this profound sense of joy on several occasions: gazing at a mountain range on a bright morning, or lounging on a beach and watching the sea, or holding my son for the first time. These are moments we wish could last “forever.” Ironically, we don’t have so many of these experiences due to being so busy getting things done before our time runs out.

I think if we can say all this about an eternal earthly life, we can certainly say it about eternal life in a new heaven and new earth. We can’t say precisely what such an existence would be like, but we do know that it will far outstrip what we do know. Moreover, we know that we will experience the presence of God himself in a wonderful way that currently eludes us. And this brings me to the charge that eternal life would be meaningless.

It is true that eternal life by itself may well be meaningless. One story tells of an astronaut hopelessly lost in space. He has two vials: one containing a poison and the other containing an elixir that will give him immortality. Seeing how hopeless his situation is he decides to drink the poison, but mixes the vials and ends up drinking the potion that makes him immortal. Thus he is doomed to spend eternity floating aimlessly through the cosmos; a life without meaning.

However, we mustn’t think that death or dying is what gives meaning to our existence. The ultimate source of meaning for our life is God. Consider briefly the very bad news that follows if atheism is true. William Lane Craig writes, “On the atheistic view human beings are just accidental by-products of nature who have evolved relatively recently on an infinitesimal speck of dust called planet Earth – lost somewhere in a hostile and mindless universe – and are doomed to perish individually and collectively in a relatively short time.”[2] Or Richard Dawkins, “There is at bottom no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pointless indifference.”[3] This doesn’t sound like a very meaningful existence to me. Nor does it sound like much fun.

Over and against this Christian theism holds that God is the one in whom we “live and move and have our being.”[4] Christ came “that you may have life and have it to the full.”[5] And if we remember nothing else of our catechism, we do know this: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.”[6] We mustn’t make the mistake then of conceiving of immortality as simply never-ending existence. That in itself may not be very meaningful or joyful. But rather we must always keep in mind that our eternal life will be of a certain quality too, a quality based on the very being of God Himself. Theologians refer to the beatific vision – the enjoyment by the saints of the full revelation of God himself, in all his glory and perfection, directly to them.

Such is difficult for us to grasp in this life. After all, as Paul puts it, we merely “see through a glass darkly.”[7] But we can know for sure that eternal life for the saints in heaven will be the fulfilment of existence and more joyful than we can possibly imagine.

I suspect, therefore, that there will be far more to do and enjoy than singing one glorious hymn after another; and eternal life will certainly be more joyful and meaningful than the never-ending list of chores my friend envisions.

Stephen J. Graham

NOTES

[1] Cambridge University Press, 1973

[2] William Lane Craig, “Navigating Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape,” http://www.reasonablefaith.org 2012

[3] Richard Dawkins River out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life (New York: Basic, 1996)

[4] Acts 17:28

[5] John 10:10

[6] Westminster Shorter Catechism

[7] 1 Corinthians 13:12

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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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