Free Will in Heaven

An interesting question came up recently in an exchange I was having with an atheist who was kind enough to comment on my blog charitably. The question concerned how, or whether, people who had free will could exist in heaven and be expected never to sin. Now, while there are logically possible ways in which to ensure that all those in heaven never sin – for instance if God knows the counterfactual “if Fred were to be received into heaven, he would eventually sin” then he can simply ensure that nobody for whom that counterfactual would be true could be accepted into heaven. There are other possibilities as well, such as that human beings retain innate freedom, and yet are never again presented with the occasion to sin. Of course, so long as worship is a moral prerogative this last position is problematic even conceptually, since nobody can be forced to freely worship, and if man is free to worship then he must be free to refrain, and thus, in refraining, sin. Another solution could be that free will is taken away altogether from man. Finally, Origen thought that since man must have free will in heaven, there would inevitably be a second fall from grace, and then a third after that, and so on ad infinitum.

However, what all these possibilities have in common is precisely that they are not in the least consonant with a Catholic sensus fidelium, let alone Catholic theology itself. Instead, the correct answer is, I suspect, that we retain free will entirely. How, though, can we explain that it is possible for us to have free will and yet be guaranteed against the possibility of sinning in heaven? I think we must begin by recognizing that free will can never be exercised contrary to one’s nature. For example, God has free will, and yet God truly cannot do anything evil precisely because his nature precludes his acting in such a way. This doesn’t, properly speaking, ‘limit’ his freedom so much as ground the nature of his freedom. God cannot, for example, freely choose to not exist, since God exists such that he cannot not exist. No exercise of free will can contradict the nature of the free agent any more than bachelor could be married. Once one see’s this, the pieces begin to fall into place: the Christian vision of man redeemed in heaven is of man being wholly regenerate (literally re-genesis, thus a new creation). Thus you might say that those in heaven, in the eschaton, have already exercised their free will with respect to determining their nature or ultimate orientation. We become, in a real sense, no longer free to sin than an angel, or God, is free to sin, except in the sense that we by nature perpetually choose not to). We remain, therefore, truly free, and can exercise that freedom in a variety of ways, such as freely exploring and enjoying the new heavens and new earth – freely choosing where to go and what to do, etc. However, we no longer have before us the ultimate choice to make of whether to live in communion with God, or else to not. A person in heaven can no more sin than the desolate in hell can cease to sin.

Thus, we remain entirely free, and yet because our nature has been solidified into one of two forms (that of reciprocal kenosis, or that of perpetual selfishness), we cannot act against our nature, and thus our freedom is no longer exercised with respect to determining our nature (that is left for the drama of this life).



About tylerjourneaux

I am an aspiring Catholic theologian and philosopher, and I have a keen interest in apologetics. I am creating this blog both in order to practice and improve my writing and memory retention as I publish my thoughts, and in order to give evidence of my ability to understand and communicate thoughts on topics pertinent to Theology, Philosophy, philosophical theology, Catholic (Christian) Apologetics, philosophy of religion and textual criticism.
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3 Responses to Free Will in Heaven

  1. Mike says:

    Interesting, I too have often thought about the practicality of heaven and I think, like it or not, that heaven is Christianity’s greatest selling point, at least historically, and yet it remains so tragically unexplained.

    Personally, I think heaven cannot exist, unless we are all stripped of our personality, our desires, and essentially turned into mindless drones, without anything remotely close to free will. To me, spending an eternity in such a state sounds a lot like hell. What would be the point of existence? To worship god, forever? Is that your only right in heaven? It makes little sense to an atheist like me that I should worship god in this world, so that I can be “rewarded” the opportunity of worshiping god forever in heaven, where I will not have any free will or choice in the matter. I’d take death over that any day.

    Even if in heaven you are allowed to indulge in every temptation forbidden to you during your terrestrial life, how long could that entertain you before you inevitably bore of it? If in heaven you become knowledgeable of all the universe’s mysteries, so that there are no more to discover, wouldn’t an existence without curiosity become one with no purpose? What would you do in this situation after, say, a thousand years of existence? What about ten thousand, or a hundred thousand, or a million? Even after all of this time, there is still eternity to look forward to. What could possibly keep your consciousness occupied for eternity?

    And if angels cannot sin, as you suggested above, that defeats your hypothesis that an angel falling created original sin and screwed god’s plan up. Does that leave you only with Adam & Eve?

    • These really are very typical questions which one usually finds among people who have never bothered to read anything about heaven, either from a Church Father, or a modern day theologian or philosopher. So, perhaps a good place to start would be to point the way towards a more compelling vision of heaven than the childish one you seem to envision. First, worship of God in heaven obviously can’t make sense to a person who doesn’t understand why it is natural and reasonable for man to worship God in this life, so in that matter the question shifts from being about heaven to being about the worship of God. You should know that Christians believe, and often aren’t shy about saying, that people are bored with good things here on earth, like sex, wealth, education, art, and so on, only because these things point towards God in some confused way (sex perhaps most obviously of all). They are left dry by these things, getting bored of them eventually, because these things don’t really satisfy us. They seem like what we really want, until we’ve had them and get bored of them. The Christian believes, however, that what we are really looking for is God, who is the summum bonum. ‘We have a God shaped hole in all of us’ is an expression of this conviction – that we are made for communion and love, and that this is only entirely fulfilled in our relationship to God. We do have a desire which is for unlimited infinite unconditional love and communion, and according to the Christian this cannot be satisfied by anything in this world. This is actually the major premise in an argument for the existence of God, called the argument from desire.

      Moreover, this point about boredom is one which doesn’t carry much weight if boredom itself is a result of original sin. Here’s a wonderfully playful passage from G.K. Chesterton to think about:

      “Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”
      ~ G.K. Chesterton

      If this is the case then in heaven we could never get bored. We only imagine being bored in heaven because we think heaven will be something like what we have now, only better, whereas in reality words fail to describe what heaven is like. The best we can do to describe heaven is to say that it is the beatific vision, and this is what the Catholic Church says.

      However, even in the theological and speculative things which Christians say about heaven, heaven is more exciting than you seem to imagine. From being able to walk on the surface of the sun without being harmed, to being able to travel at the speed of thought from one place to another, to being entirely in love with God, to having a resurrected body which does not suffer corruption, being able to eat and not needing to, etc etc. Whatever else such a picture looks like, it certainly is more than what you seem to have in mind. However, again, the main point is that heaven is the end for which all men were made, because heaven is man in perfect communion with God.

      On the matter of Angels, I suspect you’re just confused, so I’ll try to explain a little bit about the theology of Angels. Angels are spiritual beings who were created and given a libertarian free choice to either be angels (which means simply to do what they were created to do) or else to reject being angels. The confusion is that people think angels are supposed to be some kind of species of things, like Zebras, but that isn’t what the Catholic faith tells us about angels. The word Angel literally means ‘messenger’ and is used in the Bible for both spiritual entities and for human prophets. Angels, in the sense of spiritual beings, are simply those spiritual beings who act as messengers of God (i.e., fulfill their vocation), whereas demons are those spiritual beings, of the very same nature, who freely decided not to act thus. Now, here’s the point: the angelic knowledge is intuitive. If an angel understands one or two arithmetical truths, they immediately apprehend all arithmetical truths. We learn arithmetical truths only through a long process of practice, trial and error because of our mode of grasping truths. Angels, or demons, can intuit all implications and entailments. This is all standard theological baggage which Christianity comes with. Now, if a spiritual being makes a free will decision they do so with a full and complete knowledge of everything that choice entails, whereas we choose things freely with a limited knowledge or awareness of what the entailments are. This means that we can regret our decisions because we made them under duress, or not thinking clearly, or without fully appreciating the severity of the consequences. Spiritual beings like Angels or Demons, however, do not regret their decisions after the fact. They have a full and complete apprehension of the consequences of the choices they make before they make them, and thus it is no more possible for a spiritual being which is an Angel, like Michael, to change his mind and reject his vocation after the fact, then it is possible for a demon, like Satan, to repent after the fact. Angels cannot sin because they have already, by definition, chosen not to sin, whereas demons, which have the exact same nature as Angels, cannot do good by definition.

      That, as you can see at this point, does nothing to undermine the notion that there was a primordial fall of spiritual beings who rejected their Angelic vocations.

      Finally, just by way of personal reflection on one comment you made above: I don’t think that heaven is Christianity’s greatest selling point. I think Christianity’s greatest selling point, historically, just is the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Christianity is compelling principally because He is compelling.

      • Mike says:

        I don’t think my view of heaven is childish at all, I based it on what many “sophisticated” theologians think it’s like, I just take it to its logical conclusions that they choose to ignore. Now I said from the start that there are many versions of heaven so I don’t hold you to any one in particular.

        Yes it is true that things like sex, wealth, education, art can become boring to most of us – although some people truly live for those things and feel empty without them. You think everything points towards god, including presumably gay sex, and I’ll just say that is your opinion. I am familiar with what Christians primarily believe, but the idea that we have a god shaped heart in us means we are, as Hitchens’ said, born sick or somehow deficient. I am who you might say is so made that I cannot believe, as Pascal said. Many people are not religious by default and the rise in secularism shows us that when religious belief is not made compulsory, and when the social pressure to profess faith evaporates, our true secular nature can live as it does for hundreds of millions today, with more to come.

        What you’re doing is simply projecting your religious nature onto others and assuming that others must be religious just like you, but are somehow lost. I recognize that some personality types need to believe in something miraculous, like that they are the center of the cosmos, or that there is a god that loves them so much. But I also recognize that many of us, like myself, have never had this compulsion. And I’d be a liar if I said otherwise.

        Getting back to heaven, the only logical way we can exist as temporal beings, with minds like ours, who exist consciously for eternity, is if our natural personality types are removed from us somehow, as we are turned into drones. Now the word drone might be harsh, but I struggle to find a euphemism to describe a person with no personality, no sense of free will or ability to actualize innate human desires. My flaws are as much of me as my strengths; take them away, and you take me away.

        Do you really think you’ll be playing around on the surface of the sun and zipping around like Flash Gordon one day? I think these fantasies are a little childish for an adult to have. And what does “having a resurrected body which does not suffer corruption” mean? I’m curious on your thoughts: If we are returned to a bodily state in heaven, do we get all of parts back? Including circumcised foreskin? Original nose if one had a nosejob? What age would the body be? When we were young? When we died at 90? What about an aborted fetus who never formed a body? What body do they get?

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