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).