A dilemma for Christians – is there free will in heaven?

Why would an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent God knowingly create a world containing the evil we see all around us? That, in a nutshell, is the well-known theological “problem of evil”.

A standard Christian response runs as follows: God, being omnipotent, certainly could have created a world without evil. However, a world without evil would be a world without free will, because free will implies the ability to choose to do evil. In a world without evil, we would effectively be robots preprogrammed to do only the good. God values free will so much that he chooses to grant it to us despite knowing that we will misuse it. In short, God chooses to create a world containing free will, at the expense of some concomitant evil, rather than creating a pristine world full of robots.

Now consider heaven, a perfect place in which there is no evil. Do believers have free will in heaven?

Suppose they do. In that case they are free to sin, but they choose not to – otherwise there would be sin in heaven. But if it’s possible for them to have free will and yet refrain from sinning, then why didn’t God create them that way in the first place? They would have had their free will and there would have been no evil in the world. God could have done this, but he chose otherwise. Thus God is responsible for the evil in the world.

Now suppose instead that there is no free will in heaven – our free wills are removed as we pass through the pearly gates, and we are thereafter unable to choose to do anything but the good. This raises an obvious question: if God is willing to deny us our free will for eternity, then why was it so important for us to have free will on earth?  If God is happy to have a heaven full of robots, then what is wrong with an earth full of them?

It seems to me that Christians are stuck between a rock and a hard place. No matter how they answer the question “Is there free will in heaven?”, their answer clashes with a standard response to the problem of evil.

I described this dilemma in another thread, and Vincent Torley responded. I’ll post his response, and my rebuttal, in the comments.

71 thoughts on “A dilemma for Christians – is there free will in heaven?

  1. I should point out that being “born again”, for many (most?) Christians, is something that happens on earth, not in heaven, and it doesn’t imply that the reborn individual loses the inclination to sin.

    True.

  2. Vividbleau, at UD:

    It is obvious that KeithS has major issues he is dealing with however anyone who has deeply thought about theism in general or Christianity in particular has grappled with the issues he has brought up. I have not come to the same conclusions that he has but the questions he asks are IMO legitimate ones to be asking.

    I’m curious, vividbleau. How do you resolve the dilemma I’ve described in this thread?

  3. petrushka,

    It’s a bit like making up a private version of Dungeons and Dragons. Since it’s made up, you can tweak the rules when someone points out an inconsistency.

    True, but it’s hard for Christians to do that when the “rules” are beliefs that they hold sacred.

    For example, the dilemma I’ve posed would vanish if Christians would relinquish the belief that God is omnipotent. Most Christians have a lot invested in that belief, however, and are unwilling to give it up.

  4. I think it would be reasonable for a believer simply to say “I don’t know. It’s a mystery.”

  5. keiths:
    llanitedave,

    Sure.So?

    My point is to show that certain widely-held beliefs about evil, free will and God’s goodness are logically inconsistent.

    Most Christians are unaware of the many problems with their belief system.The Christians who are aware of the problems tend to keep their mouths shut for fear of damaging the faith of their fellow believers, which they see as an undesirable outcome.

    It’s up to non-Christians to bring these problems to Christians’ attention and to keep them from being swept under the rug.

    Agreed. But there are 2,000 years of apologetics to wade through, with varying degrees of sharper or duller logic, that can and probably already have addressed nearly every conceivable logical objection. It’s not that each one of these off-the-shelf responses can’t be well-refuted, and I don’t begrudge anyone here the practice, but in the end, it’s still pig-wrestling. You both get dirty, but the pig doesn’t notice.

    The best way to refute religious apologetics is not to play on their own turf, but simply to point out that there IS no turf.

    As long as you’re dancing on the head of the pin, you’ll miss the point.

  6. petrushka,

    I think it would be reasonable for a believer simply to say “I don’t know. It’s a mystery.”

    It’s fine to say that something’s a mystery and that you don’t know the truth. The problem comes when believers say that something is a mystery, then turn around and claim to be absolutely certain of the truth!

    For example, here is what the Catholic catechism says about the Trinity:

    251 In order to articulate the dogma of the Trinity, the Church had to develop its own terminology with the help of certain notions of philosophical origin: “substance,” “person” or “hypostasis,” “relation,” and so on. In doing this, she did not submit the faith to human wisdom, but gave a new and unprecedented meaning to these terms, which from then on would be used to signify an ineffable mystery, “infinitely beyond all that we can humanly understand.”82 (170)

    That’s not reasonable at all. It amounts to saying “We can’t justify this, and it makes no sense, but we’re so certain of it that we have enshrined it as dogma.”

    Imagine if science operated that way!

  7. llanitedave,

    The best way to refute religious apologetics is not to play on their own turf, but simply to point out that there IS no turf.

    I’m not merely trying to refute religious apologetics. I’m trying to get theists to think critically about their own beliefs.

    Toward that end, I think it’s important to point out that even if their assumptions were true, their beliefs still wouldn’t make sense.

    Hence this thread.

  8. For example, the dilemma I’ve posed would vanish if Christians would relinquish the belief that God is omnipotent. Most Christians have a lot invested in that belief, however, and are unwilling to give it up.

    My own provisional stance is quasi-mystical. Monist and pantheist. It’s pretty much where I’ve been since age 12. I am Gregory’s worst nightmare. I suspect existence isn’t conscious at all except as consciousness evolves.

    Questions about omni this or omni that are simply irrelevant.

    I do not know why there is something rather than nothing, and I don’t expect to find out. In the meantime, I cultivate my garden.

  9. Fascinating as these questions are, unless there is some way to test the various concepts involved against observable reality, they are little more than intellectual games or the sort of just so stories for which evolutionists are constantly chided by IDiologues.

    For example, there is discussion about life after death without any clear idea about the nature of this life that is supposed to survive the death of the physical body. Is it intellect, the memories and mental attributes that comprise an individual’s sense of self? Is it some sort of essence, for want of a better word, which implies that the individual has gone for good but something of what was that person continues, whatever that might mean?

    It is common now to see Christians who have lost a relative or friend to console themselves with the belief that the loved one is now in a “better place”, meaning they are now in heaven with Jesus and the angels. Yet that is different from what I was taught when I was raised as a Christian. At that time, doctrine held that the dead were really dead and would remain so until the Day of Judgement when the graves would open and yield up their contents to face the judgement of the Almighty. Who’s right and how do you decide?

    Of course, the question of free will in heaven is essentially meaningless unless we have some agreed definition for both. Without them we would be better off debating the relative fighting power of the Starship Enterprise and a Star Destroyer.

  10. Seversky,

    Fascinating as these questions are, unless there is some way to test the various concepts involved against observable reality, they are little more than intellectual games or the sort of just so stories for which evolutionists are constantly chided by IDiologues.

    I’m trying to get Christians to think critically about their beliefs. Sometimes it’s possible to do that by pointing to the lack of evidence, and I do so regularly. However, in my experience, many believers aren’t terribly concerned about the lack of evidence. The authority of the Bible, or of the Church, or of their own personal epiphanies is evidence enough for them, and as long as the story seems to hang together and to make sense of the world and their role in it, they are satisfied.

    To reach those believers, it’s best to show that the story doesn’t hang together, and that it’s internally inconsistent. Once they realize that, they’re more open to questioning their assumptions about the Bible, the Church, and their subjective experiences.

    Of course, the question of free will in heaven is essentially meaningless unless we have some agreed definition for both.

    For the purposes of this thread, “free will” means “libertarian free will” and “heaven” is a place where believers spend eternity, living sinlessly in blissful communion with their God. I personally think that libertarian free will is incoherent and that there is no reason to believe that heaven exists, but most Christians disagree. My OP shows that even if they’re right about these things, their beliefs as a whole are logically inconsistent.

  11. Let me recast my argument in a more structured and explicit form.

    Suppose a Christian accepts the following:

    1. God is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent.
    2. An omnibenevolent being tries to maximize the net good and minimize the net evil.
    3. Free will is a good thing.
    4. God grants us free will because the positive value of free will outweighs the evil that results from our having it.
    5. Believers in heaven are sinless.

    If you accept all of the above, then ask yourself “Do believers in heaven have free will?”

    If your answer is yes, then you are conceding that we can have free will without sinning. In that case, why doesn’t God, who is supposedly omnipotent and omnibenevolent, create us that way on earth, so that we have free will yet do not sin?

    If your answer is no, then you are conceding that free will isn’t so important after all, since God is willing to deny it to us for eternity in heaven. If so, then why did God insist on giving us free will on earth, knowing full well that it would lead to sin and evil?

    There are many ways to escape the dilemma. You can show that my reasoning is faulty, or you can deny one or more of the premises. No one has yet succeeded at the former, and many Christians are reluctant to deny any of these premises, since they are commonplace and widely held Christian beliefs.

    1. You could escape the dilemma by admitting that God is not omnipotent. In that case he is trying, but failing, to maximize the good.

    2. You could escape it by admitting that God is not omniscient. In that case, perhaps he didn’t foresee the consequences of granting us free will.

    3. You could escape it by admitting that God is not omnibenevolent. In that case, he isn’t trying to maximize good and minimize evil. Perhaps he enjoys seeing us suffer, or he might simply be unconcerned.

    4. You could argue that being omnibenevolent doesn’t mean trying to maximize the net good and minimize the net evil, though I’m not sure how you’d pull that off. It seems rather definitional.

    5. You could argue that libertarian free will has no particular value in God’s eyes, and that we don’t have it either on earth or in heaven. (Calvinists do believe in free will, but it’s more compatibilist than libertarian. They think we choose freely, but that our choices are determined by our natures, which in turn are determined by God.)

    6. You could argue that libertarian free will does have value, but that there is some other overriding reason for denying it to us in heaven. But then you’d have to explain why the same reason doesn’t apply on earth.

    7. You could admit that believers sin in heaven. I’m not sure why Christians resist this idea, since many of them believe that Satan sinned in heaven.

    There are probably other ways to escape the dilemma, but my point is this: something’s gotta give.

    If you are a Christian, which premise will you abandon? Or will you cling to your beliefs despite knowing they are inconsistent?

  12. Heh.

    At UD, both vividbleau and Eric Anderson admit that I am asking a worthwhile question in this thread. However, neither manages to say so without holding his nose and adding a disclaimer.

    vividbleau:

    It is obvious that KeithS has major issues he is dealing with however anyone who has deeply thought about theism in general or Christianity in particular has grappled with the issues he has brought up. I have not come to the same conclusions that he has but the questions he asks are IMO legitimate ones to be asking.

    Eric Anderson:

    In all my time at UD, I’m not sure I have ever agreed with keiths on anything. Certainly not very often. And I’m not saying I agree with him or his conclusions now either.

    But . . .

    This is actually an interesting, and important, question.

    [Emphasis added]

    It reminds me of the reception I got at UD when posting as ‘beelzebub’.

    Vivid, Eric, I love you guys too!

  13. vividbleau, at UD:

    It is an interesting question but IMO many terms in his questions are ill defined.

    Take free will. This term gets bandied around incessantly but I consider the term to be an oxymoron. I don’t think we have free will in heaven but then again I don’t think we have it here on earth either.

    Before everyone jumps down my throat, since this is such a hot topic for the denizens that haunt this site, I do think we have “free choice” which is a much better term to use IMHO. Or “self determined” choices. I define free choice as the ability to choose whatever we most want to choose at the time the choice is made given the available options available at the time the choice is made.

    Here vividbleau is describing a Calvinist sort of free will, in which we choose according to our natures, but our natures are themselves determined by God.

    I’m not sure why he brings it up, because it doesn’t rescue his God from the problem of evil. If God determines our natures, then he is ultimately responsible for the choices we make — including the evil ones. Thus he is responsible for the evil we do.

    And Calvinists have an even bigger problem, which is that of predestination. They believe that before he even creates anyone, God selects some to be saved and others to be damned. The latter folks are doomed from the start.

    How Calvinists can attribute this behavior to a benevolent God is beyond me.

    Lets take another word “omnipotence” which has been brought up. In the classical Judeo Christian thinking what does it mean to say “God is omnipotent”? Does this mean God can do anything? Of course not. There are a lot of things God cannot do. To say God is omnipotent is not to say that He can do anything rather it is to affirm He can do anything that is possible to do.

    Again, why does vividbleau bring this up? Does he think that my argument assumes that God can do the logically impossible? If so, then what, specifically?

  14. At UD, Eric Anderson offers some ways for Christians to escape the dilemma I pose in this thread:

    1- God wanted to but couldn’t create perfect beings. Maybe He did the best he could, but just came up a bit short. Or maybe there is something fundamental that limits God’s ability to create perfect beings.

    Yes. This is what I was getting at in my own #1 above:

    1. You could escape the dilemma by admitting that God is not omnipotent. In that case he is trying, but failing, to maximize the good.

    Eric:

    2- God didn’t create us, or at least not everything about us. This could be the case in two situations.

    First, perhaps there is something about us that is beyond the physical makeup, beyond the matter and the energy of the creation. Some talk about a spirit; some talk about mind; sometimes in relation to ID we talk of “intelligence” as something beyond matter and energy. Perhaps there is something we each possess that is our own and always has been.

    Second, perhaps as a result of the particular makeup of matter and energy of our creation, the creation is endowed with something unique, something that didn’t exist prior to the creation, and something that is individual and not subject to God’s initial creative influence — namely, things like consciousness, free will, mind, intelligence.

    Yes, but these also imply that God is not omnipotent. That’s a tough sell for most Christians.

    3. God didn’t feel like creating us perfect, and, frankly, doesn’t care. Perhaps we are an amusement, a trial run, a side hobby, an experiment.

    Yes. This is why I wrote:

    3. You could escape it by admitting that God is not omnibenevolent. In that case, he isn’t trying to maximize good and minimize evil. Perhaps he enjoys seeing us suffer, or he might simply be unconcerned.

    Eric:

    4. God didn’t want to create us perfect, because there are lessons to be learned in life, ways to grow, that require an imperfect world. Further, perhaps the struggle itself is part of the learning process. Much like the child who complains about piano lessons and cries out: “Why do I have to practice over and over? I wish I could just play this stupid song perfectly without practicing!”

    An omnipotent God could create us with the knowledge already in place, including the lessons that would have been imparted by the struggle itself. And what of infant mortality? Why does God deprive those poor children of the opportunity to learn?

    Under this latter view of things, the creative act is still ongoing, the process still not finished. Perhaps we have only witnessed the first two acts of a three-part play. If that is the case it would be a little silly, even naive, of us to accuse the playwright of incompetence because at the end of Act II our world is still out of balance, the villain is still wreaking havoc, and the heroes have still not secured the long-sought-for justice.

    Not silly, or naive, at all. An omnipotent God could prevent evil right now. If the villain is still wreaking havoc, it is because the omniGod has chosen for it to happen.

    On the other hand, a non-omnipotent God could very well be struggling to defeat “the villain”, and losing (at least in the short run). It’s a wonder to me that more theists don’t accept this idea. It fits the evidence far better than this omniGod nonsense.

    Eric’s answers sound very Mormon-like. I wonder if he’s LDS?

  15. At UD, jerry attempts to resolve the dilemma:

    The so called evil or unhappiness or suffering in this world is a red herring in the whole debate. Take all the suffering in the world from the very beginning till now and somehow quantify it. Compare the so called evils from the gouging out of the eyes of a new born baby to the slighting of another person and rank them and rate them. Add it all up and it is a finite amount. Compare that to what the Christian God offers just one person and it is trivial. In Christianity the only evil is not obtaining what God offers. All else pales in comparison.

    jerry,

    Your argument is self-defeating. If the evil of this world is “trivial” compared to an eternity in heaven or hell, then God is monstrously unjust when he condemns unbelievers to an eternity in hell for the “trivial” sins they commit on earth.

    Presumably you don’t believe that God is unjust. If so, then the evil of this world is not trivial, and you have defeated your own argument.

    So the argument from evil cannot be used against the Christian God. Maybe it can be used against someone else’s god but not the Christian God.

    It can be used against any supposed “omniGod” — that is, any God that is omnisicient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent. God as conceived of by most Christians certainly qualifies.

  16. In a second comment, jerry writes:

    Unfortunate events (suffering, death etc.) serve many purposes but one of the purposes is to create doubt. Because without that doubt there would be no free will and without free will no action would have merit. That these events have created doubt one has to look no further than Dr. Liddle and keiths. Both who said they once believed but no longer do so.

    jerry,

    The Bible says that there is “no excuse” for doubt:

    18 The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19 since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.

    Romans 1:18-20, NIV

    Are you right, or is the Bible?

  17. jerry,

    I am not here to debate this but am always interested in reasoned arguments. Dr. Liddle and keiths have never provided any of note.

    In the comments above, I’ve shown that your argument fails. Can you defend it?

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