March 10, 2008
Can People in Heaven Sin?
Dear Dr. Craig,
I was in attendance at one of your lectures in Baltimore around 2 years ago at the conference Two Tasks. I appreciate the tireless work you are doing. May God continue to strengthen you, while deepening your personal relationship with Him.
There is one question that is related to the problem of evil that has not been resolved in my mind. This question has chronically baffled me, and I feel leaves me intellectually vulnerable in defending Christianity.
One way to open up the issue is with the following question:
HOW DOES GOD GUARANTEE THAT THERE WILL BE NO EVIL AMONG THE SAVED IN HEAVEN?
Some possible answers are sketched below. This is a product of my own thinking, influenced by lay research into the subject. Skeptics have posed the problem as well. . . . Please help me decide which is the best, most biblical, most philosophically coherent answer, or point out an alternative that I have not thought through.
Note: Below, I use the pronoun “we” as a short-hand for the saved/elect.
Answer 1: There is NO free will heaven. The saved are immutably good and have no choice nor temptation to sin.
Rebuttal: Can lack of free will coexist with love of the saved towards God. (If answered yes, the free will defense of evil crumbles.) How would love not be diminished or extinguished without free will?
Answer 2: There IS free will in heaven--we have the capacity to choose evil. But in our glorified body and regenerated nature, we abhor evil (no evil desire), and therefore never choose it. To back this up, consider God, who is free, despises evil, and is one of supreme love. Perhaps free will must be narrowly defined as having the ability to choose something, but not whether one would ever choose it because of one’s nature.
Rebuttal: If this is the case, why does God not create Adam such that he has no desire towards evil in the first place? Also, how is Adam’s pre-fall nature different from the one characterized in answer 2?
Answer 3: There is NO free will in heaven. However, we can not consider heaven in isolation from the earthly decision that led to eternal life. We had free will on earth, and God simply permanently cemented that freely chosen (salvifically efficacious) decision to accept Christ upon mortal death. Love still exists in heaven because God affirms the free-willed decision to follow God while on earth. (This is a tenuous underdeveloped train of thought).
Thank you very much.
We’re simply speculating when it comes to questions like this, so there may be more than one plausible answer. Insofar as sceptics are concerned, it’s up to them to prove some sort of incoherence here, which would be very difficult to do.
My own inclination is for a view along the lines of (3). God has created us at an “epistemic distance,” so to speak, which allows us the freedom to rebel against Him and separate ourselves from Him. This world is a vale of decision-making during which we decide whether we want to live with God forever or reject Him and so irrevocably separate ourselves from Him. As discussions of the so-called “Hiddenness of God” have emphasized, God could have made His existence overwhelmingly obvious, had He wanted to. During this life, we “see in a glass darkly,” as St. Paul put it; but someday we shall see “face to face” (I Cor. 13.12). Medieval theologians liked to talk of the “Beatific Vision” which the blessed in heaven will receive. There the veil will be removed, and we shall see Christ in all of His loveliness and majesty. The vision of Christ, the source of infinite goodness and love, will be so overwhelming as to remove all freedom to sin. I like to think of it like iron filings in the presence of an enormously powerful electromagnet. They would be so powerfully attracted to the magnet that there is simply no possibility of their falling away. So with the blessed in heaven.
Something like this may have already occurred with angelic beings. Originally created “at arm’s length” from God epistemically, they had a time to choose either for or against God. Those who chose for God were then sealed with the Beatific Vision, so that no further fall is possible. Fallen angels are Satan and his minions.
I find this a satisfying account of the matter. But the doctrine of middle knowledge affords a version of (2) that is viable as well. One could hold that God via His middle knowledge knew exactly which persons, if saved and glorified in heaven, would freely persevere in grace, even though they would retain the freedom to sin. It’s not that they have a different nature than others; it’s just that this is how they would freely choose. God has chosen to create a world in which all the saved are precisely such persons. Hence, everyone in heaven will freely persevere. They could fall away but they just won’t. Interestingly, creating a world like this could involve God’s having to put up with a lot of otherwise undesirable features of the world, such as vast amounts of natural and moral evil. Perhaps only in a world like that would all those who come freely to know God and His salvation be a person who would freely persevere in heaven. This view would have obvious relevance to the problem of evil.
My own preference remains for (3) simply because it seems right to think that the unalloyed vision of Christ would be something so overwhelmingly attractive that freedom to resist it would be utterly removed.