Thursday, April 28, 2016


Will people have free will in heaven?  Why would I ask such a silly question?  My answer is that I want to make a point, and to do that I need to back up a bit and pose a series of questions.

The doctrine of original sin raises a tricky problem for most Christian theologies.  Based on the Genesis account, Adam and Eve had it perfect in the Garden of Eden—a place of plenty with zero pain or suffering.  Their only restriction was that they were forbidden to eat of one particular tree, the tree of knowledge of good and evil.  And yet almost immediately, it seems, they failed the test, ushering in a world of pain, both manmade and natural.  Not all Christians accept the literal truth of the story of Adam and Eve and the Serpent.  However, they generally share a belief in original sin, the view that God created us as perfect but that we fell from that perfection and are by nature sinful.  Christians believe that God is not only omnipotent but also omniscient.  But if that is the case, why did he create mankind, knowing that we would sin and usher great suffering into the world?

The usual response is that God created mankind with free will.  He gave us the ability to choose, including the ability to choose sin.  Otherwise we would simply be automatons.  This, of course, raises a further problem in logic, as God, who is understood to be all-loving as well as all-knowing and all-powerful, presumably could see that humans would sin and that things would end badly.  His solution was to promise that those who conduct themselves properly and who put their faith in him in this life would be rewarded with eternal salvation in the next, that is, heaven and a return to a perfect state.

And this brings me back to my original question:  Will people have free will in heaven?  I think virtually all Christians would answer that question with an emphatic yes.  The sense that we have free will is so compelling for most people that they can’t imagine a world (or a heaven) without it.  Moreover, it would raise questions about the point of having a heaven if those saved would simply be God’s puppets.  But that, in turn, raises a further query: Will humans sin again when they are in heaven?  After all, they would have the freedom to do just that, wouldn’t they?  I’m sure the universal Christian response is that certainly there will be no sin in heaven; there will be no repeat of the fall of man.  

And that leads me to my final question: Why wouldn’t there be sin in heaven?  There are a number of responses to this question.  Let me try to address some of them.

We will have learned our lesson.  Of course, even now Christians presumably have learned their lesson.  We know that sinning is wrong, and yet we can’t seem to stop sinning.  We know, for example, that some of the things we say or do can be hurtful to those we love.  But we find ourselves doing and saying those things anyway, don’t we?  Why wouldn’t things be the same in heaven?

In heaven we will be in the direct presence of God.  Well, but theoretically we are already in the presence of God, as he knows everything that we do.  Indeed, Adam and Eve were in the direct presence of God and yet they failed miserably. 

There will be no evil influences in heaven.  Some will argue that we continue to sin in this life because we are tempted by evil influences—other individuals as well as Satan and his minions.  In heaven all of those sinful influences will be gone.  I see two problems with this argument.  First, it assumes that without such influences we would be incapable of sinning on our own, despite having the free will to do so.  Do we sin now only because we have an evil angel perched on our shoulder whispering in our ear, or are we perfectly capable on our own of conceiving of sinful thoughts and behavior?  Second, for those who accept the Satan story, what led Satan and his followers to sin in the first place?  Free will in heaven?  Well, there you go.

In heaven we will be “changed” as a result of Christ’s sacrifice.  Christians may argue that Christ’s sacrifice serves to cleanse us of original sin and that in heaven we will be different from our sinful selves in this life.  But what exactly does that mean? And how does that differ from the perfect state in which Adam and Eve existed prior to their fall?  Will we be incapable of sin?  This would seem to be a major restriction on our freedom of action.  We would have free will but only to do good things, not sinful ones?  Really?  How would that work?  Besides, if we are “changed” too much, then we simply wouldn’t be the same persons.  If, instead, we would be the same persons that we were in this life, how would we deal with all of our memories, our quirks, the complex attitudes that we held toward others?  

We simply aren’t capable now of understanding God’s plan.  God has assured us that heaven will be without sin.  We just have to put our trust in him.  To me, that is just a punt, another way of saying that there is no good answer to the question.  And, besides, how fair is it to expect or require belief in something that lacks logic from a human perspective?

Why am I posing these questions, anyway?  Here’s my point.  If an explanation is illogical, perhaps it is wrong, particularly if there is an alternative explanation that doesn’t suffer from errors of rationality.  In mathematics one of the methods of proof is called reductio ad absurdum.  If an assumption leads to a logical contradiction, then the assumption must be wrong.  I am not proposing that the salvation story can be disproved on the basis of deductive reasoning.  But I am suggesting that if a particular assumption or set of assumptions leads to a conclusion that is illogical, then one should consider an alternative that doesn’t suffer from such difficulties.  I would point out that there is no logical necessity to accept either the traditional descriptions of heaven or the salvation story.  But I would leave it to readers to draw their own conclusions.

© 2016 John M. Phillips 


  1. John, thank you for an insightful discussion of the illogic of heaven. The most powerful point you made, in my view, is in drawing our attention to the fact that those who would go to heaven as it is presented would be so thoroughly changed that they would no longer be themselves. The implications of that are important.

    As you point out, for heaven to be sin-free, it seems that a thorough "rewiring" of those admitted would be a necessity, which does raise the question of whether anyone could actually go to heaven. By that I mean, if we awoke tomorrow with all of our memories wiped clean, how would that be different from us dying and someone else going to heaven?

    We don't have memories so much as we are our memories. Remove or even tamper with memory, and you have a different person. The New Testament promises that, before admission to heaven, "we shall all be changed." No one interprets this to mean that we'll all be taller or more good-looking. In theological terms, it is broadly understood to mean we will be changed inside––another way of saying none of us will go to heaven as ourselves. To want to go as someone so changed as to no longer be one's former "self" is to wish for the death of the very self that is hoping for heaven. To want this makes no sense to me.

    To all those who are trying to be good so they can go to heaven I would suggest that there are far better reasons for each of us to strive to be a good person---namely, the rewards this effort brings of and by itself in the one life we know we have.

    1. Steve,
      Brilliant. I have often thought about what it means to say that those going to heaven will be "changed." Not only are we all physically imperfect, but we are also imperfect in terms of our mental capacity and our personalities. Change any of those, presumably for the better, and, as you say, we would no longer be the same person.