Last week a pastor emailed me and asked the question: how can we be free in heaven if we will not be able to do evil things? I have heard this question enough to know that has occurred to many reflective Christians. And even if it does not have the existential grip of some other big questions, it nonetheless is important and needs to be addressed.
First a quibble with the question: while many Christians continue to speak of eternity in “heaven”, the consistent biblical teaching is that we will inhabit a new heaven and a new earth. Moreover, I believe that the new heaven and earth is another way of saying the old heaven and earth renewed, just like our new bodies at the resurrection will be our old bodies renewed.
While it is important that we understand eternity in terms of new heaven and new earth, where the present question is concerned it is, indeed, a quibble. Whether we live on a puffy cumulus or a perfected creation, we can still ask the question: will we be free there?
The problem is tied to the ability to do a range of actions which we would call evil or sinful. For instance, human beings presently have the ability to rape, steal, murder, and do all sorts of other untoward actions. But if evil or sin cannot exist in the future state then it would seem that we are not free to do them from which it seems to follow that we will not be free at all.
The question assumes a particular view of freedom, one in which we are not determined. If this is incorrect however, and determinism is compatible with free will (a view called compatibilism for reasons that I trust are obvious) then there is no problem: we are free and yet determined to do only the good.
Like many people I am doubtful that compatibilism is correct. It seems to me that it is simply inconsistent to say both that I am determined to do x and that I freely do x. On the contrary, if I am determined to do x it seems that I cannot freely do it. But once I’ve rejected compatibilism the problem returns perforce. Doesn’t it seem that I’ve painted myself into a corner? Don’t we have to give up free will to exist in eternity?
The whole dilemma rests on the assumption that in order to be free (in that incompatibilist or libertarian sense) I must be able to choose evil actions. But this is surely false. There are limits on our free will at present based on our character, disposition, and personal history. Consider a culinary example. I love mushrooms … so long as they’re left in their natural habitat growing on the side of a moist, rotting log deep in the forest. But rip them from that habitat, fry them in butter and add them to actual food and my stomach and intestines (not to mention my gag reflex) launch into a full revolt.
With that in mind, imagine that I’m at a lunch line where there are three choices for dessert: peach pie, chocolate cake, and Hungarian mushroom and eggplant goulash. There is NO CHANCE IN YOU KNOW WHAT that I’m touching that goulash. But as sure as I am that my reaction to the goulash is predetermined by my character, I am also sure that I am free to choose between the pie and cake. Here’s the lesson: if we think of the goulash as analogous to a sinful choice and the cake and pie as two non-sinful choices, there is no problem recognizing that I am unable to choose the first but fully free to choose between the second and third.
Now think of the new creation. As a perfected sphere the opportunity for goulash (that is, the opportunity to engage in sinful acts) will be removed. But even if it were still present, the denizens of this perfected world will themselves be perfect and thus would have no more taste for sin than I have for goulash. To sum up, there seems to be no conflict at all between being a perfected person in a perfected world and having free will.
But still a lingering question remains: will we have fewer live options in eternity?
On the one hand I have no problem saying that this would be the case. Imagine a car lot with countless bland cars from cold war East Germany along with a half dozen Ferraris. You get to reach into a giant bowl and pull out a set of car keys and whatever keys you get, that you have to drive. “Dang,” you’re thinkin’ “I sure hope I get in the seat of one of those Maranello beauties.” Yeah, you hope. But the likelihood is that you’ll be driving a junky 2 cylinder Trabant with a dipstick to check the fuel level.
Now let’s consider a new situation where you get rid of all that cruddy communist iron from the lot and have only Ferraris to choose from. (And not just any Ferraris. No crappy Magnum PI 308s or shameful 400s on this lot. Only the best Daytonas, GTOs and Enzos.) Would you think you’d seriously been impoverished by not having the Trabants cluttering up your choices?
So there clearly is no loss in limited options so long as the options lost were not good ones. But there is one final point to add: even as many possible choices are closed to us other choices open up, an infinite number in fact. If the Christian view of eternity has anything to say about it, not only are the Trabants removed but the lot is full of an infinite variety of Ferraris, Maseratis, Lamborghinis, Alfas, Porsches, BMWs, Jaguars, Mercedes, Teslas, Spykers, Audis, Bugattis, Shelbys, … you get the point.
Talk about free!