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Jan 04 2014

Free will in heaven

One religious answer to the problem of evil is the idea that sin is necessary in order to allow people to exercise their free will. Apparently, if God had created a perfect world, we would all be robots with no free will, and that would be a terrible thing.

But wait a minute. Heaven is supposed to be a perfect world. God, the angels, and all the saints are supposed to live in heaven forever. If free will requires sin in order to be free will, then the sinlessness of heaven means God, the angels, and all the saints are going to spend eternity not having any free will.

That means that for us to have free will right now is a complete waste. The only thing it contributes is to send most of God’s “beloved” children to the eternal torments of Hell. Only the elect few will make it to the realm where their free will no longer exists, and the Bible says that the saved were foreordained before the foundation of the world, so in a sense their “free” will was illusory even while they had it. That’s not much of a justification for sin, is it?

If we compare time and eternity, where time is finite and eternity is infinite, then the relative importance of anything that happens in time is insignificant. That means that temporary free will has, at best, an insignificant benefit for those who experience it. The religious claim is that it has a tremendous benefit in that it determines whether you spend eternity in heaven or in hell, but this overlooks the fact that God could have sent all His children straight to eternity in heaven simply by skipping the part where He jeopardizes their salvation by exposing them to a fleeting, useless, and pointless free will.

If we say that free will requires sin, therefore, we have a dilemma. Once the saved get to heaven, there cannot be any further opportunity for them to have free will, since there is no sin. That means heaven cannot be perfect unless there is no eternal value in free will, because otherwise the lack of free will would be a deficiency that would keep heaven from being perfect. The perfection of heaven therefore requires either that free will has no value or else that people are lying when they say free will requires sin.

If free will has no value, then God gains nothing by putting us through it, and indeed loses most of that which He allegedly loves, when they sin and go to Hell. But if free will can exist without sin, then the whole argument collapses, because free will was supposed to explain why God’s perfect creation ended up full of sin and evil. If we could have been just as free by choosing between, say, chocolate and vanilla instead of between good and evil, then God’s decision to allow sin to enter the world really only serves to degrade a situation that could and should have been much better. That means God is either weak, or foolish, or evil, or all of the above.

The problem of evil is just one aspect of a much larger problem, which is that reality looks nothing at all like the conditions that would exist if there were a God as mighty and wise and loving as the character who shows up in Gospel stories. Religious people try to account for the more obvious discrepancies by means of various rationalizations, but these rationalizations themselves have internal contradictions and inconsistencies that are just as bad as the discrepancies they’re trying to explain away. The only reasonable conclusion is that the Gospel is a myth drawn from the wishful thinking of superstitious people.

22 comments

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  1. 1
    consciousness razor

    If there were free will, it would be completely irrelevant, for the reasons you gave as well as others. The language is a little confusing (and maybe outdated): it’s really the problem of suffering, not the problem of evil. Why is there suffering of any kind from any source whatsoever? Some might like to claim otherwise, but you don’t actually need to accept (even for the sake of argument) that an earthquake or a plague or a meteor falling from the sky is a work of evil, not in the strong sense of requiring some agent deciding to make the evil thing happen. Those “evils” are ordinary natural events and don’t require demons or any (free or non-free) human action whatsoever. And if they’re “punishments” or “tests” from this supposedly benevolent deity, it’s only harder for the theist to say what really does count as evil at that point. With this line of thought, they aren’t showing any indication that they even understand what the problem with “evil” is. I’m sure at some level they do care, but it’s as if they don’t give a shit about the harm it causes. They just want to prop up their imaginary god with another bogus, irrelevant argument, and never mind about all that shit that actually happens in the real world. These aren’t the droids you’re looking for, and pay no attention to that man behind curtain. Sometimes, I do think they’re intentionally distracting you (and themselves) from the point. Or if not intentionally, they just can’t handle having no defense whatsoever against it.

  2. 2
    kraut

    “If we say that free will requires sin, therefore, we have a dilemma.”

    Who defined what sin is? If the definitions are made by dog establishing the moral code – he set the trap. Talk about a major conflict of interest…or the non existing separation of the judiciary from the executive arm.

    No wonder christians and democracy do not get together well with an example like that.

  3. 3
    Randomfactor

    All those predestined for Heaven were spontaneously (or artificially) aborted before contracting Original Sin. Those of us making it alive down the birth canal are going to Hell. Jury’s still out on c-section babies.

  4. 4
    IamAGuest

    Or he could’ve just made men a little more like women and we wouldn’t be nearly as violent and evil speices.

    Free will is a bullshit argument. The reason we do evil things is because we feel like doing them, and what we feel like doing is usually what we end up doing.

    There’s a good reason why I choose to buy and eat alot of candy, and it’s not because I ‘will’ it, but because it tastes good, which makes me feel good. Want to adjust my behavior? Make candy taste bad, and I will choose not to buy and eat it.

  5. 5
    Rike

    If there is no free will in heaven, how did the “fallen angels” (like Satan) happen?

    1. 5.1
      Deacon Duncan

      That is the other possibility: maybe there will be sin, evil, and suffering in heaven for all eternity.

      1. Rike

        Then heaven doesn’t look so much different than earth, does it? Maybe those “re-incarnation” religions have something going for themselves after all…lol

  6. 6
    Len

    The usual reply I get is that god wants us to choose him. So that had to mean we could choose not-him – ie, evil. So I guess that the consequence of such a choice being eternal, is just tough luck for us if we get it wrong.

    That still doesn’t answer the question of why a loving, caring, parent-like god would want to subject his creations to such torture, etc. The usual reply to that is that god is true to his nature. In other words (I point out), not all-powerful, not able to do anything, because he must follow this path. Most discussions generally wind up around then.

    1. 6.1
      Deacon Duncan

      Thing is, if “not God” necessarily means evil, sin, and suffering, then you end up with man, angels, and heaven itself being evil just because they’re not God. Otherwise, if it’s possible for things to be good without being God, there’s no need for evil, sin, and suffering. He could offer us a choice between multiple good alternatives. That might leave God with no way to eternally torment those who fail to choose Him, but as you say, why would a loving Heavenly Father want to torture?

      1. Healer Muse

        1. How can a person live in eternal happiness in heaven knowing that there are people they care deeply about are being tortured for eternity by the big guy they just moved in with?

        2. Evil beings are allowed to exist in Heaven, Book of Samuel, and God takes their council. This suggests to me that Lucifer was cast from heaven for wanting to be like god and not for being evil.

      2. voidhawk

        Healer, that’s pretty much the canon explanation. Lucifer was a beautiful angel full of splendour (ezekial 28) who wanted more than to worship God, he wanted to rule. (“14 I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will be like the most High. Isaiah 14:14) When God saw that he had rebellious thoughts he cast him from Heaven.

        Basically it’s not about Satan being evil but the losing side of a Heavenly power struggle.

  7. 7
    had3

    Additionally, given an eternity to mess up and having free will in heaven, won’t everyone eventually mess up and be expelled? Is having sorrow for your loved ones who aren’t in heaven also a reduction in the “perfection” that is heaven? Or do you not care that your love ones aren’t there, which begs the question, are you still you if you lose the qualities that made you, you?

    1. 7.1
      Marcus Ranum

      given an eternity to mess up and having free will in heaven, won’t everyone eventually mess up and be expelled?

      Yeah, there has to be an expulsion/deportation system in place, because otherwise I guess heaven would be like a great big World of Warcraft battleground, with everyone raping and plundering and having weird sex and generally having a great time.

      That’s the part I really don’t get about these absurd fantasies of heaven: they are (sort of) oriented toward basic human pleasure – streets lined with gold, virgins, fantasies of flight, endless harp music (EEK!) and whatnot — but the basic human pleasures are the “naughty” ones: eating and sex. In heaven, in other words, you won’t be fully human.

      Mark Twain, of course, popped the “heaven” bubble in his wonderful “extract from captain stormfield’s visit to heaven” which is available from Project Gutenberg here:
      http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/1044
      and lovely 1st editions are fairly inexpensive on Ebay. It’s a great book (that and Eve’s diary) for applying the needle of hot sarcasm to christian puffery.

    2. 7.2
      Marcus Ranum

      Addendum – “stormfield” starts slowly and awkwardly but really gets rolling about halfway through, when Twain decides to allegorically demolish heaven one concept at a time. His description of the gigantic fanboi mobs around the apostles is hysterical.

  8. 8
    Marcus Ranum

    How can anyone take this stuff seriously?

    Here’s a possible answer regarding free will: we are complicated meat robots that are programmed by millions of years of evolution to think that we have agency. A sense of “free will” is an accident of our own complexity because we aren’t equipped to fully understand causality and – besides – you don’t need a profound ability to comprehend causality in order to sneak up on a berry bush. Free will is an illusion produced by our brains, just like 3D vision, and proprioception. The idea that there is a god that concerns itself with free will and agency is also an illusion produced by our imaginations – an evolved mechanism for generating semi-plausible hypotheses about the world around us; the religious simply forget to the the part where they test the hypotheses thrown off by imagination. Is that a berry I see on the bush – let me reach out and see if I can grab it. Is that a god that watches over me and, uh, loves and hates me – let me uh, wait, that’s about as substantial as believing The Incredible Hulk is real (though I’ve seen movies of The Hulk so he’s realer to me than god)

  9. 9
    Aaron Ginn

    This is why Calvinism is the only somewhat satisfactory theological system in Christianity from an intellectual POV. Calvinists just admit that god gets to do whatever he wants, including killing children, flooding the earth, etc. and it’s honky dory because whatever god does is good by definition. Also, there’s no free will. god chose the elect and damned the reprobate from the beginning of time. God gets to pour out his wrath on a bunch of pathetic souls forever and ever for his glory, Amen!

  10. 10
    Healer Muse

    I agree with Jeremy Beahan (or is it Justin Sheiber) over at The Reasonable Doubts thread who argues for the Determinist view. I had never heard of it before, not being a widely read person, but it made a whole lotta sense to me.

  11. 11
    Healer Muse

    But back to the topic at hand, I had asked christian members of my family about how they would be able to live happily ever after in heaven knowing that I would be tortured and suffering by their loving father.They had no answer.

    1. 11.1
      Aaron Ginn

      Jonathan Edwards has the answer!!!

      “The view of the misery of the damned will double the ardour of the love and gratitude of the saints of heaven.”

      and

      “The sight of hell torments will exalt the happiness of the saints forever. . .Can the believing father in Heaven be happy with his unbelieving children in Hell. . . I tell you, yea! Such will be his sense of justice that it will increase rather than diminish his bliss.”

      Glad I could help!

  12. 12
    Michael Brew

    Well, the answer I’ve generally heard is that those who go to heaven will simply be the ones who chose God in the end, and while they have the capacity to choose evil, they won’t (unlike Adam & Eve) because they know what it’s like to be without God and now experience him in all his glory or something. You may feel bummed that there are people in Hell, but only those who can let go of their earthly attachments can get to Heaven, so it’ll be the kind of sad that the average person gets from hearing that some nameless folks on the other side of the planet are suffering. Honestly, it still doesn’t make sense why this all-powerful being couldn’t have just made everyone in such a manner that they would choose God instead of making them go through a bunch of BS, but… that’s theology for you.

  13. 13
    Oob

    Important point here: Many of the christians I know have rejected the “preordained” notions entirely, because as you say it violates the notion of free will. Even more than that have never even heard of the notion until I brought it up, but rejected it out of hand anyway. As such, it doesn’t work too much as a counter argument. We tend to make the mistake of blending together all the myriad flavors of christianity into one lump sum and then are shocked to find contradictions in philosophy. Mind you, there’s plenty to find even without that initial mistake, but better not to point out contradictions that don’t actually hold true between denominations.

    I heard a very weird counter to this from someone years ago. You see, as a kid I was told that we might have free will in heaven but the desire to do the bad and wrong (the “badong”) would be absent, so no one would ever “sin” in heaven because no one would ever want to. An odd definition of “free will”, but there it was. However, I mentioned this to someone else (this was back before I rejected faith), and their old timey response was “no no, people will sin in heaven, but they will instantly go to hell the moment they do”. That notion shocked me, the idea that in heaven you’re just sitting in fear hoping you don’t screw up (I’m a natural screw up, so this frightened me all the more). No chance of doing one good deed in hell and going straight to heaven, but do one bad thing in heaven and bam, instant hell. It occurred to me that if there was a chance one might do something badong, even a small one, if it was greater than zero than eternal life guarantees that you’ll eventually do it. For this person, heaven is basically just a slow waiting game as everyone that ever gets there sins at some point and goes straight to hell. In the long run, perhaps in a year or perhaps in a trillion trillion years (eternity is a long time), heaven will be empty of all but god.

  14. 14
    Iain Walker

    An additional problem with the free will defence is that it generally assumes some form of contra-causal or libertarian free will, and there are good reasons to suppose this to be an incoherent concept. But even if this weren’t so, it also assumes that the choice between the existence of free will and the non-existence of evil is an all-or-nothing thing, when it very clearly isn’t. We all have behavioural biases and dispositions which make it more likely that we will choose certain kinds of actions over others. Now if this is compatible with free will, then there is nothing to prevent God from having created us with (for example) a greater capacity for empathy, a stronger bias towards altruism, or a more thoughtful, careful, self-aware approach to moral decision-making. This wouldn’t eliminate human evil, but it would reduce it by making it less probable that we’d choose to do evil things, and we’d still have that ultra-important free will.

    So even if we allow that free will is important enough to allow the existence of some human evil, it still fails to account for the actual extent of human evil that exists.

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