Recently, I was having a discussion with a friend about our inability to sin in heaven and why couldn’t God have created us to be with Him in heaven in the first place. Thinking back, I recall asking my father the same question when I was much younger. However, I now realize that this problem is more complicated than it appears. In essence, this question is a slightly more nuanced view of the problem of evil.
The Christian understanding of heaven is that it is a place without sin. We will not find sin or sinners in heaven but only those whose names have been written in the book of life (Rev 21:4, 8, 27). This poses at least 2 problems. If we are unable to sin in heaven, do we still retain our free will? And if so, what is the difference between our glorified state and Adam’s pre fall state that enables one not to sin and the other to sin? In addressing these questions, I think a clarification of what free will means is required. Personally, I think free will does not mean the ability to do everything and anything one chooses to do. Rather what it means to have free will is to be able to freely and willingly without coercion choose a course of action no matter how limited the options may be. Traditionally, philosophers maintained the position that for a person to be held morally responsible, he must have the option to do otherwise. This is also known as the Principle of Alternate Possibilities (PAP). However, Harry Frankfurt, professor in Princeton University rejected this model and instead proposed that a person could be held morally responsible even if there wasn’t an alternate possibility (See Frankfurt Cases). To Frankfurt, what was crucial to free will wasn’t the idea of having another possibility but that man wasn’t forced into making a particular choice. I find that this model is very helpful because it helps me to understand that no matter how limited my choices may seem, as long as I willingly and voluntarily commit that act without coercion, I can be held morally responsible.
Going back to the question of free will in heaven, I think we can use Frankfurt’s model to explain how we are still able to retain our free will and yet never sin because when we come before God in our glorified state, the option of sinning is simply not available and at the same time, we will never want to sin. The former J.I Packer Chair of Theology Paul Helm puts it this way “The freedom of heaven, then, is the freedom from sin; not that the believer just happens to be free from sin, but that he is so constituted or reconstituted that he cannot sin. He doesn’t want to sin, and he does not want to want to sin.” If we can agree on this understanding of free will, then perhaps it might even be argued that the quality of free will that we have in our glorified state exceeds even that of Adam’s pre fall state. I believe that one of the early church fathers St Augustine saw this point when he commented in his book City of God:
“Neither are we to suppose that because sin shall have no power to delight them [i.e., the redeemed], free will must be withdrawn. It will, on the contrary, be all the more truly free, because set free from delight in sinning to take unfailing delight in not sinning. For the first freedom of will which man received when he was created upright consisted in an ability not to sin, but also in an ability to sin; whereas this last freedom of will shall be superior, inasmuch as it shall not be able to sin.”
As to what difference is there between our glorified state and Adam’s state before the fall that enabled Adam to sin and us unable to sin, I think the answer lies in the person of Jesus Christ. Before the fall, Adam was perfect in terms of how he was to function. He was to obey God and worship Him. However, he wasn’t invulnerable to sin and in fact gave in to temptation (Genesis 3).Unlike Adam’s original state, our glorified state consist of us being in Christ and this means that when we are glorified, not only will we be able to live out the purpose that God has intended for us (to worship and glorify Him forever) but we will also not be susceptible to sin because of the atoning work of Jesus (Rom 6:8-11, 8:2, 21, 1 John 1:7, 4:15).
Of course this leaves us with the question of why couldn’t God have created us in our glorified state to be with Him in heaven in the first place. This is a legitimate question that I think most people do face at some point in their lives. My take on this issue is that the creation of heaven is not to be taken in isolation with regards to all other creation. If heaven is to be a dwelling place for all believers, then the choice to follow God must first be presented. In this scenario, the selection was presented to mankind when God told Adam “but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.” Upon failing to make the right decision, we see God’s hope to redeem His fallen people (Rom 8:20-21). Could it be that the reason God didn’t create Adam in the same glorified state that we will be in heaven is because it isn’t possible? The glorified state that Christians will enjoy in the new heaven and new earth is the consequence of man’s fall and the atoning work of Jesus. In other words it is not to be seen as a separate state in which God can simply bring it into being but rather it involves a process. The new heaven and the new earth populated by perfect human beings is a contingent state of affairs that can only come to pass if certain conditions are met. In that sense, life here on earth must precede that of the new heaven and new earth. What do you think?