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Q&A

How can we have free will without sin in heaven, but can't do so on earth?

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The general explanation I've heard (if I can try to summarize it) for "the problem of evil", of why a good God allows evil things to happen in the world, is that God doesn't want "robots" as he wants people to choose to worship and follow him. And if we're given that free will, then inevitably we will at some point choose not to worship God. And that's what's behind the fall and sin and generally the source of evil, that at times people won't be choosing to follow God.

Now, that all actually makes perfect sense to me. My question is: Why doesn't that same logic apply to us in heaven? (Or the New Jerusalem or whatever name you want to use to describe believers' eternity together with God.)

That is, it seems that the logical conclusion is either (1) we don't actually have free will in heaven, so we can't choose to disobey God, or (2) it is possible (somehow) for God to make a place where we both have free will and yet cannot sin (as hard as it is for us to understand). If #1 is the answer, it seems weird that God would not want "robots" on earth but would be okay with them in heaven. But if #2 is the answer, you're just left with the original problem of evil: Why, if God can make such a place, would he have made Earth in a different way that allowed evil to exist rather than in a way that both allows for free will but without sin?

My background is Baptist (non-Calvinism Protestant), but I'm interested in hearing answers across the breadth of Christian traditions.

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4 answers

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My background is in the reformed tradition, which necessarily impacts my response, but I would go all the way back to Augustine to find historic Christian thought on the subject. Augustine taught that there were four states of man's nature:

  • Man pre-fall, able to either sin or not sin (posse peccare, posse non peccare)
  • Man post-fall, unable to refrain from sin (non posse non peccare)
  • Regenerate man, able not to sin (posse non peccare), and
  • Glorified man, unable to sin (non posse peccare).

The driving factor for whether man can sin depends on whence the impulse to sin originates. Man sins when his will is drawn to evil; when he is tempted (Jonathan Edwards expounds on this extensively in Freedom of the Will). Adam and Eve were subjected to temptation in the Garden of Eden and failed as moral agents. Each of us is tempted daily, entrapped by our sinful natures, the world, and the devil, and we fail. Once glorified and as residents of Heaven, however, we will no longer be exposed to temptation from those sources; the devil will be thrown into the lake of fire, and we will be clothed in fine linen. As a result, our free will is unencumbered to do righteousness.

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it is possible (somehow) for God to make a place where we both have free will and yet cannot sin (as hard as it is for us to understand)

To understand whether this is possible or not, it is helpful to first look at our terms. What do we mean by "free will"?

In a bizarre, self-contradictory way it seems accepted wisdom that "free" means "free from all constraints". That's not a very useful concept, and is an oxymoron. We are better off asking questions like "what are we free from?", "what measure of freedom do we have?".

A more useful way to define "free will" is the freedom to follow our desires (our 'will') without coercion. Although we obviously can never have complete freedom in this regard, we certainly have some freedom. If we are rich and powerful we may even have more freedom than others do — though even the rich get ill (and die) when they do not want to. Conversely in some places and times, freedom is constrained, but still exists to a lesser degree.

Defined like that, we can see that a change in desire does not negate 'free will'. If we want to sin, we are free to sin. If the desire for sin is taken away from us, we are free to follow our other desires, without sin — especially if sin is fundamentally understood as being rooted in desire (see James 1:13-15 and 2 Peter 1:3-4).

Why doesn't that same logic apply to us in heaven?

The exact same logic applies in the new creation, if you allow that our desires can be altered without altering our freedom to live them out. This is the concept of Jeremiah's 'new covenant':

For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. (Jeremiah 31:33 ESV)

The law written on their hearts denotes a change of heart; a change of desire. We were, are and always will be, free to follow our heart. We never were, are not and never will be, free from the power of God to change our heart.

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6 comments

Thanks; this is a useful perspective, though I'm not sure how I feel about the implication that God therefore must have created our hearts with the desire to sin even though he didn't need to. Peter Cooper Jr.‭ 2 months ago

That line of thinking terminates in "why did God create us at all?" From which there is no definitive answer. I don't think he created us with the desire to sin. I think he created us with the ability to choose. When humans chose sin it fundamentally changed the relationship we had with God. He was no longer near, but afar. mattbrent‭ 2 months ago

Let’s discuss this further: https://christianity.codidact.com/q/279362 laserkittens‭ 2 months ago

Yikes, as I put in my comments to that meta question from @laserkittens, my comment was more about trying to understand the perspective than any attempt to disagree with it. Please interpret it in the most charitable way you can. :) Peter Cooper Jr.‭ 2 months ago

@Peter The logic of your comment seems very similar to the logic of the dialectic in Romans 9:19-23. It's an important moral question to be sure, but any theological framework will leave you with uncomfortable questions to answer. When thinking about other peoples' frameworks, it's helpful to think about the problems they solve as well as the new problems they seem to create. Jack Douglas‭ 2 months ago

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(written on my cell, will add references later)

In the new Heaven, there will be no Sin, as it will be eradicated. It is my opinion that free will can absolutely exist without sin. Jesus is the perfect example of that. He had full autonomy from the Father. This would explain the temptation in the desert, and also Him asking the Father to remove the cup of suffering he was about to experience when praying in the garden of Gethsemane.

In terms of my denomination, i'm non-denominational. I come from an 'unchurched' background and my beliefs and opinions stem from a lot of different reading. I would say i'm somewhere between baptist and evangelical/Pentecostal. In a nutshell, I read the bible and approach it as truth.

I have read some of the ante-Nicene fathers work such as St Augustine. I agree in large with Sigma's comment on his (Augustine's) approach however, I am not sure our autonomy is removed once sin is removed. I don't see any scriptural evidence for that.

I think in a nutshell, there's no real answer to this that we can truly know is correct. This is part of the mystery of God and His creation. But I do think that we can talk a lot around it and make some reasonable speculation that's rooted in scripture.

I believe inherently that, God cannot create something that is imperfect. But he does create things that can become imperfect. This must be an aspect of the autonomy of free will. The ability for someone to learn something, have the choice to act upon and thus create the opportunity for a righteous or sinful act. We see this all throughout scripture. in the story of Adam and Eve we see it first. But from this point on, our very nature became impregnated with that knowledge. We call it sin. But even then, there is always a choice one makes. See for example the story of Cain and Abel, Abraham, Jonah etc.

We also see this in the story of the fall of Satan. A third of the host of heaven including Lucifer was thrown down from it.

We also read that there will be a new heaven and a new earth. As well as new bodies. So there's something about the current ones that aren't complete right now. There's something about the two falls that tainted them and created a need for a new creation.

What is it about the new creation that won't have decay like the old one? In my personal opinion, I believe there will still be free will. I think the big difference is all those who are in heaven - both angels and humans have gone through tribulation. They've been tested by their faith.

If I can believe in Jesus and keep to the faith on my time in a fallen earth - even whilst my very own nature is fallen. Then when I receive a new body and I'm worshipping the triune God where sin has been eradicated, I can't see anybody wanting anything else other than to worship Him.

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Out sinful desires come from our fallen bodies (our flesh).

For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.

Romans 8:13

Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. 14 But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. 15 Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.

James 1:13-15

But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.

Philippians 3:20-21

So it is also crucial that we receive new/regenerate bodies, so our own desires no longer entice us to sin.

So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body.

1 Corinthians 15:42-44

As to why God chose to allow us to fall, there is some answer. I think the argument is that God's love and character can be made more wonderful to us by our starting in a fallen state and being exalted from that.

You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” 20 But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” 21 Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? 22 What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, 23 in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory—

Romans 9:19-23

As shown above, though, it is not for us to question His purposes. We are of lower stature and have lower thoughts than His, so it doesn't necessarily matter what we think, only that we trust His will with faith.

All verses are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).

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