How Can We Be Free in Heaven and Not Sin?
Hello. I had a question for you about your understanding of man's will and the ability to fall. If the will is not evil or good, and if it must be free (by free you seem to mean able to go one way or the other) in order to be real, how do you understand the eternal state as one being free? Do you think man will be able to fall from heaven after being saved? If not, where is the freedom in heaven? If you think the reality of the will is based on past decisions (made on earth), doesn't that imply that the will would be gone in heaven? I guess the simplest way to ask the question is this: Does the will have to be actively able to choose good or evil in order to be real? If this definition is proper, humans must be able to fall from heaven.
What do you think?
Thank you for writing. This is a great question and one that has significant ramifications, not only for theological understanding but for our apologetic approach as well. If I may rephrase your question, it can be stated accordingly:
No matter which side of the predestination/free will debate you're on, all seem to agree that:
- The saved will be elevated to a better state of being eternally than they are currently (Rom 8:18, 2 Cor. 4:17).
- The saved, once glorified, will no longer sin throughout eternity (Rev. 21:4,27).
Since apologists argue that Adam was created in a perfect state and yet his free choice to disobey God introduced sin into the world, then in what way do we retain that same type of freedom and yet never disobey God in eternity? And if we lose the ability to choose, does this not render humanity to a lower state than before? (The idea of losing the freedom to choose is repugnant to most people. No one wants to become a "Stepford" Christian.) ?
Some in the reformed tradition have basically denied the idea of man having any meaningful freedom to choose at all, rather relying on God's sovereignty. If this is true, man has lost nothing and there is no conflict. However, I'm concerned that while this view answers the eternity question, it destroys the impetus for Adam's original sin - placing it back on God. (For more on this, see our article "Objections to Determinism" at http://www.comereason.org/newsletters/mar02.htm)
If man does have a real choice in following or disobeying God's will, then it seems he either is denied that freedom in eternity or he has the ability to sin even in heaven. Now, either of these positions is untenable given #2 above, so there must be another option.
I believe that man does retain his free will in heaven but loses the capacity to sin. It is our salvation in Christ that allows both to be true. Let's examine the Biblical evidence and see if this makes sense.
1. Choices Can Produce Irreversible Change
The first important point to realize is that some choices we as individuals make produce profound and irreversible changes to our natures and our actions. The most obvious demonstration of this is the fall in the Garden of Eden. The choice of Adam and Eve to sin against God resulted in drastic changes, physically as well as to their natures. They and their progeny would now have a sinful nature - their proclivity would be toward sin - and they would become dull to the things of God.
Our belief in Jesus produces an irreversible change in us as well. We use the term "born again" from John 3:3 to describe our new relationship with God. Paul talks about the "new man" (Eph 4) and tells us "If any man is in Christ he is a new creation, all things have passed away, behold all has become new" (2 Cor. 5:17)1.
2. At Salvation We are Given A New, Godly Nature
All of this language says that there is something more fundamental going on in the human soul at the time of conversion than the forgiveness of our sins. We are indwelt with the Holy Spirit and given a new nature. 2 Peter 1:4 states "For by these He has granted to us His precious and magnificent promises, in order that by them you might become partakers of the divine nature" (emphasis added). Paul also supports this view, writing "For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man" (Rom 7:22).
3. One Aspect of This Nature Is That We Will Not Sin.
In both these verses we see that those who are saved are given a nature that is radically different than the fallen nature inherited from Adam and Eve. Our new nature is godly, agreeing with all the precepts and laws of God. If you completely obey all God's laws, you would be considered sinless, as Jesus was (2 Cor. 3:21, Matt 5:17).
A more direct passage to our point may be found in 1 John 3. John writes, "You know that He appeared in order to take away sins; and in Him there is no sin. No one who abides in Him sins; no one who sins has seen Him or knows Him. No one who is born of God practices sin, because His seed abides in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God" (vv 5-6,9).
4. Upon Death, This Nature Becomes Dominant in the Believer
Because we have two natures that are at odds with each other, there is an inner struggle that exists in every believer. Romans 7 is dedicated to showing this struggle. However, upon death, the old man will pass away leaving only the new, divine nature. One of the most important passages to understanding this is found in Romans 6:4-7:
Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin; for he who has died is freed from sin.
The last verse is key - "he who has died is free from sin." When we're saved and choose to be baptized, we die to ourselves and receive a new nature. This nature is in conflict with our old fleshly nature. When our bodies die, that old nature perishes completely as well, leaving the divine nature alone.
5. Christ is the Perfect Example of This Nature
The best example of what this divine nature is like can be found in Jesus himself. In the above passage Paul writes, "We shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection." We see something similar in written in 1 John 3:2, "We know that, when he appears, we shall be like Him, because we shall see him just as he is."
As I stated above, Jesus was sinless. He fulfilled all of the law and was well pleasing to the father (Matt 3:17). So by partaking in His divine nature, we also become able to resist sin.
6. Christ, Even Though He Didn't Sin, Had Free Will
All of the arguments above have demonstrated that it is possible for us to have a nature that is divine and loath to sin. However, it is the idea of free will that we're after. So, it is important to recognize that Jesus had free will even though he never sinned.
Although few would argue that Jesus didn't act of His own volition, one of the more clear Bible passages that demonstrates such is John 10:17-18. "I lay down My life so that I may take it again. No one has taken it away from Me, but I lay it down on My own initiative. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again." Obviously, Jesus is here asserting that He can lay down His Life of His own volition. We can also point to the temptation in the wilderness (Matt. 4) as evidence that Jesus had freedom to do what He pleased. What he chose was not to sin.
Now I know that this opens up a "hot button" topic on whether Christ really could have sinned. For more on this, I'd recommend the section in Wayne Grudem's Systematic Theology called "Could Jesus Have Sinned 2. I will just quote from the conclusion here. "Jesus had the ability, by virtue of his divine nature, to perform [changing stones into bread], but if he had done it, he would no longer have been obeying in the strength of his human nature alone, he would have failed the test that Adam also failed, and he would not have earned our salvation for us. Therefore, Jesus refused to rely on his divine nature to make obedience easier for him." Jesus had free will and overcame temptation. He had free will and yet did not sin.
7. Conclusion: In Heaven We Can Have Free Will and Yet Not Sin
In reviewing all of the above, we can see that it's possible for man to have free volition in heaven and yet never sin. We have a new, divine nature in Christ. This nature cannot sin, just as Christ cannot sin. Even though Jesus could not sin, He was still free. Therefore, we can exist with free will in heaven and we will not sin. We know this is not an illogical idea, since no one argues that God has no free will, yet God cannot sin. So, it is possible for a being to exist, be truly free and not able to sin.
The thing I find even more intriguing, though, is that it may expose one of God's grand purposes in allowing the events of the universe unfold as they did. Many times people ask "Why would God allow evil in the world to begin with? Why wouldn't he just create beings who could not sin at the beginning?"
Here I agree with William Lane Craig. In a debate against Dr. Ray Bradley in 1994 3, Craig was asked why God didn't just create heaven as the world and forego the rest.
"No,Heaven may not be a possible world when you take it in isolation by itself. It may be that the only way in which God could actualize a heaven of free creatures all worshiping Him and not falling into sin would be by having, so to speak, this run-up to it, this advance life during which there is a veil of decision-making in which some people choose for God and some people against God. Otherwise you don't know that heaven is an actualizable world. You have no way of knowing that possibility."
"You're saying, in effect, that when I characterize heaven as a possible world in which everybody freely receives Christ, I'm wrong insofar as that had to be preceded by this actual world, this world of vale of tears and woe in which people are sinful and the like."
"I'm saying that it may not be feasible for God to actualize heaven in isolation from such an antecedent world."
Well, I hope that this discussion has been a blessing to you. I know that I have thoroughly enjoyed exploring some of the ramifications of our salvation in Christ. I pray that God will continue to bless you in all your studies.
Lockman Foundation, La Mirada, CA 1984
2. Grudem, Wayne Systematic Theology
Zondervan and InterVarsity Press, Grand Rapids Mi 1994 pp.537,539
3. The full transcript of the Craig/Bradley
debate is available online at: