Ehrman’s Problem 4: Why Won’t We Abuse Free Will in Heaven?

Bart Ehrman’s fourth objection to the free will defense is this: “Most people who believe in God-given free will also believe in an afterlife. Presumably people in the afterlife will still have free will (they won’t be robots then either, will they?). And yet there won’t be suffering (allegedly) then. Why will people know how to exercise free will in heaven if they can’t know how to exercise it on earth?” (12-13). This is a common question and there are several reasons we can have free will in Heaven but not sin.

There’s much to say on this, but I’ll be brief here.

First, the Bible says that one day all the things that cause sin will be destroyed: “The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil.” (Mat. 13:41). This includes Satan and his minions, as well as all those who tasted of good and evil and ultimately chose evil. (Rev. 20:10, 13). There will be a new earth (Rev. 21:1) so that the corruptions of this earth will be forever gone; we will no longer be “one-click” from evil. Our bodies will be redeemed and we will no longer know the lusts of the flesh. (Phil. 3:21). But God waits to accomplish these things until all those who will come to Him, come. (2 Pet. 3:9).

Second, the eternal punishment of the eternally unrepentant will serve as an eternal reminder of the peril and horror of sin.

Third, I suspect that lessons learned here and at the Judgment will make sin too ridiculous to commit.1 In other words, God couldn’t just create beings with a significantly free will and not let them ever use it wrongly, but that doesn’t mean that this world and all the evil we experience here won’t be sufficient, in conjunction with the other things I just mentioned, to make us realize that sin is something we simply won’t want to do—ever.

I use the following illustration when I teach. I will hold a pen, or other sharp object, up to my eye and ask the class if they would like to see me jab it into my eye?2 Holding the pen even closer I’ll stress, “I could do it!” Then I’ll ask, “But I’m not going to. Do you know why?” No one ever answers. Finally I tell them, “I’m not going to do it because I’m too smart for that; that would be stupid thing to do.” Consider that we don’t give pens to babies because, sure enough, sooner or later they’d jab them into their eyes. But, even if I lived a billion years on this earth (as long as I still had all my marbles), I would never, ever, intentionally jab a pen into my eye because I know that would be stupid.

That is what is going on in this world. We are learning to distinguish between good and evil (Heb. 5:14). We are learning that sin is not only rebellion but that sin is stupid, hurtful, hateful, and counterproductive. We are learning that God is right, was right, and always will be right. And at the Judgment, where everyone’s evil thoughts and deeds will be exposed, we are going to get an amazing education about the horror of sin. In other words, this life prepares us to be able to use our free will responsibly in Heaven. Just like so many rebellious teenagers, we are learning the hard way—through experience—that our Heavenly Father has been right all along.

And finally, in Heaven, those who persevere in their faith, having learned here that rebellion is inane and insane, will see God who will give them the Kingdom (2 Thess. 1:5; Luke 12:32) where:

No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever. ~Revelation 22:3-5

  1. William Lane Craig makes a similar point in a debate with Ray Bradley. Bradly asked why God didn’t just create heaven and forego this world.

    Craig: “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.”

    Bradley: “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.”

    Craig: “I’m saying that it may not be feasible for God to actualize heaven in isolation from such an antecedent world.” See: http://www.leaderu.com/offices/billcraig/docs/craig-bradley3.html []

  2. I got this illustration from a doctoral class I took years ago from Dallas Willard. []
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16 Responses to Ehrman’s Problem 4: Why Won’t We Abuse Free Will in Heaven?

  1. Marco says:

    Hi Clay,

    I also agree with your assesment that this world and its experience are necessary that we won’t sin in heaven. But there is one thing I was struggling with since some time.
    What about babies who die in the womb, or very young children, or disabled people who cannot understand right from wrong. Is it for them then sufficient to see the horrors of sin committed by others at the judgment?
    Babies who died never chose God or rejected him in this live.
    Will there be a possibility after they die?

    Kind Regards from Germany
    Marco

    • clayjones says:

      I suspect that the Judgment will be an amazing education, Marco! Imagine watching the deeds and motives of not only humans but angels (and who knows what else) exposed one by one and then to have those so exposed to be told to give an account of even their every idle word. Those who had a short life here will, in my opinion, be brought up to speed very quickly. Also, the fact that they did have a short life here is part of their own education. For example, aborted babies will certainly understand the horror perpetrated against them.

  2. Brian Mason says:

    It is clear the Ehrman is exercising his “free will” in the writing of this book. He willfully and clearly has not thought out his presuppositions.

  3. Tom says:

    Playing devil’s advocate, why wouldn’t such an education be possible for all people regardless of past sinfulness or beliefs, resulting in a universalism of sorts?

    • clayjones says:

      Because it isn’t just about education, Tom! The truth is out there but they “repress the truth by their wickedness” (Rom. 1). In other words, they hate the education. “The light has come into the world but men love the darkness because their deeds are evil.”

  4. You think that ordinary people, improved simply by the lessons learned through life and the process of Judgment will be good enough to never sin in an eternity in heaven? I would think that it would take substantial enlightenment to get people to use their free will in a way that would produce no sin.

    Either way, why didn’t God create those conditions here on earth? Why didn’t God give us the instruction manual that goes along with our free will so that we could use it correctly? Why would God make us imperfect and then demand that we be perfect to get into heaven?

    Not a fair system, I’m afraid. I don’t feel bad being left out of this fairy tale.

    • clayjones says:

      Earth is where we learn the horror of rebellion, Bob! He did give us an instruction manual. We call it the Bible. Sadly, many reject the instruction manual and prefer to believe that the universe popped into existence, out of nothing, uncaused. They will pay the penalty.

      • Clay, the human race did not have wide access to the Bible until the last few hundred years…….and much of the presentation of it by Christians was distorted by misguided education and confusing because of wildly immature or inhumane interpretations of Scripture. So, I see the judgment of God as incredibly excessive, given how little human beings understood or knew about the Bible throughout the vast majority of history.

        Plus, long before the time of Christ, for between 100,000-300,000 years (depending on which scientist/anthropologist we agree with related to how long modern humans have existed), the human race suffered in massive ignorance and pain while God looked on and did nothing to explain what His/Her design in them was supposed to function like. This doesn’t even begin to address the many natural evils that humans always have faced that *usually* have nothing to do with human sin, such as famine, drought, earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, volcanoes, tsunamis, diseases, plagues, etc.

        The Bible gives many examples of horrendous violence that God put forth toward the Jew’s neighbors who practiced other religions (even though they did not have sufficient access/teaching regarding the Hebrew revelation from God).

    • clayjones says:

      They won’t be “ordinary” once their bodies are changed, Bob, and the Judgment will be a substantial englightenment! God didn’t make us imperfect, the human race did that on its own.

    • I totally agree with you, Bob. Thank you for posting this.

    • I believe that the punishment of eternal hell for an earthly life is unjust, and that God is largely responsible for our condition at birth and afterward (She/He designed us with these severe weaknesses and flaws. We are culpable to a limited degree for our sin and should be held accountable to a reasonable degree. I don’t know exactly what this punishment/consequence should be for individual acts of depravity, but it certainly shouldn’t be to live in such a harsh world as this one without possible escape/relief until death, and to later be potentially sent to hell forever (especially given how naturally ignorant human beings are). If creatures made carefully by God, whether ones with free will or not, keep on behaving the same way over and over, without exception, this is a design error.

  5. Liz says:

    “Our bodies will be redeemed and we will no longer know the lusts of the flesh.”

    Does that involve romantic love/sex? Will we still feel romantic love? I can’t imagine seeing my husband in Heaven/on the new earth (are those the same thing?) and not feeling romantic love for him.

    • clayjones says:

      Hi Liz,
      I don’t think we will experience sexual love like we do here. But, I do think whatever we experience regarding love will be better than what we experience here. Also, I’m sure you will remember feeling romatic love for your husband. We aren’t going to have amnesia in Heaven. That we can’t imagine living without sexual love was answered by As C. S. Lewis: “I think our present outlook might be like that of a small boy who, on being told that the sexual act was the highest bodily pleasure, should immediately ask whether you ate chocolates at the same time. On receiving the answer no, he might regard absence of chocolates as the chief characteristic of sexuality. In vain would you tell him that the reason why lovers in their carnal raptures don’t bother about chocolates is that they have something better to think of. The boy knows chocolate: he does not know the positive thing that excludes it. We are in the same position. We know the sexual life; we do not know, except in glimpses, the other thing which, in Heaven, will leave no room for it.”

      • Liz says:

        I don’t think the absence of sex would bother me as much as not having a special relationship with my husband that’s different than my relationship with everyone else. I heard something before that gave me the impression that we wouldn’t have special relationships like marriages because we would just love everybody equally as brothers and sisters. But I feel like I wouldn’t be myself any more if I loved my husband just as a brother.

        • clayjones says:

          I suspect you will have a special relationship with your husband, Liz, but it won’t be the married kind.

          Clay

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