Monday, December 18, 2006

Is There Freedom in Heaven?

James Wood has written a fascinating review of Sam Harris' book, Letters to a Christian Nation, in which he provides a brief history and explanation of his own atheism.* As is the case for many atheists, Wood finds it impossible to believe in God given the widespread presence of evil and suffering in the world. He also takes issue with the idea of heaven, by which believers let God "off the hook" for the evils of this world by imagining a perfect world in the next life. But Wood argues that, even if heaven exists (which he thinks is unlikely), it would not resemble our earthly lives in the slightest, because free will is not possible in heaven:
In heaven, it seems, all tears will be wiped away and we will be free of pain and suffering. We will also be free of freedom--necessarily so, because if freedom were to exist in heaven, we would merely replicate our lives on earth and start doing terrible things to each other again. Heaven, as an intellectual category as much as an "actual place," depends on the idea that the highest form of happiness--to be face to face with our Maker, and so on--is a state without freedom, or with severely curtailed freedom. But if this is the ideal state, the state that our Creator longs to have us in, then why was heaven not instituted on earth? Since heaven was not created on earth, we must conclude that our lives here are more or less painful experiments, and that the world is a training ground for heaven.

Yet it is a rigged experiment, since the experiment already knows its own answer. Not just because God, being omniscient, must know what will become of each of us (the Catholic church tied itself up in knots over this issue, and eventually had to repudiate its own doctrine of "double predestination"), but also because a real experiment would put the existence of heaven itself in doubt. A rigged experiment simply puts our going to heaven in doubt. Yet if heaven must exist, if there is no doubt that heaven exists, then we know that we are being trained here on earth to exercise a free will that will not be needed in heaven, a free will the exercise of which causes immense pain to many people, but a pain that will be miraculously eased in heaven. This is nothing less than a definition of torture.

The issue of freedom in heaven is a very interesting one, which I had never really considered until this point. But I'm not convinced that Wood is correct. This is because the Bible primarily envisions heaven as the consummation of Creation, and not as a location distinct from this world (for more on this topic, please see Byron's excellent series, Heaven: Not the End of the World). The Christian hope is for the resurrection of the body, not the immortality of the soul, as Wood seems to assume. Thus, the residents of heaven will not simply be "face to face with our Maker" in a spiritual netherworld, but will instead occupy a restored and renewed Creation. It is reasonable to assume that we will retain our creaturely freedom in such a world, although our perfect reconciliation with God will prevent us from sinning.** I think Pannenberg says it best in Volume 1 of his Systematics:

"In the renewed world that is the target of eschatological hope the difference between God and creature will remain, but that between the holy and profane will be totally abolished... The goal of the act of creation is the independent existence of creatures" (400, 420).

That is, in heaven, there will be no conflict between the freedom of God and the freedom of his creatures.

* Interestingly, Wood finds the "popular atheism" offered up by Harris and Dawkins to be quite lacking. He regards their writings as merely "guilty pleasures" for atheists - satisfying, but not substantive or serious.

** I realized after writing this post that the "we" and "our" in this sentence implies that I consider myself worthy of heaven. Of course, that may be presumptuous.


Thuloid said...

One point to make on this matter (one you're no doubt aware of)--there's a highly significant sense in which certain Christian thinkers (say, Luther) have held that what is being called a state of "creaturely freedom" is in fact bondage. We are ruled by sin.

In this view, true creaturely freedom comes in Christ; so here the distinction between creature and creator is upheld and even uplifted as we properly inhabit the roles we are made for. We don't look to retain our creaturely freedom but to regain it in Christ. The consummation of this is the point of our eschatology (and I think the Pannenberg statement is heading in precisely this direction).

Wood, like the rest of the world, errs by calling bondage freedom and freedom bondage. Big shock there.

Thomas Adams said...

Thuloid – You’re absolutely right: “retain” was a poor choice of words. What I meant to say was that we will still possess freedom, although we will be liberated from the sinful freedom we currently have. As you point out, the model of such “liberated freedom” is the life of our Savior, in which our eschatological destiny has already been revealed.

Lee said...

Interestingly, Origen held that there could be a series of falls and redemptions due to creaturely freedom, but with a final consummation at the very end of time. Similar in some ways to certain Hindu views.

Matthew N. Petersen said...

It seems he makes several other errors. First, if freedom necessitates ability to fall then either 1) God is not free, or 2) God can sin. It seems that it is presumptous to say the idea of God is incoherent because of this, so most likely his understanding of freedom is either imprecise or not the only one possible.

Second, he asks why if there is heaven God didn't just make earth heaven. The fact is, he did. What is heaven aside from the place where God is? Do we not confess "God became incarnate from the Virgin Mary and was made man"? Do we not continue to ear the flesh and drink the blood of this Man who is God? Are we not ourselves living members of this man who is God? Why then is everything so bad here? It isn't. Peace on Earth. By the life of Christ evil is conquered. Not merely sin, but all evil, all suffering is made good. Why do we remain here on earth? That we may be Christs.

Mickey said...

Yours still does not answer the question of why God did not make a renewed Creation on Earth. Seven days were not enough? Was the flood not a second chance?

If there is going to be any renewed creation, it will be by human hands, and it will have nothing to do with God. Our own creativity and our capacity to learn and nourish it is enough.

Anonymous said...

Thankfull heart is a fortable heaven which you bring everywhere