AngelsFor libertarians freedom is central: to act in whatever way we so desire as long as we do not infringe the fundamental rights – to life and property – of other people. Choosing to act one way or another requires freedom of the will: which means, contrary to determinism, that when we choose to act a certain way it is possible for us to have acted differently. I chose to sit down at my computer 2 minutes ago, but it was possible for me to have chosen and acted differently, perhaps to go and get a cup of coffee instead.

Free will is a thorny issue, with massive philosophical ramifications. I want to reflect briefly on its application to the Christian doctrine of heaven. One day we will die, and according to Christian thought we are destined for Heaven or Hell. The criteria for heavenly acceptance varies from one Christian tradition to another, but almost all agree that there is a heaven, that the saints of God will go there, and that it will be a blissful existence for all time and eternity. Obviously they serve icy Coke in Heaven then.

But, the question arises: do we have free will in Heaven? Here on earth it is possible to sin: I can choose to tell Polly Toynbee to go and fuck herself up the arse with a broom handle, which I’m sure would be regarded sinful by most Christians (both my telling her and her actually shoving a broom handle up her arse). But suppose I end up in Heaven to discover that God does after all permit members of the political left: am I free to tell Polly Toynbee to go and fuck herself up the arse with a broom handle, or, (given that heaven probably has no dust requiring a broom), a priestly staff? If I am free to do so, does that mean sinning is possible in Heaven? And thus, by extension, might it be possible to be evicted and blasted into Hell?

I suspect that most Christians would argue that it would not be possible to sin in heaven. They might quote all manner of verses which they think teaches that heavenly bliss is eternal. However, arguing that sinning is impossible in Heaven is not without problems of its own.

One of the central philosophical problems to dog Christian theology for centuries is what has come to be known as “the problem of evil.” Simply stated the problem of evil says that if God really is all powerful then He could remove all evil from the world, and if He is all-loving then He would want to do so. However, the earth is full of evil, so we have a philosophical conundrum. I think that the answers given by several theistic philosophers, such as Alvin Plantinga and Richard Swinburne, are fairly persuasive. However, at some stage almost all answers to the problem of evil will invoke the concept of free will, to argue along the lines that since human beings have free will God cannot remove all evil because some people will choose to bring evil about (a murderer will decide to kill someone, for instance). In creating free beings that was the risk God took, and without being free our lives would be of little significance.

However, even if the problem of evil can be solved in this way (and I think the problem is certainly soluble) we are still left with a “problem of heaven.” If free will is as significant as some Christian theologians and philosophers make out, why are we not free in heaven? Or, if we are free in heaven then is it not possible to sin, and perhaps thus to be expelled? JL Mackie, an atheist philosopher, once argued that if God can make free beings that sometimes choose to do right then he could have made free beings that always choose to do right. I think Mackie’s understanding of “free being” is flawed, and his argument is like stating that if God could make an unbiased coin that sometimes landed on tails then he could make an unbiased coin that always landed on tails. Being a free being means that God cannot control the choices in the way that Mackie implies. However, some Christians seem to make use of a similar argument: we remain free in heaven but God conditions us so we always choose right. This contains the same conceptual blur as the argument of Mackie, but even worse we must ask the Christian: if this is the case in Heaven, why didn’t God make it that way from the start? Why must we suffer all manner of evils and pain in this world if it’s logically possible for God to create a world in which we are free but always choose to do right? And, again, if we are not free in heaven then free will must not be that important. So why did God create us with free will with all its potential for great evils if, in the final analysis, free will is of so little importance that it is absent from the heavenly state of bliss?

To summarise: if we are free in heaven then sinning is possible, and if we are not free in heaven then we must ask why God ever created free beings in the first place rather than heavenly utopia from the beginning.

There are two possible ways out of the dilemma: one is the path of Richard Swinburne who argues that it was important for God to create free beings who could then choose to give up their freedom in a heavenly state rather than create non-free beings from the start. The thinking seems to rely on the notion of attaining heaven as a reward. In order for any reward to be meaningful it must be in some sense earned or deserved, and obviously it would make no sense to reward an automaton or a computer programme for acting a certain way when they have no choice in the matter. So, we are created free and then we attain to heaven, or not, as a result of our free decisions to think and act in certain ways.

This goes someway towards solving the dilemma, but it’s not wholly satisfactory. The main problem I see with it is that it relies on people making free choices and then ultimately to freely give up their freedom. Of course freely giving up ones freedom isn’t logically impossible, but it does seem to rob life of meaning, dignity and worth. Do we really become beings on a moral par with robots in Heaven? Are the saints in Heaven really just programmed automatons worshipping God purely because they are programmed to do so? What glory is there for God in that? Would any of us be honoured if we received praise from a computer programme that was designed to do just that?

So, although Swinburne’s line of thought solves the logical problem of heaven – by explaining why God made free beings first before removing free will afterwards – it still leaves us with the above oddities (and a few more besides). Perhaps Christian theology needs to adopt another doctrine: a doctrine of heavenly expulsion. We are free in heaven as on earth and sin is possible. Now, this isn’t to say that sin is likely, causing saints to be expelled like piss from an incontinent granny. If Heaven is meant to be a place where the presence and majesty of God is intense and in which one is surrounded by fellow worshippers, sin would be highly unlikely, though still possible. Nor does it mean that as soon as you sin in Heaven you disappear through a trapdoor to Hell. God, according to Christianity, is merciful and full of grace, so presumably there would be both grace and mercy in Heaven.

Some Christians might think this notion is a tad odd, not only because the person making it isn’t an orthodox Christian, but because it runs contrary to 2000 years of Christian thought. But, it isn’t without precedent. Christian tradition itself contains two stories which point along these lines. Firstly, Lucifer and his minions enjoyed the bliss of Heavenly existence before rebelling and being told to get the Hell out. Some traditions describe Lucifer as an archangel (that’s like a super-duper angel I suppose) who was charged with the worship of God before deciding that he would like a bit of praise and worship directed at him. His resultant pride got his ass kicked out of Heaven before he could shout “Hallelujah.” Secondly, Adam and Eve were cast out of their own paradise after disobeying God (disobedience obviously presupposes free will), despite the fact that they are pictured as walking and talking with God in a highly intimate way. Given these biblical precedents, coupled with the philosophical considerations above, there is something worth considering about the doctrine for Christian theologians.

I wrote an article some time ago asking if God is a libertarian, and suggested that there was reason to suppose He is indeed. But if Christians insist on clinging to their current doctrine of Heaven with a dubious understanding of free will then all we are left with is a riddle of a libertarian God without a libertarian home.