Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Free Will in Heaven

I've been involved in a long discusson online with an apologetic Christian. I can't precisely define why I do so--there's almost zero chance that either one of us is going to change our position, and the board is peopled primarily with atheists and agnostics, so I can't even count on planting seeds in lurkers' minds. But I still think it's fun.

Like most online discussions, the topic drifts--nature of the beast. You start off talking about last night's episode of Glee, and before long you've covered the viability of a crewed mission to Mars, Baltic state economics, and why do your fingers feel funny when you break off a nail?

In this case, the apologist--whom I'll call Sam--found himself trapped in a corner defending why God doesn't do more to make absolutely clear that he exists and that we'd better pay close attention to what he has to say to us. Of course, he hauled out that old chestnut, "God doesn't want robots." The idea being, God wants us to love him freely, not under compulsion or because it's patently obvious that he exists. For some reason, our love is worth more if there's a chance that we're just spitting in the wind. There has to be risk, after all, or else it's cheap.

While on the surface that might sound good, I wouldn't want to enter into a human relationship on those terms. I wouldn't want to be standing at the altar, watching my bride come down the aisle, and think to myself, "I wonder if she *really* loves me. This whole thing could be just a setup."

Anyway, back to God not wanting robots. Conceivably, God could make things much easier if he just programmed us to always obey, to love him on faith, and to never commit a sin, but according to Sam, that would be bad. Parents prefer children, not robots, so we have to have the freedom to reject God. Of course, anyone who says that has never seen someone on their hands and knees gently encouraging her roomba to get itself unstuck from under the dining room table.

I then asked Sam a question, which drifted the thread in another direction: "Will believers have free will in Heaven?"

It's a simple yes-or-no question, but oh my the backflips Sam went through to avoid the implications. Here's the situation as I see it:

If the answer is No, future residents will not have free will in Heaven, then conceivably Heaven will remain a sinless existence forever, as we've been promised. But that wouldn't work, because then we would be the very robots that Sam asserts would be so bad here on Earth. You would have a hard time convincing anyone that its bad to be a robot for eighty years, but good to be a robot for eighty trillion years (and counting).

If the answer is Yes, Heaven's citizenry will indeed have free will, then it seems all but certain that Heaven will eventually descend into the sinful hellhole that is Earth. Of course, when I call Earth a sinful hellhole, I am employing the perspective of the evangelical Christian, not my own. Sin is a religious construct created to coerce and control believers. For some, the very existence of say, homosexuals, or rock music, or even hatless women in church is one more sign of the depravity to which this world has fallen simply because some guy and his wife ate a piece of fruit. That doesn't mean that, from my non-religious perspective, there is no injustice in this world, of course. But from the point of view of evangelical conservative creationist Christians, the existence in our world of cancer, thistles, even entropy itself, is all due to one man (Adam) who used his free will to disobey God.

So it stands to reason that, if two free-willed human beings living in Paradise can't keep from mucking things up for everyone, what possible chance will there be that the same thing won't happen with the millions of believers in Heaven? Sooner or later, someone's bound to do their own thing, and if Earth is any example, the rest of Heaven's residents will have to suffer the consequences. Except in Heaven's case, it will be infintely worse, since no one will die, putting their sinfulness to an end. It's one thing to live in a world in which Hitler is able to do his worst; imagine him letting loose forever.

Sam, of course, objected to this line of reasoning mightily. Even though I asked a Yes/No question--"Will believers have free will in Heaven?"--he couldn't just leave it at that. His first loophole was that the reason Adam and Eve used their free will for evil was because Satan was tempting them. Satan won't be in Heaven after the Rapture and Tribulation and all that, so it won't be a problem. Heaven will only be populated by people who have complete free will but never choose evil--they will WANT to be there, and they won't possibly WANT to sin.

Naturally, I had problems with that answer. First off, Genesis doesn't record that it was Satan in the Garden of Eden talking to Eve--it was merely a serpent. A walking, talking serpent. Taking this passage at face value (as evangelicals constantly urge us to do) Satan isn't anywhere on the scene. Christians have deduced that Satan took the form of the serpent in order to mess around with Jehovah's biology experiment. I suppose that's entirely possible when dealing with myth and allegory. But it makes God's curse on the Serpent for sticking his blunt nose where its not wanted a little tepid. Jehovah curses the serpent that he can't walk around anymore but has to crawl on his belly. And that should be a problem for an interdimensional being that can assume the shape of a non-existent animal--how? What happened, the serpent slithered away, then poofed to wherever Satan lives as he's waiting for Armageddon to spin up? You call that a curse?

Anyway, I didn't bring that up to Sam, because that was a side issue--the problems of taking myths literally--and not germane to the discussion. In response to Sam's defense of No Satan, No Sin, I came back with a two-pronged response. First, if Satan tempts others to sin, who tempted Satan to sin? According to the story gleaned out of The Book of Revelations, Ezekiel, but mostly Paradise Lost, Lucifer was the most perfect angel living in Heaven before God created the universe. Lucifer decided after who knows how long that he's tired of being number two, and so he convinces one-third of all the angels in Heaven to rebel against God. This results in a war in Heaven, which Lucifer naturally loses. He and his army are tossed out of Heaven; Lucifer takes on the name of Satan, the angels become demons, and they plan their next escapade to be launched from--well, wherever it is that's not Heaven and not Earth. I suppose it could be Hell, but it can't be all that bad if Satan is then free to play dice with God over the fate of Job, and to have philisophical discussions with Jesus in the wilderness. At any rate, Lucifer was a free-willed angel with no Satan around to tempt him to choose evil, and yet he chose evil. So why won't future Heaven residents do the same?

The second prong of my response to Sam's explanation of Satan, is that if all it takes to make a paradise with free-willed humans living in perfect harmony and no sin is for Satan to be removed from the picture, then why didn't God remove Satan from the Garden of Eden? Why did God allow Satan access in the form of a walking serpent or whatever in the first place? Already in history (and given the mythology, I use 'history' in the loosest sense of the word) we've had two scenarios in which perfect beings with free will chose to commit sin, so what's to keep the same thing from happening in the future?

In a nutshell, what can God do in Heaven that he can't do on Earth? If there really is some third answer to my Yes/No question, if there really is some way that God can set things up so that people can be not robots, and can have the ability to choose evil but never ever ever do so, then why didn't God just create that situation to begin with? Why did God make Earth, let humans muck it up with sin, kill himself so that a select few can end up in Heaven where everything is perfect forever, when he could have skipped several painful steps and just created people in Heaven?  That way, no one has to die, and even more importantly no one has to live in Hell forever because they didn't or wouldn't love an invisible God without hesitation. Wouldn't that have been the wiser choice, the more compassionate option, the more humane decision?

Those who stump for Heaven strike me as retirement village salespeople. They have a brochure that spells out how wonderful the amenities of your future retirement home will be, how you'll never want for anything, how you'll earn your life's reward wrapped in luxury and comfort. All you have to do is start making payments toward your future condo today, and keep making payments every month and every year until you retire. But no, you can't visit the village yet--only retirees are allowed inside the gated community. And you'll find no shortage of glowing endorsements from people who are already in the process of making their payments about how much they are looking forward to their future life of ease, but frustratingly, no one has ever seemed to be able to report from the inside. No one who actually lives there right now can tell you what it's like inside. In fact, and this is a little bit creepy, once a person checks into his retirement condo, he's never heard from again!

What further complicates the issue is that the architect of these retirement villages--the one who built them from the ground up, and who will be taking your monthly payments and using it to stock your spot with amenities--that guy turns out to be the same guy who built your house! And as you know perfectly well, your house sucks! It was built with shoddy construction techniques, fails electrical code in such a way that if you aren't always careful, you could kill yourself just turning on a light switch. Your house is drafty, leaks, has a suspicious-looking mold in several corners, and is infested with vermin. In fact, your dissatisfaction with your house is the biggest reason why you're even considering plunking down the cold cash for a spot in the retirement village in the first place--you can hardly wait to live in a home where the plumbing actually works as its supposed to.

So if the same builder who screwed up your house so badly is the guy in charge of your final destination, wouldn't you find that a little disquieting? If he couldn't build a decent house, what makes him qualified to build a decent retirement condo?

Oh, don't worry, says the salesman, the guy convincing you to get out your checkbook and sign the paperwork. There's a perfectly good reason why the builder wasn't able to build your home to perfect satisfaction--it's all the brother-in-law's fault. You see, the builder has this brother-in-law . . . . doesn't everybody? . . . who kept hanging around the building site when your home was being constructed. It was that guy--not the builder--who messed everything up. That guy was the one distracting the contstruction crew, and stealing tools, and swapping Grade A lumber with inferior grade particle board. If your house isn't satisfactory, then you can blame the brother-in-law. But he's not allowed on the construction site of your retirement village. Therefore, you can be certain that your retirement condo will be absolutely perfect, just like your home would have been if the brother-in-law hadn't been allowed to hang around. How many bedrooms can we put you down for?


Gygeek said...

Awesome post!! I found this via Ed Brayton on Science Blogs.

James Sweet said...

So I had to skip some of the last part to get to bed, but I have to say, you're final two arguments didn't manage to hit the one I was thinking of: If the only thing that would cse humans to exercise their "free will" in order to do something contrary to God's commands would be "Satan"... then what is the difference between "Satan" and "Free Will"?!? After all... it seems that both are basically defined according to "This is the thingy that will allow you to do Y even if God says X..."

Which gets double-worse if your theodicy is "God gave us free will" (i.e. Satan), "hence evil." Oh shiiiiiiiittttt....

Unknown said...

There is a strange dichotomy to the whole Christian description of God. He is "all-powerful" (per dogma) yet He is constrained in countless ways (per the state of the observed world.)

He can't make us happy; erm...that would exclude free will. He can't prevent the natural disasters that kill countless innocents for some reason [waves hands about.] He can't detect the ill will of some malevolent person and intercede NOW in a way that would protect victims because something something Hellfire.

We can all think of myriad things we could do better if we were benevolent and omnipotent. How would we judge a mere human being if he blithely watched a toddler wander into traffic?

Maybe God doesn't have free will.