Bart Ehrman says that God has a problem. If we have free will in Heaven, what’s to stop us from sinning in the afterlife? And if God takes away free will in Heaven, then why doesn’t he take it away so we stop doing evil now?
The problem of evil comes up a lot when talking to non-believers. If you haven’t got the question about why an all-good, all-powerful God allows evil, you need to step out more. Why are there suicide bombers, school shooters and people that eat Tide Pods? Why does God allow such pointless evils?
The standard Christian rejoinder is that God gave man free will. He doesn’t want Stepford Wives, he wants people who can make free choices. Free will makes love possible, but it also makes evil possible as well. Now that’s not a bad response to the problem of moral evil.
There’s a problem, though.
Christians are also committed to the idea that the saints will live forever in a glorified state with God. In his book God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question-Why We Suffer, the famous skeptic Bart Ehrman writes:
“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?”
In other words, there’s some internal inconsistency here. Either we have no free will in heaven, or sin is possible in heaven. This objection has stumped many a Christian, but it’s not too difficult to address.
Bart and skeptics like him are posing a false dilemma. Consider this fact: According to the Bible, there already has been sin in heaven. Yes, you read that right.
Sin already happened in heaven, and it hasn’t happened since
Revelation 12:7 says that there was war in heaven. Ezekiel 28:11–17 and Isaiah 14:12–17 state that Satan is a fallen archangel who led a rebellion against God. In his attempt to overthrow God, other angels joined his cause. So what’s stopping the angels from repeating such a rebellion right now? Nowhere in the Bible do we read that God took away their free will.
The answer is simple: The angels saw Lucifer’s fall. They observed his defeat and humiliation through Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection. (Colossians 2:15) They know the judgment that is waiting for him. (Revelation 20:10) They see the wretched state he and his minions are in now. (Matthew 8:29) There’s no temptation to join him at this point.
While there are some people that are crazy enough to join the KKK or the Nazis today, normal, sane people don’t do this. We know what they stand for is abominable. Their main leaders lost a long time ago. Their ideas stand no chance of taking the world by storm now. What Satan did is a thousand times worse. And in glory, it will be a thousand times more clear to us that following in his steps would be a really dumb thing to do.
So enough about angels, what about humans?
We’re learning about the stupidity of sin now. The thing about the school of life’s hard knocks is that tuition is EXPENSIVE. We’re learning now what our lives would be like if we turned our own way.
If we accept Christ now as the sacrifice of our sins, we’ll never taste death but will experience life. (John 3:16) Why would we want to return to a hellish state? Yes, it’s possible for me to grab a piece of cat poop out of the litter box and make it into a sandwich, but why would I do that? The possibility is there but it is never going to happen.
Even in this earthly life, many of us have things that used to tempt us, but we would never go back to our old way of living because we know it’s painful. The veneer is gone. We see through it and it’s not a temptation anymore.
We’re going to further learn about the foolishness of sin in the life to come.
Revelation 14:9–10 says: “If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, he also will drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger, and he will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name.”
Yikes. Here we see that Hell will be a perpetual reminder of sin’s folly. It will serve as a notice of the senselessness of sin.
Not only that but the Bible says that we’re all going to stand before the judgment seat of Christ. Ecclesiastes 12:14 says: “For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.” Paul and Jesus echo this in the New Testament. (Matthew 12:36, Romans 2:16) Even our motives will undergo judgment. (Hebrews 4:13)
Think about this for a minute. Every human being that ever lived on the face of the planet will undergo this judgment. That’s a lot of dirty wash that’s going to get aired. And it’s not going to happen in a day or two. After hearing of the idiocy of such sin judged for a few hundred thousand years, no one will want to be “that guy” going forward.
Much of what would tempt us is going to be gone.
The Christian’s body will be transformed. (Philippians 3:21) The physical lusts that war against our souls will no longer be. (1 Peter 2:11) There will no lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes or the pride of life to tempt us. (1 John 2:15–17) We won’t get hungry, we won’t thirst and there will be no sex. (Revelation 7:16, Matthew 22:30) (No sex! Did I lose anyone right there?) While the impulses for those things aren’t bad, people start small wars and do stupid stuff over food and sex. Our desires are twisted from the fall.
Matthew 13:41 says “The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers…” The main causes for stumbling will all be gone.
Granted, Satan still fell into pride. He had no fleshly lusts to contend with. But as I stated earlier, his folly will be on full display for everyone to see with perfect clarity. And if it was good enough to convince the angels to remain with God, it will be good enough for us. We’re also going to thoroughly know that we don’t deserve to be there, so there will be nothing to get prideful about. (Ephesians 2:7–9)
These answers might not perfectly satisfy everyone. I get that. But Bart is mistaken — the Bible doesn’t fail to address the free will issue when it comes to heaven.
(Note: Many of these points are borrowed from Clay Jones’ book Why Does God Allow Evil?: Compelling Answers for Life’s Toughest Questions. Several points were supplemented with my own thoughts. Clay’s book is one of my favorite responses to the problem of evil and I highly recommend it, although I don’t agree with a couple of his theological conclusions. You can get a (brief) summary of the book in this talk:
Originally published at isjesusalive.com on March 11, 2019.