Monday, June 30, 2008

What’s Desirable About Heaven?

Bart Ehrman has a very popular book on the shelves now called God’s Problem. It was reviewed in the New Yorker recently, and the reviewer gives this very suggestive argument:

“But Heaven is also a problem for theodicists who take the freedom to choose between good and evil as paramount. For Heaven must be a place where either our freedom to sin has been abolished or we have been so transfigured that we no longer want to sin: in Heaven, our will miraculously coincides with God’s will. And here the free-will defense unravels, and is unravelled by the very idea of Heaven. If Heaven obviates the great human freedom to sin, why was it ever such a momentous ideal on earth, “worth” all that pain and suffering?

The difficulty can be recast in terms of the continuity of the self. If we will be so differently constituted in Heaven as to be strangers to sin, then no meaningful connection will exist between the person who suffers here and the exalted soul who will enjoy the great system of rewards and promises and tears wiped from faces: our faces there will not be the faces we have here. And, if there were to be real continuity between our earthly selves and our heavenly ones, then Heaven might dangerously begin to resemble earth.”

Here’s another closely related argument:

1. In heaven we either possess freewill to sin or we will not.

2. Being free and able to sin, all other things being equal, is a better state of affairs than not being free. (The Freewill Defense)

3. If we possess freewill to sin, then we will be able to sin.

4. If we are able to sin in heaven, then heaven will not be the best, most desirable, perfect place.

On a side note, if it is possible for God to make us free in heaven but prevent us from sinning, then it is possible for God to make us free and prevent us from sinning now. But according to the freewill defense, God makes us free but it is not possible for him to prevent us from sinning.

5. If we are not free to sin in heaven, then heaven will not be the best, most desirable, perfect place.

6. So heaven is not the best, most desirable, perfect place.


Anonymous said...

I love your argument, but I think many theists would answer that free will is only necessary insofar as it gets you to heaven on the basis of good moral choices.

After the soul is sufficiently refined, free will is unnecessary as the big goal is to rejoin in the wholeness and glory of god.

Still, why is that an important goal?

Why should I want to glory in god's "wholeness?"

As usual, I think this desire for wholeness is just part of humanitiy's universal desire to defy death and decay.

But if you grow up from that infantile psychological fantasy, why desire eternal life in heaven?

On a similar note, why the fixation and desire for worshiping an entity just because it's more powerful and knowledgeable than us?

My next door neighbor is richer and more powerful than me, and knows more about the business world, should I worship him and want to live in his "heaven?"

I'll take death and decay over heaven and servile worship any day.

Samuel Skinner said...

I just realized how intrisicly creepy that is. The dream of a totalitarian realized- where none can even commit thoughtcrime.

Anonymous said...

William Lane Craig summarizes current theistic philosophical arguments in Christianity Today:
God Is Not Dead Yet

David B. Ellis said...

I agree with the thrust of what you are saying but the way you've stated the argument is flawed (specifically, on point 4). It, in fact, contradicts premise 2. Which would be fine if you were trying to showing that Christians believe 2 and 4 and therefore hold contradictory opinions. But Christians DON'T believe 4. So all you've done is create an argument with two contradictory premises---therefore, your conclusion doesn't follow from the premises stated.

Its not the ABILITY to sin which is in any way a problem. You recognize this fact in your own side note and yet seem to fail to see that you should, because of this, have stated the argument very differently.

The statement you called a side note, in fact, should have been the argument you employed. The rest should simply be dropped. You weaken the point you're making by inserting a very good argument into the body of an invalid one.

Anonymous said...

Just a few comments.
(1) Re Matt's "continuity of the self" objection: I used to argue this point vigorously against evangelical Christians and never got a satisfactory answer. I made the same point as you, viz. that it isn't personal SURVIVAL if we're so radically changed ('glorified') as most of those Christians believe. However, it later occurred to me to consider the situation depicted in the 1968 movie, `Charly´, based on Daniel Keyes's short story, 'Flowers for Algernon'. The eponymous character is retarded, but, through an experimental procedure, his intelligence is raised to genius level. The story seems intelligible to me and therefore credible, in that, although he has been radically transformed in terms of his capacities for thinking and acting, he nonetheless retains the memories of his life as a retarded person. If this is indeed a conceivable situation, then it seems to afford an analogy on which traditional Christians could draw.

That being said, I agree with Matt's argument. Of course we can imagine a world that's MORE desirable than our world, but I don't think there could be a PERFECT world such as Christians imagine, since I think freedom is an intrinsic quality of sapient beings like us.

(2) Re Matt's statement that, in retaining freedom in Heaven, "Heaven might dangerously begin to resemble earth": A possible solution to this problem is quarantine of all people who attempt or intend or wish to harm other people. This need not be anything remotely like Hell since God might continually strive toward their reformation and/or healing. But it would seem to ensure that Heaven would not be dangerous. However, there are at least two objections to my suggestion that occur to me.
(a) Why is this world permitted to be so dangerous if God can remedy that problem in the way I've suggested for Heaven? (Christians would probably respond with something along the lines of the "soul-building" defense, which I won't pursue.)
(b) How could a line be drawn in a non-arbitrary way on the continuum of moral attitudes and behavior? Yes, some people are clearly altruistic and well-behaved ('saintly' people), and others are clearly and thoroughly on the Dark Side (Hitler and Stalin come to mind as the standard exemplars). But, in general, the spectrum of moral attitudes and behavior is comprised of infinitesimally incremental degrees. It seems implausible that even an omniscient being could draw a non-arbitrary demarcation.

(3) Re Steve's assertion that to "desire eternal life in heaven" is an "infantile psychological fantasy," I would qualify this point. There are many people (one could plausibly suggest that it's the majority of humans who have ever lived) whose lives are spent in such hopelessness and misery that their desire for a better life beyond this world is eminently understandable. This is an attitude toward which we ought to be kind and sympathetic, regardless of the falsity of their belief in a benign afterlife. One could well regard the lack of an afterlife, at least vis-a-vis those people, as a tragedy rather than an infantile fantasy.

In other respects I agree with Steve's post, especially the last line.

Anonymous said...

The argument here is based on the premise that people coming to this earth are sinful in nature and they will not magically enter heaven and have their will changed to make them good people (and therefore have a better world to live in). I totally agree with that. Read carefully what the scriptures teach and you will find that the scriptures say that very same thing. I am a mormon, so I refer to the Bible, Book of Mormon, etc.

There is no contradiction here.
Coming to earth was a plan God gave us that would ultimately give us the ability to become exactly as he is. Maybe you've heard that he is our "Father in Heaven" and as his children it would only be natural for us to be able to grow up. But, we had to gain some experience, which was only possible by coming to earth where we have 100% freedom to do whatever we please. We all make some wrong choices, some of us repent and change, and others never change. Now to the point: the person that constantly repents and works at his/her weaknesses will eventually have self-discipline and acquire all the virtues that God has, ie Justice, mercy, faith, love, obedience, etc. The person that does not repent and accept Christ (and actually change) does not develop those attributes and after death does not return to "Heaven." Here is one reason why:

When Christ talks about being one with God (John chapter 17) he is not talking about sharing the same body or being a big conglomerate of intelligences. He means to be united. The whole point of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is to make us one (united) with God; Christ and God the Father are separate individuals. We are expected to develop virtues because those are the key to building a harmonious society. People that have moral values get along very well, in fact you could never have a "better world" or perfect society (call it "Heaven" if you like) unless the people in it have those same virtues. So heaven would be a place where independent people with free will would go, and even though they have the power to choose sin if they technically wanted to, they aren't going to, because to them it is repugnant, and they have self-discipline.

It is quite simple. I myself have no desire to kill anyone. I technically have the power to murder, but I am not going to. It really isn't that tempting. Apply this basic idea to all types of sin, and you have solved the problem of how to make that perfect society. I have the power to vandalize, steal, commit adultery, etc. But I'm not going to. Do you see my point?