No Evil in Heaven?

Philosopher Graham Oppy writes:

. . . if it is part of the essence of heaven that it should be a place in which there is no evil, then there is at least some reason to think that heaven must also be a place in which human beings have severely limited freedom of action. . . . [For] no agents are free to perform evil actions in heaven.*

What say you?

*Graham Oppy, Arguing about Gods (Cambridge, 2006), 315


About Doug Geivett
University Professor; PhD in philosophy; author; conference speaker. Hobbies include motorcycling, travel, kayaking, sailing.

9 Responses to No Evil in Heaven?

  1. There is a multi part solution, but you won’t find it in Augustine, Anselm or Aquinas. Rather, you will find the solution in nascent form in Eastern Fathers. There are a few parts:

    1. if the good isn’t simple, then the alternative-possibilities condition on free will can be met without implying that either option is of opposing moral value.

    2. For contingent beings, in order for Kantian type ultimacy and responsibility conditions to be met, they have to be the sufficient cause of the character that they end up having. Consequently, it is not possible for them to be created morally good. Free will is incompatible with moral righteousness or virtue unwilled by the agent whose righteousness it is. The possibility is evil is a temporary use of the power of will, called the “gnomic will” in the history of theology. It is a personal use of a natural faculty as yet unfixed relative to its nature’s telos. Consequently, Aquinas, for example, is mistaken in thinking that it is a limitation of human nature which made sin possible. The problem isn’t metaphysical per se, but personal—or, rather, the relation of person to nature in the initial state. If the problem were metaphysical, we would carry it into heaven. This is why sin on the Eastern view is a temporary possibility for Adam. In any case, natures don’t sin, persons do.

    3. Free agents form their character over time until it congeals one way (or the other) such that once their character is fixed they kick away the temporary possibility of sinning like a Wittgenstinian ladder. This is why sin was possible for Adam, but not for the saints in heaven and not for Christ.

    4. God is the source of his own moral righteousness, but since God does not have a beginning, God never begins a process of character formation. Sourcehood and contingency can be pried apart. God never ceases from goods because God never began them.

    5. God, the incarnate Christ, and the saints in heaven are morally impeccable and enjoy libertarian freedom since there are a plurality of goods to select between in the eternal state. For the former two, it is impossible for them to commit sin since their persons were always fixed in virtue and so they never had a gnomic will. This is why Christ’s choice in the garden of his passion was between two goods, without subordinating his human will to the divine. I have a forthcoming paper on this solution.

    Oppy is therefore wrong in claiming that libertarian freedom and moral impeccability are incompatible and also wrong in holding that, since God could have created part of a world with morally impeccable creatures that were free, God could have created a whole world with such creatures from the get-go.


  2. Doug Geivett says:

    Aaron, this is an interesting proposal. What are some examples of ways the body is ritualized or habituated in relation to sin, do you think? Can you describe typical physical habits that might be obviated by glorification of the body?


  3. Aaron says:

    I think I see where your criticism was coming from. Part of my discussion made it seem as if you could discuss physiological temptation apart from the mind, as if our bodies alone lead us to sin. I wasn’t trying to draw this metaphysical distinction, and should have been more careful.

    If I could summarize it a bit better: I wonder (with some speculation) if having glorified bodies simply affects our desire for some sins, when presented with the opportunity. They becomes a less attractive (and even repulsive) option physically, whereas presently, we may be tempted to see them as good options.


  4. Aaron says:

    I’m always looking for clarity, so thanks for the feedback.

    Some of this is a bit speculative. My thoughts regarding the physical nature stem from the belief that some sin tendencies have physical components to them that can be addressed, partly, on a physical level. For example, if I’m dealing with an addiction that leads to sin, part of dealing with the sin is dealing with the physical draw to it that has become ingrained biologically, and as a habit. I wonder (and this is speculative) if the glorification of our bodies possibly eliminates certain biological tendencies to be drawn to sin that may have physiological triggers, once we are operating according to our intended design. I’m not sure that sanctification is solely about knowledge acquisition about God (although it obviously is in part), but about undoing physiological aspects that aren’t properly aligned towards the good, either, due to bad habit formation, or because our physical natures have felt the effects of the fall over time.

    I’ve thought that in part, this is what spiritual disciplines help with. It’s partly about undoing physical habits that have been ingrained over time in the body, and training it to take on new motions or habits, with the help of the Spirit. I’ve viewed glorification as including the realization of this process, where our bodies now operate correctly in a teleological sense.

    If having new bodies in heaven matters, I would have to think that this is a significant factor in determining whether or not we’ll want to sin, or find it attractive, in heaven.


  5. Doug Geivett says:

    Aaron, I see you making two points here. One is summarized in what you say in the last paragraph of your comment; and this seems right if there is to be continuity in human experience and agency between life on earth and life in heaven. But the part about our physical natures is not convincing to me. I think the view of the body and its associated assumptions about the relation between minds and bodies are metaphysically dubious and spiritually weired, quite apart from being highly speculative and counter-intuitive. But maybe you have a developed view of this that you could share here.


  6. Aaron says:

    “Could it be that humans acting freely aim at some good as judged by them, and that they are capable of deceiving themselves about the good while acting on earth, but won’t be capable of self-deception in heaven?

    But then, why not? What has happened to make the difference? Why wouldn’t inhabitants of heaven desire the wrong things?”

    Perhaps sin is partly about deception here on earth, and partly about a degradation of our physical natures that causes us to be drawn to it; not simply spiritually, but in a way that resides physically in our bodies.

    I wonder if heaven fixes this in a couple of ways. First, our glorified state will provide us with new bodies that are naturally drawn to the good, like our bodies, when operating correctly now, are drawn towards physical self-preservation. Also, heaven will provide us with a direct and unmitigated view of the “good,” God himself, which removes our ability for self-deception.

    Therefore, we won’t be drawn to sin in a physical sense. My body will not want to sin, in the same way that I don’t want to do self-harm now, as it will be operating correctly. Also, a clear knowledge of God will keep us from self-deception, as we see sin for what it really is: the thing that keeps us from even deeper knowledge of God, which is infinitely more valuable. So in that sense, with self-deception not being possible anymore, it becomes like choosing between something that’s supremely good, and something that is infinitely horrible. It’s possible to do that horrible thing, but so unlikely (and absurd) that it simply won’t happen.

    I think that in part, the answer to sin now, on earth, is similar to the answer to sin in heaven. As we are provided with a clearer picture of what sin truly is, along with a clearer understanding of who God is, our capacity for sin diminishes. In heaven, all barriers that create misunderstanding are fully removed.


  7. Doug Geivett says:


    I think Oppy assumes that we have libertarian freedom and that it is this sort of freedom that humans in heaven will or would have. I share these assumptions. I think Augustine would have differed on both points, accepting a form of compatibilism.

    I think your point about the nature of desire in heaven is worth pursuing. It may actually be akin to the function of desire on earth. Desire is inherently teleological—it is directed at something. Could it be that humans acting freely aim at some good as judged by them, and that they are capable of deceiving themselves about the good while acting on earth, but won’t be capable of self-deception in heaven?

    But then, why not? What has happened to make the difference? Why wouldn’t inhabitants of heaven desire the wrong things?


  8. Aaron says:

    Perhaps this would be a fruitful response to Oppy.

    We are all free to poke our eyes out with hot irons. But very consistently, of our own volition, we choose not to (at least if all is right with our mental faculties). And the reason isn’t because of a limitation on our freedom, but because things are operating correctly internally.

    Perhaps freedom is like this in heaven. When faced with a clear and direct understanding of the consequences of sin, it’s more painful than self mutilation. We realize the nature of sin, and we reliably choose not to; not because we are programmed such, but because everything is operating as it’s supposed to be, teleologically, and it’s naturally repulsive to our free sensibilities. To sin becomes as nonsensical as removing body parts.

    In other words, we are free to do as we desire in heaven. We simply find, in our glorified state, that we don’t desire certain painful things anymore.

    Theologically, this may be counter to Augustine’s distinction of being “unable to sin” in heaven once glorified (which is probably preferable); but for the sake of argument, it seems that there are hypothetical counterexamples, granting Oppy’s conception of freedom, that act as a defeater to the claim that freedom must be severely limited in heaven, for sin not to exist.


  9. David says:

    Well skeptics always bring up the verse in Revelation that on the surface seems to indicate that those tormented in Hell will be in the presence of the Lamb….obviously that act itself is not evil but pure justice…however would the presence of the unjust be offset by their punishment? (assuming the verse is in deed teaching this).


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