Dr. Braxton Hunter | President
Trinity Theological Seminary, Newburgh, IN
**This article was previously posted by Dr. Braxton Hunter on his website www.braxtonhunter.com and is used by permission.
Dr. Hunter is: former president of the Conference of Southern Baptist Evangelists (COSBE), professor of apologetics at Trinity College of the Bible and Theological Seminary in Newburgh, Indiana
One of the greatest instigators of coffeeshop debates among theology geeks has always been the question of the interplay between human freedom and divine sovereignty. Those who have been followers of my work know that I have devoted a considerable amount of time to dealing with this question. It is my goal to help foster, among my Calvinist and non-Calvinist compatriots, an atmosphere in the modern church of healthy and direct theological debate that is met with friendly ministerial partnership. I have, elsewhere, endeavored to explain what are in my estimation the relevant theological, philosophical and (most importantly) biblical issues that demand the thinker’s attention with respect to this discussion. Yet, there is one question that has surfaced with great regularity. It is something of a secondary question that often enters the discussion sometime after the fifth cup of coffee. Yet, before we get there, I do need to offer a brief summary of the terminology that deals with the nature of human freedom.
Determinism: All human actions are unchangeably set. The agent experiences life as though he is making real choices, but he is not.
Compatibilism: Men are free to do whatever they want, but their desires (or ‘wants’) have been unchangeably set. The agent’s actions flow from his desires. Those are determined for him.
Libertarianism: Men are genuinely free to make self-determined choices between options. Man experiences life as though he is making choices because he is truly making choices.
Most Calvinists would refer to themselves as compatibilists. With this in mind, our pressing question emerges.
What about Heaven?
How is it that in heaven we will never sin if it is the case that we have libertarian freedom? It seems that in heaven we will lose the libertarian freedom that non-Calvinists (like myself) suppose that we have, and instead compatibilism will come into view. After all, Adam was created without sin and his freedom led to a sinful choice. He was just one man. Should we not expect that millions of men and women who posses libertarian free will would likewise fall? Surely at least one of them, given the everlasting future of things, would at some point . . . do something . . . wrong. If not, then it must be that the choice to sin will not be available to them. They must not be free in the sense that libertarians imagine.
I love this question. When it comes, it means that the one asking the question understands the fundamentals of the philosophical considerations involved. It also means that one is willing to stay with the discussion long enough to get to these sorts of issues. There are a couple of answers that have been offered by way of defending the heavenly libertarian view. There may be more, but I’ll leave that to those who are dissatisfied with either of these.
Sin is just not an option
The most common answer, if the question is common enough to have a common answer, would probably be that the inability to sin does not remove libertarian freedom. That is to say, if Lana was an alcoholic, and suddenly all alcohol disappeared from earth forever, we would not say that Lana lost her freedom to choose among options. It would just be that she had one less option. She would still retain her libertarian freedom albeit in a world with one fewer opportunity to exercise that freedom. The parallel would, obviously, be that in heaven we would be free to exercise our libertarian freedom. There would just be one less option – the option of sinning.
Though I can see this answer gaining traction, and it could satisfy the intellectual concern for some, I find it a bit problematic. The removal of sin is not the removal of one option. Sin is not a ‘thing.’ Almost every imaginable moment that passes provides an opportunity to do what one should not, to violate God’s commands, to improperly place value, to miss the mark. On this answer alone, it would seem that there would need to be some stricture on mankind.
Sin is an absurd option
The more satisfying answer, I think, is to understand our situation in heaven a bit differently. It could be, in a certain way, the alternate of our current earthly experience. This will require some explanation.
Man is not required to commit any particular sin. Because of the fall, he inherits a nature and environment inclined toward sin, certainly, but this does not require a given man to commit any specific sin. There are many circumstances in which those who are not even believers (atheists, muslims, etc.) freely choose not to engage in some sinful activity in which they well could have engaged. This is especially true for those who are believers. Paul explains this in 1 Corinthians 10:13, “No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.”
Taken in isolation, any one instance of sin can be avoided. One can also make the good choice not to sin twice, thrice or even fifty times. Thus, it is theoretically possible (though it practically does not happen) that one could simply choose not to sin in any given situation (i.e. never sin). Romans 3:23 instantly leaps into the minds of most Bible students. “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” What about 1 John 1:8 which says, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” The Old Testament tells us in Ecclesiastes 7:20, “Surely there is no one on earth so righteous as to do good without ever sinning.” Doesn’t this mean that it is impossible for one to live his entire life without committing a single sin? No. What it tells us is that no one ever actually does live his life without sinning. It does not tell us that it is impossible. It speaks to what actually ends up happening with every person. I’m confident that given 10 billion more people, the situation will not change. Jeremiah 13:23 does ask, “Can the Ethiopian change his skin Or the leopard his spots? Neither can you do good who are accustomed to doing evil.” Clearly, some individuals do avoid sin in certain instances. Jeremiah 13:23 speaks to the pattern of sin that a group of people had become “accustomed” to. Such would not be the case with an individual who was accustomed to choosing against sin in each case. What matters, however, is that I see no reason to deny that it is theoretically possible, even if it never happens in practice. It should be noted that such a person would still require a Savior. He could not resurrect, glorify or make himself joint heirs with Christ. To be clear, no man, apart from the Savior has ever, or will ever successfully choose against sin in every circumstance.
So, it may be theoretically possible for a given man to avoid sin throughout his life, but practically speaking, it never happens and the idea is absurd. I suggest that the alternate is true for believers in heaven. There, divine hiddenness will be no more. Our bodies according to 1 Corinthians 15:42-43 will be “raised imperishable”, in “glory,” and in “power.” Moreover, we will have gone through the process of sanctification. The result would be that even if it is theoretically possible for a citizen of heaven to sin (in the same way that it is theoretically possible for a citizen of earth not to sin), in practice it will never happen, and the idea is absurd. An illustration may help.
This reasoning is not original to me, but it is potent for aiding the understanding of this issue. When my oldest daughter was two years old she, on one occasion, picked up sand from the sandbox, and attempted to ingest it. I was on the other side of the yard and rushed to stop her. Unfortunately, I cannot say whether any of the individual grains made their way to her stomach or not, but she quickly began coughing and drooling on herself. It might surprise you to hear this, but I am confident that when she is 30 years old I will not spend many nights unable to sleep at the thought that she might be somewhere eating buckets of sand. Why is that so? It is because I’m quite sure, for obvious reasons, that she will never intentionally ingest sand again. She learned her lesson. It will not even be a serious temptation to her 30 year old self. Why would any thinking adult freely choose to put sand in her mouth? She won’t. Now, is it theoretically possible? Yes. A 30 year old woman could reach down, pick up a handful of sand, place it in her mouth and swallow. There is nothing preventing this activity. It’s just that it won’t happen in practice and the idea itself is absurd.
It bears mentioning that I passed this article, in its original form, on to a couple of professors at likeminded, conservative, theologically orthodox seminaries. One of them saw nothing objectionable, but one pointed out that while “the idea is not crazy,” he would not be comfortable with the notion that it would, in any sense, be theoretically possible for one to sin in heaven. This might, he thought, leave the door open for another heavenly rebellion. This is a fair concern and affords me the opportunity to clarify a terminological point.
The notion that it would be “theoretically” possible, but will never actually happen should not be taken by any reader to mean that sin in heaven *might actually* happen. We are told, in scripture that it won’t. What this explanation amounts to, besides being a defense of libertarian freedom in heaven, is an explanation of why it will not happen – not how it might. If anyone understands this article to leave the door open for the possibility of some heavenly sin, they have misunderstood. Likewise, the article does not leave open the possibility that someone might, in fact, avoid sin in every circumstance prior to heaven. Scripture is clear that no one, apart from the Savior, ever has or will.
Thus, I believe that the situation in heaven will be the exact alternate of the current situation on earth. Here and now one could theoretically choose not to sin in every particular circumstance, we just see that no man is ever completely successful at this in practice. In heaven, even if it is theoretically possible for one to sin we will see that no man ever will in practice. It would be like eating sand. Why would anyone want to sin? Why would anyone want to eat sand? In eternity, both will seem absurd.