Question: Will believers be "robots" in heaven? Sounds like a silly question, but it is based around the common response of why evil exists in the world; that God made humans with free will to choose between right and wrong, and not robots "programmed to do right." God gave humans the freedom to make choices. However, it is also commonly taught that nobody will be able to sin in heaven; that it is simply an impossibility. So does that mean that once a believer goes to heaven, then that free will is gone and are now "robots" with no "freedom"? Is it that they get free will and freedom for a season here, but have the inability to choose evil for eternity once in heaven? Also, I'm not an atheist. This is a genuine question. Thank you.
Answer: I will be happy to respond to your question today, and I do take note that I am talking to a person who is more of a friend to God than a skeptic. That being said, your question is profound—both doctrinally and philosophically. It evokes other questions such as, will our post-redemption world be that much different from the pre-fall Eden? What will we be like after we are changed? (1 Cor. 15:52). Will we still be essentially human in heaven? And what will that mean after every aspect of redemption is complete—after all judgments have been rendered and after every foe dispatched? We’re just not sure. Saying that life will be different is an understatement—but defining the precise limits of those differences “through a glass, darkly” is not possible.
One thing seems certain, though; we humans do not want to be robots—not here on earth…and not there in heaven! We love the idea of having free will, and we see ourselves as moral-free-agents throughout eternity. But if we lose the ability to choose anything, including sin, isn’t that the equivalent of receiving a spiritual lobotomy at the pearly gates?
But all this robot business is about us. What about God’s interests? Would it be wise for God run the risk of allowing people the choice of sin while in heaven? (Remember Eden!) Or does God’s vision of a new heaven and a new earth boil down to earth redux? I hope not…and the Bible teaches differently. But whatever the particulars, there is as much at stake in heaven for God as there was in Eden.
Almost all Christians agree that, whatever heaven is, it represents a better state than our earthly one, and that the people who go there will no longer sin. However—will this be because we cannot sin (which seems to suck away our free will) or that we will choose not to sin (which seems to imply the possibility that we would still be able to sin). There are no easy answers here—just some ideas. A few follow.
People in the Reformed tradition get to skate on this question. They already believe that people have little meaningful freedom to choose while here on earth. And since they emphasize God’s sovereignty over man’s free will for purposes of salvation, there would be nothing lost for them in heaven choice-wise, since perseverance in the faith is also part of God’s sovereign actions. In the Reformed view, volition (if you could call it that) would merely go on as it has.
Reflecting another point of view, Hank Hanegraaff of the Christian Research Institute envisions heaven more as a “paradise restored” than as a nebulous place of instant perfection.
Heaven will be a place of continuous learning, growing, and development. By nature, humans are finite, and that is how it always will be. While we will have an incredible capacity to learn, we will never come to the end of learning. Knowing everything would be more like Hell than Heaven. We need progress, we need hope, and we need to look forward to knowing something new tomorrow that we don’t know today. Mystery is the food of the mind. If we truly said “I have seen everything” as Solomon said in Ecclesiastes, we would conclude as did the author of Ecclesiastes that “all is vanity.” Only omnipotence can bear the burden of omniscience. Only God’s shoulders are strong enough to carry the burden of infinite knowledge without losing the joy.
In this view, life goes on…only better! We Christians will continue to make progress in life, having shed any possibility of input from our three main enemies: the devil and his minions will have been dispatched (Rev. 20:10), the world system will have been set in order and the flesh (as we know it) will be gone! We will still have flesh—but resurrected flesh. Imagine having a body…but with no pressure to sin. How great would that be!
William Lane Craig of Reasonable Faith winds up in a slightly different place, but he too admits that we can only speculate about heaven. Craig differentiates the purposes of earth and heaven as well as the possibilities of sin in each.
God has created us at an “epistemic distance,” so to speak, which allows us the freedom to rebel against Him and separate ourselves from Him. This world is a vale of decision-making during which we decide whether we want to live with God forever or reject Him and so irrevocably separate ourselves from Him….[When] the veil will be removed…we shall see Christ in all of His loveliness and majesty. The vision of Christ, the source of infinite goodness and love, will be so overwhelming as to remove all freedom to sin. I like to think of it like iron filings in the presence of an enormously powerful electromagnet. They would be so powerfully attracted to the magnet that there is simply no possibility of their falling away. So with the blessed in heaven.
Something like this may have already occurred with angelic beings. Originally created “at arm’s length” from God epistemically, they had a time to choose either for or against God. Those who chose for God were then sealed with the Beatific Vision, so that no further fall is possible…
Lenny Esposito of Come Reason Ministries arrives at the same conclusion as me, emphasizing that our Christ-like natures will preserve both sinlessness and volition.
… [W]e can see that it's possible for man to have free volition in heaven and yet never sin. We have a new, divine nature in Christ. This nature cannot sin, just as Christ cannot sin. Even though Jesus could not sin, He was still free. Therefore, we can exist with free will in heaven and we will not sin. We know this is not an illogical idea, since no one argues that God has no free will, yet God cannot sin. So, it is possible for a being to exist, be truly free and not able to sin.
Concerning your comment “Is it that they get free will and freedom for a season here, but have the inability to choose evil for eternity once in heaven?” Let me return to William Lane Craig, referencing his 1994 debate with Dr. Ray Bradley. Bradley asked why God didn’t just create heaven as the world in the first place and then forego the rest. Craig responded:
…Heaven may not be a possible world when you take it in isolation by itself. It may be that the only way in which God could actualize a heaven of free creatures all worshiping Him and not falling into sin would be by having, so to speak, this run-up to it, this advance life during which there is a veil of decision-making in which some people choose for God and some people against God. Otherwise you don't know that heaven is an actualizable world. You have no way of knowing that possibility."
"I'm saying that it may not be feasible for God to actualize heaven in isolation from such an antecedent world."
I am of the opinion that it will not be possible to sin in heaven—not because of any technical or theological restrictions. Not-sinning will be a practical matter.
First, where we currently struggle with two natures (Rom. 7:15-20), we will leave the old one behind and advance into heaven with only the new. Second, after the redemption of the world is complete, and after we reach our final state in heaven, we and the world will have been fixed—both within and without. This sets-up four important changes: 1.) Sin will no longer be our default behavior. 2.) We will no longer have any reasons to sin. 3.) We will no longer have any impetus to sin. 4.) We will be with Jesus.
On his last trip to earth, Jesus was the suffering savior. But on the next trip, he will be the glorified Lord—and we Christians will keep his close company forever after (1 Thes. 4:17). I do not think that it will be possible for us to sin in that glorified future because we will be like him! (1 John 3:2).
So, it is not a matter of us being technically or theologically restricted from sinning when we reach heaven. It is that we will be changed. We will lose our sin natures—not our volition—and we will do then exactly as we do now…except with a different result: We will act according to our natures. Today this means that I can sin. Tomorrow it means that I can’t. This follows a logical, rather than a theological, constraint: All entities, by definition, will act according to their natures. Mine will be changed! Therefore, in heaven there will be no essential difference between can't sin and won't sin—yet our free-will will remain intact.