Free Will and Entering ‘Heaven’: What Would Heaven Be, Were It To Be?

What is the nature of heaven, were it to exist? What must one do (or not do) to end up there?

Some theists - so-called universalists - think that, given God's love, all human persons will eventually end up in heaven. But there's a problem. What if some humans won't cooperate? What if some persistently refuse to "join the party"? Of course, this won't be a problem if you think of heaven as a place in which one's whims are fully satisfied. Why should anyone refuse to go there? But if we think of heaven as a perfect community of moral agents, then entering into heaven (arguably) requires abandoning our (often) egocentric and selfish orientations. It requires repentance, and repentance is difficult. It may be difficult to join a community in which things do not operate on our own terms and in our own ways. So, what if some simply won't come around, despite God's best efforts in bringing them around? One possible answer: the problem doesn't arise, since God can simply determine what God's creatures will freely do.  The problem is therefore most acute for so-called "libertarians" about free will. In response to this problem, Keith DeRose maintains that God is committed -- at some point -- to overriding the freedom of any holdouts. God will (somehow) simply "make" them enter heaven. Against this view, Jonathan Kvanvig has replied that it is essential to "being in heaven" that one has freely accepted being there.

This project attempts to take this debate further by developing several models of "heaven". On some, free acceptance will be essential to being in "heaven", whereas on others, it won't. For instance, if heaven essentially requires loving God, and if love must be freely chosen, then it would seem that God cannot "override" freedom to secure anyone's being "in heaven". But these issues are difficult. First, not all forms of love must be freely chosen (if any must be at all). For example, most parents (plausibly) do not "freely decide" to love their children. But isn't such love still valuable and beautiful? Or consider cases of romantic love. Of course there is something suspicious about a case in which one party manipulates the other to love her or him back. Hence, one might suggest that there would be, from God's point of view, something similarly "suspicious" about the "love" God receives from agents whom he caused to love him. But why should God care about the nature of the love God receives back? Here we encounter questions about the nature of heaven. If heaven is primarily "for us", perhaps God can simply cause people to be in heaven. If it is in part "for God", then maybe God cannot. Further, what is the nature of the love required for "being in heaven"? What theological purposes does heaven serve, if any? Is its primary "point" the overcoming of evil? If so, what then? These questions are of vital importance in articulating a plausible doctrine of "heaven" and in understanding who will go or could go there in the first place.


Part of the Immortality Project at the University of California, Riverside.


Project team: 
  • Principal Investigator: Dr Patrick Todd
Project duration: 
3 years
Funded by The John Templeton Foundation and Eidyn (c. $40K)