Is There Free Will in Heaven?

Author: Fr. William Saunders


Fr. William Saunders

Is There Free Will in Heaven?

I have always assumed that any human who merits heaven after this valley of tears is in heaven forever. However, in view of the fact that the bad angels were in heaven (I presume) and rebelled against God, it is not possible that those of us who are saved could rebel against God in heaven? I guess my question is, do we exercise free will in heaven?—A reader in Fairfax

This question is very difficult to answer because we must delve into areas beyond our human time frame , the time before the creation of the world and the time after our death. Moreover, the Bible provides little detail concerning either of these issues. Nevertheless, gleaning what is in the Bible and the <Catechism>, and what the great saints have written, we can form an adequate answer.

We believe that God has given each of us a free will. The <Catechism> states, "God created man as a rational being, conferring on him the dignity of a person who can initiate and control his own actions" (No. 1730). With this free will, each of us makes the fundamental choice to love God or to reject Him.

Having chosen to live for the Lord, we look forward to the time when we will share eternal happiness of Heaven. Here we will share a perfect life with the Holy Trinity and in communion with the Blessed Mother, the angels and the saints. Our souls will now be purified of sin and any hurt caused by sin. We will have the beatific vision, seeing God as He is. St. Paul wrote, "Now we see indistinctly as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face" (1 Cor 13:12), (Cf. <Catechism> 1023, 1024).

In heaven, we will also find perfect happiness. God alone can satisfy our human desires, whatever they may be. We find that infinite satisfaction in Heaven since we are enwrapped in God's perfect life, truth and love. St. Augustine (d. 430) in his <Confessions> wrote, "Our hearts will not find rest until they rest in Thee"; this perfect rest comes in heaven.

Therefore, while we retain our free will in heaven, we naturally choose to love the Lord. Now it would be contrary to who we are to choose to sin and thereby to reject this perfect life, truth and love that is God. For example, an eighth grade student asked me once, "Can God murder someone?" "God could because He can do all things," I replied. "But God would not because to murder is evil and to do evil would be against His all-good nature." Likewise, in the original question, "Is it possible, but not probable at all because of the beatitude we share in heaven with God."

What about the angels who rebelled? The early Church Fathers upheld the doctrine that God had created the angels from the beginning and through Christ, "through whom all things were made" as we recite in the Creed. The angels were created before any other creature and were endowed with gifts of reason and freedom to form personal, moral decisions, including choosing to love God. St. Augustine in his <City of God> commented: "For it was this time God who, in the beginning, created the universe and filled it with all those things that the eye can see and all those realities which the mind can know. Of all such creations the highest were the spirits to whom He gave the gifts of intelligence and the power to behold God and to be filled with His beatitude" (XXXII, 1). St. Justin the Martyr (d. 165) also wrote, "Because God knew that it would be good. He created both angels and men free to do what is righteous" (<Dialogue with the Jew Trypho>). However, some of these angels, led by Lucifer, rebelled against God and were cast into hell as attested to by our Lord Himself (Mt 25:41). These fallen angels made a radical and irrevocable choice to reject God and His reign. Note that the Church definitely teaches that "the devil and the other demons were indeed created naturally good by God, but they became evil by their own doing" (<Lateran Council IV>).

However, if these angels were in heaven, why would they rebel against God? Both Ignatius of Antioch (d. 110) and Clement of Alexandria (d. 211) speculated that at the beginning, the angels did not possess the full beatitude of heaven. Instead, they underwent a period of trial and those that made the choice to serve and to love the Lord and to remain faithful to Him attained the full happiness of heaven, whereas those that rebelled were cast into hell.

St. Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274) expanded this notion of the angels undergoing "a period of trial." Right after their creation, the angels had "to choose" God to remain in heaven, just as each of us must choose God during our lives on earth to attain heaven. (Here arises the problem of time: We conceived time as past, present and future in accord with our created matter and space, whereas the angels live in a time , past, present and future , but without the restrictions of matter and space. The Medieval theologians called this kind of time aeveternity, the time of the angels between eternity and time). Some angels merited the beatitude of heaven by a free-willed act of charity, motivated by grace; others were cast into hell by their free-willed act of pride. In <Paradise Lost>, Milton penned for Satan the words, "Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven." St. Thomas further posited that the "beatified angels" (the good angels in heaven) cannot sin "because their beatitude consists in seeing God through His essence,... the very essence of goodness" (Cf. <Summa Theologica>, Q. 62).

Granted, we are still left with a mystery that at this time we are incapable of fully grasping. Nevertheless, we beg God's grace and rely on the protection of our guardian angels to assist us in freely choosing each day to know, love and serve God in this life so we can have eternal life with Him in the Kingdom of Heaven.

Fr. Saunders is president of Notre Dame Institute and pastor of Queen of Apostles Parish, both in Alexandria.

This article appeared in the February 15, 1996 issue of "The Arlington Catholic Herald." Courtesy of the "Arlington Catholic Herald" diocesan newspaper of the Arlington (VA) diocese. For subscription information, call 1-800-377-0511 or write 200 North Glebe Road, Suite 607 Arlington, VA 22203.