Monday, September 10, 2007

Freedom, Heaven, and Purgatory

One motivation for my taking on the self-formation view (see more about it here and here) is that it seemed to me to solve what I hear is now called the Problem of Heavenly Freedom (I had only heard of it once in my semester after high school at community college and I hadn't heard any more about it or even knew anyone was working on this until just recently). In a nutshell the problem is that the redeemed will not be able to sin when we are in our resurrected state when heaven and earth have been fully joined and the kingdom of God has been consummated. That is a very important part of the Christian tradition. But it is also an important part that in heaven we will be free - free agents with a free will (no matter what you might say different about our current, fallen state). What makes this even more difficult is when, along with the majority of the tradition, we adopt an Incompatibilist notion of free will (that is, a notion of free will according to which free will is incompatible with our will being determined). Incompatibilism seems to require that for an action or choice to be free we must have been genuinely able to do or decide otherwise. In fact, that's part of the basis of the Free Will Defense against the Problem of Evil - free will requires the ability for me to do good but also do otherwise than the good. But if we are in our eternal state then we can't decide or do otherwise than to decide and do the good. So we've got a problem here - either we can't really be free in our final state or we can do evil in our final state and there's no apparent guarantee that we won't.

One option is just to reject incompatibilism and another is to allow sin in the consummated kingdom, but we should see what we can do without going to such potentially extreme lengths (the latter option being, however, much more extreme than the former, of course). This is where self-formation comes in. If true freedom - true free will - involves being able not simply to form one's actions or decisions but to, more primarily, form one's character than we can see that so long as one has the character one has freely then the fact that one's character excludes some evils from the range of potential actions one can take is no bar to one's choice or will still being free in that action. After all, the limits to one's will are ones that are freely chosen by the agent. So if it is at least in part a result of my freely chosen character that I cannot sin in my final resurrected state then the fact that I cannot sin is then no bar to my freedom. Once upon a time I could sin and therefore choose freely to make for myself a good or bad character, but now that my self-making is over, I have a freely chosen character that excludes sin. Problem solved.

One interesting thing that I've notice, however, and I now know others have noticed as well (Tim Pawl and Kevin Timpe have an interesting paper on Prosblogion where they argue for the same basic sort of view as is presented in this post), is that this sort of view seems to lend support to the idea of some kind of Purgatory. After all, all or at least most of us do not achieve a perfected, fully fixed character in our pre-death lifetimes. So the fixing has to come after death - either in some sort of intermediate state or after resurrection and prior to the final state. Now, if our free abstaining from sin in the final state is to be really free, that fixed character has to be a result of our free actions. But that seems to require that the process of formation and choosing continue after death. It seemingly cannot come instantly at death or resurrection since character is supposed to be a free thing, a result of a process of free formation run by our choices for good or bad. Such a process cannot be too short since character is complex and so is the formation of it and it must be fleshed out with long patterns of activity. So how then do we achieve such a thing? One answer is that we need something like a Purgatory - a kind of opportunity to finish our self-making process freely and prepare ourselves for the consummated kingdom wherein there can be no sin or imperfection.

What about the common Protestant objection to Purgatory that since Christ has paid for our sins, we have no need to be punished for them and since Christ merited eternal life for us, we have no need to do anything to make ourselves fit for the kingdom? This objection seriously misses the mark and misses the whole idea behind this version of Purgatory. On this version, Purgatory is not there to purge the guilt from you or make you merit or otherwise legally fit for the kingdom. This is the common Western Christian mistake of automatically taking everything in terms of merit. This is not about merit or legal status at all, this is about the actual state of our character and whether we are still in fact sinful creatures or not. Sure, maybe Scripture doesn't talk about Purgatory, but so what if it doesn't? There are lots of truths or theological insights that are not explicitly taught in the Bible. So long as there's good evidence for it and it doesn't contradict Scripture, I see no reason to hold against the theory the fact that it isn't explicitly taught in God's Word. So at least this version of Purgatory is perfectly consistent with Protestant ideas in general. If I'm right about this, we have a good case for a kind of Protestant doctrine of Purgatory! Now, I'm still not sure about all of this, but it is interesting and seemingly very plausible.


Unknown said...


I'm glad you enjoyed our paper. Given what you say here about purgatory, I'd highly recommend that you read the second chapter in Jerry Walls' Heaven: the Logic of Eternal Joy if you haven't already. In this very interesting chapter, Walls gives an argument why Protestants should at the very least be open to the doctrine of Purgatory, if not embrace it. Walls' argument focuses on the process of character formation and perfection and, I think, captures what Dante's account in the Purgatorio is. While I'm not Roman Catholic at present myself, I think that Walls and Dante have this issue spot-on.

Ian and Gilda said...

Thanks, Kevin, for the suggestion! The book already had piqued my interest - I'll have to take a look at it.