In a previous post I argued that free will allows the making of poor choices, and that poor choices* lead to suffering for one’s self and for others, yet God valued that free will enough to allow suffering to follow from it. This led many people to ask the obvious question: what happens in Heaven? There’s no suffering in Heaven, yet presumably we still have free will. How I can square my claim with that point of doctrine?
It’s a tricky question, because our knowledge of Heaven is so limited. Here’s how I understand it.
When we choose—that is, when we exercise our free will—we always choose something that seems good to us. That goodness might be real and worth choosing; it might be illusory; it might be real but with circumstances that make it a bad (that is, a sinful) choice. But here, we see God only through a glass, darkly. In Heaven, we will see God directly, God who is the ultimate infinite good and the source of all good, and we will choose Him every time. Our choices will be clear, and we will see clearly. We will see the good for the good, the bad for the bad, and the best for the best, and we will always choose the best. Hence, our choices will never lead to suffering.
But wait! you cry. If that’s how things are in Heaven, why doesn’t God simply reveal Himself in all His goodness here on Earth? Seems simple: everyone would see God, and see what’s truly good, and wouldn’t make dumb mistakes. Seems that God could prevent all suffering on Earth after all!
There are two reasons why this wouldn’t work. First, having given us free will, God refuses to override it. We are given this time on Earth in order that we might choose freely: to love God, or to love ourselves more than God. Heaven will be populated (mostly, anyway*) by those who have already made that fundamental choice to love God first, and to trust in His goodness. For these, seeing God in Heaven will simply confirm that fundamental choice.
The second reason is that He is like a “refiner’s fire”, burning away all that isn’t holy simply by His presence. For the unprepared sinner, being in God’s full presence is no joy. Only those who have accepted the gift of God’s grace—those who have chosen to accept it—and have been prepared can glory in God’s presence.
Looked at that way, we see that our finite time in this “vale of tears” is a mercy: it gives us time to prepare for Eternity.
And this, not coincidentally, is why I write about these things. In a post a couple of months ago, I noted that while I wasn’t trying to convert my atheist readers, I’d be ecstatic if any of them came to know Christ. One commenter asked me why, and this is the answer: the time of preparation is short, and I’d like to see you in heaven.
* I say “mostly” because there’s the question about what happens to those who die unbaptized in infancy, prior to reaching the age of reason. As I understand it, the Church has made no definitive statement about this. When I was a kid I was told that they went to “Limbo”, a place of no suffering but no particular joy either. Limbo was never official teaching, so I’m told, even if it was a common notion; Pope Benedict said some years ago that we don’t know what happens but that it is reasonable to trust in God’s love and mercy.