All together Now: Sennett, Nagasawa, Pawl, Timpe, and Turner on the The Problem of Heavenly Freedom

June 5th, 2017 by

What would prevent a second fall from occurring after redeemed humans grace the shores of the new heavens and earth? If that question seems too dramatic, we could soften it a bit by asking what would prevent people in heaven from sinning. In this post I review Dr. J.T. Turner’s recent seminar paper responding to Kevin Timpe and Timothy Pawl’s engagement of such issues.

One common answer to our opening questions is to insist that redeemed humans are no longer able to sin in  “heaven” (i.e. they possess the attribute of impeccability). As comforting as this is to hear, it stands in tension with another long held characteristic of heaven; that humans in heaven have free will, assuming this is interpreted as libertarian freedom. (Maintaining libertarian freedom, rather than compatibilist definitions of freedom, is important to many because of its role in the free will defense against God’s relationship to evil.)

Suddenly we find ourselves with too much of a good thing. It seems people in heaven can’t have libertarian freedom and impeccability. Timothy Pawl and Kevin Timpe call this the Problem of Heavenly Freedom. James Sennett calls it the Dilemma of Heavenly Freedom.   Timpe and Pawl, in their 2009 article “Incompatibilism, Sin and Free Will in Heaven” survey four solutions to the problem:

(1) Interpret “heavenly freedom” as a compatibilist sort of freedom so that, even though persons are determined not to sin, they can still be considered free.

(2) Bite the bullet and concede that a second fall could occur.

(3) Opt for a molinist strategy in which God actualizes that world in which the libertarianly free do not use their freedom to sin.

(4) Employ James Sennett’s idea of Proximate Compatibilism in which proximately near states of affairs are counted as “free” despite being determined by previous states. (This free-despite-being-determined status is possible because the earlier states of affairs were freely chosen. For example, an addict may freely choose to check himself into a rehab program thereby limiting-determining subsequent behaviors). Thus a person could freely form (or participate in the formation of)  her character such that it becomes subsequently impossible to engage in certain sins.

After criticizing options 1-3, Timpe and Pawl patch up Sennett’s view and argue for this as their favored solution to the problem. If our character can develop over time such that we could not commit certain sins, then presumably given additional time (e.g., Purgatory) this could occur for the totality of our character such that in “heaven” we could no longer sin. And yet that state is not reached by means of any determinism caused by God’s actions.

In April during one of our weekly seminars, Dr. J.T. Turner presented a critique of this solution by highlighting problems with Pawl and Timpe’s choice of strategy (4) above.  In his paper  “Perfect Obedience, Perfect Love, and the (so called) Problem of Heavenly Freedom” Turner deploys two defeaters for the above account of heavenly freedom.

The first defeater, originally hinted at by Nagasawa, Oppy and Trakakis is redeployed by Turner as the Impossibility Thesis (IT). The idea is that whatever one’s view of freedom in “heaven,” it doesn’t seem at all possible that humans could reach impeccability by means of libertarian free choices during this life. The point to not lose sight of, in Pawl and Timpe’s argument, is that the heavenly redeemed  are impeccable, not merely perfectly upright character. Even if sinlessness seems a long shot for this life (and it does to many of us) only impeccability prevents sin from returning to the new heavens and earth. Turner’s concern is that impeccability seems to be a character state of a different category not merely a different degree of moral improvement.

Turner is willing to play ball even if he grants that IT is in fact possible. This is because a second defeater is in the wings.  In 2015, Christopher Brown pointed out that, at least for Catholic theology, there is an entire category of persons who are impeccable in heaven without getting that way progressively through proximate compatibilism employed by Sennett, Tempe and Pawl.   This is, not surprisingly, those who die before the age of accountability. Turner points readers to a similar but more worrisome class to this category – believers who have an “Inagurated New Nature” INN (i.e., think of Augustine’s posse non peccare) but have not achieved an impeccable “Consummated New Nature” CNN, because they are converted just prior (TΩ-1 ) to Christ’s return (TΩ ).  He dubs this line of argument: Omega Point (OP). Here is his argument:


  1.   If those humans with INN at TΩ-1 will, at TΩ, be made humans with CNN, then it’s false that it’s necessary that humans have a character freely formed in their pre-heavenly existence such that they’re fit for heavenly existence.
  2.   Those humans with INN at TΩ-1 will, at TΩ, be made humans with CNN.
  3.   Therefore, it’s false that it’s necessary that humans have a character freely formed in their pre-heavenly existence such that they’re fit for heavenly existence.


Turner then fortifies this modus ponens against attacks against P2. Perhaps the most important P2 defeater candidate would be Purgatory. This is because Pawl and Timpe (in a footnote of their (2009) article already punted to Purgatory as an escape from the Nagasawa and Oppy’s precursor to the Impossibility Thesis. I see no reason why they wouldn’t deploy Purgatory against P2 here and simply claim that at anyone who has not matured past sinlessness into impeccability at the Omega Point (again assuming that the Impossibility Thesis is in fact possible) would just be sent into Purgatory.

In the end, I am inclined to side with Turner on the force of his IT and OP defeaters. I like Sennett, Pawl and Timpe’s use of proximate compatibilism. I share their intuition that we could reach a point in this life where we could not commit certain sins, a very spotty-impeccability if you will. But that won’t do. We need high octane impeccability. A person who can’t lust but can succumb to pride won’t cut it. It seems that all parties agree that it is not possible to get all of the redeemed to that point in this life. Purgatory therefore seems all but demanded to escape both the IT and OP defeaters. In the end this may come down to the exegetical support for purgatory. I share Turner’s view that Purgatory is a far cry from Paul’s implied teachings about the hope of the return of Christ for all believers. To that end it seems that we will need a different solution for getting both libertarian freedom and impeccability into heaven.  


Jesse Gentile is a new PhD student at Fuller seminary studying systematic theology. He has interests in theological anthropology, epistemology, ethics, technology and pretty much everything else. Jesse is the father of two awesome elementary school kids and is the husband of Ella (who works as a wills and trust attorney). He regularly does itinerant preaching among plymouth brethren assemblies throughout the U.S. Jesse hold’s degrees in Biblical Studies, Philosophy, and Instructional Design.

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