Friday, February 22, 2013

What Does the New Testament Say About the Afterlife and Free Will?

Check out today's episode

I have recently finished reading the New Testament and I am collecting my thoughts about what I read in this series of posts. Today I am writing about what the New Testament says about the Afterlife and Free Will. Other entries in this series:
  1. Slavery
  2. The Apocalypse
  3. Women
  4. Violence
  5. Sexuality
  6. Obedience
  7. Fear
  8. Blasphemy
  9. Wealth
  10. Binary Thinking
  11. Faith
For all that we focus on it nowadays, the New Testament actually says surprisingly little about the afterlife. But it does say a few things, so let's dig in. The first thing we should probably explore is what the afterlife will be like. For those who will make it to heaven, the modern view is that they will live in some kind of a perfect paradise. This idea is backed up very vaguely in 2 Corinthians 5:8 and Philippians 1:23 which simply make the statement that it would be better to die and be with Jesus than to keep on living. A grim point of view, but a demonstration of how amazing heaven will be. And of course there is a description in Revelation 21 of what paradise is like, but many of the details seem downright silly. And one picture of heaven seems downright torturous to me, according to Revelation 7:15 heaven will be serving God night and day. Speaking of torture, what about those who don't get into heaven, is there biblical justification for the eternal torture that we think of today? As far as I can tell, it's not nearly as elaborate as people tend to imagine now, but Revelation 20:15 does talk of being thrown into a lake of fire forever.

The next thing we want to explore is who gets in to heaven. 2 Corinthians 5:10 says that when we die we will be judged by what we did in life. This is certainly the picture that most people seem to have in their heads, Saint Peter at the pearly gates. Apparently he is checking to see if your name is in the book of life, which is mentioned in a few verses such as Revelation 20:15 mentioned above. But the specific rules are sparse and fairly peculiar, according to Luke 20:35, Jesus thinks that only single people are eligible for heaven. But that is certainly an isolated verse, perhaps it should be rejected via the one verse rule, after all, God wants everyone to get into heaven (1 Timothy 2:4) certainly he wouldn't exclude every married person.

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But is this really true? Does God really want everyone to get into heaven? He certainly doesn't seem to be doing a lot to try to get people to believe in him, I have never seen a shred of proof that he exists, you would think that an all powerful God could convince me he is real. But the extent of God's inaction is much worse than this, in Revelation 20:7-9 Satan tricks people into following him and God does nothing to stop it. Furthermore, in Revelation 19:20-21 and 2 Thessalonians 2:9-10 people are severely punished for being tricked in these ways. But it's even worse than that, because it is not just that Satan has tricked people and God is complicit through inaction, in 2 Thessalonians 2:11-12 and Revelation 17:17 we see that God actually tricks people himself for the express purpose of punishing them. 

That is where this post veers into the territory of free will, how much chance to the people who have been tricked by extremely powerful being (maybe even God) to be saved and wind up in heaven? I would say zero. If God himself wants to punish you, and is willing to send you a delusion to trick you into doing evil things, then it is impossible for you to be good. You will do the wrong thing (perhaps thinking you are doing the right thing) and you will end up in hell. Those people did not have free will. This certainly seems to go against the idea that we all choose our own fate, that we all have the opportunity to be saved, we only have to choose Jesus, but it's up to us. Free will is even the defense many people give against the problem of evil. But the New Testament seems to be pretty clear that we do not have free will to determine whether or not we get to heaven. According to Ephesians 1:5,11 and Revelation 17:8, the book of life was written at the beginning of time. Whether or not we get into heaven was determined long before we were even born. So how can we have free will, if there is nothing we can do to change whether or not we will go to heaven?


  1. I have always found the concept of "free will" to be an apologetic cop-out. It is so often used as an answer by theists for unanswerable questions.

    As far as "who gets into heaven", that too has, as you point out, always been vague. Heck, not even all of the Christian sects agree on this. How then is your average Christian supposed to wade through this morass and behave appropriately?

    1. I agree that free-will is often used as a last ditch cop-out by apologists. I haven't come across it in a while, but I think I will have chambered the idea that God hardens people's hearts from time to time. Of course Pharaoh during the exodus is the best example as people seem to be fairly aware of it.

      You make a great point about different sects of Christianity as well. I'm sure I'll never do this, but it would be interesting to take all of these topics and compare what different denominations of Christianity have to say on each topic. I wouldn't be surprised if you could find some church somewhere that takes every possible position on every issue, like the anti-semitic Jews

  2. Great summary again. Christians like the "free will" argument to let God off the hook for sending people to Hell, but as you've well illustrated (in more ways than one!) God tampers with "free will" enough that it is not truly free any more, and He bears the responsibility.

    By the way, the Luke 20:35 verse... that is a bit vague, for sure, but another way of looking at it is that Jesus is referring to people after they are resurrected. So they aren't forbidden to marry now, but rather when they get up from their long dirt nap of death, they will no longer be considered to be married, nor will they marry people in the future.

    1. Oh, you are right about that Luke verse. Especially if you look at the surrounding verses, your interpretation seems much more likely. I'm glad actually, that verse was always so hard to fit into everything else. This is a perfect example of where the one verse test comes in handy.

      I already recorded tomorrows podcast, which brings it up again, but I can still go and change the blog post.

  3. The brain massage comic might be my favorite yet. :-)


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