This week’s question comes from Rachel, who blogs at Simply Rachel, asking if there is free will in heaven. (Rachel’s blog is so extraordinarily lovely, you have to go check it out! You won’t be able to resist staying for awhile). Here is her exact question:
Question: If God cannot be in the presence of sin (and if all in heaven are automatically obedient) and if Angels are obedient servants, how did Satan get cast out of heaven? How did his followers (angels) manage to rebel? To me it seems there was free agency even then? Lastly, the Word states that one day we will judge angels. This leads me to believe that they are not necessarily always obedient, and are capable of mistakes.
Rachel, this was such a difficult question to answer, I started sweating as soon as I read it. 🙂 No, seriously. I was glad to have the extra weeks of vacation to dig into the Bible and try to find the most solid answer I could give when there’s such limited Biblical information on the subject. What I came up with is perhaps not an answer, but rather a series of thoughts, based on what I read, to give you something to consider. So here goes.
Answer. (Sorta): I think it’s important to examine whether heaven was the same back when angels and men first rebelled against God as it will be afterwards when Jesus comes back. Because that’s sort of inherent in the question – they had free will and could rebel back then, so is that what heaven is like? A place where there’s free will? If so, then where does God’s perfection come in?
Right from Creation, God was separating things. He separated light from darkness, heavens from earth, water from land, stars from sun. And you see this concept of separation in his created beings as well, from his angels to the Israelites, his chosen people, to us, the wheat and the chaff that will be threshed on the last day. To separate anything – obedience from rebellion, good from evil – you need to have a process of separation (like distillation, heat, or centrifuge, to use a scientific example), and that’s where free will comes in. That’s what happened in Eden.
The Importance of Eden
It’s easy to confuse Eden with heaven because it was the Garden of Paradise in all its perfection; and when Adam and Eve sinned, they were cast out of the garden and out of God’s presence. But Eden is/was on earth, located between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. That means that – as far as I can tell – man didn’t sin in heaven at all. He sinned on earth before he was cast out. That also means that, as far as man is concerned, there was never free will in heaven even back then. Heaven is where God is, and it’s where his will is done. Jesus confirms this concept in Matthew 6:
“‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.”
Eden seemed to be a sort of petri dish of free will to test what would grow out of it, whether rebellion or obedience. It was a way of separating what and whom would remain with God and what would be cast away. How can we know if we are in darkness until we see light? How do we know the character of a man until he has free will to act? How can we know God’s goodness until it’s set against the backdrop of evil?
So God allowed Eden to be a place where choice could be pulled out of mankind. Here was a chance for man to scorn evil and cling to a permanent relationship with God – or not. Man chose sin. Free will allowed God to separate evil from goodness. But what if Eden were a place where choice could be pulled out of the angels as well?
The Fall of Satan and his Angels
I don’t know when Satan fell from heaven, but I wonder if it was following his tempting man to sin. Because look here at the reference to Satan in Ezekiel 28:
“‘You were the seal of perfection,
full of wisdom and perfect in beauty.
You were in Eden,
the garden of God;
You were anointed as a guardian cherub,
for so I ordained you.
You were on the holy mount of God;
you walked among the fiery stones.
You were blameless in your ways
from the day you were created
till wickedness was found in you.
Through your widespread trade
you were filled with violence,
and you sinned.
So I drove you in disgrace from the mount of God,
and I expelled you, guardian cherub,
from among the fiery stones.
Your heart became proud
on account of your beauty,
and you corrupted your wisdom
because of your splendor.
So I threw you to the earth;
(vs 12-18 – I removed some verses that didn’t seem relevant, but you can see the entire thing in Ezekiel 28)
He was a guardian cherub in Eden and he walked freely in God’s presence until wickedness was found in him. Then he got thrown out. I wonder if Satan, the guardian cherub, guarded the entrance between Eden and heaven – the mount of God where he was allowed to walk among the fiery stones. This would have given him ample opportunity to study Adam and Eve, to watch their intimate relationship with God, and decide that they were not as precious as all that. (This is a supposition, not fact, so please bear with me).
Perhaps God allowed Eden, the petri dish of free will, also to be the place where Satan’s wickedness was exposed. Surrounded by God’s perfection in heaven, there was no reason/ opportunity to sin. But here was a chance to get back at God by hurting his innocent children – or not. Satan chose destruction.
Let’s look at his expulsion in Revelations 12:
Then war broke out in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.
Then I heard a loud voice in heaven say:
“Now have come the salvation and the power
and the kingdom of our God,
and the authority of his Messiah.
For the accuser of our brothers and sisters,
who accuses them before our God day and night,
has been hurled down.
Therefore rejoice, you heavens
and you who dwell in them!
But woe to the earth and the sea,
because the devil has gone down to you!
He is filled with fury,
because he knows that his time is short.”
Then the dragon was enraged at the woman and went off to wage war against the rest of her offspring—those who keep God’s commands and hold fast their testimony about Jesus. (vs 7-17, some verses removed)
Before his fall, it seems that Satan was able to go freely between the mount of God and Eden. After he was thrown down from heaven, he went to wage war on mankind, which makes it seem that a) mankind was already in existence, and b) his sin occurred while he was on earth and not in heaven, and c) as soon as wickedness was revealed in him he was cast out of heaven, along with his supporters.
But I don’t think it matters whether or not my supposition is correct. Regardless of when Satan’s fall occurred – and even where – it seems that what spun out of the petri dish of free will was irreversible. Satan and his angels would forever be revealed as having chosen rebellion. God’s angels would forever be revealed as having chosen obedience. And mankind would be forever fallen, were it not for the incredible provision of God’s grace that came through Jesus Christ.
There are a few scriptures that make me think this way about the destiny of angels. Both Peter, one of Jesus’ closest disciples, and Jude (understood to be) one of Jesus’ brothers, said very similar words about angels. In Jude 6 and 9 you see the comparison between Satan and God’s angels:
6: And the angels who did not keep their positions of authority but abandoned their proper dwelling—these he has kept in darkness, bound with everlasting chains for judgment on the great Day.
9: But even the archangel Michael, when he was disputing with the devil about the body of Moses, did not himself dare to condemn him for slander but said, “The Lord rebuke you!”
On the one hand there are the angels who have already rebelled and who await judgement, and on the other hand, there are angels who are so obedient to God they do not act on their own authority. In very similar words, Peter spoke of the latter, and how God’s angels don’t take it upon themselves to retaliate against sinful man. (in 2 Peter 2:10-11)
So I think that was the heaven and earth of before, where free will allowed for rebellion; and for the rebellious, the expulsion was instantaneous and permanent. Let’s look at how this affects us now.
What Will We Really Be Like in Heaven?
Going back to the question: if Angels are obedient servants, how did Satan get cast out of heaven? How did his followers (angels) manage to rebel? I think what Satan and his angels (and God’s angels) chose to do back then forever set the course of their destiny. They’ve already chosen to sin or to obey, so those angels who are still in God’s presence will be obedient forever (because they chose it and because they were created that way and because God sustains them in their destiny). And those angels who chose rebellion were cast out, and will be expelled until Judgement Day. And I think when the scripture says that we will judge angels, it’s referring to Satan and the angels of Jude 6, not God’s servants in heaven.
This sort of brings us to the crux of the matter. What about us? Will we still have free will in heaven? I mean, we have it now. It seems odd to imagine that having eaten of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil that we will then be plunged back into ignorance and perfect obedience. Will we?
When I was praying about this, a vision came to mind. Now I’m no prophet so please just take this as an analogy, not a prophecy. I had a vision that sinning in heaven (as a new creation) would be like putting your head underwater and forcing yourself to breathe in. You just can’t do it. You cannot do something that is so wholly unlike the new, godly nature you will have in heaven.
Earth Is a Furnace & Everything Will Be New
Until I read Isaiah 65:17, I thought that perhaps we would still know what sin was and just choose not to do it, but now I’m not so sure. Isaiah says,
“See, I will create
new heavens and a new earth.
The former things will not be remembered,
nor will they come to mind.”
From this I gather that free will and the desire to sin won’t be an issue when we’re in heaven. What’s sin? What’s rebellion? What’s separation from God? The former things will not even be remembered when there are new heavens and a new earth. (I don’t know what it means by “heavens”). Once our choice is made, God will bring about the perfection necessary for us to remain with him in heaven. He’ll do his work to perfect us and make us like him once we’ve chosen him.
Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand. Romans 14:4
I can’t see anything in the Bible about angels wrestling with free will after they had made their choice back around the time of Creation. In the same way, I don’t think we will be wrestling forever with free will and obedience to God. The old heaven and earth, (and Eden, the gateway between the two?) was the petri dish for the angels. Earth is the petri dish for us. It’s the dry run. The testing place. The furnace to weed out the chaff and the dross. Once we come through the fire, only the essential will remain: the soul.
In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. (1 Peter 1:6-7) (you can also see the more sobering example of Ezekiel 22:19-21)
There is so much to be found in the scriptures that talks about newness in Christ, and which seems to suggest that we have no idea how different it will be to now. You can look at 2 Corinthians 5:17 and 21, and Ephesians 4:22-24, to name just a few. It seems that now is the time of free will. But once we have made our choice here on earth to pass from death to life (from sin to eternity with Christ), our destiny is beautifully sealed forever.
From these scriptures, I understand that in heaven our very character will be so like God, choosing to do something contrary to that perfect nature will not even enter the mind. The concept of rebellion won’t even brush the sphere of our being. But as a reasoning adult with free will that’s just so very hard for us to imagine – everything about heaven is hard to imagine.
“But you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the Judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.