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Heavenly Eviction

John Donnelly reminds us that people are only tenants in Heaven by the grace of God.

The notion of heavenly eviction would seem strange, even heterodoxical, to Christians [and others] who believe in Heaven. Yet those same Christians would likely have no difficulty or hesitancy affirming the fall or expulsion from Heaven of Lucifer and his like-minded angelic cohorts.

Therefore I think there is a fundamental inconsistency in the beliefs of ordinary Christians, which I will attempt to rectify by defending the notion of Heavenly eviction. In short: if there has been angelic expulsion, then so too can there be human eviction from Heaven. (A practical implication of this theory would suggest that the Christian practice of praying to saints who act as mediators could be misdirected. And the Papal canonization of saints, while laudable in fostering Christian role-models, may be less than infallible.)

I am positing that inhabitants of Heaven continue to have free wills. This is a type of metaphysical libertarianism, such that they are not coerced (internally or externally) to be good or virtuous in Heaven. I confess regular puzzlement about how Christians rightfully invoke a free will defense to vindicate Divine benevolence, omnipotence, and omniscience to explain the existence of evil in this world, but then rather cavalierly dispose of their libertarianism in the eternal realm. Shades of Purgatorical behavior-modification or instruction in virtue are taken as foreign to the survival in Heaven of a person functioning as a free autonomous individual.

However, I am not implying or suggesting that Heavenly eviction is a common occurrence. Heaven is for lovers, where the love of God and of neighbor is paramount. In such a loving, nurturing, supportive environment – ideally a communion of saints made perfect – it’s hard to see how many Heavenly inhabitants would suddenly falter. After all, they’ve had to prove their mettle by wise choices in this premortem world. They’ve already built up a virtuous character in order to gain admittance; and such dispositions should serve them well in a Heaven structured to be free of physical impediments or any environmental natural evils.

The question naturally arises: assuming that the metaphysical contours of Heaven contain no physical or natural evils, how could there be any moral evil in the absence of such physical evils? I think that a theory of moral intentionality can render a consistent account here. An omniscient Deity knows our innermost thoughts, our intentions, our hearts far better than we do, and so if a Heavenly inhabitant had perduring immoral sentiments (the seven deadly sins or variants thereof, such as pride, covetousness, lust, gluttony, envy, anger, sloth, etc), then God could evict such a Heavenly inhabitant either by annihilating them or consigning them to Hell. Note that one could have one or more of these sentiments and still bring about no physical harm to others. Moreover, such immoral sentiments must be perduring (ie damnable). We all are backsliders at times, and momentary lapses as judged by a merciful God would not lead to eviction.

A somewhat pedestrian example might help here. Suppose we have a very happily married couple. The husband dies, and the wife passes away some ten years later, having never remarried and greatly regretting the loss of her beloved spouse, the love of her life. Now suppose the wife is granted admission to Heaven with a glorified resurrection body. It would seem only too natural for her to want to meet up with her husband again. But she learns that her husband was never selected for Heaven, or perhaps was initially so chosen and subsequently evicted. Understandably, the wife would be very upset at such news. However, her resultant sadness, even anger, would not necessarily get her evicted, on my theory. But if these attitudes became hardened and ingrained – a very part of her postmortem personality – then her resentment toward God would seem to be a perduring immoral sentiment, and lead to her eviction. And, not so incidentally, I see no reason why private relationships, which are so vital and important in a premortem world containing moral and physical evil, are needed in Heaven. Jesus more than hinted at this point when addressing the Sadducees’ puzzle of the seven-times widow, and the question of who would be her husband in Heaven (see Matthew 22:30).

Perhaps it is nothing more than flagrant selective proof-texting on my part, but the parable of Jesus in Matthew 22:1-14, where the kingdom of Heaven is compared to a king’s wedding feast for his son’s wedding, can suggest such a notion of Heavenly eviction. The king sent out wedding invitations, but the would-be guests declined, and then some, even killing some of the king’s messengers. After taking retribution, the king issued a general call to the wedding feast. This time, many guests came, but one of them was improperly dressed. The king reacted and threw out the slovenly-dressed guest: “For though many are invited, few are chosen.”

There is another parable in Matthew (25: 1-13) that could also suggest a notion of eviction. Jesus speaks metaphorically of the Kingdom of Heaven as like ten women who took their lamps out to meet and greet the bridegroom. Five of the women prudently took oil, but not the other five. The bridegroom was delayed, the women fell asleep, and then the bridegroom arrived at nightfall. Puzzlingly, the five prudent women with oil for their lamps, refused to share, so that the five women without oil had to go in search of some, causing them to miss the journey with the bridegroom. When they finally arrived back at the castle, they were kept out of it and the wedding feast. The king told the five imprudent women: “I declare, I do not know you.”

Perhaps the strongest case for the notion of Heavenly eviction can be found in John 11: 25-26. Speaking to Martha, the sister of Lazarus, Jesus says: “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.” This is a remarkable and possibly overlooked statement. I interpret this saying to mean that the first group can get into Heaven, but in order to remain there, one must continue to freely grow in knowledge and wisdom as participants in the visio Dei. Most invitees, I suggest will flourish in Heaven; but some backsliders lacking purity of heart may rebel. After all, Christianity teaches that it has happened before.

© John Donnelly 2006

John Donnelly is Professor of Philosophy at the University of San Diego, in California.

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