The dubious appeal of immortality


During the time I was a Christian, I took it for granted that immortality was not only a Good Thing, it was the thing that mattered most. The idea that if one believes in Jesus (or in some other way meets the needs of Christian doctrine), one is saved and has eternal life is a central tenet of Christianity. The formulation “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” is something that any Christian can recite. It makes up the famous verse John 3:16 which you will often see written on a bed sheet and draped over railings at big sporting events. (This passage is so familiar to Christians that I was able to type it out accurately after all these years without even looking it up.)

What is surprising is that despite all the emphasis on going to heaven as the main point of living, the Bible contains very few actual descriptions of the place and what people there actually do. Even the good folks at Rapture Ready, who are counting the minutes until the world ends and they get taken up, admit that they don’t have much data on this key question. Their page What Heaven Will Be Like is very brief. (Disturbingly, for me personally at least, it says that in heaven the laws of physics do not apply. Why is this information not given to students when they are deciding what to major in? In the unlikely event that I am raptured, all my years of study and work will have been wasted and in heaven I will have to learn a new trade.)

The one really concrete description comes from (where else?) the Book of Revelations and it says that everyone in heaven will live in a place called New Jerusalem, which consists of a cube of side 1,500 miles. Although large (roughly the size of the moon), it should be easy to visit friends since the Rapture Ready website says that people in heaven will be able to travel instantaneously, presumably because of their ability to circumvent the laws of physics that are such restrictive nuisances for us on Earth.

Islam is more detailed than Christianity in its descriptions of heaven. Ibn Warraq writes in Virgins? What virgins? that the Koran gives the following description:

What of the rewards in paradise? The Islamic paradise is described in great sensual detail in the Koran and the Traditions; for instance, Koran sura 56 verses 12-40 ; sura 55 verses 54-56 ; sura 76 verses 12-22. I shall quote the celebrated Penguin translation by NJ Dawood of sura 56 verses 12-39: “They shall recline on jewelled couches face to face, and there shall wait on them immortal youths with bowls and ewers and a cup of purest wine (that will neither pain their heads nor take away their reason); with fruits of their own choice and flesh of fowls that they relish. And theirs shall be the dark-eyed houris, chaste as hidden pearls: a guerdon for their deeds… We created the houris and made them virgins, loving companions for those on the right hand. . .”

So basically heaven for Muslims consists of your choice of food and drink and sex, with no negative after effects. Ibn Warraq’s article describes Muslim commentators who go into even more great detail about the sexual pleasures of heaven, seemingly written exclusively from the male perspective.

I wrote previously that asking questions like where heaven is located and how it is related to life on Earth can make belief complicated because of the scientific problems it creates. First off, how come we cannot detect heaven’s existence although we are now able to probe the far reaches of the universe? Is heaven in some parallel universe, with impenetrable barriers? But they cannot be totally impenetrable since people can get there from here. Since most people believe that people in heaven can see and hear us as we go about on Earth, that means that light and sound waves can travel from Earth to heaven, crossing the barrier. So must it be a one-way barrier? How would such a barrier work to prevent two-way transmission? (This is again the kind of question a physicist would ask, because I have trouble accepting that the laws of physics don’t apply in heaven.)

But another problem is: what is it about heaven that is supposed to make it so attractive? Most people, even if they have no explicit model to work from, envisage eternal life in heaven as where everything is very pleasant and discouraging words are never heard. But surely if everything is perfect, and people in heaven live forever experiencing neither pain nor sorrow, it also has to be dull?

And that is the key problem. I cannot conceive of any way of conceptualizing heaven that is not also mind-numbingly boring. The only way to overcome that is to think that our personalities in heaven also change so that we never get tired of unchanging perfection. (“Wow, this grape is delicious! Wow, so is the next one! And the next one!…”) But then people become boring.

For example, suppose you are an avid golfer and your vision of heaven is where you can play everyday in perfect weather. Does being in heaven mean that you hit perfect shots each time? But if you do and your opponent does too, wouldn’t that take the fun out of the game? Golf is trivial, but I cannot think of anything at all that would not get tedious very quickly if one was assured of constant success. Pleasure in life goes along with failure. Take away failure and pain and loss and I am not sure what pleasure means.

The only thing that I personally can see that is good about immortality is that I may learn the answers to some difficult and unanswered questions that may elude me in my lifetime: Is quantum mechanics the ultimate theory or is there a deeper underlying theory? What exactly happens when the quantum wave function collapses in its interaction with the observer? How can one unambiguously draw the quantum/classical system boundary? How does the brain produce consciousness and the appearance of free will? Why do so many people find Julia Roberts attractive?

So basically, my own idea of heaven is to have the equivalent of unlimited high-speed internet access and subscriptions to science journals. But even that would be boring if I had to wait around a long time for Earth-bound scientists to find (if they ever do) the answers to those questions. On the other hand, if people in heaven already know the answers to these questions and told me as soon as I got there (not that there’s much chance of that), then there would be nothing to look forward to.

I can think of many, many things that would be wonderful to experience for a very short time but all of them would bore me totally if they went on indefinitely. It reminds me of the time, soon after high school in Sri Lanka, when I had a temporary job working in a chocolate factory. I was told that we could eat all the chocolates we wanted and since I loved chocolate, this sounded like heaven, and everyone envied me. But after a week of eating chocolate, I was sick of it.

MrBoffo.jpg

I am becoming convinced that we have pleasure on Earth precisely because it is unpredictable and transient, it is mixed with pain and failure, and we know that everything, including our lives, will eventually come to an end. We experience happiness and pleasure at moments in time, but for those moments to occur they must be preceded by periods of anticipation, disappointment, and failures. Take those things away and there is no pleasure either

It amazes me that I never asked any of these questions or thought of any of these things until now. Even during the many years I was religious, I never questioned then what form eternal life would take and whether it is such an unequivocal Good Thing after all. This is surprising because I was always curious about other things and trying to make connections.

Is there something in the way we are taught our religious beliefs that gently steers us away from these questions because they are so problematic? Why had I never probed deeply into what heaven might be like?

In the next posting, I will look at what research in cognitive science says about why we don’t ask questions or look for answers to certain questions, even when it might seem obvious that we should do so.

POST SCRIPT: Our tax dollars at work in the DHS

Ray LeMoine writes about his weird experience at the hands of Department of Homeland Security officials on his return to the US after traveling in the Islamic world.

Comments

  1. ursa major says

    OK, Old post and all that. But it reminds me that when I was quite young and still had many years to go before realizing religion is a bad joke that I had dreams of being in heaven. The Revelation of John heaven with all the precious stones and metal and near total absence of plant life. The place was horrible and in such a horrible place it was difficult to be good. In my dream people in heaven were shallower and pettier than they actually are. Somehow I realized, if just in my sleep, that heaven is envisioned as just another hell. Sometimes I wonder if those childhood dreams were a factor in my eventual atheism.

  2. mnb0 says

    Exactly my thought since 10 years or a little more. Sure the first time everything will be exciting, but after you have seen it all, what is left? In the end heaven will be eternal boredom (just eating, drinking and having sex is way not enough) and that seems to me a torture at least as bad as everything hell has to offer.
    Buddhist Nirvana, when you start to think about it, is much more attractive. Ask this Abrahamists and it’s very likely you won’t get an answer. They just take heaven for granted.

  3. Stacy says

    For example, suppose you are an avid golfer and your vision of heaven is where you can play everyday in perfect weather. Does being in heaven mean that you hit perfect shots each time? But if you do and your opponent does too, wouldn’t that take the fun out of the game? Golf is trivial, but I cannot think of anything at all that would not get tedious very quickly if one was assured of constant success.

    Have you seen that Twilight Zone episode (It’s on Hulu)? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Nice_Place_to_Visit

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