Eternal Life: Meaningless & Boring?

The full text of a reflection (for a popular Christian audience) on the common charge that eternal life would be boring and meaningless. Text awaiting publication.

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A friend of mine once quipped that eternal life would never get boring, since his wife would always find something for him to do.

But not everyone is so optimistic. In his essay, “The Problems of the Self,”[1] philosopher Bernard Williams argues that eternal life is not desirable and death is something we should welcome and appreciate. If we never died life would become one big bore-fest, and would, reckons Williams, ultimately be meaningless. Williams cites a story by Karel Copec (1890-1938), in which the character Elina Makropulos drinks an elixir of life. The story joins her at 42 years old, the “age” she has now been for 300 years. Her life is presented as having become meaningless and boring.

Such a complaint is often found on the lips of unbelievers, and I must confess that often we Christians have spoken of eternal life in ways which make it a less than thrilling proposition. One preacher speaks of “singing one glorious hymn after another for all time.” Does that excite you? For many folks this sounds as thrilling as flossing for all eternity. Presenting eternal life as one never-ending church service has done the notion of eternal life incredible damage in the eyes of an unbelieving world, most of whom struggle with an hour on a Sunday a few times a year. How then should we speak of eternal life?

I should point out straight away that reflection on eternal life – even for us Christians – will always be somewhat speculative, and we can really offer little more than some imaginative suggestions (hopefully more imaginative than singing one glorious hymn after another). We do after all only see through a glass darkly and cannot possibly fathom what God has prepared for those who love him. But I think reflecting on this is still worthwhile, if only to help change the popular perception that life eternal would be a meaningless bore-fest.

It might be useful to start with what we do know: our own earthly existence. Let’s put ourselves in the shoes of Elina Makropulos. Would life really become boring and meaningless, even after a mere few centuries?

I want to deal with the charge of boredom first. I find it almost unthinkable that eternal life would become boring. Firstly, this world, as the creation of God, is an amazingly fascinating place. If I lived 300 lifetimes I couldn’t imagine anything other than barely scratching the surface of the riches God has made and given us access to.

Take just a few simple examples. My son loves the museum, and when we visit I find myself overwhelmed with interest in so many different things. I’d love to know more about things like the dating of fossils or to be involved in finding and studying them. How fascinating are Egyptian hieroglyphics! How wonderful it would be to study archaeology and head off to exotic locations on a “dig” (complete with Indiana Jones hat, of course). If you visit a museum and don’t come away with a sense of how fascinating and wonderful our world is then you haven’t opened your eyes!

Or consider all those places you see from the air as you pass over in a plane en route to your destination, places you just don’t have time to visit. The earth is full of fascinating places, most of which we’ll never see in one – or even 100 – lifetimes. Think of the wonders of the world both natural and manmade: Niagara Falls, the Taj Mahal, Mt Everest, the Grand Canyon, the Sinai desert, the Great Wall of China, and the Amazon rainforest. The earth is full of such glorious riches! And we’re not even off the planet yet! Consider the immensity of the cosmos, the stars and the galaxies. Physics is constantly bringing us face to face with new wonders, and showing us all the time how incredibly awesome – and often wonderfully weird – the cosmos is.

Imagine having lived from the time of Christ until today – 2000 years. There are so many fascinating and amazing events you could have witnessed or been a part of. This life, our planet, the biological world, the cosmos, is far too wonderful and immense to grow bored with if we view it with open minds and open eyes. And that’s before we consider all the great books we could read, plays we could watch, campaigns to fight, and people to meet. Or I think of one of my own loves: philosophy. One of my great frustrations is having to skip over ideas and personalities simply because I just don’t have time for indulging such curiosities and heading down every intellectual rabbit hole that takes my fancy.

Lastly, I should also mention what I call the “joy of mere being.” This has nothing to do with doing anything or going anywhere or striving for any goal. It’s the joy we derive simply from being alive. I’ve experienced this profound sense of joy on several occasions: gazing at a mountain range on a bright morning, or lounging on a beach and watching the sea, or holding my son for the first time. These are moments we wish could last “forever.” Ironically, we don’t have so many of these experiences due to being so busy getting things done before our time runs out.

I think if we can say all this about an eternal earthly life, we can certainly say it about eternal life in a new heaven and new earth. We can’t say precisely what such an existence would be like, but we do know that it will far outstrip what we do know. Moreover, we know that we will experience the presence of God himself in a wonderful way that currently eludes us. And this brings me to the charge that eternal life would be meaningless.

It is true that eternal life by itself may well be meaningless. One story tells of an astronaut hopelessly lost in space. He has two vials: one containing a poison and the other containing an elixir that will give him immortality. Seeing how hopeless his situation is he decides to drink the poison, but mixes the vials and ends up drinking the potion that makes him immortal. Thus he is doomed to spend eternity floating aimlessly through the cosmos; a life without meaning.

However, we mustn’t think that death or dying is what gives meaning to our existence. The ultimate source of meaning for our life is God. Consider briefly the very bad news that follows if atheism is true. William Lane Craig writes, “On the atheistic view human beings are just accidental by-products of nature who have evolved relatively recently on an infinitesimal speck of dust called planet Earth – lost somewhere in a hostile and mindless universe – and are doomed to perish individually and collectively in a relatively short time.”[2] Or Richard Dawkins, “There is at bottom no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pointless indifference.”[3] This doesn’t sound like a very meaningful existence to me. Nor does it sound like much fun.

Over and against this Christian theism holds that God is the one in whom we “live and move and have our being.”[4] Christ came “that you may have life and have it to the full.”[5] And if we remember nothing else of our catechism, we do know this: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.”[6] We mustn’t make the mistake then of conceiving of immortality as simply never-ending existence. That in itself may not be very meaningful or joyful. But rather we must always keep in mind that our eternal life will be of a certain quality too, a quality based on the very being of God Himself. Theologians refer to the beatific vision – the enjoyment by the saints of the full revelation of God himself, in all his glory and perfection, directly to them.

Such is difficult for us to grasp in this life. After all, as Paul puts it, we merely “see through a glass darkly.”[7] But we can know for sure that eternal life for the saints in heaven will be the fulfilment of existence and more joyful than we can possibly imagine.

I suspect, therefore, that there will be far more to do and enjoy than singing one glorious hymn after another; and eternal life will certainly be more joyful and meaningful than the never-ending list of chores my friend envisions.

Stephen J. Graham

NOTES

[1] Cambridge University Press, 1973

[2] William Lane Craig, “Navigating Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape,” http://www.reasonablefaith.org 2012

[3] Richard Dawkins River out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life (New York: Basic, 1996)

[4] Acts 17:28

[5] John 10:10

[6] Westminster Shorter Catechism

[7] 1 Corinthians 13:12

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Filed under Eternal Life, Heaven, Meaning of Life

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