Search this site
Some links may not work and some pages may display badly. Apologies for any inconvenience.
Those facts in themselves are not proof that our mental identity does not survive our physical death - although they are a pretty strong indication. But what does logic tell us about the possibility of eternal life in the Judaic-Christian-Muslim sense?
Can we - and do we want to - live forever?
Belief in God promises life after death. As conscious beings we are fully aware that we will die, and as conscious beings we are, not surprisingly, reluctant to do so. Faced with the prospect of our individual extinction, most of us who are healthy, active and free would prefer to live as long as possible.
But long life is very different from eternal life - and the more closely we examine the possibility of living forever, the less attractive the idea becomes. That's not a surprising take on Hell (for a view of Jewish, Christian and Muslim visions of Hell see Hot and bothered) but would Heaven be any different?
Because nobody has ever been there and returned, we have no idea of what Heaven is like. The simplest scenario is that the Saved have nothing to do but flap their angelic wings and praise God. For active, intelligent people that prospect is disheartening, since it suggests that even the brightest of minds will be reduced to nothing more than bland membership of a vast chorus that spends eternity massaging the ego of the being that created them.
We'll come back to the age question later. In the meantime, what happens after the family reunion? No matter how much we love our relatives, we are unlikely to want to spend eternity with them. Do we get time off? Where do we go? Is there a Heavenly version of Disneyland or the Smithsonian?
And what about the pleasures in Heaven? They are likely to be very different from those on Earth, but the basic principle remains that pleasure depends partly on novelty. We may love a symphony when we first hear it, but that emotion disappears when we hear it for the billionth time - and over eternity even a trillion symphonies played a trillion times would become irritating. Paradise will only be paradise if it never ceases to present its inhabitants with new pleasures, however etherial they might be.
That means that if time does not exist in God's eternity, then change cannot exist - and if change cannot exist, neither can we. Alternately, if time goes on forever in God's eternity, our consciousness will forever experience change.
Do we want that to happen? Young people want to live forever because everything is new and exciting. Old people eventually tire of life because they have seen it all before. Sure, seventy years or so is far too short for most of us - we still have many things to do, people to meet and places to see before we die - but no matter how long we live, there comes a time in our lives or consciousness when we long for oblivion.
Buddhism and Hinduism recognise we do not want eternal life. At the end of all our reincarnations, they offer the human race the final blessing of eternal death. In contrast, Judaism, Christianity and Islam (J-C-I) promise eternity and fail to tell us that eternity is always hell even if its name is Heaven. The God who forces our consciousness to live when it longs to die is - as we have seen before - the god who lacks compassion.
There are other theories. Some say that after death our consciousnesses are transformed into beings that are closer to God than our historical selves. But if that is the case, our personalities will inevitably fade and become irrelevant - and if our personalities are irrelevant, then so is the question of heaven and hell. We can only suffer the torments of hell if we know who we are and why we are suffering.
We can combine the two approaches by saying that if we are good, we lose our personalities and become absorbed into God; if we are bad, we keep our personalities and are thrown into eternal hell. Again, if this is our future, it says little for God's compassion.
Indeed, the more we compare the Hindu-Buddhist and J-C-I concepts of the afterlife, the more attractive reincarnation becomes. Reincarnation allows us to make the most serious mistakes in our lives, because we get a chance to redeem ourselves in one or more future lives. You can die a murderer or an atheist today and still one day become one with the Divine. There is always hope, even for the slowest learner and worst sinner. The J-C-I God, however, is much less forgiving or generous - screw up this one life and you are doomed to torment for ever.
Eternity is meaningless
These questions and many more not raised on this page point out the difficulties confronting anyone who tries to make sense of the idea of an afterlife. The fact is, there is no evidence whatsoever that our personality survives our physical death, not even for five minutes, far less for eternity. That means that the idea of eternal consciousness is no more than an abstract notion for philosophers and theologians to play with. It is meaningless and irrelevant to the reality in which we live.
At the end of the day (in every sense of the phrase) eternal life is neither desirable nor possible. Besides, a compassionate God would grant us eternal death rather force us to endure eternal life.
* At least one scholar has suggested that the Almighty offers martyrs raisins, not virgins, in the afterlife.
Email us, pasting the URL into your letter with the comment
This account is protected by Spamarrest.
You will receive a one-off request to verify your email before it is delivered.
If God existed, he would...
admire the beauty of a universe that he did not create
recognize that eternity is meaningless
deny both heaven and hell
disown all men and women who speak in his name
denounce the harm caused by religious "morality"
help the human race to thrive without him
If God existed, he would be an atheist.
What is the difference between science and faith?
science is certain of nothing and requires proof of everything
faith is certain of everything and requires proof of nothing
Which do you trust?
"I know there is no God"
"I believe there is no God"
Check the answer