Thursday, April 14, 2016

Eternal life - what is it?

In Eastertide, this Ethical Musings' reader query seems especially timely:
When a person dies, do you go wherever you deserve? Are you in your youth or just the way you died without pain? Also, if we live to eternity, then I like a comic believe that I would not like it.
The reader's last comment is frustrating and intriguing because s/he offers no explanation why s/he would not like eternal life. Below, some reflections on the possible appeal of life eternal follows a reprise of a previous post, What does life after death mean?

What does life after death mean?

Life after death does not and cannot denote a continuation of physical existence. Many of the atoms in each human body have previously been part of another human body. Even substituting replacement atoms would result in a physical body that is not literally identical with a person’s original body. Additionally, if life after death denotes a continuation of physical existence, then many people (including the elderly, mentally retarded, physically handicapped, and severely diseased) would fare poorly, stuck with bodies that most of us would strongly prefer not to have.

Alternatively, one of my seminary professors, process theologian Marjorie Suchocki, contended that life after death consisted of a person living forever in the mind of God. Although that proposal has its challenges (e.g., how can a person sustain an independent existence?), her suggestion avoids the difficulties inherent in traditional physical and spiritualized definitions of life after death.

The Christian scriptures offer little help beyond a consistent affirmation that there is life after death and that this is a positive experience. The images and metaphors for life after death, as one would anticipate, have strong roots in the authors’ historical and cultural milieu. After all, what other images and metaphors would make sense to an author or to the author’s audience?

Christian biblical scholars and theologians have generally supported a dichotomous view of life after death: heaven for God's people and hell for all others. They sometimes understand hell as death, because apart from God no life can exist and because the idea of eternal punishment seems incongruous with a God who is love. A minority of biblical scholars and theologians, notably including William Barclay as well as the 18th and 19th century Universalists, have argued that God's love so firmly embraces each person that all receive the gift of eternal life.

Epistemologically, little or no evidence exists for life after death. Investigators routinely debunk claims of alleged contact between the living and the dead. The world’s great religions diverge widely in their teachings about life after death. Hinduism and Buddhism both teach reincarnation; ultimate liberation in both religions consists of ending an endless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth by entering into unity with the ultimate. Some Jewish traditions still teach that death marks the end of a life. Christianity and Islam both affirm life in heaven for the faithful. This lack of consistency makes drawing a conclusion based on human experience problematic.

Reflections on the possible appeal of eternal life

The possibility of eternal life may appeal to persons in four different ways. First, some persons so enjoy this life, and yet recognize the possibility for even greater enjoyment in an unlimited future, that they find the possibility of eternal life very appealing. Second, some persons experience so much pain and suffering in this life, that the possibility of a new life, one without pain, suffering, tears, or death has great appeal. Third, and more broadly, some persons believe that this life rarely if ever provides justice for the righteous and the wicked, a justice possible only through eternal life. Fourth, if God's love for people is as great as many believe, then God's love, which knows no boundaries or limits, can find fulfillment in eternity.

Regardless of why the possibility of eternal life appeals, I find conventional images of eternal life hugely dissatisfying, e.g., strumming a harp while drifting about on a cloud or of unending, never changing perfection.

Change is essential for me to find something interesting, enjoyable, and beautiful for the long-term. The prospect of an eternity of stasis – never-ending, never changing, sameness – feels more like an eternity of punishment than of blessing. Comedians have long joked about preferring to party in hell than bask in the glory of heaven, jokes we find funny because of our aversion to stasis.

Furthermore, I have repeatedly contended in Ethical Musings that God is dynamic and not static. If there is life after death, I see no reason to believe that life is unchanging and every reason to expect that it will represent opportunity for continuing to have new and ever richer experiences.

Alternatively, perhaps one of my seminary professors, Marjorie Suchocki, is right when she suggests that eternal life consists of a person's eternally enduring memory in God's mind.


Anonymous said...

I don't know what eternal life is, but I can say that having 10,000 years to understand Einstein's mathematics would be very enjoyable. (It would probably take me that long.) And then I could move on to fifty other physicists.

George Clifford said...

10,000 years is a long time compared to the span of a human lifespan. Ten million years, however, is a relatively short time in the history of the earth or of the cosmos. Ten trillion years - a million times ten million - is a negligible amount of time when measured against eternity. And that is why I raise some of the questions I ask in the post.