THE ABSURDITY OF ETERNAL LIFE
What do religionists actually have in mind by "eternal life," which they seem to lust after so
ardently? One hears phrases like, "Eternity is so long that a million years of earth time is just
one second of eternity." Or, "Eternity is not a period of time at all; it is 'timelessness', the
ever-present 'now."' The word is also used synonymously with "infinity," which is just a
mathematical way of saying, "etcetera." So what do theists expect of this "life, etc."?
We DEFINE time by the movement of physical objects through three-dimensional space –
such as the movement of hands on a clock or the planets in their orbits. But we
EXPERIENCE it as the memory of significant events. If nothing very significant is
happening – as in the life of a prisoner – then time seems to slow down. The clock becomes
an instrument of torture. And when a convict looks back on the 20 years spent in prison,
there is nothing to remember. That period is a virtual blank – as though it never happened –
as though the state had simply injected him with a substance which caused his body to age
20 years. On the other hand, if very exciting things are happening to us then time seems to
speed up. For example, we may become totally absorbed in our activities, then we pause
for a moment and say, "My word! Look at the time! Where did it go!?" When we think back
on that period then it seems to occupy a much longer span than the clock or calendar might
indicate. And finally, if we are unconscious, in a dreamless sleep, then we experience no
passage of time at all – no matter what the clock or calendar may say. Therefore, our
EXPERIENCE of time is almost infinitely flexible. It seems to have very little to do with clock
So, what kind of experiences to theists anticipate during this "eternal life"? If it were of the
Club Med variety, with date palms and serving girls, as the Muslims describe it, then it
would certainly become very boring. With no problems to solve – no urgent business to
attend to, then nothing has any significance and time becomes burdensome. Ask anyone at
a retirement home! Many people have no interests outside of their work, so when they retire
they have nothing to do but "relax" and "enjoy themselves"; and within just a few years they
develop acute depression and die.
Theists generally say, no, that is not what they expect. That kind of life would, indeed, be
Then what? Would they be unendingly entertained by watching life down on earth? We can
do that now! We call it TV! But people in a retirement home or a vacation resort also get
tired of watching television. The human spectacle eventually starts to become mostly
repetitive and depressing. No, in order to feel the "joy" that theists talk about so much, we
have to be personally involved with something – learning, growing, helping, solving
significant problems, feeling useful.
So do theists expect this Kingdom of Heaven to be just like life on earth? – say, circa 1300
CE (except with modern conveniences)? Where everyone is vassal to a king named
Jehovah, who lives in a golden palace, and is engaged in an unending war with a rival king
named Satan? That's the way Christians usually describe it. Also, they almost always add
something about the joy of singing endless praises to God – which sounds like a political
rally for a South American dictator. Well, that would at least be more interesting. But if it
were just like this life, then why would it be more desirable than the one we already have?
Wouldn't the people in that Kingdom of God long to go to still another heaven, ad infinitum?
Some theists describe heaven as being a life without pain or anxiety. But that takes us right
back to our infinitely boring retirement village. It is the avoidance of pain and the grappling
with anxiety that keeps things interesting. The certainty of death in this life is what gives it
zest. The rules of the game are that you are given a limited amount of time for whatever you
hope to accomplish. You may be taken out of the game at any moment, but you will certainly
be taken out after about 90 years. So it's the certainty of knowing that our time will come,
but the uncertainty of knowing exactly when that will be, that creates suspense, anxiety – and
interest. A good play, film, or novel – just like a good sporting event – is the story of a
conflict. Without conflict – without anxiety – without uncertainty – without an ending – there is
no suspense, and consequently nothing to hold our interest. How exciting would a football or
baseball game be if there were no time limits? And so it is with life.
Certain mystics say that the step by step process of coming closer to God creates an ever
increasing "ecstasy." Well, euphoria is induced by chemical reactions in the brain. Heroin
and other drugs can produce that experience admirably. I remember very vividly the only
"mystical" experience I ever had. It just so happened that I had been reading the
"Upanishads" when I had to go in for oral surgery. For the operation I had to be given a
general anesthetic. I remember getting the shot of sodium pentethol, then the next thing I
knew, the doctor was telling me it was all over. I looked at the clock and over an hour had
elapsed. In the meantime I had experienced "eternity." I had the ecstatically terrifying
experience of becoming "one with God," witnessing the Big Crunch as our present universe
imploded, and then exploded again in another Big Bang, forming another universe and
another earth, where I was separated from the All-Knowing Infinite Ground of Being and re-
born as another baby. That's when the doctor said I could go home.
So if heaven is not as exciting as our painful and anxiety ridden earth – which we
nevertheless leave so reluctantly. And it's not as boring as forced retirement on a south sea
island. And it's not just the emotional experience of a drug trip. And the subjective
experience of eternity is unrelated to clock time, then what is it? Perhaps we all have the
kind of mystical experience that I just described during the final moments before death. So
what does it matter whether the experience of eternity is a split second of earth time, or
whether earth time is a split second of eternity? And what does it matter whether the
experience is chemically induced or whether it is "really happening" in "some other spiritual
universe" (whatever that means) – if the experience is the same?
Theists will undoubtedly answer, "None of the above." But then that leaves them with the
irrational proposition that they don't know what they mean by the word, "heaven"; it is like
nothing anyone has ever experienced; they have no evidence that it even exists, but it is
worth any sacrifice to attain.
Hell is at least easier to imagine. Pain and terror are very real, and they can be constant –
unlike pleasure, which is fickle and fleeting. We can experience hell right here on earth. Hell
Is the Inquisition. Hell is the Holocaust. Hell is Hiroshima. Hell is Auschwitz and Dachau. Hell
is being eaten alive by cancer while theistic doctors and legislators keep you strapped
down to prevent you from pulling the plug. But theists don't talk very much about hell
anymore. It's out of fashion – since, if there is an eternal Auschwitz, that makes "God" – who
is supposed to be responsible for everything - into a devil.
In any case, whether one expects to spend "eternity" in heaven or hell, that still brings us
back to the question of what is "eternity"? And what does it matter?
The next problem that theists never seem to think about is what is it exactly that is supposed
to survive death? As Buddhists correctly point out: The whole idea of the "ego" - the "I" – is
an illusion – as I hope to demonstrate.
Some Christian denominations say the physical body will be resurrected on Judgment Day:
i.e., all of the atoms of our body will be reassembled into our "original" form – somewhat like
the teleportation device in "Star Trek." But this concept raises several problems:
First of all, many billions of people have inhabited this planet over the eons, so some of the
atoms that presently make up my body were once part of someone else's body. Therefore,
who gets dibs on each atom?
The next problem is that a person does not have any "original" form, because he or she is
constantly changing throughout life. So at what age would we be reconstructed? Surely
nobody would want to come back into the same old, feeble, diseased, or mutilated body
that died. On the other hand, would we want to come back as a child, or adolescent? – with
all their weakness, fears, and growing pains? Would we pick our best year? But what if we
never had a best year? What if we never had a healthy, beautiful body to begin with? And
what form would children take? Their main desire is to grow up. So would we be assigned a
new body altogether? One of our own choosing? In that case, what is the sense of saying
that it is "us" that survives? We would be someone else entirely – a type of reincarnation.
But In that case, how would we recognize our friends and relatives? – a perquisite which
theists generally emphasize as being the most important reason for going to heaven.
To avoid all these difficulties, other theists discard the body entirely and say it is only the
"soul" which survives. But this is no better solution. What is the nature of this "soul"? Is it just
a little cloud of phosphorescent gas? How enjoyable would that be?! What does a cloud do
for fun? Quadriplegics have no body to speak of – although with the aid of computerized
wheelchairs, voice activated robots, etc., they may be able to get around and take care of
their needs. So for all practical purposes they are just a brain without a body – what this
variety of theist considers an ideal condition. But there are no quadriplegics who would
agree with that assessment.
Where do these clouds reside? Are they a ghostly entity, scudding about somewhere in the
troposphere of the earth? Some other planet? Outer space? Another universe? What kind
Again, without a physical body at all, how does one "soul" recognize and interact with other
"souls"? Telepathy? Would heaven be just an improvement on the Internet – where thoughts
are transmitted to other souls, but without the bother of keyboarding them first and
proofreading the grammar and spelling? Interacting with other disembodied souls through
the Internet can certainly be enjoyable. And it is one activity that quadriplegics can enjoy as
much as anyone else. But who would want to spend ALL their time on-line? How could we
experience beauty without eyes? Music without ears? Fragrance without a nose? Delicious
foods without a digestive tract? Sexual or athletic pleasure without a whole body?
In answer to these last questions, some theists would say that in the afterlife it will be
possible to experience greater pleasure than any of the above, and without the necessity of
a physical body. But that is also a common earthly occurrence: we call such experiences
dreams and hallucinations. Which brings us right back to drugs. What these theists are
describing as heaven is just an unlimited supply of opium. No wonder narcotics have
become such a serious problem when the experience of being "high" is preached from the
pulpits as the ideal state!
Finally, what is the psychological nature of this "soul" which is supposed to survive? The
idea that the "ego" is something immutable is just as much an illusion as the assumption
that we have a particular (unchanging) appearance. The fact is that our inner self is always
in a state of flux. We are constantly learning new things at the same time that our memory of
past events fades away. The state of our body affects our state of mind, so when we are
young and vigorous we may be obsessed with sex and/or athletics; but as we age these
earlier passions may be replaced by other interests – perhaps art, or politics, or making
money. Every aspect of our personality is constantly changing. So what is the "ego"? Is it a
name? No, we frequently change that. Is it the way we look? No, that is constantly changing.
Is it a set of memories? No, they are also changing. Is it a set of attitudes or tastes? No,
they change too, unless we are neurotic. So this is why Buddhists say the ego is an illusion.
A person APPEARS to be something concrete and stable, but that is only because we
don't notice the subtle but inexorable changes. Our impression of them at any one time is
like viewing one frame on a strip of motion picture film. It is only when we see the film
speeded up that we can see their constant evolution.
A person, like everything else in the universe, is a pattern of energy – like a hurricane or
tornado. If you take a snapshot of a tornado it appears to be a solid object, but it isn't; it is a
temporary pattern, constantly changing its shape, powered by energy from the sun. It leaves
its mark on the world, and then the pattern dissipates. A hurricane has a longer life, and we
now give them names. But nobody ever asks where hurricane so-and-so went when it died.
In fact, no one ever inquires about the "soul" of animals or plants. Only theists are naive
enough and egocentric enough to think that they are too exalted to be "merely" a part of
So we have seen that everything about the idea of eternal life is absurd. The concept of
"eternity" is meaningless. The concept of "heaven" is inconsistent with human psychology.
And the concept of life after death is self contradictory. The usual response that, "We cannot
imagine how wonderful heaven will be," or "I don't worry about things like that; I'm sure God
can work out all the details," is not satisfactory. That is just an admission that no rational
explanation is possible. Yet every conceivable atrocity has been committed by fanatical
theists because they were obsessed with the insane idea that certain types of irrational
behavior would assure them of an indescribably blissful state during some kind of
indefinable "eternal life."