Overview:

It turns out that eternity is a very long time indeed. No, longer than that, even. What does it say about our lived lives if heaven is supposedly eternal?

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Whether you are a heaven-and-hell-believing evangelical or a Christian universalist (where everyone gets saved), you’ll have some kind of belief in a transcendent soul living in some situation for eternity.

But eternity is a very long time. Problematically so.

People often seem to defend billionaires without realizing how big a billion really is and how much money it represents (let alone $150 billion). But a billion is nothing compared to infinity. And though you might think living a good 100 years is a decent inning, this ripe old age is almost synonymous with 0. Nothing.

Meaning, for them, is only meaningful when it is ultimate meaning, where ultimate meaning is eternal.

Infinity (or eternity in this scenario) is a funny old concept. Any number you can think of—the biggest number in your or any human conception—is an infinitesimal in comparison to infinity. Take a googol (Google it if you don’t know its value). That’s a very big number. But just like playground arguments, you can add one to it. Better still, multiply it by itself a number of times. That number is hugely bigger than the googol you started with. But you can take your new answer and repeat the multiplication a googol times.

So on and so forth.

And so on and so forth.

And so on, and, indeed, so forth.

Any number you can possibly think of is an infinitesimal fraction compared to infinity. An infinitesimal is an indefinitely small quantity, a value approaching zero.

So eternity is a very, very, very long time. And then take that long time and multiply it infinitely.

So when a human does a finitely bad thing and this has some finite consequence over a number of years, this is essentially insignificant in terms of time when compared to eternity.

One argument against the coherence of eternal heaven is the idea of philosophical boredom. Eternity, even in heaven, looks like it would punish you with boredom unless you assert lots of ad hoc add-ons.

But when you look at the idea of finite actions begetting infinite reward and punishment in heaven and hell, you see another problem arising. Are these consequences justifiable? I would argue not.

But even with Christian universalism, where everyone gets to experience eternal heavenly bliss and union with God, you get yet more problems, aside from the aforementioned boredom. (And we’re not even discussing the terminal issues concerned with positing a transcendent soul). There is an asymmetry to existence that appears to render actual life rather insignificant.

Here’s the thing. Meaning and purpose, for Christians, appear to be impossible for atheists because such ideas are wrapped up with the notion of eternal transcendence. Meaning, for them, is only meaningful when it is ultimate meaning, where ultimate meaning is eternal.

So the puny 1-day or 100-year life of various humans appears to be nothing compared to eternity. Infinitesimal.

Once you’ve lived 18 gatrillion years in heaven, that memory of life will seem like an echo of a shadow of nothing.

Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...