Eternal life: bad idea?

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Steve Cave thinks immortality is a bad idea. Ronald Bailey, reviewing Cave’s new book Immortality for Reason magazine writes:

Imagine you are offered a trustworthy opportunity for immortality in which your mind (perhaps also your body) will persist eternally. Let’s further stipulate that the offer includes perpetual youthful health and the ability to upgrade to any cognitive and physical technologies that become available in the future. There is one more stipulation: You could never decide later to die. Would you take it? Metaphysician and former British diplomat Stephen Cave thinks accepting such an offer would be a bad idea.

Cave’s fascinating new book, Immortality, posits that civilization is a major side effect of humanity’s attempts to live forever. He argues that our sophisticated minds inexorably recognize that, like all other living things, we will one day die. Simultaneously, Cave asserts, “The one thing that these minds cannot imagine is that very state of nonexistence; it is literally inconceivable. Death therefore presents itself as both inevitable and impossible. This is what I will call the Mortality Paradox, and its resolution is what gives shape to the immortality narratives, and therefore to civilization.”

Of Cave’s view of the soul, Bailey writes:

The most popular immortality narrative is Soul. Most Christians now believe that their souls, which persist after death, will be reunited with their resurrected bodies. Souls thus solve a lot of the identity problems associated with the earlier Resurrection narrative. Cave argues that Soul narrative resolves the Mortality Paradox by denying “that the failing body is the true self, identifying the person instead with exactly that mental life that seems so inextinguishable.” In Christianity all souls are equal before God, so if the omnipotent and omniscient Creator of the universe is interested in your life then who are your politicians to ignore your desires?

What about the afterlife? Cave cites American evangelist James L. Garlow who says that in Heaven “your every desire is satisfied more abundantly than you’ve ever dreamed.” But what if your desire is to be reunited with your wife who instead desires to spend her eternity with her childhood sweetheart? A more sophisticated theocentric view of the soul’s afterlife is that Heaven is the eternal exaltation of God. But what can this mean? Cave points out that an afterlife without time is not really a life at all. “Everything that makes up a human life—experience, learning, growth, communication, even singing hosannas—requires the passage of time. Without time, nothing can happen; it is a state of stasis, a cessation of thought and action,” he argues. “The attraction of the soul view was the unique aura it gave to every individual life, but its logical conclusion is an eternity of nothing, with life negated altogether.”

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Bill Dilworth
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Bill Dilworth

I was part of a discussion about this topic last night following our monthly Parish Requiem. One person affirmed the idea that Heaven exists outside time and was not subject to sequentiality, while another person, in Holy Orders, advanced the idea that it is subject to time and sequentiality.

I'd always been taught something like Tobias' version - that Christianity does not view eternity as the same thing as an endless stretch of time. I disagree with the author's assertion that an afterlife without time is not life at all. I suggest that since we lack experience with existence outside of time we are ill-prepared to make judgments about what it would be like.

I believe in eternal life, because that's part of the Catholic Faith as received by the Episcopal Church - something I'm reminded of twice a day in the Apostle's Creed and once every Sunday and Holy Day in the Nicene Creed, and any time I look at the BCP's Catechism ("Q. What do we mean by everlasting life?

A. By everlasting life, we mean a new existence, in which we are united with all the people of God, in the joy of fully knowing and loving God and each other.") It seems to me that our hope of that eternal life is not so much concerning our continued survival - although that's part of it - as it is a loving union with God. And yeah, John, I want that very much. I think we get a foretaste of it here, but if this life is all there is the Episcopal Church owes me a refund...;-)

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Ann Fontaine
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Ann Fontaine

What I think is here on Daily Episcopalian. "Life is changed not ended"

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John B. Chilton
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John B. Chilton

Tobias, I like your definition of eternity. Thank you for engaging this post. But I'd like to stir the pot, hoping you'll reply.

I don't believe that that is the common understanding of eternity. Your "good many earthly religions" (you're including Christianity?) might say infinite life-span is hell, but if I'm right by religions you mean the theologians of those religions not the representative member of those religions. I don't recall being taught eternity is a still point of blissful being. And I suspect even your average Episcopal priest would parse in a sermon the definition of the promise of eternal life as a still point. Though I wish they would.

My questions other readers: Is living forever your deepest craving? What is the promise of eternal life? Why did Jesus offer eternal life, as opposed to other alternatives?

For me personally, when I'm dead I hope I'm dead dead. The promise of eternal life I do believe the promise of eternal life is the satisfaction of a deep mutual craving between person and God, and if it exists it is achieved while you're alive.

Heretically yours, etc.

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tobias haller
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tobias haller

So much of this sort of discussion runs into the problem of understaning eternity as a very long time. Eternity isn't about time; time is a creature, A good many earthly religions would say that an infinite life-span would be hell! I think my brother Richard is right -- the mystics point us to an eternity that is a still point of blissful being, not an earthly paradise of interminable doings.

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Richard E. Helmer
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Richard E. Helmer

I wonder if Cave grapples with the mystical understanding of eternity as connected with the present, the holy NOW, in which deep prayer and meditation often lead to a sense of blissful union with the divine, or at least extraordinary peace which seems beyond death’s ability to shake.

Cave, not surprisingly, seems to critique the oft-articulated view of much institutional Christianity that has pervaded Western doctrine: that eternal life is always “out there,” “up there,” or “beyond death” (and, by the way, we’ll tell you how to get there...for a fee).

The two are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but I think the former falls closer to Jesus’ experience and teachings in the gospels than the latter, which is often fraught with fear and power rather than peace and surrender.

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