I remember a time when "Heaven" was the lens through which I saw all of life. I was taught, as were many of my peers, that life here on Earth was a test. Nothing mattered except getting into Heaven. Nothing. Suffering was fine, as long as we ended up in our mansions in paradise after we died. Having no friends because we had to weed out all the cool ones who said dirty words? No problem. We'd have Jesus to push us on the celestial swing set. Dismissing all that inconvenient "scientific data" because our book of spells told us God made us "zap zap" style? Piece of cake. We knew the truth. Everyone else was just a sucker sippin' the worldly "Kool-aid." In the meantime, we were to sit still and vote Republican (because the Democrats would usher in the reign of the Anti-Christ, just like the... Bible said would happen... which is what we... wanted... since it was God's will... but, never mind that).
Over the years I would finally succumb to the irresistible seduction of education, people with different opinions, and the ministry of common sense. Whether you believe in God, or whether you only believe in Oprah, I think we can all agree that Heaven... at least as traditionally promoted... is for suckers. If you feel a sudden urge to defend your very own pie in the sky, that's cool. Save it for the bloodbath -- I mean, "comments section."
You may think you want to live forever, but you don't. You really, really, really don't. Don't believe me? Well, let's play this out logically. If you live forever, there's only three possibilities: Conscious eternal existence, unconscious eternal existence, or reincarnation where you only remember one lifetime at a time. Which do you prefer?
CONSCIOUS ETERNITY: AKA "Where digital watches are trendy again."
This is by far the most widely-held belief when it comes to Heaven. Somehow our consciousness will survive the death of our mortal bodies and be transported/sucked up into God/the Cosmos to some other dimension-ish place that somehow defies the known laws of physics, or at least operates on some plane of existence that is more or less magic by our standards. We all agree this place is supposed to be at least pleasant if not borderline orgasmic. And hey, while that sounds all good and reasonable at first, let us consider just what "eternity" would mean.
Imagine the longest day you've ever had. Maybe some of us have been awake for a couple of days, maybe even more than that. Most of us start feeling really weird when we have stayed up all night. I personally feel like I'm in a time-warp. Other people have started their new day when I'm basically still working on finishing up yesterday. It's just not right. We all need closure on our days. We are supposed to have a beginning and an end. In an eternal Heaven scenario, we would have no need for sleep. It would be just one, super long, endless day. If we did sleep, it'd be an insult to conscious Heaven since we'd be choosing unconsciousness. What would we be dreaming about? Heaven? Nope, we'd be awake. Forever.
Okay, I know what you're thinking. It would be Heaven, so we'd have some kind of super Heaven-brain that didn't get all weirded out by how long our day would be. I'm sure we'd also have God-bodies that never got tired. We'd also never be bored. Ever. Why? Because Heaven is about being content. This means that either Heaven would give us an unending supply of entertainment options, or we'd be forced to like everything we would be doing. Therein lies an interesting point to ponder. What if Heaven couldn't please everyone?
Now that we can imagine what it would be like to simply "exist" in a conscious way in this Heavenly realm, let's revisit just what it would mean to be there forever. Humans, accustomed to living lives of roughly 70-90+ years, would never die. One thousand years would pass by. One million years would pass by. One billion, one trillion, one hundred trillion, ninety-nine trillion-trillion, and on and on and on.
Try to perceive that quantity of time (impossible, I know. Just try).
What if I said something like, "And after all that time, you're no closer to _________ (fill in the blank) than when you started."
Did you think of the word "dying"? Did you think "being done"? Did you think "Not existing anymore?" Did you think to yourself, "Wow, eternity does kinda sound like overkill, or at least a little unnecessary." Honestly, I think a number much, much lower would sound reasonable. Can you even imagine living for a few thousand years? Really, think about that. Isn't that long enough? Maybe today you think you need more time to make things right. But who needs eternity? That's like saying I need unlimited data from my cell phone carrier, when realistically I only need like 20 gigs a month.
(I actually need much less, of course. But give me this one thing!)
So, why would you want to live consciously forever? If it's anything like consciousness as we know it, it would be Hell. If it's something completely different than consciousness as we know it, then we have no basis to judge its benefits. "I can't wait to experience the joys of something that is completely unlike joy as I know it! Hooray!"
UNCONSCIOUS ETERNITY: AKA "The Ultimate Snooze Button."
This one is interesting because... we've already done this one. All those trillions of years that the universe existed before the earth was made? Yeah, that's what unconscious eternity feels like. I mean, it's not like you were sitting around bored out of your mind waiting to be born. You were totally okay with it. Now, imagine that you die but some part of you lives on, maybe "with God" or in some type of "soul sleep" setup, but you're not conscious of anything. Honestly, it doesn't matter if you're unconscious for a minute or for 28 universe lifetimes; unconscious existence is all the same to you. Your atoms and/or soul-stuff are free to float about deep space or the tenth-dimensional soccer field as long as necessary. Maybe you'll get a new skin suit, maybe you won't.
So, while there's not a huge downside to unconscious eternity, there's not really any difference between this idea and simply dying. If you're not conscious, you're pretty much dead. If you're not dead, it's still (like conscious eternity) a way of living that's so unlike human life that it's not anything to "look forward to."
REINCARNATION: AKA "Your ex really could be Hitler."
I think this is the most intriguing perspective on living forever, because in a way you get three-in-one. If you perpetually reincarnate, you may indeed be more or less "stuck" in a loop of death and rebirth "forever." The difference would be that instead of existing on a linear timeline, you'd be existing in a circular one. For example, you could possibly be stuck in a loop that is primarily happening during the 18th century over and over and over, but it could go on and on seemingly forever if you reincarnate into a new 18th century human (or insect, or blade of grass, or American Flag) each time. That hundred years might resemble 13 billion before you're done with it.
What is very interesting about reincarnation is that you don't remember your previous lives. In that way, it is no different than living once and dying once. (Wait, maybe atheists are just pissed off Buddhists?) And if there is even one second between your multiple lives, that one second was most-likely an unconscious second. So, you might as well have never existed at all before your new (and hopefully improved) upcoming life since you'd have no recollection of that second you didn't exist.
And when you do reincarnate, are you really you anymore? If you are Jim in this life and Pam in the next (ponder that one, fans of NBC's The Office), then is it really you at all? Maybe we're all the same person, or the same universal consciousness making the rounds to everyone (kinda like Quantum Leap, perhaps?)
So why would you want to live a reboot-style life forever? Do you really want be the main character in Bill Murray's Groundhog Day, without the benefit of the information learned from yesterday? I mean, isn't the whole purpose of reincarnation to break the cycle of suffering and death, i.e. TO FINALLY DIE AND JUST STAY DEAD?
I don't know if there is an afterlife, or what it would look like. I don't. But I do believe in Heaven.
I honestly think humans gets so hung up on living forever because we feel like we don't have enough time. We think that one lifetime just isn't enough. We cling to the idea of eternity because it feels secure. I've had that same feeling multiple times during this finite life though. Have you ever felt the embrace of a loved one who kindly whispered to you, "You're safe now" or "You don't have to be afraid ever again"? In that moment you didn't need reassurance that trillions of years would pass without a moment of discomfort. We can experience the miracle of that moment in the temporal way it was meant to be felt, eternity or not. I think many of us equate Heaven with such a feeling, like a hug that's waiting for us on the other side to say that everything will be okay, the pain is over, you're safe now. Who wouldn't want that?
I don't ridicule the idea of Heaven in general, or think those who seek it are merely small people looking for a way to cope with the fear of death. I do, however, believe that Heaven isn't cheap. It goes much further than the superficial themes of pleasure and reward. Heaven is when you carry your kid on your shoulders after a sports game on the way back to your car. Heaven is when you walk across the stage to take your diploma from the president of the university. Heaven is emerging from poverty, or lowering ladders for others to climb out. It is a baby's laughter, a negative cancer screening, or marriage vows renewed.
No, I do not believe what we seek is life eternal. We simply want to leave here on our terms, when we are good and ready. Are you ready to die? It's okay if you're not. Just stop waiting for Heaven.
It's been waiting forever for you.
Brett Gallaher is founder of weoccupyjesus.org, pretty much the best blog like ever. He resides in Chattanooga, Tennessee, the place they wrote that train song about. Once he shot a squirrel, but he felt really bad about it afterwards. Brett dreams of a world where atheists, theists, and everyone in between can unite under common goals and principles to make the world a better place. When he's not changing the world, Brett also enjoys paying way too much for coffee. If you would like to join Brett's peaceful revolution, follow him to facebook.com/weoccupyjesus.