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Chapter Two: Problems with God

Section 10: Eternal life

Eternal life is neither desirable nor possible. A compassionate God would grant us eternal death rather than than force us to endure eternal life.

A Soul Brought to Heaven by William-Adolphe Bouguereau

Religion offers us two choices when it comes to life-after-death. Buddhism and Hinduism say that you reincarnate many times on this earth until your soul becomes so pure that it either dissipates into nothingness or becomes one with the Divine. Judaism-Christianity-Islam (J-C-I) says that you only get once chance to prove yourself and then it's paradise or hell for eternity.

There are several issues here: the probability of reincarnation and of eternal life, and the desirability of both options. Let's look at them in turn.

Here we go again?

New Age bookshops are awash with titles that "prove" reincarnation - the idea that our soul that returns to earth again and again. The Dalai Lama and other Tibetan Buddhist leaders are chosen because as children they "recognise" artefacts from their previous lives.

Reincarnation implies that all living creatures have souls and each of our incarnations moves up or down the scale of development - from lowly insects to saintly humans - depending on our actions in our previous lives. Souls come from the Divine and eventually return to it. At the end of creation / time when the last soul becomes one with God, God himself dissolves. That moment may be billions of years in the future, but it will come. In Buddhist / Hindu theology, there is no eternity.

Despite the claims of believers, there is no evidence of reincarnation, only anecdote and hearsay. The Buddhist / Hindu claim to truth is no greater than that of Judaism-Christianity-Islam, although it is, as we will see below, a more benevolent and human-friendly version.

Life after death?

Let's make it short and simple. There is no evidence of any kind of life after death. Assertions in scripture are only assertions.

Problems with God

Chapter One showed us that if there is a God, we cannot be certain about his nature. So let's look at the question from another perspective: Is there a form of god that can exist?

We start by looking at the god described in the Bible and Quran; does the information there support or reject the idea of God? Then we look at general concepts of God and see if they make sense.

2.1: In the Bible
Do inconsistencies in the Bible make it irrelevant?

2.2: The Jesus myth
Biblical evidence suggests that the Son of God never lived

2.3: Other scriptures
What do other scriptures tell us about God?

2.4: Forgotten tongues
Why can God not speak modern languages?

2.5: Male order
God's fondness for men

2.6: Compassion and bloodlust
God claims to be compassionate but frequently causes pain and death

2.7: Disease and disaster
Why do they happen?

2.8: Omniscience and free will
One or the other, not both

2.09: Miracles and prayer
How does God make his presence known?

2.10: Eternal life
Do we really want to live forever?

2.11: Alien beliefs
Do they know God on Betelgeuse?

2.12: Summary

Finished this chapter? Move on to

Chapter 3
God the creator?

God does not have to be the creator of the universe; in some religions the world comes first and then the gods apprear.

In Judaism, Christianity and Islam, however, God is the creator of the universe. How does he do it?

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The claims of mediums and psychics are provable lies. Near-Death Experiences have been shown to be explicable events with no connection to an afterlife or the supernatural.

Those facts in themselves are not proof that our mental identity does not survive our physical death - although they are a pretty strong indication. But what does logic tell us about the possibility of eternal life in the Judaic-Christian-Muslim sense?

Can we - and do we want to - live forever?

Belief in God promises life after death. As conscious beings we are fully aware that we will die, and as conscious beings we are, not surprisingly, reluctant to do so. Faced with the prospect of our individual extinction, most of us who are healthy, active and free would prefer to live as long as possible.

But long life is very different from eternal life - and the more closely we examine the possibility of living forever, the less attractive the idea becomes. That's not a surprising take on Hell (for a view of Jewish, Christian and Muslim visions of Hell see Hot and bothered) but would Heaven be any different?

Because nobody has ever been there and returned, we have no idea of what Heaven is like. The simplest scenario is that the Saved have nothing to do but flap their angelic wings and praise God. For active, intelligent people that prospect is disheartening, since it suggests that even the brightest of minds will be reduced to nothing more than bland membership of a vast chorus that spends eternity massaging the ego of the being that created them.

Muslim martyrs have a more attractive option – virgins.* Authorities disagree on how many are awarded, but 72 per fallen hero is the usual number quoted. Unfortunately, the offer does not extend to women, homosexual men or heterosexual men who die in their beds.

If the celestial virgins retained their maidenhood throughout eternity, Heaven would be full of extremely frustrated young men. But five hundred years ago the Quranic scholar Al-Suyuti reassured the faithful that the women’s maidenhoods would be restored before each sexual act and that the martyrs’ ability to deflower their companions would never weaken.

This scenario - Heaven as an orgy where young girls happily and unceasingly give themselves to men of dubious background - suggests that God has little respect for the human intellect. Ultimately, unending sexual activity is likely to be as mind-numbing as the never-ending harp recitals that Christians can look forward to.

So let us use our minds before they wither in eternity and explore the idea of Heaven a little further. How old will we be in the afterlife - not our physical but our mental age? If it is the age at which we die, young children will always remain immature. Or are we all reborn in the afterlife the same indefinite age, so that bereaved parents who expect to meet stillborn infants find themselves confronted with adults that they never knew?

We'll come back to the age question later. In the meantime, what happens after the family reunion? No matter how much we love our relatives, we are unlikely to want to spend eternity with them. Do we get time off? Where do we go? Is there a Heavenly version of Disneyland or the Smithsonian?

And what about the pleasures in Heaven? They are likely to be very different from those on Earth, but the basic principle remains that pleasure depends partly on novelty. We may love a symphony when we first hear it, but that emotion disappears when we hear it for the billionth time - and over eternity even a trillion symphonies played a trillion times would become irritating. Paradise will only be paradise if it never ceases to present its inhabitants with new pleasures, however etherial they might be.

These points - our age in the afterlife and the pleasures that await us - may sound trite but they express a serious desire to understand the concept of heaven. When you strip away, you discover a fundamental problem: the interdependence of time, consciousness and change.

Whether in this life or the next, consciousness cannot exist without change - either within or outside itself - and change cannot exist without time. Put simply, if there is no time, there is no change - and if there is no change, there is no consciousness.

That means that if time does not exist in God's eternity, then change cannot exist - and if change cannot exist, neither can we. Alternately, if time goes on forever in God's eternity, our consciousness will forever experience change.

Do we want that to happen? Young people want to live forever because everything is new and exciting. Old people eventually tire of life because they have seen it all before. Sure, seventy years or so is far too short for most of us - we still have many things to do, people to meet and places to see before we die - but no matter how long we live, there comes a time in our lives or consciousness when we long for oblivion.

Other interpretations

Buddhism and Hinduism recognise we do not want eternal life. At the end of all our reincarnations, they offer the human race the final blessing of eternal death. In contrast, Judaism, Christianity and Islam (J-C-I) promise eternity and fail to tell us that eternity is always hell even if its name is Heaven. The God who forces our consciousness to live when it longs to die is - as we have seen before - the god who lacks compassion.

There are other theories. Some say that after death our consciousnesses are transformed into beings that are closer to God than our historical selves. But if that is the case, our personalities will inevitably fade and become irrelevant - and if our personalities are irrelevant, then so is the question of heaven and hell. We can only suffer the torments of hell if we know who we are and why we are suffering.

We can combine the two approaches by saying that if we are good, we lose our personalities and become absorbed into God; if we are bad, we keep our personalities and are thrown into eternal hell. Again, if this is our future, it says little for God's compassion.

Indeed, the more we compare the Hindu-Buddhist and J-C-I concepts of the afterlife, the more attractive reincarnation becomes. Reincarnation allows us to make the most serious mistakes in our lives, because we get a chance to redeem ourselves in one or more future lives. You can die a murderer or an atheist today and still one day become one with the Divine. There is always hope, even for the slowest learner and worst sinner. The J-C-I God, however, is much less forgiving or generous - screw up this one life and you are doomed to torment for ever.

Eternity is meaningless

These questions and many more not raised on this page point out the difficulties confronting anyone who tries to make sense of the idea of an afterlife. The fact is, there is no evidence whatsoever that our personality survives our physical death, not even for five minutes, far less for eternity. That means that the idea of eternal consciousness is no more than an abstract notion for philosophers and theologians to play with. It is meaningless and irrelevant to the reality in which we live.

At the end of the day (in every sense of the phrase) eternal life is neither desirable nor possible. Besides, a compassionate God would grant us eternal death rather force us to endure eternal life.

* At least one scholar has suggested that the Almighty offers martyrs raisins, not virgins, in the afterlife.

"I would love to believe that when I die I will live again, that some thinking, feeling part of me will continue. But as much as I want to believe that, and despite the ancient and worldwide cultural traditions that assert an afterlife, I know of nothing to suggest that it is more than wishful thinking."
Carl Sagan (1934 - 1996), US astronomer; from The Demon-Haunted World (1996)

Chapter Two: Section 11
Alien beliefs

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If God existed, he would...

admire the beauty of a universe that he did not create

recognize that eternity is meaningless

deny both heaven and hell

disown all men and women who speak in his name

denounce the harm caused by religious "morality"

help the human race to thrive without him

If God existed, he would be an atheist.

What is the difference between science and faith?

science is certain of nothing and requires proof of everything

faith is certain of everything and requires proof of nothing

Which do you trust?

"I know there is no God"
"I believe there is no God"

Check the answer

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