Who wants to live forever? Christians should!

The assumption is made probably by the great majority of people that everlasting life is hugely desirable, whether that means never dying, or dying but somehow continuing to exist in an afterlife. People certainly work hard to extend their lives through such things as taking exercise, eating well, and seeking medical treatment. Those diagnosed as terminally ill seek to prolong the life they still have through disease-slowing treatments. It is reasonable to assume that if we were given the chance to live on forever, most of us would take it. Philip Larkin in his great poem Aubade reveals why. From his physicalist perspective, death is the anesthetic from which none emerge. Death is a loss of consciousness and therefore the loss of the joys of sensory perception and the reciprocity of love.[1] Living forever means that these joys can go on unendingly. Those who commit suicide do not do so necessarily to extinguish themselves personally. For those among suicides who believe in an afterlife, their suicide is the means to leaving a life of insupportable pain and meaninglessness and entering an afterlife of healing and purpose forevermore. But is everlasting life really what we ought to want? And what do we mean by everlasting life?

 

The answer to the second question is easier than the first. By everlasting life, we do not mean eternal life. To exist eternally is to exist outside of time. To live everlastingly is to live forever in time, experiencing the passage of moments in a potential infinity. Answering the second question is our present focus and it is a pressing question for Christians as the Bible assumes it is desirable for it is promised to those who believe in Jesus (John 3:16).   

 

The question of whether living forever is desirable is demonstrated dramatically by the opera The Makropulos Case by Leos Janáček. The central character, an opera singer called Emilia, is provided with an elixir by her father which extends her life if she keeps taking it. Emilia does this and ends up living three hundred years, though part of the effect of the elixir is that she retains her youthful appearance. She remains in the prime of life and therefore is best able to enjoy life. However, Emilia increasingly finds life intolerably dull. Singing and celebrity now bore her completely. All what she takes joy in has become tedious. There is nothing more she wants to achieve. Eventually, she chooses not to take the elixir and dies.

 

On the other hand, there is the view of the philosopher Miguel de Unamuno who preferred any kind of unending life, even if that life were spent in hell, because there is nothing more horrific than extinction.[2] No doubt Unamuno would have continued to take the elixir that Emilia ceased drinking, but there is no guarantee that even he would not have changed his mind eventually.    

 

According to Mark Twain, Christians are faced with the same predicament as Emilia. Eventually singing God’s praises and waving palm branches will become tedious, he says, even if being in God’s presence was great at first. Heaven becomes hellish sooner or later. To answer Twain’s satirical skepticism, we need to assert that by definition, the Christian’s afterlife will not be boring, but rather extremely desirable, and to delineate as best we can from our understanding of God’s nature and the afterlife how this might be.

 

The Bible calls the place where Christians will live forever the New Jerusalem. It is a perfect environment which means that there will be no suffering (Revelation 21). It is not logically impossible that God could create such an environment. Being bored is a type of suffering. It causes mental pain and can lead to some people doing self-destructive things such as seeking excitement in risky ways such as illegal drug-use. Therefore, everlasting life in God’s presence cannot by definition be boring. How might God create such a ceaselessly satisfying life?

 

Everlasting life in the New Jerusalem will be the opposite of boring because it is characterized by an unending relationship of perfect love with God who is love (1 John 4:16). One of the objects of everlasting life in the presence of God is to know him more and more. Peter exhorts his fellow-Christians to ‘grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ’ (2 Peter 3:18),[3] a process that happens in this life and there seems to be no reason for it not to happen in the New Jerusalem. God is infinite: as Psalm 145:3 says, ‘Great is the Lord and most worthy of praise; his greatness no one can fathom.’ Therefore, there will be no end to God’s love and the process of coming to know God as he chooses to reveal himself.

 

Not only will there be unending novelty in the Christian’s relationship with God, it is also possible that God could expand the universe so that it provides further stimulation and create additional worlds that provide alternative paradisiacal lifestyles on an unending basis. 

 

But would not endless novelty become excruciatingly dull? To avoid this, it is possible that God will provide us with a balance of novel experiences with the opportunities to enjoy regular interests and habits. Such a balance between fresh experiences and regularities would prevent boredom. However, might not such a balance also prove to be monotonous in the long run?

 

Perhaps the ultimate answer lies in how Christians will be constituted for everlasting life. To live everlastingly, Christians will be perfectly adapted for it. In 1 Corinthians 15: 51-55, Paul states that the dead whose bodies were perishable and mortal will be raised imperishable and immortal. It is possible that along with an everlasting body comes an inability to be bored, not only because God cannot by nature be boring and cannot create an everlasting city that bores, but because his people will be unable to experience it.  

 

The resurrection of dead Christians’ bodies resolves another problem with the desirability of the afterlife. If a person were to survive his/her death, s/he would exist as a non-physical entity as his/her body would be dead. However, s/he would exist as a greatly truncated being because of his/her body’s death. Although s/he would be in possession of his/her memories and would be able to think and know, s/he would no longer have sensory perceptions and would be unable to affect his/her environment as s/he would have no body with which to do so. Without a means of perceiving the world beyond his/her thoughts, s/he would not be able to extend his/her empirical knowledge. It is likely s/he would not be able to communicate with other disembodied souls, for communication is possible only between people who can speak their thoughts and/or use their bodies to communicate. S/he would exist as an enclosed mind thinking endlessly a finite stock of thoughts and memories. It is not possible to say therefore that s/he has survived but rather is a shadow or a shade of his/her former self which does not appear to be desirable at all.  

 

The resurrection of dead believers’ bodies resolves this problem. It allows the believer who has died once more to live recognizably, albeit immortally and imperishably, as the person that s/he is. For instance, s/he can enjoy again the wonders of sight such as beautiful colors and lights and others can hear his/her voice again. Immortality for the Christian is an embodied one which also raises the status of the body as an indispensable element of personhood and not something to be despised or from which to escape.

 

The problem with this line of argument is that though Christians will not live everlastingly as disembodied fragments in the afterlife, it seems that they will have to live like this, albeit temporarily, until they receive their glorified bodies. According to Scripture, Christians who die do not automatically receive their new bodies but must await their bodies’ resurrection, for Paul writes of the resurrection as a future event for those Christians who have died (1 Corinthians 15:50-53).

 

However, there may not be a problem after all. Paul writes this in Philippians 1:21-26:

 

            ‘For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, so that through my being with you again your boasting in Christ Jesus will abound on account of me.’

 

Paul clearly asserts here his preference for disembodied existence with Christ over embodied life, even a fruitful life in the body. It is hard to see how Paul would prefer disembodied existence if it meant living shade-like until Resurrection Day. Perhaps the clue lies in the expression ‘be with Christ’ who himself is embodied for he rose bodily from the dead (Matthew 28:9, 10; Mark 16:9-14; Luke 24:13-43; John 20:11-29). Somehow in his presence the soul is elevated and enhanced beyond the significant disadvantages of being disembodied.

 

Support for the notion that what survives death is not a mental fragment but has sensory type experiences potentially comes from research into near death experiences. Gary Habermas, the Christian philosopher, is well-known for his work in this field. One of his most famous and well-documented cases involved a girl called Katie who had nearly drowned. Despite being in a deep coma, dependent on an artificial lung machine to breathe and given very little chance of surviving, Katie did fortunately come back to consciousness and made a full recovery. This was surprising enough for the clinician who treated her, Melvin Morse, but what surprised him further was the information Katie relayed which she could not possibly have known whilst being almost dead. According to Katie, she was visited by an angel called Elizabeth. That part could be explained by her having a dream. However, she went on to say she visited her family at home and correctly described specific details of what was happening, such as the popular song her sister was playing, the meal that had been cooked, the clothing her family had been wearing and the positions in which they were sitting. All these details were corroborated by her family later when Katie told them what she had seen.[4] Somehow, Katie had been able to see and hear not only when she could not have seen or heard but had been able to see and hear at a distance from where her body lay. This case and others suggest that sensory perception may not be dependent upon the body.

 

We Christians should therefore not be convinced that everlasting life will be boring. Far from it. How important it is for us to bring the Gospel to those who do not believe so that they too will believe and share in that life.          

 

[1] Philip Larkin, ‘Aubade’ in Collected Poems (London and Boston: Marvell Press and Faber and Faber, 1988), pp. 208-209.

[2] Brian Davies, An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion (Oxford: OUP: 1989), pp. 130-131.

[3] All Scripture is taken from the New International Version.

[4] Gary Habermas, ‘Near Death Experiences: Evidence for an Afterlife?, https://www.namb.net/apologetics/resource/near-death-experiences-evidence-for-an-afterlife/ (accessed 5 March 2021 at 18:14).

Dr Peter Harris is the author of two books: The Rage Against the Light: Why Christopher Hitchens Was Wrong and Do You Believe It? A Guide to a Reasonable Christian Faith. He graduated with a history degree from the University of Cambridge and holds two master’s degrees and two doctorates: one from Trinity College and Seminary (USA) for a thesis in Christian philosophy and the other from De Montfort University (UK) for a thesis about the history of the First World War. He also holds a certificate in apologetics from Biola University. Peter is a freelance writer who has been published in publications such as Christianity Magazine and online for Patheos. He also is the creator of the course in the history of Christianity for Lucent University and organises apologetics conferences at his local church. At the moment he is training to be a lay preacher with the Anglican Church. He is married to Hasina and has been blessed with two children, Joel and Chloe.

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