Immortality Will Be…Boring?

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It is astonishing, and depressing, to encounter again the blithe arrogance of certain members of my class: the highly educated pundits who assume that all right-thinking people agree with them.

In a recent article in the very interesting journal Aeon, Paul Sagar, a junior professor (“lecturer” in British terms) at the estimable King’s College, London, confesses that he finds the whole idea of immortality to be…dull. Moreover, he asserts that the infinite extension of life would invalidate the meaning we attach to each element of life.

Here’s how he makes these disconcerting claims. First, “because death is a fixed fact, everything that human beings value makes sense only in light of our time being finite, our choices being limited, and our each getting only so many goes before it’s all over.”

His main argument is the second one, however, that immortality would be dull. How interesting could life possibly be if you had to do the same thing over and over for 300 years, let alone 300 more, and 300 more, world without end?

Finally, in a kind of horrific flourish, he asks about life spent in constant, incremental decay. How horrible would that be, becoming more zombie-like every day?

C. S. Lewis famously upbraided us for our attitude toward this world and the next. Our problem, he said, is not that our desires are too extravagant, but that they are too small. And the argumentation to justify those desires apparently can be puny, too.

Let’s take the three arguments in order. First, life has value only because it ends. But is that so? Why is help someone gives to me today—with my homework, with my flat tire, with my heart attack—somehow rendered meaningless because there will be more kindnesses to follow, even many kindnesses to follow? Why is any act of loyalty, courage, forbearance, affection, admiration, thrift, or generosity rendered less meaningful by the idea that there will be many more such acts to come?

More concretely, why is tonight’s excellent dinner somehow rendered less excellent by the prospect of excellent dinners in the future, even countless excellent dinners? The art of the cuisine, the taste of the food, the sparkle of the wine in the candlelight, the beauty of the décor, the graciousness of the hospitality, the wit of the conversation—how is any of that diminished by the anticipation of tomorrow night’s or next week’s party?

The “dullness” argument connects with the “decrepitude” argument in that no one, of course, longs for an eternal life working on an assembly line or watching one’s body slowly disintegrate. That is what precisely no one means by longing for the fountain of, yes, youth.

What we want, universally, is the vigour and the freshness and the appetites and the abilities of youth, on and on. We want the curiosity about new places and skills and experiences and people to go on and on. We want to explore and learn and contribute and marvel and to love and be loved–forever.

Interestingly, all of this is exactly what the Bible promises in the life to come. The Christian vision is not of a boring, repetitive church service conducted on puffy clouds accompanied by harps, but of a gigantic, gorgeous city, brimming with light and fruit and water and wealth and cultural diversity and religious harmony. (Check it out: the last two chapters of the Bible. Yes, most of it is figurative, but wonder at what it might figure!)

It is sheer lack of imagination that makes such a writer disparage immortality. What if, instead of diminishing, we get only stronger and better? My favourite living poet, Luci Shaw, is about to release a new book and recently she wondered among friends whether she is writing some of the best work of her long and beautifully fruitful career. That’s what a Christian should wonder—and even expect.

Sadly, Dr Sagar’s vision is confined to the gray prison of secularist dogma: “Immortality is, obviously enough, an impossible fantasy—hence it cannot be a genuine solution to the unfortunate yet elemental facts of the human condition, nor an answer to the fraught complexities surrounding euthanasia as regards both social policy and moral judgment.”

It’s the “obviously enough” that is even more pathetically telling than the categorization of immortality as “an impossible fantasy.” Without even attempting an argument, but merely appealing to the supposed common sense of his bien-pensant readers, he waves away the belief of the majority of people around the world who do, in fact, anticipate a life to come.

That life won’t be merely a sad extension of the worst of this life, but an amplification of the best. All the time, and all the health, and all the good company, and all the resources requisite to full human flourishing, and the flourishing of the whole planet–learning new languages, and visiting new places, and establishing new initiatives, and seeing the maturation of all these worthy projects, while finally getting enough time to visit with all our friends and family members–

That sounds awfully good to me.

Obviously.

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John G. Stackhouse, Jr., PhD, serves as the Samuel J. Mikolaski Professor of Religious Studies at Crandall University in Moncton, New Brunswick. A graduate of Queen’s University, Wheaton Graduate School, and the University of Chicago, he was formerly Professor of Religion at the University of Manitoba and held the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Chair of Theology and Culture at Regent College, Vancouver. He has given interviews to ABC, NBC, CBC, CTV, and Global TV as well as to CBC Radio from coast to coast. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Times Literary Supplement, The Globe and Mail, the National Post, The Atlantic, Time, and Maclean’s. Author of over 800 articles, book chapters, and reviews, his tenth book has been released this year: “Why You’re Here: Ethics for the Real World” (Oxford University Press).