Living forever is not necessarily meaningful

Posted on 05/03/13 7 Comments

I have addressed the link between meaning and immortality in the past here and here. In this essay I’m going to explain briefly why immortality does not, in itself, convey meaning.

Consider the following scenario. There is no God and the blind, purposeless process of evolution gives rise to a kind of creature called Homo sapiens. It turns out that when Homo sapiens reaches a particular stage of functional complexity, gives rise to a strange substance called an immortal soul that is the seat of the individual’s conscious agency. After the demise of the body the immortal soul goes on existing. And in ten trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion years when all the stars have burnt out and the universe has all but succumbed to the heat death of the universe, there all those souls will remain … existing.

Now consider a second scenario. There is a God who used evolution to create a kind of creature called Homo sapiens which, it turns out, is a biological organism which, when it reaches a particular stage of functional complexity, becomes a moral agent that is called to live in accord with the objective transcendental Good and so to cultivate acts of righteousness and mercy and love. After a period of time each of these creatures will succumb to their created mortality and lapse back into nothingness.

If we are to choose which of these two scenarios is more likely to offer a transformative sense of meaning for individual lives, it quite clearly is not the life that simply goes on forever and ever.

  • Steve Gascon

    Great to see you tweeting again!

    I agree that living forever is not a particularly attractive prospect, and by all measures my life has been very good. I would expect that everlasting life would seem to be a to true for those with horrific and difficult lives.

    An apologetic that only promises eternal life with no mention of redemption or restoration is a poor apologetic.

  • David

    I can definitely understand how the first scenario does not offer meaning, but I’m having a hard time understanding how the second scenario could offer meaning given that the end result is nothing. If the acts of righteousness, mercy, and love do not cause an effect that continues into eternity, are they really meaningful? Your post reminds me of a conversation I had with a friend once. He said “Even if there was no afterlife, I would still follow God.” I disagreed. Although acts of kindness can be enjoyable in themselves, I personally could not find enjoyment in a suffering, self-sacrificing life if in the end I knew I would not exist.

    • Randal Rauser

      Hmm, I’m surprised you don’t concur with my intuitions about the case. In scenario 2 God creates agents with the intention that those agents will actualize a certain number of goods in a finite span of time. I don’t see why that wouldn’t be intrinsically meaningful.

      How about this. Let’s say God foreordained for human beings to exist actualizing these goods for 100 billion years after which they would cease to exist. Would you still take the view that a life of 100 billion years actualizing goods and furthering the kingdom of God was not intrinsically meaningful?

      • David

        I think I can better understand what you are getting at. An action does not need to have an eternal effect to be meaningful. Even in our worldview that includes eternal life, it is unreasonable to expect that every act of kindness has an eternal effect. Perhaps the more important factor in determining whether an action is intrinsically meaningful is the existence of a transcendent objective standard by which to determine whether the action is meaningful. Given the existence of such a standard, an action with an effect of finite duration would have meaning as determined by the standard, not the duration?

      • ngotts

        The whole idea of something being “intrinsically meaningful” is nonsense. Meaning is necessarily meaning to some agent, just as a sensation is necessarily the sensation of some agent.

        • Randal Rauser

          “Intrinsically meaningful” is a description of objective value and prioritization. It refers to objective value because it identifies human persons as having value whether or not human persons recognizing themselves or others as having that value. It is prioritization because there are superior and inferior ways to actualize the ends for which we were created.

          You are right in the sense that such a picture is nonsense for an atheist, but then so much the worse for atheism.

  • Kip

    The first scenario strikes me as appealing to someone who thinks fundamentally in quantitative terms, which modern Westerners have a habit of doing. As Tillich said years ago, the American take on eternal life isn’t eternal life so much as the perpetual postponement of death. As such, it doesn’t take death seriously and therefore has little to do with the Gospel.

    The second scenario recognizes the importance of qualitative distinctions, which is a prerequisite of making sense of “intrinsic meaning.” It is refreshing to me to see an evangelical admit there might be a reason to be a Christian apart from self-preservation.