I just received word yesterday that my book on heaven will be published by Baker in the fall of 2013. In honor of that good news I thought I’d focus for a couple days on some philosophical topics with respect to heaven. But where to begin? We read in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
“The primary topics in thought about heaven concern whether true happiness or blessedness is possible for those in heaven (perhaps one’s memories never fade sufficiently to allow perfect blessedness, or perhaps the suffering of the damned in hell prevents such bliss, or perhaps no matter what heaven is like, it will become tedious or boring at some point), why faith or belief in God is a prerequisite for presence in heaven, and whether it is possible to leave heaven once one is there.”
While there are several good topics of discussion in that paragraph, I’ve already talked about most of them. But I have never discussed the tedium charge and thus that will occupy our attention today. So what exactly is the argument? Let me offer the following attempted reconstruction:
(1) If anybody goes to heaven forever then they will forever live in maximal happiness.
(2) Anybody who lived forever would eventually experience tedium.
(3) Nobody can be maximally happy when they experience tedium.
(4) Therefore, nobody can live forever in maximal happiness.
(5) Therefore, nobody can live forever in heaven.
Technically this argument would allow for a heaven where people enjoy themselves for awhile. But a heaven which is eventually emptied of maximally happy people is, for all intents and purposes, no heaven at all. So that’s the problem. Clearly the weight of this argument rests on the second premise. What reason is there to think that living forever will always become tedious?
Later in the Stanford Encyclopedia article (written by Jonathan Kvanvig) we read:
“the problem of tedium is hard to find compelling, even though it is equally hard to find a compelling response to it. Perhaps it is a failure of imagination that leads to the problem, but if it is, the same failure of imagination will prevent us from finding a convincing reply to the difficulty.”
While I agree with Kvanvig that the tedium argument is not very compelling, I disagree with the suggestion that it is hard to find a convincing response. On the contrary, I see no reason to accept (2) and good reasons to doubt it.
Unimaginably good and wonderful things
Let’s start with a good biblical response, one already anticipated by Kvanvig. As Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 2:9: “‘no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived’— the things God has prepared for those who love him”.
At this point it would be appropriate to insert C.S. Lewis’ famous quote about the child who turns down a vacation by the sea to remain in the slum making mud pies because he cannot imagine what he’s missing. We are like that child. His worry over whether a weekend of sun, sand and surf could occupy his attention is equivalent to our worry that an infinite being could occupy us, finite creatures that we are, for an eternity. Any worry about a boring heaven is rooted in a complete lack of imagination.
Think about it like this. Imagine that you’d have to spend the rest of your life eating all your meals at the same restaurant. That might be an enticing prospect for the first few days as you worked your way through the menu. But soon enough you’d be downright sick of the food and dreading the next meal.
“If I never eat another meatloaf in my life it’ll be too soon. Burp.“
Based on that kind of thinking people then reason that eating in the same joint for eternity would obviously be infinitely worse than eating there merely for a lifetime.
“Meatloaf again? Are you kiddin’ me? That’s the 564,342,234th time!”
“Well get used to it buddy. You have an infinite number of meals of meatloaf waiting for you in the kitchen! Bwahahaha!”
This is all wrong, and consequently this is where we say “what no tongue has tasted, a buffet of such diverse range and delicious quality that no human mind has conceived“. Don’t think of eating at any mere restaurant for eternity, but rather one with an unimaginably large menu of the most incredible gourmet meals. Surely that is a might engaging prospect. So much for premise (2).
The delight of experiencing good things over and over and over
We could end things there, but I’d like to say a bit more by pointing out that an eternity of experiencing the same things is actually quite appealing in itself, so long as they’re the right things spaced at the right intervals. Let me explain.
I begin by reflecting that (almost) every morning for the last three years I’ve enjoyed a cup of coffee in the cool, dull light in the morning ground from the same oily black fair trade French roast beans. I have not gotten sick of that same morning cup of coffee. On the contrary, the acidic familiarity of the beverage is a particular comfort. So I’ve had the same cup of coffee every morning for the last thousand mornings, and it isn’t tedious at all. Why would I think that ten thousand mornings would suddenly get tedious? What about a hundred thousand mornings?
To be sure, after I finish the cup I’m good caffeine-wise until the late afternoon. I don’t want any more coffee for awhile. But without fail by the next morning I am ready for another steaming beverage. So why wouldn’t that continue for a hundred thousand mornings? Why couldn’t it in principle continue forever? The idea of drinking a cup of coffee every morning forever doesn’t strike me as tedious at all. On the contrary, it sounds like a great way to begin my day.
Or think about the change of seasons. Autumn comes early on the Canadian prairies. Even now as I look out the window the blue sky looks a bit paler, the leaves of the Swedish aspens have begun to turn yellow, I can hear the Canadian geese honking overhead in their search for warmer climes, and in a few weeks we’ll be getting hard frosts most mornings. Setting aside my antipathy for the extremes of a prairie winter, there is nonetheless something deliciously magical about the annual change of the seasons, and I’d dearly miss it if I lived in the tropics.
Here too I find myself thinking that an eternity of the seasons cycling doesn’t sound bad at all. Indeed, it sounds rather pleasant. I see no reason to think I’d ever become sick of the change of seasons because every time the seasons change I embrace the same familiar experiences with vigor and anticipation. The right things experienced again at the right intervals.
To sum up, our response to the tedium charge is twofold.
To begin with, heaven may promise untold riches of new experience that will forever keep tedium at bay. But what is more, the natural cycles of experience, like the morning coffee and change of seasons, will be perfectly timed so that whenever it is time for another coffee or season, that is precisely the time we are ready to drink that coffee or welcome that season.
And so there is no reason to accept (2) and thus no reason to worry that a heaven never ending would be anything but never ending heaven.