Many times I’ve heard theists who accept the doctrine of human immortality talk about the fact that human life is meaningful because it continues forever. Thus, they’ll say things like this ditty from Maximus (Russell Crowe in “Gladiator”):
“Brothers, what we do in life echoes in eternity.”
And then there is this classic observation from C.S. Lewis:
“There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.” (The Weight of Glory, 46)
On this view even the most mundane moments in the present life are significant because they have repercussions that continue into eternity (Maximus) and they are the experiences of gloriously and terribly immortal creatures (Lewis).
At the same time, I’ve often heard atheists who deny the doctrine of human immortality talk about the fact that human life is meaningful because it does not continue forever. Thus, we have Paula Kirby who writes:
Why should we not find satisfaction in alleviating suffering or injustice, just because we’re all going to die one day? The very fact that this life is all we have makes it even more important to do everything possible to reduce the suffering caused by poverty, disease, injustice and ignorance. (emphasis added)
Kirby’s take on social justice in a finite life is complemented by the Epicurean strand which applies the same rationale to the partaking of the good things of life. The taste of freshly ground coffee, the beauty of childhood, the dazzling color and aroma of a freshly cut rose, all these are the more precious precisely because they do not continue forever. Each is touched by the intoxicating pathos of time:
Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, old time is still a-flying
And this same flower that smiles to-day, tomorrow will be dying
So who is right? Is the theist right that life is meaningful because it lasts forever? Or is the atheist right that it is meaningful because it doesn’t?