The Boredom of Eternity

Today's Speed Bump cartoon pinpoints an important issue with the notion of an afterlife in which people exist forever more in much the same sort of existence as human beings experience now, with personalities and experience of passing time. It is not just the stereotype of sitting on a cloud playing a harp that seems like it would get old fairly quickly. Any sort of existence that goes on forever is likely to result in boredom eventually. And so why do so many people at least think that such an endless existence is desirable? And for those who find the notion problematic, what alternatives do you adopt, if any?


  • arcseconds

    I’m not sure I understand this ‘what alternatives do you adopt’ question.

    We have an option as to whether or not we’ll live forever?

    There’s alternatives besides living forever and not living forever?

    (I know! I’ll live for a quarter of forever, and see how I go!)

    • James F. McGrath

      By all means try it and see, if you can! :-)

      But I meant alternative ways of thinking about these matters. Some take the view either that there is a divinity that remembers all things, and that is a form of eternal existence. Others might say that the universe itself always exists and all moments of it always persist from a perspective outside four-dimensional spacetime, and so we are all eternal. And some would say that we are temporal and transient and that that very transience is what makes the moments that make up our lives valuable. Those are just some of the different ways of thinking people have about whether there is any sort of afterlife or eternity, and if so what form it takes.

  • PrickliestPear

    “[W]hy do so many people at least think that such an endless existence is desirable?”

    My guess is they haven’t really thought about it. If I was in “heaven” as it is commonly conceived, I would want to get out for a bit, maybe temporarily forget my past and go back and live as someone else.

  • Bob MacDonald

    For ever is a concept that needs rethinking due to the dependency of time on the speed of light. So – the spirit returns to God (Ecclesiastes) and if God is light, then the spirit of the human is living in such light – so there is no passage of time. All time is present to light (or glory if one needs to borrow from the 24 dimensions of string theory. Similarly in the present – a moment that endures for ever, even a memory, has a characteristic of the eternal. Psalm 23 for instance ends with in the house of יהוה for length of days, not for ever – in fact all the Hebrew words for time need to be re considered in the light of Jesus statement about Abraham wanting to see his `day`and he saw it and was glad.

    Time and the passage of time is much trickier than we think (or not). But the presence (=present) of the Holy One is a different matter. To live in God is a very desirable issue – e.g. Psalm 27: One thing I have asked from יהוה that thing I will seek that I may sit in the house of יהוה all the days of my life to gaze on the pleasantness of יהוה and to reflect in his temple.

  • Thomas Larsen

    // Any sort of existence that goes on forever is likely to result in boredom eventually. //


    • James F. McGrath

      It seems to be in the nature of infinity. Unless one exists in a very different form than human beings do now – I mean so different that it would be hard to make the case that one is dealing with persons of the same sort, and thus with the same persons – then the repeating of any acts and experiences an infinite number of times would seem destined to result in tedium.

      • arcseconds

        Well, that’s assuming we remember repeating them.

        I mean, even in our not terribly long lives we already forget quite a bit. If you learned a foreign language at school and don’t use it again, you can quite easily relearn it almost as though it was a new thing. Most of us forget movies enough so that rewatching them can almost be like watching them for the first time (or even exactly like it!). It can be hard remembering the kind of person one was when one was 18.

        Endless existence might be a bit like this, except more so. One might regard distant periods of one’s past not unlike the way we currently regard written records of, say, our great-grandparents or, in some cases, our close-knit community: something we have a strong connection to, and something that resonates with us (because the story has been with us all our lives), but not something that seems like it really happened to us personally.

        One could imagine such a person saying “well, apparently I was really into golf a thousand years ago, and I got quite good at it. I found some records saying I was on par, and a ‘blog post saying I played at St. Andrew’s. I am getting a little bored of billiards, but still feel like hitting balls into holes for a while longer — time to take up golf!”

        • James F. McGrath

          That’s a delightful way of thinking – constantly forgetting and rediscovering for eternity actually sounds kind of appealing!

          • arcseconds

            Of course, just as with many notions of the afterlife, it does make one ask questions about what the criteria of personal identity is here. If a future ‘me’ has long forgotten everything that happened in the century I find myself in, and if my activities have no more effect on future me than my ancestors’ activities have had on me, then is it really current me that lives forever?

            • James F. McGrath

              An excellent question! It would seem that the only two options are that one continues to forget – and so there is a lack of continuity with one’s present self, however much the future “you” is on a trajectory resulting from the present you; or one never forgets, which would likewise be a sort of existence radically discontinuous with what we now experience.

              • arcseconds

                Even in the case of remembering everything, we could still doubt as to the continued identity of current me in future me on the basis of the content of memory alone. After ten thousand years, less than 1% of future me’s experiences will be current me’s experiences.

                But I was really referring to other things than memory that should give us serious pause as to whether our future state will really be us. The notion of naked souls in direct communion with God (possibly also enjoying God’s timeless and eternal existence) is a common enough notion, but that seems so unimaginable and so unlike my current existence (and so lacking in the sorts of things that we normally use to tie down personal identity, for example bodily continuity). The transhumanist offering — having a brain-scan uploaded to a sci-fi supercomputer — doesn’t seem much better.

                Being reincarnated as a human being — well, at least I can identify with that, but again it’s very unclear what relationship another incarnation has to me. Even taking, say, Buddhists at their word, they remember little, if anything, from their previous lives (and beyond memory, they don’t retain skills. There are normally stories of certain attitudes being retained, but again there’s not much to hang your hat on here). It’s even more baffling on a theoretical front if you keep in mind that Buddhist theory insists that there’s actually not much keeping me together moment to moment anyway (and they may well be right about that).

  • Paul D.

    It seems to me that unless you have a brain that has infinite memory capacity, immortality must mean that you eventually forget everything that has ever happened to you, since every event you experience will eventually be in the infinite past with an infinite amount of time and events that have occurred since then.

    It should be telling that most of the time, when science fiction explores the possibility of immortality, the conclusion is that having one’s existence end is preferable.

    • James F. McGrath

      There’s going to be a wonderful chapter exploring this in connection with Doctor Who in the book on religion and Doctor Who that I’m co-editing. I wish it was already out so that I could quote it in connection with this conversation!

  • noamork

    For the popular conception of heaven to work, it would have to be something like the Nexus in Star Trek Generations. One would have to think one had just arrived there moments or hours ago. In other words it would have to be a form of delusion or bewitchment made to keep the subject fat, dumb, and happy. There are worse things I suppose, but hardly worthy of he than whom nothing greater can exist. If I read the Bible correctly, however, Chris Hitchens was probably right about it being an eternal North Korea. Is anyone familiar with Revelation 4:10? Does anyone seriously want to spend eternity trying to get Jesus to take your crown back? Dreary, dreary. Wouldn’t Jesus himself, after four or five eons of this just say, “You know what? Keep your stinkin’ crowns and leave me alone!”

  • susanburns

    YHWH, I am that I am, is a state of being. A state of “being” does not have a beginning and does not change. Without change, there is no time and, therefore, no concept of “endless”.