It astonishes me that Christians can say that our finite human lifetimes don’t matter–that they are meaningless, even!–but that eternity matters infinitely. They tell whoever listens that if we are not intended to have eternal life, that nothing we really do on Earth during our lifetimes matters at all, that life is “meaningless” without the promise of Heaven behind it. I touched on this idea a long time ago with one of this blog’s most popular posts, “Captain Cassidy and the Cosmic Purpose”, but at the time I was talking more about how preposterous the idea of a divinely-granted purpose really is. Today I want to delve more deeply into the common Christian concept that a finite lifetime is less meaningful than an eternal one.
That idea is nothing but swampy horseshit, like so much else Christians say, and I’m going to show you why.
Today’s New Year’s Eve, and I’ve gotten bitten by the infectious joy I get bitten by every year at the idea of a whole new year. Think of it! 365 days that we’ll hopefully all savor, each with a fresh 24 hours to enjoy and crash through. The old year is fading away into memory; the new one is approaching.
Truly one of the scariest things about being human is that everything wonderful and good passes eventually, but one of the greatest things about it in turn is that everything awful and bad does too. Everything has to change and end and begin, so sheer persistence can win us through where nothing else does. But one of the other scary things about being human is that this idea applies to our lives as well. Each of us has a finite amount of time to spend on this planet, which ideally means that we’ll all do the best we can with the eyeblink of time we have here and make the world a slightly better place for the next generation. That’s not always how it works, but ideally, at least, that’s what I’m aiming for personally.
Speaking of which, I was thinking about this idea the other day while playing a video game online. (Stop looking at me that way. It’s a fun game and Yr. Loyal &Etc. Corr. needs her downtime.) I won’t bore y’all with details, but it was a timed quest. I had about five hours to complete a number of tasks, or I’d fail the quest. And I really wanted to succeed for various reasons. The whole five-hour quest had an over-arching time limit of about a week, but as usual I’d waited till the last second and had, oh, about five hours left total to finish it.
I wasn’t sweating it. Normally, the sorts of quests that I do on this game aren’t very hard to do within that timeframe. That morning I got up, started the timer, then made coffee, fed the cats, did a load of dishes, and sat down with my hot brew and a little breakfast to start the quest.
About three hours later, I realized I wasn’t going to have enough time to finish this thing unless I hurried as fast as I could.
This quest was a lot harder than the other ones I’d always done. It was, in fact, really hard.
I looked at my timer and realized I only had a half hour left. And I was nowhere near done.
About five minutes to the end, I decided to buy some hurry-up points to finish on time. I was on the last part of the quest and what I needed wasn’t dropping.*
That’s when I figured out that I’d forgotten to activate my debit card.
I finally got the points and began buying the last few things I needed to finish the quest.
With 30 seconds to go, I completed it.
My heart was pounding. I was all but gasping for breath. I was leaning forward so hard my toes were cramping from pressing into the carpet under my chair.
I’d just been forcibly reminded of a timeless truth:
The more limited the time you think you have, the more meaningful every second of that time becomes.
It’s a cliche by now, that thrilling plot where the bomb is ticking down the seconds (you’ve been warned: it’s a TVTropes link). Galaxy Quest turned the trope on its head by having the bomb continue to tick down to one second even after the heroes had deactivated it with plenty of time to spare, simply because on the show bombs always did that.
This kind of countdown creates a sense of urgency for heroes, a time limit they must race against, and when it’s done well, it can be very thrilling to watch.
In the real world, people tend to react viscerally when they’re told by an advertisement or salesperson that a product or service is a “limited time offer.” We tend to view such sales tactics either with annoyance over being manipulated, or by whipping out our wallets and demanding the salesperson shut up and take our money.
That’s because these marketing models are pushing scarcity, which is a proven sales technique that we’ve known about for years. Most folks are scared of missing out on something, or passing it by and not being able to get it later if we want it. If a salesperson tells them that there’s some serious scarcity either with supplies or with time, that’ll push them into making a decision right then–and very often it’ll be a decision to whip out their wallets.
If we don’t feel a sense of urgency, we’re a lot less likely to buy something. If the salesperson says “Oh, you can make up your mind later and call us back,” the chances of you actually doing so are very slim. But if that salesperson mentions that the store only has one of that item left in stock, or that the sale ends at midnight, then suddenly there’s pressure on you to figure out if you need that product or not.
That’s one of the manipulation tactics that Christianity offers, this sense that you must decide right now if you’re going to convert or not, because nobody knows if we’re going to survive to the next morning. We all know we could die in our sleep tonight. We’re not guaranteed a tomorrow. And nobody knows what the next life could bring–or if there’ll be one at all. If we realize that there’s no reason to suspect that Christianity’s sales pitch is based on reality, if we actually spend the time necessary to think about its demands, then we don’t have that same sense of urgency to decide what we’re going to do with its various claims.
But scarcity can backfire.When a society is always in a state of scarcity, then the threat of losing out on the offer becomes harder and harder to make compelling. That may well be why Christians’ conceptualization of Hell keeps getting worse and worse as time goes on: people get numb to fear, and they have to be whipped up into a frenzy anew on a constant basis.
If you’ve ever noticed that fundagelicals seem to lurch from one manufactured crisis to the next, or that the second one Rapture deadline passes a whole new one gets invented, it’s all part of keeping serious time pressure and a sense of scarcity applied to the flocks. Their leaders need Christians to be scared to death and angry as hell, so the second the flocks start getting too used to the current catastrophe, a new one is invented to keep them on their toes.
These tactics may work on a lot of people, but eventually most people will begin noticing that every Rapture scare seems to end the same way and that the current version of Hell doesn’t look a thing like the Bible relates–or they may even discover just what a manufactured threat Hell is and then watch out! This constant string of failed predictions and obviously-contrived deadlines and threats worked a lot better before the advent of the internet, where news worldwide can be accessed, previous claims discovered, and current claims debunked. Back in my day, I had no idea in the world that there’d ever been a previous Rapture scare. Now most people know that there have been, literally, hundreds of them, with one extant at any given moment, it seems.
The deadline of Rapture predictions has officially backfired. We’re starting to see some serious pushback against Christian marketing tactics, often with outright mockery in the form of social-media barbs and “Rapture Parties” held on the all-important dates.
But what’s so tragic about Christian marketing is that in their rush to create time pressure on their adherents and potential marks, they forget that we’re already under one, and it’s a very real one. In their rush to focus on an afterlife none of them know for sure exists, they forget the life we’ve got right here that is fast rushing through our fingers.
That’s sure what I did as a Christian. I tried hard to avoid focusing on this current life and its injustices and cruelties and to keep my eyes focused on the afterlife of Heaven that I’d been promised I could achieve if I were obedient. I wasted my youth trying to obey my religious leaders’ demands. I’m still dealing with the repercussions of some of those bad decisions. I thought my mortal life didn’t matter at all because Heaven was all that mattered.
Eternity made the relative eyeblink of time I spent on Earth completely meaningless. I have to laugh now when I hear Christians claim that those who reject the idea of an afterlife must lead meaningless lives, because my life was at its most meaningless when I was Christian like them precisely because I thought there’d be a huge long afterlife in which I could do all the stuff I’d missed out on while alive on Earth. I wasn’t worried about spending my time doing stuff that I wanted to do (instead of doing stuff that my religion wanted me to do) because I had no time crunch at all. I was Christian, which meant that it didn’t matter when I died because I was going to an eternity in Heaven anyway and then it’d be time to do all the stuff I really wanted to do. I saw myself as a foot-soldier in a massive war for the souls of the lost on Earth, so my personal time and desires didn’t really matter.
In this matter as with so many others, Christianity shows us once again that it doesn’t really know much about how people work.
Now that I know that Christianity’s claims are completely non-credible and unsupported by facts, just like every religion’s claims are, this knowledge has cast a shadow on the very idea of an afterlife. I don’t honestly know what comes after death. Probably nothing does. I don’t honestly know if there’s anything supernatural at all out there, much less a god or gods. Probably there isn’t and aren’t.
That means that this life matters. It matters completely, and it matters utterly. And the only meaning it can have is what we, ourselves, assign to it.
What a heady realization that was for me!
This game won’t last forever.
What we do with our finite years here matters and is completely meaningful because this is the only time we have that we know for sure we’ll get. There probably won’t be an afterlife when we can get all the rest of it done, and we’re probably not going to be reborn to take another spin on the wheel of life. This is it. This is all of it.
We don’t even know exactly how much we’re going to get. We usually have hopes for this or that many years, but honestly we don’t know. My mom died in her early 50s. A dear friend from my early gaming days died at 21, and another at 24, both from influenza of all things. Another got a viciously fast-moving cancer at 18 and died a few months after his diagnosis. Life is precious precisely because it’s so brief and so uncertain. Having eternity to spend after a mortal lifetime cheapens that preciousness and uncertainty–insults it, really, makes a mockery of it. When I die, the last thing I want someone to say is “Oh well! She’s in (insert afterlife imagination here) forever now!” When I lose someone myself, I don’t want false assurances; I want to concentrate on what I had with the person I’ve lost, and the time we had together. I want the emphasis on the now I know existed, not the maybe one day that might or might not ever be.
I can assure any worried Christians who are right now fretting about non-believers’ meaningfulness meters that I’ve gone both routes long enough to know a truth they probably won’t want to hear: self-made meaning is way better than divinely-granted meaning because it turns out that life means more when we figure out for ourselves what our lives’ meaning is and what our purpose is than if it’s handed to us. Before I began trusting myself to work that out, I was always worried that I was getting my purpose and meaning wrong anyway, and often what people were sure was my purpose and meaning sounded really off-base (or conflicted with what I was sure “God” had told me). If there is no god handing out purposes, then the whole idea of “divine purpose” and “eternal meaning” is smoke and mirrors anyway.
Sometimes people deconverting go through an initial phase where they’re a bit adrift, but they eventually figure this truth out just like all the rest of us have. Trusting oneself is a skill and a habit, and once people learn it, it doesn’t get forgotten again.
And once we have learned this important life skill, we free ourselves to work out what our meanings are for ourselves and then pursue those meanings in the brief span of life we now know is our entire lot.
There isn’t much more of a time crunch than that, and nothing more meaningful. Every second matters. Every day is a gift. Every year is a wondrous surprise. Every strand of life on the human tapestry is necessary to its pattern.
Spend this year in whatever way you think is most meaningful for you, and may the coming year bring you health, good fortune, and time with those you hold dear.
Happy New Year, friends. Ride your life like it owes you money.
* Dropping: A gaming term. When you kill something or complete a set of actions, an object will “drop” from the creature or quest-giver that you can pick up. I was repeatedly killing something I needed to kill, but it wasn’t dropping what I needed. This is every bit as frustrating as it hopefully sounds.
NEXT TIME: FULL KITTEN UPDATE.