One of the fundamental tenets of Christianity – and most other religions, in various forms – is the idea that we continue to live on after death. But how long for?
OK, let’s say you’re a Christian. Or a Jew, or a Muslim, or a member of one of the many other religions, denominations and assorted cults persecuted religious minorities that believe in life after death. Presumably – for why else are you a member of your faith? – you believe that when you die, you will go to Heaven.
My question is this: How long do you think you’ll be there?
The usual answer, of course, blissfully delivered, is “Forever!”. You assume, having been assured of it by your holy text/guru of choice, that you’ll spend the rest of eternity – which you think of simply as a Very Long Time – in a state of bliss: praising the Lord, frolicking in the Elysian Fields, shagging eternal virgins (but only if you’re a guy), or whatever.
But hold on a moment. Let’s take a closer look at this. How long, exactly, is forever?
Unless your world view truly is mediaeval, I can assume you believe in astronomy, right? The stars aren’t just holes in a not-too-far-away celestial dome, allowing light to shine through from Heaven. They’re actually incredibly-far-away suns, with in many cases their own planetary systems and in some cases, perhaps sentient life forms (which may or may not be Saved, but we’ll leave that for another discussion…). These stars, as astronomers have found, cluster together into galaxies, each made up of millions or even billions of stars, and however many of them there are, no matter how hard we look, we can only see a small fraction of the total. Many of them are so far away that the light they emit, travelling at over 180,000 miles a second, takes billions of years to reach us. So you’ll agree that the universe – even just the known universe – is a darned big place.
So how does an exposition of the size of the universe relate to how long eternity is? Well, here’s how:
Let’s say you’ve just died. Old age, suicide bomb, agonisingly dissolved by a flesh-eating virus, whatever. You find yourself faced with the prospect of Life Eternal. Since time is no object, you think you’ll take a little sabbatical; have a look around the Universe before you go to Heaven. You set off at walking pace, a disembodied spirit needing no food, water or air. You spend a century or two exploring Earth, visiting all the places you never got to go to before. Then one day, when you’ve seen enough, you take a step up into the air as if you’re mounting a staircase, and step by step, over a several weeks, you leave the Earth’s atmosphere. You keep on going. Some time – maybe years – later, you reach the Moon. You take as long as you need to to get a good feel for the place, walking over the whole surface, getting familiar with its geography, marvelling at the wonders of its craters, the beauty of the Earthrise, how different the stars look from there, and whatnot. You may be there for another hundred years, wandering around, getting to know the place. Then you step off the Moon and walk to Mars. Same again, but this time getting there takes a lot longer, and so does the exploring. A few centuries later, you’re on your way to Venus. And so on. It may take you thousands of years to explore our own solar system before you step off into interstellar space, but that’s OK, because you’re going to live forever.
You keep walking, this time for maybe millions of years, to the nearest star and any planets it may have. Same again. A few thousand years to look round the star and its planets and moons and get a feel for the place, then off again to the next one. And the next one. Repeat for all the millions of star systems in our galaxy, and you’ve used up several billions of years. But that’s OK, because you’re going to live forever.
Can you still remember all the places you’ve visited, all the marvels you’ve seen? Can you remember where you came from, what the place was called? Your name? Who your friends were? Your family? After all those billions of years, probably not. But hey, press on, there’s a lot of God’s universe still to see. You set off from the edge of the galaxy, and on to the next one. Same again. Star by star, you explore. Over more billions of years, you see wonders you could never have dreamed of on Earth. Maybe you run into a fellow traveller occasionally, someone you half recognise but can’t quite recall from your life on – where was it? Darn, can’t quite remember. Onwards and onwards, til that galaxy is thoroughly explored and you’ve ticked off every star and every planet. Then the next one…
There may be over a hundred billion galaxies in the known universe. Even if you just explore the 3,000 or so that can actually be seen from, um – where was it, again? – it’s going to take you trillions upon trillions of years. Even if you stop travelling between them at walking pace and speed up to the speed of light. Trillions of years. A bit longer than you think of when you think of being in heaven for ever, right?
Now get this: the time you just spent walking around the universe? That’s not forever. Not even close. You could do that a million million times over, and you still wouldn’t be anywhere near forever.
And you want to spend all that time praising God? Frolicking? Fucking virgins? Don’t you think you’ll get just a little, um, bored?