By Jin-yeong Yi
“That Man is the product of causes that had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve individual life beyond the grave; that all the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins—all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.”
—Bertrand Russell, “A Free Man’s Worship”
“[T]he human race will disappear. Other races will appear and disappear in turn. The sky will become icy and void, pierced by the feeble light of half-dead stars. Which will also disappear. Everything will disappear. And what human beings do is just as free of sense as the free motion of elementary particles. Good, evil, morality, feelings? Pure ‘Victorian fictions’. Only egotism exists.”
—H. P. Lovecraft
“Death is the law of the universe. In the days when Plato worked out the first rational arguments for immortality, as distinct from mere religious tradition, the claim was not so exorbitant. The stars themselves, the Greeks thought, were immortal. They were small, undying fires set in the firmament. Plants and animals died, of course, but these stars made men familiar with things which never died.
Now we know that the stars—not three thousand of them, as the Greeks thought, but two billion—are born and grow and die just like dogs, except that their life is immeasurably longer. There is a time when each is a shapeless cloud of stardust. There will be a time when the most brilliant star in the heavens will fade from the eyes of whatever mortals there may then be. They are made of the same material as our bodies: of gas and earth and metal. They fall under the great cosmic law that things which come together shall in the end go asunder—shall die.”
—Joseph McCabe, “The Myth of Immortality”
“We are masters of life and death, we rationalists. It has been a fine adventure, this half century of conscious existence, with all its labor and trouble and injustice. Huxley once sincerely replied to Kingsley, who sympathized with him on the death of a child, that they were proud and happy to have had the child just those few years with them. That is the spirit. An hour of sunlight is better than none. To have been born and lived and died is, for the man who knows how to live, a privilege and an opportunity that he might never had had. You have had the joy of seeing your children slowly rise through the phases of blossoming and ripening around you. You have known the fragrance of wine and flowers, the delights of art, the fascination of science, the joy of battle in a good cause…. How can any man have the effrontery to grumble that the feast is not eternal?”
—Joseph McCabe, “The Myth of Immortality”
“On the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it was thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”
—The Bible, Genesis 3:19 (King James Version)
“The real trouble with this world of ours is not that it is an unreasonable world, nor even that it is a reasonable one. The commonest kind of trouble is that it is nearly reasonable, but not quite. Life is not an illogicality; yet it is a trap for logicians. It looks just a little more mathematical and regular than it is; its exactitude is obvious, but its inexactitude is hidden; its wildness lies in wait.”
—G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy
“But, beloved, be not ignorant of this one thing, that one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.”
—The Bible, 2 Peter 3:8 (King James Version)
All of us were born terminally ill. Even before we came into existence, we were sentenced to death, and our sentence hangs over our heads every moment of our lives.
I don’t think I’m afraid of death. I think Mark Twain had a point when he said, “I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.” I’m comforted by the fact that, when my time comes, I will be in good company, that is, every single person who came before me.
And yet, as I watch the world crumbling around me in slow motion, I can’t help but feel a profound sense of regret at the thought that nothing, including all that I cherish and see as noble and beautiful, will endure. This feeling is especially strong when I look upon a person who embodies qualities I admire. “If only this sublime creature could live forever!” I sigh ruefully. And the feeling is hardly less strong when I look upon that glorious process of discovery, learning, and growth called life. Existence is painful, but grand. I lament the transience of these things even as I remind myself that when I die, I probably won’t be around to give a damn.
I’ll be frank. I hope that there is an eternal afterlife. To me the notion looks dubious at best and absurd at worst in the light of modern biology, cosmology, and neuroscience, but I am crossing my fingers and wishing upon my lucky stars that when I close my eyes for what is supposed to be the last time I will open them again to find that the book of my life has a sequel. Yes, even though it looks like the odds are stacked sky-high against me.
Some of my fellow skeptics question not only the existence of an eternal afterlife, but its desirability as well. They argue that eternal life would be boring, without shape or form, or without value. “Life is precious precisely because it’s finite,” they reason. It is difficult to argue with that. I can only say that the fact that I exist, that I have consciousness, that I have a pattern and process that I can call my own in the first place, is precious to me simply for being what it is because it might not have been.
As for eternal life being “boring,” well, I think that would depend on each individual, as such adjectives describe our subjective experiences of things rather than the things themselves. And why would eternity have to be boring? Because it’s too long? What if the nature of time in the afterlife is completely different from what we have here? What if the afterlife is a state in which we forget about time entirely?
Of course, while I’m alive, I cannot go beyond mere speculation. The answer will come only when I die, if it ever does. For all I know, that may take many years to happen. But for the time being, allow me to indulge in some fantasy:
It may be that the present world is a lot like a vast, gigantic train station, and that the present life is essentially nothing more than a period during which we humans wait for our trains to arrive at the platform. Generally, each of us gets his or her own private train, because it is rare for people to depart this world at the exact same time. But depart we will. It is only a matter of when. Some people depart after dozens of moons. Others depart before they even get a chance to see what the train station looks like. Either way, everyone is on their way out.
This waiting period is, in the grand context of things, trivially brief, but for many of us humans it is still long enough to build civilizations, wage wars, open businesses, pursue careers, accumulate learning, create works of art, nurture romances, raise families, cultivate friendships, and fret about matters big and small. In the end, however, all of this is simply our way of occupying ourselves while we wait for our respective trains, which will take each of us to someplace better. It wouldn’t do to become too attached to a place that we are supposed to eventually leave anyway. All of our troubles in this train station, no matter how overwhelming, are transient, and will have no lasting ramifications. No matter what happens to us, we won’t miss our train. Viewing things in this light, we can set aside at least some of our fear and our bitterness and think of this brief period as a chance to learn and prepare for the great journey ahead.
Believing that something is true without evidence may be irrational, but hoping that it is true, no matter how improbable it is, is not. And, for my dream of an endless summer day of discovery, freedom, wonder, and joy; I have as much hope as I have doubt.