Not immortality, but eternity
This piece has just gone up at The School of Life's blog...
It can come as something of a surprise to learn that western religions are not much interested in immortality. Take ancient Judaism, the Judaism of the Hebrew Bible. Immortality is hardly mentioned. Humans are said to go to ‘sheol’, a shadowy subterranean abode, or to 'Gehenna', an actual place outside Jerusalem of fiery discomfort. Upon arrival, individuals then drift into a half-life and fade away. The Hebrew Bible is, in effect, recommending life here and now, amongst the people of Israel. It is not suggesting that this life is but a foretaste of a life to come.
This much at least, the Hebrews had in common with other peoples of the ancient Mediterranean. The afterlife perhaps lasts a little longer for heroes, the ancient Greeks mused, but only because their life force resists inevitable death more strongly.
Only in the East, amongst the religions of India, is there a widespread belief in life after death, manifest in various forms of soul transmigration. Western thinkers like Plato toy with this possibility. In the dialogue called the Phaedo, he has Socrates present arguments for the immortality of the soul. Then, in the Apology, he has Socrates declare he doesn’t know what happens and anyway, if death is annihilation, then there’s nothing to fear because death is, well, nothing.
Ideas shift as BC turns to AD, when a hope of life after death becomes more prominent. But importantly, it is not immortality that is anticipated. Death is still regarded as death. Bodies clearly rot, and having a body matters. This is symbolically represented by the practice of burying corpses in contact with the ground, not in a coffin. Instead, there grows an expectation that death will be conquered. ‘He maketh death to vanish in life eternal,’ says an Orthodox prayer.
This is not about immortality, because if there was a soul that drifted off after death, untouched by the change of state, there would be no need to hope that death might vanish. Instead, what is prayed for is resurrection. There must be a discontinuity between this life and any next life, a radical break known in death. But there is a hope that God will make a new body, as indeed God made the old body, and that through the discontinuity some measure of continuity may be known too – which is to say, we might be recognisably the same person, in some way.
Difference between this life and the next is emphasized because it became clear to the Jews, and then the Christians, that this life needs redeeming. If the afterlife is just more and more of the same, then everlasting life would become by default an everlasting punishment. At the very least, exhaustion and boredom would set it. Immortality is a form of tragedy.
So instead of immortality, what is pondered is eternity. This is a state outside of time – if the word ‘state’ can even be used, since it implies a time-bound existence. And perhaps the notion of eternity gains ground because it feels as if eternity can be glimpsed in the here and now, at least from time to time.
Would 2 plus 2 equal 4 even if the universe and time had never existed, you might ask? If it feels to you that it would, and it is contentious proposition, then perhaps to do mathematics is to touch something eternal. Or there are the aesthetic invocations of eternity that arise from mystical experience. ‘To see the world in a grain of sand… And eternity in an hour,’ contemplated William Blake.
In fact, I wonder whether eternity might be nearer to us than we think. I once spoke with the physicist Roger Penrose about the nature of light. He described how it seems that light does not ‘experience’ time, because that is part of the definition of travelling at the speed of light – and one reason why it is impossible to accelerate to the speed of light. That would make turning the lights on in the morning something akin to a mystical experience; to being bathed in eternity.
So although you can read and hear all manner of metaphors reaching for the afterlife in Judeo-Christian writings, and some appear to imply immortality, the official line is, no. Death is real. Theologians like Thomas Aquinas are so clear on this fact that he wrote, ‘My soul is not I’.
But perhaps, beyond a discontinuity, lies eternity. We could taste it now. We might know it ‘then’.