I remember being terrified as a child by the concept of being an eternal being.
I might have been 6 or 7 years old when I first began to contemplate it. I remember the sheer terror, laying in my bunk bed, staring at the ceiling just above my face, and trying to imagine living forever. I would imagine life in Heaven, as that’s where I was taught to believe I would go, and things would be happy and nice and white and clean, and I’d be having fun… and then I’d think, “But it would have to end sometime. How could it go on forever, the same life, never-ending?” And my pulse would quicken as my imagination sped up, fast-forwarding through the “years” in heaven being trapped as a forever-concious being, never ceasing, always having to press onward.
I would have to stop thinking about it because it was just too painful. I didn’t even venture onto the concept of eternal Hell.
I’m not sure if I can exactly explain why the concept is so terrifying to me. Even to this day it scares me, but not so much now that I think it doesn’t make sense (Sam Harris’ book Waking Up, in the sections about consciousness, describes some reasons why living forever doesn’t make sense. He does a better job of it than I could). It would bother me so much that I wished I hadn’t been born. That sounds really dramatic, so let me explain – if I hadn’t been born, I wouldn’t have consciousness in the first place, so I wouldn’t have to be stuck with it for eternity. I didn’t ask to become a conscious being, so why did I have to do it from now on?
So I had to accept that somehow eternity would be palatable – maybe I’d become numb to time passing, or not perceive it, or get amnesia every once in a while so it felt like starting over, I don’t know – but with my current amount of knowledge, I was just terrified. I figured there would be a point where existence would be so utterly meaningless and repetitive that I wouldn’t have the will to keep going, and there would be no way out.
I wonder now about people who believe in heaven and an eternal existence – what aspects of that do they think are attractive? Why would anyone want to live forever? I suppose some life after death might be attractive. I mean, you can imagine what you’d like – being a ghost to haunt others or to help others, having conversations with other fascinating dead people, not being limited by our physical bodies. But once you get over the thrill of these things, you’re left with… forever. What do you do then?
One of my closest friends passed away suddenly several years ago. At that point, my Christian faith was shaky at the best of times, and I had just about given up on the idea of Hell. My friend had been a Muslim, and the most comforting idea I had was that she probably went to some kind of heaven. I was talking with another Christian friend of mine about her death, and she asked, “Was she a Christian?” When I shook my head, she said, “Oh no! That’s even worse!” I didn’t know what to say, but I was quite shaken by the fact that she had just implied my friend was currently beginning a journey of suffering and pain that would last into eternity. Why would you ever say that to someone, especially someone who is grieving? How unfeeling do you have to be to be numb to the idea of people suffering in hell? As a person who has loved people of many different faiths and stages of faith, how could I have gone on believing in eternal suffering? Or is it just something people don’t really delve into that deeply, because in some part of their brains they don’t actually think it’s real?
Thankfully, I’m an atheist now. I can believe that one day I will cease to be. I won’t even know I’ve ceased to be, because there will be no me to know. I won’t have to review my mistakes in life, I won’t have to regret, I won’t feel suffering or joy. I can cherish the good in my life for what it is now, and know that when I’m dead, there won’t be a me to care. Even though now I believe that my friend is simply gone from the world, I don’t have to worry about her eternal soul. I can remember the times I made her smile and laugh, and remember how good it felt to understand and be understood by someone, and know that her influence lives on in me.
I think that is a much sadder and more beautiful ending that any eternity.