Andrew Fiala

Ideas about eternal life are shaped by ideas about the meaning of life

A detail photo of The Fountain of Eternal Life in Cleveland.
A detail photo of The Fountain of Eternal Life in Cleveland. Creative Commons

Belief in heaven remains strong. According to the Pew Research Center, more than 70 percent of Americans believe in heaven as a place where “people who have led good lives are eternally rewarded.”

Easter is a good time to contemplate the possibility of eternal life. Even if you are not a Christian, thinking about eternal life helps clarify the meaning of life in this world.

Some imagine paradise as spring break without a hangover. But sensual pleasure is not sufficient for a human being. Pure hedonism distracts us from higher goods. An eternal life of sensual pleasure would quickly become boring.

Beyond sensual delight are the goods of ethics and culture. It is unclear how ethics would work beyond this vale of tears. But social relations and loving friendships are an important part of happiness. Of course, even the deepest romantic love may wear thin in eternity. Whom would you really want to spend eternity with?

Maybe cultural activity is the key to eternal happiness. Music, art, sports, philosophy and science are all activities done for their own sake. In these activities we create and discover meaning. Visions of eternity usually have included the goods of culture. Socrates imagined the afterlife as a place of unending philosophical conversation. Christians imagine music in heaven, with harp-strumming angels and choirs singing hymns of praise.

Perhaps heaven is a place to do activities we love. For skiers, heaven may be an eternity of untracked powder. For dancers, it might be a place of perpetual graceful motion. A golfer may dream of birdies, eagles and holes-in-one.

The problem is that play – like sensual delight and friendship – becomes dull when imagined in the context of eternal life. The happiness generated by human activity is connected to our need for variety and challenge. No human action is perfect. And every joyful activity must come to an end.

Conversations and songs become tedious after a while. At some point skiing, singing and dancing become boring and exhausting. And if every drive landed in the cup, golf would cease to be interesting.

A meaningful life requires more than completion and consummation in the ecstasy of bliss. In addition to play, we need practice. We also need failure, loss and the challenge of overcoming obstacles.

The enjoyment of the choral singer includes the process of learning the song, the camaraderie of the rehearsal, and the delight of the performance. Skiing, golf and dance are lifetime projects. Golfers seek out challenging courses. Skiers look for black diamonds. Dancers create new styles.

The joy of philosophy and science is not found in dull repetition of facts and theories. Rather, our inquiries are driven by questions, puzzles and paradoxes. And friendship grows through shared suffering and the process of overcoming disagreement.

A meaningful life involves surmounting challenges and mastering new skills. Perseverance and tenacity are important, as are thinking and problem solving. The bliss of the moment is less important than a life of labor. We build happy lives through discipline, disappointment and diligent work.

A meaningful life rests upon the narrative arc of the totality of our deeds: the good and the bad, the painful and the redemptive. Through the whole, we become who we are. Perhaps in the afterlife, we simply reflect upon our earthly lives – our triumphs and tragedies.

The reward for living a good life may be the memory of that good life. Even if there is no afterlife, we should hope to look back on life with pride, celebrating our successes, and satisfied with how we handled failure and defeat.

There is no meaningful progress without suffering and loss. But we can turn tragedy into triumph. Every skier falls. Every dancer stumbles. And everyone we love will end up dead. Happiness is about resilience and perseverance. It’s not about how many times you fall but about how quickly you get back up.

Life without loss, risk and failure would be boring. Which is why heavenly bliss is so puzzling. Perhaps there is an afterlife. But even if you don’t believe in heaven, living well is its own reward. Joy is fleeting. Character endures. And if death comes tomorrow, you’ll want a good story to tell at the Pearly Gates.

Andrew Fiala is a professor of philosophy and director of The Ethics Center at Fresno State. Contact him: fiala.andrew@gmail.com.

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