Eternalism: Meaningless Without Eternity

MeaningMany Christians feel that without the guarantee of living forever their lives would be meaningless. Some go so far as to say the lives of non-believers is already meaningless. Indeed some Muslims justify slaughtering non-Muslims because they feel non-believers are no better than ‘meaningless’ animals because of their damned state (see here).

This week I yet again shocked to hear another otherwise intelligent Evangelical question the meaning of life without the promise of heaven.  He even questioned the value of saving anyone from temporary suffering if in the end, we all end up a puff of smoke:

“…assuming that I will one day not exist does to a very large degree negate everything i do now. What difference does it make if I alleviate one moment of suffering for something that is in any event destined to puff off into nothingness after the briefest of appearances on this planet.”
(Clapham 11:55 12/8/13)

Maybe it is me. Maybe lots of people think this way. But for me, such thinking is bizarre. In this post, my son was feeling a bit like an eternalist too. But I put off his fears as being due to being young and having an immature ego-centric lack of insight. So is “Without Eternity, I give up” thinking just the result of a moral mind getting stuck in adolescence? Or perhaps it is a temperament thing. I am not sure.

Here was my response to Clapham:

“Tell me, what difference does it make to give your kid a great birthday party if 5 years from now he may totally forget it? Do you so undervalue the moment? I think it is actually very bizarre to need a promise of living eternally to have any moment mean anything. Hard to even entertain your comment. You certainly don’t live the way you are hypothesizing.”
— Sabio

In Buddhism, needing some sort of afterlife to guarantee meaning is called “eternalism” and is considered a distorted view (see a great post by David Chapman here). Most theists are eternalists. And for eternalists, nihilism (“everything is meaningless”) is the only reasonable and dreadful alternative.  I guess in this sense, I am very Buddhist which posits a middle position.  But my middle-way ideas came to me without the help of Buddhism or any other religion – actually they came to me inspite of religion.  I just grew up (or so it seems). Indeed, my concepts of meaning seem very much like adult common-sense.

For related posts concerning my view of meaning without the eternity security blanket, see:

Question to readers: Is it our temperament, our moral maturity or our blind minds that make us view things so differently from each other.  So how do you view meaning — as an eternalist, a nihilist or a middle-way type person?

HT picIllustration ©




Filed under Philosophy & Religion

23 responses to “Eternalism: Meaningless Without Eternity

  1. Ultimately it all comes down to Terror management theory; the ways and mean we develop and deploy to either alleviate, or simply curtail, our fear of death.

  2. I’ve never really understood that apologetics claim that life is meaningless without religion (well, okay, they don’t use that wording).

    For me, it is hard to think of anything more meaningless than sitting around for eternity, with piped in harp muzak, having nothing to do except worship.

  3. Marc

    Life is always precious. We should seek to live joyfully by appreciating the creative and productive contributions of all human beings. Our lives are enriched each day by the creativity and productivity of thousands of people living and departed. For those of us who believe in a loving Creator who wants our creative and productive lives to continue into eternity, the best is yet to come. Faith and hope do help to ameliorate the pains and sorrows of this life.

  4. howdy. thanks for quoting me – I’m flattered!;-) Although i think you have mis-attributed the second link to me?
    could you summarise your other posts in a few lines or do i need to read them all? (sorry, struggling for time)
    I’m not saying we lack a sense of meaning, I’m saying its logically inconsistent. Since people are really no more special than dogs or cats or worms, or mud really (we are all just the product of blind chance and nothying else), caring for a person, by that logic, is no mroe or less importnat than caring for mud – or the “puff” as i put it.
    So the challenge is not to merely asert meaning, but to account for it.

  5. as a nihilist.
    and then I ask myself again, must life have meaning to be lived?

  6. @clapham, If it is logically inconsistent, what does that mean for people like me who don’t believe in eternal life? Do you feel like I can never live a meaningful life? I’m trying to understand what conclusions you are drawing from your claim.

  7. Sabio, I appreciate your insight about immature ego-centrism fueling some religious Belief Systems with eternalist beliefs. I certainly went through that with Christianity then more esoteric Eastern systems which included immortality as components. This was strongest in my early 20s. I must say that the 20s is the time to become immortal. Now that I’m in my 40s it looks less appealing .
    While some moderate Buddhist philosophies seem sensible, it appears to me supernatural claims of special nihlism/eternalism are the bedrock which Buddhism is built on. Getting rid of desire to eliminate the cycle of rebirths, to be specific. I like to call them the Four Noble Hypotheses, as they are far from proven Truths in my mind. Well, they aren’t so Noble either. A noble attempt, perhaps… While core Buddhism has a more nihlistic goal, when the Boddhisattvas are added, there is an eternalist component (i.e. “I could have entered Nirvana but chose an immortal life of service to help enlighten all other beings. No, I have no ego or inflated sense of self-importance.”).

  8. @Neil Rickert,
    I think a theist would say your caricature of eternity is silly. They would say it is beyond our comprehension and so don’t try — just have faith.
    So, my question: Why do you think it makes sense to them and not to you?

    @ Marc,
    It is hard to unpack your paragraph:

    (1) “Life is always precious”: even for spiders? how about chimps?

    (2) “productive lives to continue into eternity”. So you sort of agree with Clapham that, sure these lives seem meaningful but if you got the wrong religion, it all ends and it might as well have been meaningless?

    (3) I’d have to check the data on “Faith and hope do help to ameliorate the pains and sorrows of this life.” For I have certainly seen it do the opposite to many believers.

  9. @john zande
    Becker’s 1973 Terror Management Theory(TMT) people try to make sense of the innate fear of death. But here is the thing, I think there are several ways to do work with death. The “Eternity or Nothing” strategy is only one.
    How do you do yours, john? Can you name other methods which match your view of Becker’s TMT besides yours and eternalists’.

  10. @ clapham,

    (1) Sorry, I don’t understand what you mean by “Although i think you have mis-attributed the second link to me?”
    I quoted you once, and linked to your quote. Am I mistaken?

    (2) Those posts I linked to are short, but I edited the OP and annotated them for you. Thanx.

    (3) inconsistent? I agree with MichaelB. Curious to hear your reply. (when you have time)

    (4) It is sad to hear that you devalue everything but humans. Everything is meaningless without Jesus? Really?
    “Caring” is valuable whether we care for kids, our house, our jobs or others.

  11. @ Abel,

    I TOTALLY agree! Buddhism is loaded with eternalism, idealism, monism and ascetic denialism. I have lots of complaints about Buddhism.
    If you check out that link to David Chapman that I give, I consider the Tantra Buddhism he discusses probably very close to my views — not all Tantric Buddhisms by any means.

    @ makagutu
    Yeah, “nihilist” has several meanings. I am guessing that you don’t believe in any transcendent meaning — but just the meaning we make by our thoughts and actions.

  12. Sab… I really don’t concern myself with death. My only fear is that i die before my animals and they are, as such, placed in jeopardy because of my absence. Most people, though, don’t analyse this subject, hence my generalisation of the TMT as applying to most… Not all, but most.

  13. @michaelb. Hi there. I do think you in fact live a meaningful life, but I think the fact that you find it meaningful is one of those subjective evidences pointing you to “otherness”, if I may be so bold and presumptions to say that. I think this is one of a number of subjective evidences that you are encouraged to regard as a delusion but are in fact real. The transcendence of morality is another one I argue for. It part of the battle for the subjective. We somehow need to know our lives are meaningful or at least want to know. Is it an illusion? Perhaps but I think not. As you know I think it’s a mistake to attach zero evidence to internal evidence.

  14. So, my question: Why do you think it makes sense to them and not to you?

    They have not thought it through.

    They have a version of heaven that works for people who get pleasure from gaping in awe. But it does not work for people whose pleasure comes from what they do.

  15. @clapham, I have no belief in the eternal yet I can find meaning in my life. The only “otherness” I find is in the lives of other people. You are right that a sense of meaning is subjective, which means I don’t need there to be some objective eternal being in order to find or make my life meaningful. I can create my own meaning, which is exactly what I do. I certainly find it more rewarding than searching for some transcendent meaning and purpose that doesn’t exist, or if it does, can’t be accessed. I know I will be forgotten in 50-100 years like 99.99% of us, which is why I strive to make the most out of the short time I have and pass along what little I can to those around me. The idea of eternity cheapens that a bit, I think.

  16. @ John Zande,
    I am not following you. Are you saying most folks don’t analyze it, and thus end up eternalist? So that you’d be implying, like Neil, it is a matter of just not thinking carefully?

    @ Neil Rickert,
    Hmmmm, there is part of me (as the post alludes) that wonders if this sense-of-meaning may not just be just an issue of not-thinking-it-through, but perhaps temperament has much to do with it. For example, maybe you and John Zande share a temperament quality.

    @ clapham,
    (1) Pray tell:
    When you said, “. . . the batter for the subjective” — were you referring to philosophical battle, or some sort of spiritual battle — like Satan taking hold of all of our brains except yours?

    (2) Concerning the “subjective”, and I think MichaelB will agree, I feel subjective data does indeed count as a form of evidence. Especially when we have no other evidence. BUT, when it do have objective evidence (or non-anecdotal evidence or other higher order of evidence) which is COUNTER to the subjective evidence (either pointing at a different explanation or that the observation was incorrect), then it decreases significantly in value.

    You see, there are levels of evidence and weighting of evidence. All evidence does not count the same. Evidence can always be challenged.

  17. Precisely, although i think its more accurate to say the thinking doesn’t proceed beyond a certain point; that node after which things get frightening.

  18. @Sabio, Yes, I do agree with your assessment of subjective data.

  19. @john zande, Exactly. Every hurdle I had to overcome on my path out of Xianity was one of fear, with the largest and final hurdle being a belief in God.

  20. @ michaelb. Fair enough. I think I’ll be forgotten way before then:-). For my part I think that meaning is not something we have to create, I think it’s something we have. For me it doesn’t ring true that we have to re characterise these things as illusory, or things we create. Again, like creating evil. And even if it’s only something we need it’s seems a bit out of place I think in a world that is headed for nothingness. That’s how I see it anyway :-). Cct

  21. I would say a hopeful eternalist:)

    Seriously, though, at first the idea of no heaven seemed utterly hopeless, but as the months go by since giving it up, I find that it isn’t all that bad.

  22. @ Alice,
    Interesting — and you have only recently given up your throne in eternity.

  23. @ sabio, Micahel B. Sorry – my bad – I misread chapman for clapham. *blush*.
    Its not that i (or the Bible) only value humans (Prov 12:10), but we value them especially.
    Re teh battle for the subjective, i mean that there seems to me to be an ideological (?) wrestling about what the subjective means. Somet higns Christians argue are subjective realities, athiests (forgive me for generalising) argue are illusions. Sometimes helpful illusion but still illusions. This was part of my point to MB. Now often this is met with examles of fairies and fear of the dark etc. I think those are not the same, because, and i am sure to get punched one this, the subjective ringing is not the same.
    As far as meaning goes, I am not saying that we don’t expereince meaning or that caring isn’t meaningful – I’m saying the fact that it is (and we can only know this subjectively) is an evidence that this isnot a nihilistic world. And nihilism surely must be firmly on the radar if as Krauss, Hitchins and many others have said, taht is our ultimate destiny. We can;t destroy the meaning of things because we (IMHO) don;t create it. but it is (again IMHO) inconsistent with nothingness.

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