Is Immortality or the Afterlife Desirable?
Credit Where Credit Is Due
These arguments and ideas come from some brilliant philosophers like Bernard Williams, C.S. Lewis, and my own eschatology professor Dr. Brian Ribeiro. I am much too lazy to go through the hassle of properly citing their works, so I will credit them here for the captivating ideas.
All The Time In The World! And Then All The Time After That
The first part of this field of argument that I find to be the strongest, though not absolutely convincing, is the reminder of what eternity entails. When we think about heaven or some other good afterlife, we tend to skip over this concept as obviously being good. Eternal life! Paradise without end! Perfect Existence! However, take a moment to picture your ideal image of heaven. Does your image contain many of the things you love in your earthly life? Does it involve meeting all those lost loved ones or engaging in limitless activities that you have a passion for? If yes, this is what would be called an anthropomorphic view of heaven.
An anthropomorphic view makes heaven out to be quite similar to earthly life, but unending and without all the negatives of earthly life. I feel safe in assuming that most people automatically hold this kind of view. It makes sense that we would want paradise after death to consist of the things we love and wish to never stop doing in earthly life. However, one must consider that the things we love on earth are limited. All the things you have a passion for have a cap on them. You are always subconsciously aware that you only have so much time to spend, and you spend that minuscule amount of time on certain things.
Now, imagine that instead of 100 years of life you had 1000. Do you think you would continue doing the same things and having the same passions as you do now for all that time? How about 10,000? You are probably starting to see the predicament that an anthropomorphic heaven puts one in. If you spend one million years mastering all the arts you have ever wanted, exhausting your delight in all the pleasures, and so and so forth, you still have an eternity left to go. You have not used a single percent of your time in heaven. Even the greatest pleasure known to man could not endure for an eternity.
What would you think of your paradise after one billion years of existence? Ironically, this view of heaven begins to sound quite hellish, doesn't it? This is the primary problem with heaven when looking from the anthropomorphic view. However, there is another argument from this view of heaven that twists the problem around but is not quite as strong in my mind.
A Heaven Where You Are Never Bored, Because It's Not Really You
Personal identity and the idea of self is a mind-bending topic that is in a never-ending debate. What is not often debated, though, is the importance of the self to us. Our personal identity is an integral part of how we exist in the world, thus it makes sense that we would want our identity, our self, to persist in our heavenly existence.
Now, as we just argued, an anthropomorphic afterlife for our current personal identity does not seem very desirable after a little thought. Well, the answer seems simple then, whatever being is bringing us into the afterlife can easily alter our character in some way so that the pleasures of heaven never wane. For example, our ability to step back and reflect on past pleasures could be muted so that each heavenly experience contains the same amount of pleasure as every other forever. Or our character could be changed to desire and accept the eternal existence in whatever afterlife the creator has designed.
Here we once again run into issues. If something about our earthly character is changed in order to make heaven, whatever form it takes, desirable, then is it really US that is being saved? If an individual undergoes radical enough changes from their present state, might they not essentially be a different person? Perhaps it is easier to consider when taking yourself as a concrete example.
Think about you as you are now. Your desires, your goals, your strengths, and your faults are all pretty important to your self-identity. Now imagine a heavenly existence where all your faults and desires are taken away or changed so that you now only desire to spend eternity "basking in the divine presence". Now, really consider yourself as you are now compared to that person in heaven under the same name. Would you still hold that that is really you? Would you be concerned with an eternal afterlife if it was no longer your personal identity that got to partake?
I personally believe that there is much more that can be argued in defense of views of the self after a radical change, but one would have a difficult task in completely refuting the argument here presented. It boils down to the claim that eternal afterlife is not desirable if it is no longer "us" that gets to partake.
Afterlife As Complete Removal Of Self
The third option when considering eternal afterlife, given that neither eternity as present self nor eternity for a radically changed self are desirable, is a kind of existence where the self is mostly irrelevant. Go back to the idea of being altered in some way when being brought into heaven, but instead of simply a change in character and desire, you are essentially reduced to being inseparable from the heavenly experience itself.
This is like that "basking in the divine presence", only there is no awareness of self. No awareness of anything really except that heavenly experience. It would be like an eternity in a catatonic state of bliss. It would be an eternity of pleasure, yes, but with no separation of self from that pleasure can you ever truly enjoy it? Our ability to step back and reflect on experiences is what allows us to assign value to them and seek out more or less depending on that value. So without any cognizance of the heavenly pleasure, what is there to desire?
Let's Get Annihilated
What these three perspectives of a heavenly afterlife all come together to argue is that total annihilation is preferable to an eternal afterlife. If one can see no other way of experiencing eternity than those posited, then there is no desirable afterlife scenario involving eternal existence. Perhaps one would like to have a million years of afterlife. Perhaps one could even find pleasure for over a billion years. But if the only option is an eternity, then after 0% of your time things would become more hellish than paradisical.
Therefore, what is preferable upon death is simple annihilation. No kind of eternity is desirable over the ceasing of potential pleasure and pain altogether. Notice that this view is not necessarily atheistic. This does not assert that eternal afterlife is undesirable, therefore there is no god. In fact, while I will not try to think about it here, one could possibly argue this view for a Christian perspective. One might argue somehow that the moral thing for a loving God to do is give us annihilation since true eternity would become a punishment.