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#13: Would You Be Happy in Heaven?

Copyright © 2014 by William B. Irvine


In my previous post, I explained the downside of immortality.  If you had infinitely many days to live, each day would have a value of 1/.  It would, in other words, have a value of 0.  Under these circumstances, you would probably end up like Bill Murray in the movie Groundhog Day.  You would waste your days and might, as a result, end up wasting the one life you have to live.  (Spoiler alert: Bill Murray gets it right in the end.)

The way to prevent this from happening is to acknowledge your own mortality.   You need to keep in mind, as you go about your daily business, that you have only X days left to you.  The value of X might be 29,200 (eighty years of living).  It might also be 1, though: this could be your last day on earth.  Indeed, for 150,000 people now walking the planet, X does equal 1.

Some of these individuals—convicted murderers on death row, daredevils about to do something foolhardy, and gravely ill individuals—might have woken up suspecting that today would be the day they die.  Many more of these 150,000, though, won’t have seen it coming.

Acknowledging our mortality, the Stoics say,  is an important step toward having a happy, meaningful life.  They don’t want us to dwell on death; that would be a recipe for a miserable existence.  We should instead allow ourselves to have flickering thoughts about the fact that X, the number of days we have left to us, is a finite number.  Doing this, they believed, will make us much less likely to waste our days doing pointless things.

Now let us turn our attention to heaven, which is where most people hope to spend their afterlife—if they have one.  In heaven, not only would all their desires be fulfilled, but this state of affairs would last forever.  As a result, they reason, they would be eternally happy in heaven.  But would they?

Notice that in heaven, because you have infinitely many “days” allotted to you, each day will have infinitesimal value to you, meaning that you would have little reason to make the most of it: if you waste today, you’ve still got infinitely many tomorrows to make up for it!  One therefore suspects that people in heaven would end up like those disgruntled 20-year-olds who, because they have not yet acknowledged their mortality, fritter away their days on pointless endeavors.

But wait a minute!  In heaven, all our wishes will be fulfilled.  Won’t that make us happy?

It depends on whether we have “mastered” our desires, an issue I have explored at length elsewhere.  If we have, then yes, having our desires fulfilled will make us happy.  But if we haven’t, getting what we want will simply trigger in us a new desire, for something even better.  We will spend our days on a satisfaction treadmill, working hard to get what we want, only to find ourselves as dissatisfied as we previously were.  (Does this sound like anyone you know?)  It is not a recipe for a happy life.

What would life in heaven be like?  The Bible repeatedly assures its readers that heaven is where they want to go, but provides almost no information about what life would be like there.

The Quran, by way of contrast, is more forthcoming about the “paradise” that awaits devout Muslims.  There will be, we are told, springs gushing with water (55:66).  At meals, there will be lots of fruit (43:73), and diners will be able to enjoy “flesh of fowl such as they desire.”(56:21)  Beverages will be served in goblets of gold (43:71).  Furnishings will be lavish: there will be green cushions and beautiful rich carpets,(55:76) as well as couches lined with silk brocade (55:54).

This description doubtless would have impressed seventh-century Arabs, but to those of us in the 21st century—including many Arabs—it sounds like a pretty primitive lifestyle.  What, no indoor plumbing?  No electricity?  And—gasp!—no smart phones?

Realize that if you are reading this, there is a very good chance that you are living in what seventh-century Arabs—and for that matter, even your great-grandparents!—would have regarded as heaven on earth.  You have air conditioning in summer and central heating in winter; running cold and hot water; flush toilets; electricity; a variety of miracle drugs at your disposal; airplanes that can, in a few relatively comfortable hours, take you to distant lands; access to most books without leaving your home; and, for those who aren’t bookish, the ability to watch the latest sporting event live in the privacy of your living room.  And yet, so many of us remain unsatisfied!

Like I say, unless you learn to master your desires, you would likely be dissatisfied even in heaven; and if you do learn to master your desires, you won’t need to gain access to heaven to be satisfied with your life and circumstances.

And one final comment is in order.  As we have seen, in the paradise described in the Quran, people will drink from golden goblets.  This sounds wonderfully luxurious, but we should keep in mind that as drinking vessels, golden goblets have two big disadvantages: they are heavy and they prevent us from seeing the beverage they contain.  What would be nice is if goblets could be made out of a lightweight, transparent material that would impart no taste to the beverage they contain.  Wait a minute!  We already have such a substance—glass, which is readily available to us, even though we don’t live in paradise.  Isn’t that grand!

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