To you, with regard (7)

BUFFY:
Wherever I… was… I was happy. At peace. I knew that everyone I cared about was all right. I knew it. Time didn’t mean anything, nothing had form… but I was still me, you know? And I was warm and I was loved… and I was finished. Complete. I don’t understand about dimensions or theology or any of… but I think I was in heaven.
After Life (BtVS S6E3), script by Jane Espenson

Right, that’s enough background reading. Here’s the thought-experiment that sparked all this off, when I wandered into it late last year. Let’s assume that there is such a thing as Heaven, and let’s assume that conventional wisdom about Heaven has more or less got it right. By which I mean, not the clouds or the harps or the pearly gates or any of that apparatus, but the basic setup. What do we ‘know’ about Heaven? (I’m leaving Hell out of consideration for the time being, although I will come back to it. For now let’s just assume that everyone goes to the same place.) There are two key things, I think. One is that we go to Heaven as individuals – identifiable individuals, even; you are still you, your grandfather is still the person he was, and so on. The other is that Heaven is a place out of time; it’s eternal.

But what does ‘eternal’ mean?

Here there are many many sheep
And the people only sleep
Or awake to tell how gory and gruesome was their end
And I don’t have many friends
And it’s really very clean
And I’m thinking:

Juliet, you broke our little pact!
Juliet, I’m never coming back.

Up here in Heaven without you
I’m here in Heaven without you
Up here in Heaven without you
It is Hell knowing that your health
Will keep you out of here
For many many years
– Sparks, “Here in Heaven”

Well, it doesn’t mean that. Eternity can’t mean that time passes, for everyone but you, and you see it pass – watching while your children and grandchildren grow old, waiting for your double-crossing lover to get hit by a bus, etc. Why not? Because if you see it passing, it is passing for you (“oh look, now my widow’s got a new man – wonder if this one will last”); it’s just that its passage matters less to you, not least because you’ve got an infinite supply of it. And that would open up a whole range of possibilities which, I think, take Heaven in the ‘wrong’ – counter-intuitive – direction. For a start, if time can pass in Heaven, things can happen – and that means that Heaven can change, which probably isn’t something we want to allow. Take C.S. Lewis’s ‘worlds within worlds’ vision of Heaven in The Last Battle:

About half an hour later—or it might have been half a hundred years later, for time there is not like time here—Lucy stood with her dear friend, her oldest Narnian friend, the Faun Tumnus, looking down over the wall of that garden, and seeing all Narnia spread out below. … Then she turned inward again and stood with her back to the wall and looked at the garden.

“I see,” she said at last, thoughtfully. “I see now. This garden is like the stable. It is far bigger inside than it was outside.”

“Of course, Daughter of Eve,” said the Faun. “The further up and the further in you go, the bigger everything gets. The inside is larger than the outside.”

Lucy looked hard at the garden and saw that it was not really a garden but a whole world, with its own rivers and woods and sea and mountains. But they were not strange: she knew them all.

“I see,” she said. “This is still Narnia, and more real and more beautiful than the Narnia down below, just as it was more real and more beautiful than the Narnia outside the stable door! I see … world within world, Narnia within Narnia….”

“Yes,” said Mr. Tumnus, “like an onion: except that as you continue to go in and in, each circle is larger than the last.”

Further up and further in! But those woods – I can’t help thinking of Minecraft. Could you cut down the trees? Could you use the wood to make things? Could you cut down all the trees, pave Paradise and put up… well, presumably not. But what if you’d been a handyman in life and building an infinitely extensible log cabin was your idea of heavenly bliss? What if there were lots of people like you? Come to that, what if you had really happy memories of a car park and wanted to recreate that in heaven? Really, there’s no way of having large numbers of people coexisting, over indefinitely long time periods, without conflict developing and leading to at least relative unhappiness.

This is the case even if we aren’t talking about resource conflicts – in other words, even if we drop the rivers and woods and sea and mountains and assume there’s nothing there but people, perhaps sitting on clouds. Being reunited with lost friends and relatives has always seemed like one of the most appealing things about Heaven, closely followed by the chance to meet and get to know the heroes you never did know in this life. But if it all takes time, it could get awfully frustrating: what if Guy Debord or John Lennon wanted to talk to someone else (their own lost friends and relatives, maybe)? What if there were so many people wanting to talk to Picasso or Gandhi that you ended up getting stuck in a celestial signing queue? (“So amazing to finally meet you! Love your work!” “Yeah, great. Thanks. Who’s next?”) It starts to look as if Ron Mael had the right idea all along – eternity, if you think of it in terms of endless amounts of time, would get boring.

So eternity has to mean, not infinite time, but no time (Uchronia?) – and not a hack like “waking up to the same day over and over again” (which, as we know, would get a bit nightmarish after a while) but actually no time passing. When I imagine this kind of infinite stasis I picture the sound of a tuning fork: after the first impact it suddenly sounds as if that tone has always been there and will never fade away – 100% sustain, no attack or decay. Nothing happens, nothing changes. What’s interesting about this is that if there is no time, there can be no energy and hence no matter – whatever it is they do, sub-atomic particles take time to do it (or: they do it within a four-dimensional space-time reference frame). This in turn means no space; imagine space with no photons to traverse it and no matter to bend it out of shape, and what you’ve got isn’t just a void but a dimensionless void.

In Heaven, then, there is no space or time; there’s no light, no matter to be lit by it and no void to be dark. But there are (ex hypothesi) people – identifiable individuals; after spending however-many years looking out through a pair of eyes down here, your consciousness and character – whatever makes you you – is translated at death onto this timeless, spaceless plane. Now what? What logically follows from these (not particularly outlandish) premises about the afterlife?

You’re Already There. We know that there’s no time in Heaven. But that must mean, not just that when you arrive you’re there forever, but that when you arrive you will have been there forever. Which means that Heaven’s always already populated, not just with everyone who’s ever lived, but with everyone who ever will have lived. That family reunion will reunite you not just with your long-lost ancestors but with your descendants, even those born long after you died. For they too will, eventually, die – which means, from the perspective of eternity, their death has already been taken into account.

We Are What We Will Have Been (so we must be careful what we will have been). There are no concertinas in Heaven (yes, I know) – mainly because there’s no space, no matter and no time. But if I were to die tomorrow I would – theoretically – enter Heaven as the kind of person who plays concertina, and be that person for eternity; I’d also be the kind of person who had acquired that kind of musical knowledge at a fairly advanced age, and regretted not having done anything about it earlier. Whereas if I’d died ten years ago I would have (eternally) been the kind of person who vaguely wanted to learn another instrument and regretted not doing anything about it. In this way of thinking, the fulfilment that you’ve achieved by the time you die is yours for eternity – and so are the regrets you die with. If what you are – eternally – is in some way determined by the life you’ve lived, it’s pretty important to live a good life, whatever ‘good’ means in this context.

Try Not to Sin. The specific idea of sin, as distinct from ideas of wicked or wrongful action, is that a sin is something that goes on your record: your sins weigh you down. To paraphrase the previous point, if who you are for eternity is who you are when you die, you don’t want to die with too much on your conscience. So if it’s a good idea to get round to the things you keep meaning to get round to, it’s also a good idea not to do things you’ll regret – a category that includes things you think you shouldn’t be doing. This would also suggest a reason for thinking that suicide is a bad idea – it might get you there a bit sooner, but you’re better off staying here a bit longer and arriving in a better state, if that’s possible.

Getting to Know You. There isn’t a lot to do in Heaven, but why would there be? There’s no time and no space and no matter; as such, there are no material wants, no scarcity and no competition. There’s no advantage to be gained over anyone else, no risks and no opportunities, nothing to hope for and nothing to fear; there’s nothing to buy or sell, nothing to organize for or take part in. What there is is people: everyone who has ever lived or will ever have lived. Think of those long conversations with strangers, at the heel of a party or in the middle of a long journey, when there’s nothing to do but talk – about yourselves, what you’ve been doing, where you’re going, what you care about and hope for. Imagine having that kind of conversation with your Mum and Dad (finally); and with your long-lost ancestors, and with your descendants; and with your heroes; and with the people who slighted you and let you down in life, and with the people you slighted and let down. Not to mention total strangers – all those unique, irreplaceable individuals who happened never to come into contact with you. The moment of entering Heaven would feel like the longest and most exhaustive ‘meet and greet’ anyone could imagine. And the moment of entering Heaven would also be the eternity of being in Heaven.

Time (And/Or Something Else) Heals All Wounds. If you would meet and get to know multiple billions of people in a moment out of time (or an aeon), you would also be changed in the process: a single, irreversible and unavoidable process of change. Imagine what happens, in this model, when somebody dies feeling hatred for others, or any of a number of other emotions that wouldn’t have any function in Heaven. What are you going to feel towards the rest of humanity, when you’re sharing eternity with them (with no material wants, no advantage to be gained over anyone else, etc)? Nothing but curiosity, wonderment, fellow-feeling and love, surely; something a bit richer than Vonnegut’s two mutually-triggering signals of presence and recognition, but in that basic form. If someone dies after a life of feeling nothing but love and benign curiosity towards all their fellow humans, they’re basically going to fit right in. (Not that my thought experiment is telling you how to live your life, or anything.) But if someone dies after killing another person, or multiple other people – what would that reunion be like? Imagine Wilfred Owen’s “Strange Meeting“:

I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.

Like that, but not ending – as the poem ends, a couple of lines later – in a sleep that envelopes both the dreamer and the dead man in his dream. Like that, in fact, but not ending at all. Imagine going to your death a righteous, ideologically-justified killer, and then meeting your victims individually and getting to know them, to the point where you can experience the equal value of each one’s life with your own. Imagine the horror of that. Learning to relate to people you’d hated, feared and wronged, and relate to them as valued equals; feeling hatred, fear and righteous anger, then feeling the horror of what those emotions had led to and feeling them boil away; feeling the weight of what you’d done, perhaps for the first time; feeling the burden of guilt and feeling that in turn burn away in a kind of acid bath of pain, sorrow and forgiveness. Imagine that whole process condensed into an instant, so that your experience of entering Heaven would be an experience of hatred, confusion, horror, self-hatred, guilt and pain, culminating in love, acceptance and fellow-feeling. Then imagine that instant smeared out across the infinite expanse of eternity.

Now generalise from killers to everyone who’s ever done anyone any harm.

Heaven Is Other People, Hell Is Just You. Everyone, on this model, basically gets forgiven – what is there not to forgive anyone for, when everyone concerned is a massless, positionless entity on a timeless plane? – but the pathway to forgiveness runs through guilt and horror. Horror, that is, at yourself and the harm you did to others when you were alive: the more harm, the more horror. Have I just reinvented Hell? Hell, no (if you’ll pardon the expression) – but Purgatory, maybe. It’s a process of love and acceptance, fundamentally; it’s just that, for some people, getting to love and acceptance would in itself be an ordeal.

Lonely Planet. So Heaven would be this humanity-sized static hum of mutual recognition signals and general benevolence, coloured to a greater or lesser extent by the anguish caused by each person’s own deeds while alive. The good end happily and the bad – the bad also end happily, but with more difficulty. Moreover, given that the whole of the human race is represented on the eternal plane, what we have there in aggregate is total knowledge of the course of every human life, together with the capacity (or at least the certain knowledge that somebody has or had the capacity) to change or have changed any detail at any time. Benevolence towards humanity combined with omniscience, omnipresence and omnipotence (exercised through human agency): out there in Uchronia, the timeless human race as a whole loves you, wishes you well, knows exactly what you’re going to do and can transform your life at any moment, although it doesn’t generally intervene directly in this world. What does that remind you of?

This model of Heaven – which is to say, a couple of ‘common knowledge’ precepts about Heaven taken to their logical conclusion – seems not only to work without God but to culminate in something with properties that are very much those of God (if we set aside the whole world-creating part – and even that works metaphorically). We can even imagine, pushing the conceptual boat out a bit further, that subjective experience of (awareness of? contact with?) the benevolent eternal background hum of humanity could be mistaken for awareness of, or contact with, God.

To sum up, then: if you take it that individual identity survives death, and that it does so on an eternal plane, it follows that it’s a good idea to be accepting of other people, to live as fulfilled a life as you can, to honour your parents, to have kids, and to harm other people as little as possible, and in particular not to find pleasure or justification in harming other people. It also follows that there is no need to suppose there is a God.

(And the truth is as great as belief is.)

NEXT: So I said, “OK. Who is this really?”

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