Although the world’s major religions promise eternal life to those who faithfully follow their various laws and taboos, no-one can comprehend what eternal life would be like. This is because life’s finiteness, bounded irrevocably by death, is a key defining characteristic of what we call the human condition. But as regards the promises by religions of eternal life, all we know is that this life is all we know, and beyond it – unless we take seriously the imagery of floating on clouds playing harps, or an endless virgin orgy – we know nothing.
But what would we do forever, anyway? Go fishing? Drink Moet? Fuck? Take ecstasy? Improve our putting? Tweet? Even those delights would not seem adequate to fill all those aeons which would be, truthfully, endless. Could we stand it, if beyond death we had anything like the attention spans and boredom thresholds we have in this life? “Millions long for immortality who don't know what to do on a rainy Sunday afternoon,” quoth Unknown. The fact is we have no possible conception of what it would be like to live forever.
In many respects, too, curiously enough, death is our friend. It is ultimate release from all we have carried through life. For those whose lives have been marked by desperate poverty, chronic illness or other suffering – and that goes for a large proportion of the human population – death may be seen as a saviour, even redemption.
It is a fact that our lives are painfully brief, and will remain for the foreseeable future (notwithstanding advances in medical science, and our inevitable physical melding with the machines of our own creation). We have barely left the womb when they are burying us in a box. Threescore and ten, and the rest is silence. It seems a pitifully short span, when all around us is the manifest immensity of space, and stars that have been burning for billions of our years. One is tempted to say that a longer span of life could enrich us, and bring us deeper wisdom as a race, but for the troubling thought that there is no fool like an old fool.
But eternity? Could we stand eternity? After all, could we live with others, for all time? As Sartre might have noted, that would not be eternal Heaven, but Hell. Even worse than that, we would have to live with ourselves forever, and how few of us enjoy spending time with that particular individual too? Yet still we long for an afterlife, for eternal life, deliverance from the grave, for Heaven, Valhalla, release from the karmic wheel. So, for what, really, are we longing?
Parents with young children get a tiny, nightly foretaste of what eternal life could be like, through a television show called In The Night Garden. It is the brainchild of a clever Englishman named Andrew Davenport, who also dreamed up its renowned precursor, Tellytubbies. The characters of In The Night Garden - headed by a bright blue Gumby-like creature with a lop-sided grin called Igglepiggle, a doll with a wild rainbow of hair and an inflatable skirt named Upsy-Daisy, an OCD rock-collecting pre-tech head called Makka-Pakka, and the trousers-losing cuddly trio the Tombliboos - inhabit a charming, twilit, woodland domain. In each episode they wander around, sublimely happy, thinking of nothing more taxing than whether it’s a “dancy day” or not. They snuggle, kiss, chatter on in squeaks and squawks of even fewer than 140 characters, and generally dream their time away. Even if something potentially untoward does happen, and the green puffer zeppelin called the Pinky Ponk that they are flying in strikes a tree, the worst thing that the kindly narrator Derek Jacobi ever utters is “Isn’t that a funny Pinky Ponk, bumping into that tree!”, and ends the episode with the trademark, “Isn’t that a pip!”
The characters of In The Night Garden appear to possess little or no memory, and thrive in the bliss of an eternal present, puttering about their little patch of woodland singing, dancing, collecting stones, and engaged in other eternally repetitive acts. Memory, of course, is the enemy of eternal bliss, even eternal sanity. Because if we have no recollection of what we did half an hour ago, or even five minutes ago, every hour can be filled with discovery, forever renewed, which we might happily go on with, well, forever. None of the characters can speak very much – in fact most of them can hardly speak at all – which would place them under the age of three average human years. Three is the age at which “individuation”, or the sense of one’s self as separate from the world around, is usually thought to occur, so that in the case of the show’s characters, there is a sense that they remain linked to one another, and to their world, on a deep and abiding level. The sense of complete immersion in something greater than one’s self is woven deeply into the psyche of In The Night Garden: the world it evokes is a virtual reality unto itself.
Curiously enough, we all lived the first few years of our lives in much the same way that Igglepiggle and Upsy-Daisy do, that is, taking each moment for what it is, something new and wonderful, and never looking back at the ever widening wake of hours, weeks, months and years that we leave behind us, which is the increasing habit of humans as we accrue our revolutions around the sun. In adulthood we retain little or no memory of those earliest years, yet despite this we know that we most surely lived them, and each and every moment of them as if it were a tiny eternity of its own. Could this be what eternal life might be like?
As we grow older, we tend to perplex ourselves with death more and more. This is not surprising: after all, its inevitable arrival becomes more imminent by the hour. But we do not worry ourselves so much, if at all, about who, where and what we were before we were born and lived, which is surely just as mysterious as when we die and live no more. If one deep mystery does not concern us, and we simply accept it - then why not the other? The suspicion, which is a fair one, that they are linked in some way – that is, our state pre-birth and post-death – should suggest to us that if nothing untoward appeared to be happening to us before we were born, why should we worry that it will after we die?
But it is this very uncertainty that religion, and all manner of hucksters of the soul and self, trade upon. But do we really need the abracadabra and hocus-pocus of religion to get us through the end of this life, that is coming for us all? Does any one of them truly know any more of death than any one of the rest of us? No matter what we tell our preachers, the answer, we know in our bones, is no.
As for God, a deity of some kind - who are we to know either way? We are puny specks of dust pumped up with very grand ideas. Could we ever know what or who is behind Everything? We are hardly down from the trees, still mass murder each other at will and celebrate it with pomp and spectacle, hardly know what day it is, and can't even make up our minds between a shiraz and a cabernet. In the immortal words of Sergeant Shultz, "I know nah-think!"
Everyone before us has gone through death. And so shall we, each of us in our own singular circumstance and manner. And, should we arrive on the other side of this scrim of a world, in a pleasant patch of woodland where we happily collect cool, rounded stones until the end of time, then as the last ember of the cosmos sputters and burns out like a candle on the wick, perhaps we shall go on happily collecting our stones, beyond space, beyond time, all the while thinking, “Isn’t that a pip!”