Forever, eternity, never-ending, infinite time…
We all have a vague idea or hunch what it means, but more often than not, we use these terms rather loosely to describe what we think of as a very long time period.
Our human brains are wired to deal with time periods that are minuscule compared to for example geological time periods. With respect to infinite time, geological time periods in return, are nothing more than just single frames of a movie that keeps on running forever.
In our daily lives, we are used to think and plan in terms of days, weeks and perhaps 1-2 years ahead. A decade is a very long time for us, - roughly 15% of our life times. Can you recall what car you drove 10 years ago? Can you picture yourself 10 years from now?
The aim of this article is to give some degree of perspective to the concept of infinity. It is not a mathematical or philosophical analysis, but my own view only.
With a bit of thought, geological time periods are “relatively” easy to grasp, even though they are well outside of our daily reference frames. Modern humans have been around roughly 100 000 years (0.1 million years). Dinosaurs roamed the earth for around 135 million years before becoming extinct some 60 million years ago. Simple life first emerged roughly 3.5 billion* years ago and our earth is around 4.5 billion years old. The universe as we know it is estimated to be 13.7 billion years old. (Young Earth Creationists don’t need to fret too much over these times, as they are irrelevant with respect to eternity, as should become clear in this writing). * 1 billion being a thousand million years for short scale countries or 109
To try and get some grasp of infinite time, I have tried to imagine how it might be seen from a religious perspective. Many a religion promises immortality, whether in eternal bliss or eternal damnation. Not to pick on religion, but imagining immortality in the form of a conscious you (soul) offers us the opportunity for thought experiments that could give us a glimpse of what eternity might be like.
Indulge with me in the following, totally fictional, satirical scenario of yourself ending up in the Christian hell (any hell will do):
You are assigned to a lake of fire to join other souls that have been languishing there, some since the supposed conception of hell a few thousand years ago.
After a mere hundred years a booming voice announces that the second coming of Christ occurred on earth. A big influx of more damned souls will take place and then no more will arrive. You, and roughly 8 thousand year’s worth of damned souls, are in for the long haul.
Except for the constant gnashing of teeth and wailing, the following 500 million (earth) years pass uneventfully, until one of the fallen angels visits your pool to officially welcome one and all on behalf of the devil. It then takes 20 trillion years before another fallen angel drops in for a quick visit (1 trillion = million million or 1012). Through the wailing, you and your neighbours manage to inform the angel that it sure is as hot as hell there, and has been for what feels like an eternity (there is no day and night in hell to gauge the passing of time). The angel says that he will tell the devil and report back.
Whilst gnashing and wailing, you wait in anticipation while the fires burn relentlessly. But we all know what it’s like waiting for a kettle to boil… It sure does not help either that it takes 1000 trillion years (1015) for the same angel to return.
He informs you that the devil has decided to give the souls a choice. The temperature can be dropped by 1 degree Celsius for 80 years (average human life time) or by 0.5 degrees for 160 years. Shouting and confusion ensues, so the angel shrugs his shoulders and wanders off. It takes 30 quintillion (1018) years before seeing the angel again. Fortunately agreement was reached 10 million years after the angel sauntered off (difficult to converse with all the wailing). It was decided to go for the 1 degree-cooler-for-80-measly-years option (the subsequent, just short of 30 quintillion years of waiting for the angel’s return, sure was hell!!). The angel says that he will inform old Nick of the decision and will be back “shortly”. With the angel wandering off and the flames burning all around you, your soul’s heart sinks into its shoes in despair as you anticipate another quintillion or so years of waiting lying ahead of you. The psychological effect of anticipating a 80 yr “respite” of a 1 degree cooler hell does very little to help pass the following googol years (10100). All the while the idle gnashing of teeth and wailing continue unabated. No day or night (oh you’ll give your soul for just one night’s rest or a quick cold shower). Your “world” consists of the constant burning flames and the other souls around you (not that any soul is good company with all the gnashing and wailing).
So, after a googol years, the same old boring angel returns and informs you that, come to think of it, the devil has no control over hell. Hell, you are told, is under the control of the benevolent Creator. By now you’ve spent roughly a googol plus an extra 30 odd quintillion years in this tedium. The angel gently reminds you that this was for all practical purposes just a tiny fraction of a journey that will never end. When he returns a googolplex years later for a chat, you realize that he was correct. (googolplex = 10googol)**
Above absurd satire can equally be applied to eternity in heaven (or in Limbo, or wherever). This scenario aught to give you a feel of what an eternity of consciousness might involve. I personally will, after a mere 130 billion years of continuous heavenly bliss, get bored to death (ten times the age of our universe).
Some Christians do not believe in hell or eternal punishment for finite transgressions. That speaks volumes of their moral fiber in my opinion, especially if they express that view in no uncertain terms. I do find it astonishing though that well educated, and otherwise rational adults, can even contemplate that a place of eternal suffering exists. This is especially so if you carefully consider what eternity really means.
It is my opinion that we all have one finite life here on earth. The closest we get to immortality, is our (unconscious) atoms returning back to the cosmos after we die.
So in conclusion: We cannot really comprehend what eternity is. We are allowed to say that a googol years is an extremely long time, as it will eventually end. I believe it is incorrect to say that forever is a long time, as it is not a time-span.
It has no end…
** If you have to write a googolplex out as a 1 followed by zeros on standard, ruled A4 paper, it can be calculated that there is not enough space in our universe to accommodate all the paper you’ll need… (mind-blowing) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Googolplex