The question seems intuitive. If humans were to live forever, wouldn’t they eventually become bored out of their minds? Let’s think about this for a second. Any activity, no matter how fun or engaging, ultimately comes to a point where it gets boring. That’s part of what it is to be human. Therefore, immortality is boring and pointless as any immortal life would eventually exhaust all possible sources of pleasure, value, and meaning, right? That depends on what you mean by “immortal life.”
Philosopher Bernard Williams makes his famous case against immortality by arguing, “The Don Juan in hell joke, that heaven’s prospects are tedious and the devil has the best tunes…serves to show up a real and (I suspect) a profound difficulty of providing a model of an unending, supposedly satisfying, state or activity that would not rightly prove boring to anyone who remained conscious of himself…boredom…would not just be a tiresome effect but a reaction almost perceptual in character to the poverty of one’s relation to the environment.1”
The problem with immortal life is that it provides an infinite amount of time for the individual. The individual has all of eternity at his fingertips, and yet what looks like a blessing is actually a curse, as Williams points out. The number of things from which the individual can draw meaning from, and experience satisfaction in, is finite and thus exhaustible, leaving the victim in a perpetual state of boredom after having drained all of the possible satisfaction from their environment. Imagine all the possible ways one can draw fulfillment from life—activities, relationships, emotions, challenges, academics, travel, etc. Suppose that all of these combined were calculated to a total of 100 trillion units of satisfaction; that still would not be enough to prevent a tedious life for the victim of immortality, for he or she will eventually suck dry all of these units at some point and then find nothing else from which to derive contentment.
I am not sure why Williams assumes that immortality must be lived within the same world in which we currently live and perceive. He, without reason, precludes any immortal life lived with God and takes for granted the idea that if there was immortality it would have to be lived just as normal, mortal life is lived now, yet extended infinitely into the future. Immortality is certainly tedious on that view. And yet, theistic beliefs regarding immortality seldom, if ever, include delineations of life eternal bereft of some divine figure. Immortality by itself is pointless, but an immortal life lived with, and in, the perfect presence of God cannot be pointless or tedious as God is the ultimate paradigm and source of meaning and joy and is inexhaustible, by definition. Therefore, the tedium of immortality is contingent upon whether or not there exists in the environment of the immortal life a source, or sources, that can provide an abundant life throughout its never-ending existence. Williams agrees with this but denies that such a thing exists; indeed, he thinks that any view to the contrary is absurd and far-fetched.
“Nothing less will do for eternity than something that makes boredom unthinkable. What could that be? Something that could be guaranteed to be at every moment utterly absorbing?2″
Could God be the answer to Williams’ question? If God exists, immortality does not need to be tedious. God can certainly “make boredom unthinkable”, not in the sense that He eradicates the possibility of boredom by removing the elements that make us human– namely our consciousness, will, and ability to tire of things, rather the possibility of boredom is very unlikely, maybe even impossible, in light of how captivating He is. God can also “guarantee to be at every moment utterly absorbing” in that, if humans were created to enjoy God, then finally being in a position to live in unbroken harmony with Him could be the key to a non-futile, eternal life. Theists understand that the only reason immortality is a good thing—it is meaningful rather than meaningless—is because of God. Eternal life, not in this world with all of its constraints and limited, pleasure-making, satisfaction-giving resources, but lived in the perfect presence of God–beholding Him and being captivated by Him, is the only way to make sense of immortality.
The Westminster Catechism puts it simply, yet profoundly:
“What is the chief end of man?
Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.”
It is not unthinkable to see God in this way. If God is defined as a maximal being who interacts with the universe and immortal life is lived perfect relationship to Him, then the immortal life is not tedious, rather it is enjoyable. If God is such a thing as can substantiate and give satisfaction to an immortal life, then immortality need not be tedious. If God can be “enjoyed forever”, then Williams’ question is answered. What is that something (or someone) which has the ability to “make boredom unthinkable” and “guarantee to be at every moment utterly absorbing”? If anything, God seems like a good fit.
1. Williams, B. (1973) Problems of the Self: Philosophical Papers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press pp 94-95
2. Ibid pp 95