A close relative says she has no use for preachers who promise eternal life. “How do they know?” she asks.
Still, she says her husband has spoken to her once in the months since he died. She is waiting for a sign that he has crossed over and is at peace, a sign like the ones she says she received after her parents died years ago.
I have no experience of life beyond this life. Growing up Methodist, I was steeped in the story of John Wesley. At a college church service I was convinced that “my heart was strangely warmed,” but it turned out to be the wine Lutherans serve at communion. I think of myself as a faithful skeptic.
I do remember, just a few days after my good friend and tennis partner, Lee, died in Ethiopia, a hawk perched itself on the fence at length, watching over my next match. I missed Lee – I still do – and I like to think that his spirit was somehow in that hawk for those few minutes.
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The mathematician in me knows well how our brains are programmed to seek patterns even in random data. We seek meaning – at times we impose meaning – on the events in our lives. And what is more universal, and more demanding of meaning, than death itself?
The closer we look at our physical world, the more its mysteries deepen and our wonder grows. We know so much, and yet some of the simplest questions continue to be unanswered, and may be unanswerable.
What came before the Big Bang? What exists outside the farthest galaxy? What lies beneath our sub-atomic structures? Just what, exactly, is life?
The universe, it seems, is infinite in every direction. Time extends forward and backward forever. It would be an arbitrary clock that starts at the Big Bang, or that runs out of sand at some future point. Cosmologists speak of multi-verses, pushing space beyond the edge of our universe. Physicists search for “strings” that create physical reality through vibrations – microscopically small does not begin to describe their minuteness. These strings lead to dimensions beyond our three. Suddenly, space expands sideways as well, with our lives leading off in parallel directions.
The mathematics of infinity are just as bizarre. The lyrics of “Amazing Grace” catch one such aspect:
When we’ve been there ten thousand years,
Bright shining as the sun.
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise,
Than when we’d first begun.
Infinity plus 10,000 equals infinity.
Infinity, like the physical world, conflates the infinitely large and the infinitely small – there are as many fractions between 0 and 1 as there are whole numbers from 0 to, well, forever.
When I taught, I loved the mixture of bewilderment and awe on student faces when they encountered infinity. On the Sunday school playground, I asked children how high they could count just so I could tell them to “add one more” when they got to the “end.”
I think about eternity and life with my own bewilderment and awe. I am enough of a materialist to believe that “I” am inseparable from this body of mine. But is life something more, something beyond “me,” beyond each of us as individuals, but that includes us all?
I am a religious person, a practicing Christian. I have attended enough funerals over the past several years to be quite familiar with the Biblical verses concerning life and death. Still, I also know that when Jesus is asked to describe heaven, his usual answer is some variation on, “it is totally different than you think.”
The other major religions all describe life beyond death using a variety of metaphors to get at an understanding that is literally indescribable.
Modern science increasingly sees life as a configuration of physical processes. Yet, the science of death is not so far from the Native American image of a return to the Earth. We come from stardust, we return to stardust.
We catch occasional glimpses into life in other dimensions, in other time frames. It makes sense to me that, if we do, then we would try to describe these visions using words and images from the world as we know it. We “see” only those things we are prepared to see until we are given a new conceptual prism, whether it is the world turning from flat to round, or the earth and sun exchanging places at the center of the solar system.
Infinity is not a really big number – it is an entirely different way of thinking about numbers. Eternal life is not just more of this world – it is an entirely different way of thinking about life, and the universe.
I am a lay person in theology and math. I want to believe that my life, and the lives of those I love, is something more than what I see and touch, and I want to believe that I am not crazy to believe this.
For me, the logic and wonder of infinity – eternity - is not that anything can happen. It is that everything will happen, in its time.
Steven Unruhe recently retired from many, many years teaching math and journalism. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or followed at @Steven_Unruhe.