This fall, a television show is premiering on one of the major networks (I forget which one) called “Forever.” The premise of the show is straightforward enough, in that a Medical Examiner for what appears to be New York City has a secret that he lives forever, which makes him very good at his work. While it may make for good television, though, it does not make for good theology. I have commented before on my love of the move “Groundhog Day,” which was set in an area where my family lived for many generations . Part of the premise of this movie is that the weatherman lead character must re-live the same day over and over again until he gets it right, and nothing he does, including the most inventive forms of suicide, can ever allow him to escape from the temporal loop that he is stuck in. This show seems to have adopted the same premise, that the person cannot die, no matter what he does, and instead of succumbing to despair, he has chosen to use the curse of eternal life to help others, despite the isolation it brings him. The immorality of this particular character (which appears to be his uniquely) is a curse rather than a blessing because it cuts him off from intimacy and relationships with others, rather than allowing him to be as one with others as the Father and the Son are one.
When I was a teenager, my father would frequently say that he believed he would die young. He, of course, died at 59 of a heart attack six weeks after having a stroke. It is possible that in some ways the short life was a self-fulfilling prophecy, but perhaps the will to live was sapped by the sort of life that my father had lived. My father was an intensely lonely man, whose best friends were people he had not seen or had any contact with for decades, and whom at times had been rather suspicious of for one reason or another. One of the factors that makes life worth living is having good relationships with others, with one’s children, a loving spouse, and other friends and family. Where relationships are loving, a great deal of suffering and privation can be endured cheerfully. Yet where one feels isolated and unattached to the greater connections of those around us, life simply does not have a great deal of pleasure and happiness to provide. What worth is knowledge or wealth or talent if one does not have people to share it with? Truly, we all owe a great debt of gratitude to our friends and (for those luckier than I) lovers for making this physical life worth living for the time allotted to us by God above . But would a life that was spent alone, a life that made it impossible to connect with others and a life that strongly discouraged connection with those whose lifespans would be but a brief moment in comparison with one’s own, be a life that was worth living? For most of us, myself included, that would not be the case. Such a life, if there was no escape, would be an existence of deep unhappiness and torment, for it is connection that brings pleasure and meaning and importance to one’s words and deeds, which would not matter otherwise.
It is striking that this sort of gloomy and depressing vision of eternal life is precisely that imagined in the traditional (and mistaken) view of hell. This vision of the fate of depraved man with an immortal soul preaches, and occasionally even revels, in the eternal torment of a soul that is cut off from God and from other people as a result of being enslaved to sin. We should note that this view is mistaken precisely because it was the fate that God and Jesus Christ prevented by barring the tree of life in Genesis 3:22-24: “Then the Lord God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of Us, to know good and evil. And now, lest he put out his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever”—therefore the Lord God sent him out of the garden of Eden to till the ground from which he was taken. So He drove out the man; and He placed cherubim at the east of the garden of Eden, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to guard the way to the tree of life.” We can see from this, and from a few other places, that for mankind, eternal life is something that must be given to us because it is not inherent within ourselves. Likewise, God was so insistent on not allowing mankind to live forever apart from Him in misery and unhappiness that the way to the tree of life was barred once mankind fell from innocence. While we might view death as a curse, an eternity of unhappiness and misery is a worse curse, which is ironically why those believers in an eternal hellfire to torment an immortal soul view the belief of the burning up into ashes of the wicked as being entirely too tender-hearted and merciful a fate for the irredeemably wicked.
Do you really want to live forever? This is a question that is occasionally answered, either negatively or with conditions, when musicians examine the matter. The band Queen wrote and recorded the song “Who Wants To Live Forever?” for the soundtrack for the movie “Highlander” (it also appeared, notably, on the series finale for the television show “Eastbound And Down,” of which my roommates were particularly fond), and this reference of the song points it to the same concerns about immortality and loneliness that are dealt with in the television show “Forever.” Just as familiar is the lament of Alphaville in their song “Forever Young” (not famous in its original release, at least in the United States, but a song that has been covered by for several popular television shows as well as sampled memorably by Jay-Z). Here too reflection on a long life is filled with melancholy and anxious pondering. Do we want to live forever alone? No. Do we want to live forever broken in body, mind, heart, or spirit? No. We see, therefore, that our desire to live forever is contingent on life being good. We want to live a long life if that life is filled with love, happiness, meaning, honor, or glory. If our lives are filled with suffering and anguish and unhappiness, we may persist in such a life out of a sense of duty, a resolute and stubborn determination to do the best no matter what we have been given, but we are generally unwilling that this state of misery be continued indefinitely. Rather, commensurate with that sense of duty, we may fervently wish for a better life promised to us (as it was promised to my father as a repentant believer, despite his serious shortcomings) and may not lament that our lives on this earth were short if they were not enjoyable to live.
It is for that reason that the nature of eternal life is as important as its existence. What kind of eternal life do we seek, and what kind are we promised? As a believer in the Bible, I look forward to eternal life as it is expressed in Revelation 21:1-4: “Now I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. Also there was no more sea. Then I, John, saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from heaven saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them and be their God. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away.” Here in a few short verses we see the promise of God dwelling with people, about belonging, about love, about honor, about the absence of sorrow, death, crying, and pain. Both the absence of what detracts from the enjoyment of life and the presence and fulfilling of those longings that make life so frustrating for so many are briefly discussed, without a lot of detail, as a way of providing the happy ending that humanity has sought so earnestly and so vainly. An eternal life of happiness, of community, of meaning, of joy, all this is an eternal life we can enjoy, without decay and corruption and loss. Having said that, we may conclude that we want to live forever iff (that is, in mathematical notation, if and only if) our eternity is one spent in harmony and in community with other eternal beings, in a life that is filled with happiness and love and purpose. Those are, after all, the terms by which we wish to live at all.
 See, for example: