Who Wants to Live Forever?

The Great Crowd

The Great Crowd

I was already pondering eternity one morning — an infected file had fried my hard drive, and I was on hold for a tech-support agent — when the doorbell rang. The phone clamped to my ear, I ran up from my basement office to peek out the living room windows at the front porch. I saw two women, one in her early twenties, the other, her mid-forties, both dressed prim and plain like they were headed for church. Oh God, I thought, as I ducked into the half bath to hide. Jehovah’s Witnesses.

I ignored the next doorbell chime, and the one after that. The women were in no rush to leave and tech support, obviously, was in no rush to help me, so after the fourth ring I went to the door.

“Good morning! I’m Trudy,” said the older one, in a slight Southern drawl, as she stuck out a hand. I now noticed she wore red lipstick and had a dainty necklace dangling from the top of her turtleneck. “And I’m Sally,” said the other, younger one who looked away as she spoke. They were both sweet as candied citrus peels.

But coy. “It truly is a pleasure to meet you,” said Trudy. “We’re Bible teachers.”

From there on out, Trudy did all the talking. She mentioned they’d just had a lovely chat about scripture with one of my neighbors. “The Yale professor,” said Trudy. Now, I know my neighbors, and none of them are teachers. Could one be secretly moonlighting in astrophysics for some extra scratch? I pressed for details. Trudy said she couldn’t remember the woman’s name or which house she lived in. She pointed in the general direction of the three other houses on my dead-end street. “That’s not important, John,” she said quickly, smiling. “But what is important is a question I’d like to ask you this morning.”

“Shoot,” I said.

“Since the terrible, terrible tragedy of September 11,” Trudy said, shaking her head at the painful memory of that day, “has it ever occurred to you, John, that maybe God will bring all the world leaders together and establish everlasting peace on earth?”

No, I said. That had not occurred to me.

Then Trudy handed me a booklet called “Knowledge That Leads to Everlasting Life.” As she described how God plans to restore the earth to the Eden it was before the fall of man, I flipped through the booklet. The copyright page confirmed my suspicion: Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York.

“Wouldn’t you like to have everlasting life, John?” Trudy asked.

I studied Trudy for a moment. She was a woman who believed in a real heaven where the streets are paved with gold. I desperately wanted to avoid hearing about it. Death, I wanted to tell her, is often sad and tragic — lives are cut short, sometimes through violence or after great suffering. But it isn’t always. Was the passing of Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mum, at the ripe age of 101 a tragedy? And after 101 years, would she, or any of us, really want any more living? And with what in tow? What part of us continues ad infinitum?

On the other hand, it’s a pretty universally accepted notion that no one wants to die, and we’ll do virtually anything to hold on to life. Ancient Egyptian rulers had themselves mummified and placed in pyramids in the expectation of eternal life. Today, you can shell out $28,000 to have yourself cryogenically frozen and stored until medicine finds a cure for what ails you — and finds a means to reanimate you.

The clincher for me, however, is always whose company I might have to spend eternity in. As Sartre (and Seinfeld) have noted, “Hell is other people.” I smiled at Sally and Trudy. “I’m not sure I want to live forever, Trudy.” I held the receiver to my ear and, inching the door closed, thanked her and said I really needed to wait for my call.

Nevertheless, that night after dinner I found myself sitting down with “Knowledge That Leads to Everlasting Life.” Chapter one, “You Can Have a Happy Future!” makes a case for life after death: “There is so much on the earth that delights our senses — delicious food, pleasant birdsong, fragrant flowers, beautiful scenery, delightful companionship! …Do you think our Creator wants us to die and lose all of this?”

Well, I thought, why not? Of course, we want to enjoy delicious food and pleasant birdsong forever. But is it reasonable to assume God wants that for us, too? The enjoyment of these pleasures doesn’t depend on the continued existence of any individual, any more than the smell of flowers and the beauty of the woods depend on any individual plant or tree. People have relished flowers for thousands of years, and perhaps God relishes the feedback. It’s just not the same people, or the same flowers.

Attempts to explain our eternal appreciation always get tangled, anyway. Inevitably, eternal life becomes an exclusive club. The founder of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, a Pennsylvania haberdasher named Charles Taze Russell, taught that only 144,000 people — no more, no less — will enjoy the glory of heaven. Russell also taught, at the dawn of the last century, that the end was near — that Jesus had invisibly returned to earth in 1874 and would establish his kingdom in 1914.

When that failed to happen, Russell and his successors readjusted the date, again and again. As the movement approached 144,000 members, they confronted a greater problem: What is the eternal fate of newcomers to the faith? After all, it’s difficult to win converts if your idea of eternal paradise excludes them. Today there are almost 6 million Jehovah’s Witnesses worldwide, which would leave roughly 5,856,000 of them out in the cold — or the heat.

In 1935, the leaders of the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, as Jehovah’s Witnesses are officially known, announced a solution. Though only the elect few will reach heaven, said Russell’s successors, the “great crowd” can achieve everlasting life here on a future “paradise earth.”

The hitch is, the masses have to earn it, by sharing their faith. For people like Trudy and Sally, going door-to-door isn’t an option; it’s a mandate. If they don’t, they may spend eternity in the grave.

In a sense, it seems a bit presumptuous to think any of us should be, or deserve to be, immortalized. Jehovah’s Witnesses believe, as do most Christians, mystics, spiritualists, etc., that in eternal life we’re pretty much the same beings we were in temporal life. We retain in the next world our personal identities, the totality of impressions and experiences, thoughts and feelings, that define us in this world. At the resurrection, Jehovah’s Witnesses claim, followers will physically pop from the grave. A colorful illustration in “Knowledge That Leads to Life Everlasting” depicts Lazarus rising from the dead smiling, as his family unties his funeral wraps. “Just as Jesus called Lazarus from the tomb,” the caption reads, “so millions will be resurrected.” Another illustration shows contemporary families hugging as they’re reunited along a winding river lined with beds of tropical flowers.

Should Trudy ever return, I’d love to share with her something I realized while reading her tract. Namely that, to know who we will be in the afterlife, we really need only examine who we, as the products of all we absorb, are today. As the saying goes, we are what we eat. To that extent, most of us are literally full of crap. Americans spend $110 billion a year on fast food, and more than half of us are obese or overweight. We feed our minds the same way we do our bodies. Americans watch on average the equivalent of almost 60 days of television each year. And that’s not just insipid shows, but also thousands of ads and product placements. It’s fair to say that much of what we offer eternity is advertising — the corporate images and messages we soak up, however unaware, everywhere we go and in everything we do, from checking our e-mail to running to the store for milk.

We also slave away at the office roughly 87 days a year, and in some cities we eat up 30 to 40 days a year stuck in traffic, where we ingest Howard Stern and Rush Limbaugh. Most of us spend 121 days a year asleep, our bodies and minds trying to recover from all the abuse and banality we endure while awake.

Some people believe that in eternity we’re somehow purified of the junk and clutter of daily life. That’s a heartening notion, but it seems like a loophole. If we are purged of all this earthly trash, what, if anything, will remain of us that is still recognizably who we were? In life we’re aware that our existence has an expiration date, yet we eat up our time sitting glued to the boob tube in our underwear. What in eternity could possibly compel us, no longer under death’s deadline, to get off our rumps and evolve?

Of course, many faiths teach that the hereafter will embrace us just as we are. Presumably, then, we’ll be allowed to enter the pearly gates with the remote in one hand, a bucket of wings in the other. If that’s the case, heaven will be a hell of a lot more tedious and familiar than some religions have led us to believe. At least it will be easy to adjust to. I know it will be for me. I feel as if I’ve already spent an eternity on the phone waiting for tech support.

John D. Spalding writes “The Sick Soul” humor column for Beliefnet.com. This essay is excerpted from his book, A Pilgrim’s Digress: My Perilous, Fumbling Quest for the Celestial City, published by Harmony Books in March. Used with permission.