A Very Brief History of Eternity - Carlos Eire
Yale scholar Carlos Eire laments the loss of the concept of eternity that was an essential component of the history of Western civilization. This is tragic for "when we lose eternity as a horizon we can end up with totalitarian, materialistic nightmares" (xiv).
His book opens with a bang as he considers the possible end-time scenarios that await our universe - either the Big Freeze, the Big Whimper, or the Big Crunch. As far as we can tell, the universe is transcient and impermanent, and we human beings are insignificant in the seemingly endless expanse which engulfs us from all sides. Why then do we dream of forever? Of permanence and endurance? We ponder the unimaginable. This is not a "hiccup of gross irrationality" as some materialists like to argue.
Eire surveys human conceptions of eternity from the ancient Hebrews and Greeks all the way to contemporary postmoderns. He argues that, at its heart, the Protestant Reformation was about the rejection of the dead and their relationship to the living as expressed in Catholic indulgences: "The false point of Luther's attack on Tetzel was the doctrine of purgatory and the custom of performing certain rituals to alleviate the suffering of the dead in the afterlife" (109). Hence, by rejecting the medieval Catholic conception of the afterlife, Protestants may be to blame (at least, partially) for the secularization of the Enlightenment.
Eire also challenges Enlightenment elites and their postmodern children with the conceit of replacing one belief system (the notion of revealed truth) with another (that of the power of human reason) and rejecting - with certainty - that which is beyond reason, that is, the concept of eternity.
Not all who believe in eternity are terrorists. "But what shocks and disturbs Westerners about these self-professed martyrs [suicide bombers] is not their belief in the afterlife, but their belief in the righteousness of killing and maiming civilians at random" (201). Belief in eternity is a blessing, but like all blessings, it is a mixed blessing: "Men who do not expect to cavort forever in some eternal paradise with eternal virgins in exchange for some horrific self-immolation that kills thousands in the name of the Almighty tend not to fly aircraft filled with passengers into tall, crowded buildings. But then, again, men who believe that they will suffer eternal torment for failing to love their neighbor usually shy away from doing that sort of thing too. Normally they also avoid building extermination camps where human beings can be turned into ashes and soap very quickly, by the hundreds of thousands, or millions, with industrial efficiency" (222).