Imagine Forever: a no-heaven reason to be good
Once upon a time, not so long ago, and not very far away, a farmer imagined having a cow that he could feed and milk forever. A cow like that, he reckoned, would enable both him and his cow to win the struggle for existence.
Farmer John is not a slave to fashion. His essential wardrobe consists of eight identical work shirts, eight pairs of the same canvas overalls, eighteen changes of underwear, eighteen pairs of thick cotton sox, and one pair of lace-up work boots — all of which he replaces each year on his birthday. He showers in the evening, does laundry on Sundays, and walks to his barn at five o’clock every morning in clean clothes.
Although John’s neighbors like him and admire his work ethic, they have not encouraged pursuit of his imagined cow. Indeed, his wealthy neighbor to the north, Rachel, a stunning serial divorcée who has done a lot of milking, assured our farmer that “Nothing lasts forever!” His southern neighbor, Giuseppe, who speaks with hand gestures punctuated by Italian sounding phrases, blurted “Impossibile!” And from Chen, his neighbor to the east, he heard a very long “Ommmmmmm.”
While those neighbors gossiped that Farmer John must be smoking too much marijuana, and maybe even hiding coca (!) or opium poppies (!!) in his corn field, the most discouraging words came from The West. In response to his imagined cow, Reverend Chillingworth told John ominous stories about The Garden of Eden and The Tower of Babel.
In the garden story, the God of The Bible tells his god colleagues that a serpent put humans on the path to becoming gods “like us,” and He warns the heavenly hosts that His human creations might gain the ability to “live forever!”:
Then the LORD God said, “Look, the human beings have become like us, knowing both good and evil. What if they reach out, take fruit from the tree of life, and eat it? Then they will live forever!” So the LORD God banished them from the Garden of Eden, and he sent Adam out to cultivate the ground from which he had been made. After sending them out, the LORD God stationed mighty cherubim to the east of the Garden of Eden. And he placed a flaming sword that flashed back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life (Genesis 3:22-24).
In the tower story, the LORD God implores his god neighbors to help him block humans from attaining the ultimate god capacity — the ability to do anything that they imagine being able to do:
And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower which the children of men built. And the Lord said, “Behold, the people are one and they have all one language, and this they begin to do; and now nothing will be withheld from them which they have imagined to do. Come, let Us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.” So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth; and they left off building the city. Therefore is the name of it called Babel, because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth (Genesis 11:5-9).
Long-story-short, having acquired understanding of good and evil because a snake cajoled Eve into eating fruit from The Tree of Knowledge, the LORD God decided He needed to clamp down on the creatures that He made in His own image. They had become a there-goes-the-neighborhood threat to the entire heavenly realm. He was able to forestall the impending encroachment by stationing sumo cherubim, installing a prototype ninja sword, and launching a systems-wide hack on human communication — so that his ex post facto illegal immigrants could not build a stairway to heaven. All that put Him in a position to taunt His overly ambitious hordes with:
By the sweat of your brow, you will produce food to eat until you return to the ground, because you were taken from it. You are dust, and you will return to dust (Genesis 3:19).
Farmer John pondered this dust-to-dust destiny and wondered why a deity would become so defensive-aggressive over the prospect of neighborhood expansion when the nouveau heavenly would be, by the LORD God’s own assessment, “like us” — nearly as heavenly as the vieux heavenly upon arrival, and indistinguishably heavenly after learning a few ropes and regulations, like: how to recline on a comfortable cloud without falling through; how to accomplish all excretory functions through a light perspiration; the requirement to stay on the left side of God The Father Almighty because His right side is reserved for His alter-ego Son; and never-ever ask questions about The Holy Ghost.
John’s pondering was relieved when he recollected Paul, the Collection-Plate-Man. Paul always dressed in a suit, the same suit, rumpled with threadbare coattails — threadbare because Paul always tucked them under his ischial tuberosities before plunking himself down on the outside corner of the rear pew of the church.
Paul’s partner, The Reverend Chillingworth, was a shyster in John’s view, because he made a living by convincing people that they, unlike the Babylonians, could live forever in heaven — and that their chances of getting a green card, or at least a visa, would improve if they put money in Paul’s plate. While wondering where all that cash disappears to, our farmer recalled the stick.
Carrots are more effective when paired with a stick. The con was starting to make sense: if the default program is eternal hell for non-believers (Big Stick!), dust-to-dust for doubters (Big Stick for the existentially anxious), limbo for agnostics (just-in-case believers) and heaven for believers who pay up (Huge Carrot), it makes sense for true believers to help Paul and Chillingworth avoid having to find, heaven forbid, a real job.
Having spent his first post-high-school summer working at the bottom of a very deep coal mine, then flying home above the clouds to attend his mother’s funeral at Chillingworth’s church, our not-so-allegorical farmer eyed heaven and hell with deep suspicion. ‘Where are they?’ he wondered, while pondering the lyrics of an iconic song: “Imagine there’s no heaven. It’s easy if you try … no hell below us, above us only sky.”
Irritation from the Garden and Tower stories made Farmer John feel better about snubbing Collection-Plate-Man, but he was downright truculent about dust-to-dust because, given his profession, he “return[ed] to the ground” on a daily basis. So unlike Peggy Lee, John refused to accept that all we can do is dance “If that’s all there is.” As such, our farmer got a bit prickly when folks snickered at his imagined cow.
From Malaise To Recombobulation
Umbrage notwithstanding, John remembered his devout mother’s admonition to read God’s Word in times of trouble. So with courage screwed up against trepidation, he pulled her Holy Bible off the shelf where she left it, twenty years ago. Feeling down in the existential dumps, it was rather plucky of our farmer to read the garden and tower stories for himself — after blowing a thick layer of dust off the top of the bound pages, and wishing he had done that before taking his evening shower.
Although he read slowly, pronouncing each word in his head (the way speed-readers are told to not do), Farmer John understood what he read, so he quickly realized that each story, considered in isolation, was too cartoonish to be taken seriously. That surmise did not sit well with the fact that Chillingworth, his learned neighbor to The West, took both stories to heart. Being an essentially humble man, John felt a bit embarrassed to be at odds with Chillingworth. He worried that both stories needed to be read in their larger context, so he resolved to read The Torah (first five books of The Bible) the way it was meant to be read — starting with the first word on the first page (“In”) and reading every word until he read the last word on the last page (“Israel”).
John ended up reading The Torah three times because he was so astonished by what he saw in the first two read-throughs that he thought ‘This can’t be the real story. I must be certain. I need to read this again. Maybe the LORD God’s designated scribes wrote The Word of God most of the time, but did some ad libbing during light perspiration breaks.’
The three readings took almost three months because, in addition to reading slowly, like all farmers, John had a real job. Unfortunately, the third read-through only cemented his malaise — not because he thought he finally got it, but because he realized that he got it the first time, so he had wasted two months hoping to find redeeming social value in the garden and tower stories. Between his work, having spent too much time reading The Torah (Hebrew for The Law), and having missed most episodes of his favorite television serial, our farmer felt deeply discombobulated.
Nevertheless, malaise just barely withstood, John managed to glean an unintended, even antithetical take-away from the tower story: according to The LORD God Almighty in Genesis 3:22 and 11:6, if humans globalized into one people with a united purpose, and they understood each other’s language, they would be able to do anything “which they have imagined to do.” Nothing would “be withheld from them.” They could “live forever,” have consequence forever, and so prevent a time when there would be no evidence that they ever existed, with or without a cow.
Attaining a level of understanding that would enable people to have “all one language” looked like a daunting task, but being a straightforward fellow, our farmer felt that Google Translate was a promising start. And it dawned on him that if he traded his rather ham-handed goal of personally living forever for improving the prospect of humans evolving forever, the milk and fertilizer that his cows produced — along with monthly contributions to Save the Children, Childhood Education International, Wikipedia, and Science for Society — would give him a shot at making his life, and his cows’ lives, links in a chain that might hold forever.
So it happened that reading The Torah caused John to aspire to become a light that would shine along with the light of every other creature that contributed to everlasting life — including every cow that provided hamburger when her milking days were over.
Conceptualizing that aspiration earned Farmer John a good night’s sleep.
Love Thy Neighbor?
After a long, hard day of plowing, planting, bailing, hauling, feeding, milking and cleaning up, this new way of winning the struggle for existence did not have the appeal of a permanent vacation on a comfortable cloud — but it was a lot better than dust. Armed with his decidedly impudent insight from the garden and tower tales, and the redeeming social value of “love thy neighbor as thy self” (Leviticus 19:18), John decided to test this slender ray of hope on Rachel — his disillusioned-but-still-pulchritudinous neighbor to the north.
As he came within view of Rachel’s grand but melancholy house (her milking days have been vastly more profitable than his), our farmer felt a deja-vu-all-over-again sense of anomie … similar to the sensation that almost stopped him from launching into his Torah-reading stint. But a bubbling hope for a love-thy-neighbor relationship with the way-too-beautiful-for-me Rachel, prodded John’s manure embellished boots to plod uphill until he reached her doorstep.
She greeted him with a mixture of surprise and puzzlement, as it would have been her etiquette to call or text before traipsing over. Oblivious to such niceties, our farmer launched right into his explanation of how human understanding, loving thy neighbor as thyself, and a unified goal of evolving forever, might enable the entire chain of life to evolve forever, and so have consequence forever — with eternal consequence resolving the existential dilemma for each link, including Rachel’s and his own. She invited him in.
While John fumbled with his boots, Rachel held a smile that contained a flicker of affection. As he rose to face her in his stocking feet, she queried “Love thy neighbor?” and ushered him into her library. Our farmer’s embarrassment over having been so forward was replaced by astonishment. Rachel had a long shelf of Bibles. None of them were dusty. John had no idea that there were so many versions and translations. Rachel slid five English translations out of their slots, carefully opened each one to Leviticus 19:18, and read aloud … raising her voice to emphasize each love-target:
You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the sons of your people, but you shall love your friend as yourself.
You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.
Never get revenge. Never hold a grudge against any of your people. Instead, love your neighbor as you love yourself.
You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your countrymen. Love your fellow as yourself.
Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against a fellow Israelite, but love your neighbor as yourself.
“In context,” Rachel clarified, pointing to the words as she spoke, “the word translated as ‘friend,’ ‘neighbor,’ or ‘fellow,’ meant ‘the sons of your people,’ ‘the sons of your own people,’ ‘any of your people,’ ‘your countrymen’ or ‘fellow Israelite’ — in other words, love your group’s members as you love yourself.”
“Well that’s a good start … isn’t it?”
Without a hint of condescension or impatience in her voice, Rachel replied “No, dear.”
With his head swooning from having been addressed as ‘dear’, John managed to stammer “Why not?”
While turning to Deuteronomy 20:10-17, John’s northern neighbor expounded: “Because the purpose of all this forgiving and loving within the group was to generate a solid kumbaya foundation, to pump up an ever-ready pep rally, to generate a religious zeal that would keep them together so …
“So they could be communists?” John interrupted.
“No,” Rachel persisted, “so they could subjugate other people. This is a common purpose of human groups that are sufficiently united and militarized … common in both senses of the word … a naturally selected default program … a highly evolved attribute of human nature. We do it because we can. Taking other people’s stuff is easier than working for a living.”
‘Takes one to know one!’ our farmer thought to himself.
“The big difference between the ancient Israelites and the Vandals, the Goths, the Huns and the Mongols” Rachel continued, holding a note card, “is that the Israelites wrote it all down in their original instruction manual for Zionism … the Zionism of Moses, Joshua, Saul, David, Solomon, Jesus, Meir Kahane, Ovadia Yosef, Benjamin Netanyahu, Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir … as distinct from the Zionism of Theodor Herzl, Henrietta Szold, Judah Magnes, Martin Buber, Noam Chomsky, Lara Friedman and Rabbis for Human Rights.”
While John worried that Rachel might have some sympathy for antisemitism — a concern that conflicted with his long held supposition that Rachel is Jewish — Rachel read the instructions for Biblical Zionism aloud:
When you approach a city to wage war against it, offer it terms of peace. If it accepts your terms and submits to you, all the people found in it will become your slaves. If it does not accept terms of peace but makes war with you, then you are to lay siege to it. The Lord your God will deliver it over to you and you must kill every single male by the sword. However, the women, little children, cattle, and anything else in the city — all its plunder — you may take for yourselves as spoil. You may take from your enemies the plunder that the Lord your God has given you. This is how you are to deal with all those cities located far from you, those that do not belong to these nearby nations (Deuteronomy 20:10-15).
As for the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God is going to give you as an inheritance, you must not allow a single living thing to survive. Instead you must utterly annihilate them — the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites [the people of Jerusalem] (Deuteronomy 20:16-17).
Flipping pages as though she had given this lecture many times, Rachel clarified: “The instructions were quite detailed for prior inhabitants of what was to become Israel:
They should be utterly destroyed and should receive no mercy but be exterminated, as the Lord commanded Moses … Utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, infant and suckling (Joshua 11:20 … First Samuel 15:3).
You will make them as a blazing oven when you appear. The Lord will swallow them up in his wrath; and fire will consume them. You will destroy their offspring from the earth, and their children from among the sons of men (Psalms 21:9-10).
… and for nations located outside of Israel,” Rachel explained:
Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession. You shall break them with a rod of iron, and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel (Psalms 2:8-9).
Thus says the LORD: The wealth of Egypt and the merchandise of Ethiopia, and the Sabeans, men of stature, shall come over to you and be yours, they shall follow you; they shall come over in chains and bow down to you. They will make supplication to you, saying: ‘God is with you only, and there is no other, no god besides him’ (Isaiah 45:14).
Foreigners will build up your walls, and their kings will serve you … Your gates will always be open. They will never be closed day or night so that people may bring you the wealth of nations, with their kings led as prisoners. Nations and kingdoms that do not serve you will be destroyed (Isaiah 60:10-12).
“The Midianites appear to have been a special case” Rachel noted. “They were not offered enslavement as a term of peace.”
“Why not?” John inquired, not quite remembering which group comprised the Midianites.
“Because the Midianites worshipped Yahweh, the god adopted by Moses for the Israelites. The destruction of the Midianites made the Israelites their god’s only people — a jealous god for a jealous people. Since gods of that era were worshipped first-and-foremost for their ability to confer victory in war, having exclusive access to a powerful god was a requirement for conquering Canaan and establishing Israel’s prophesied dominion over ‘not-nearby’ nations — all nations outside of Israel.”
They warred against the Midianites, as the LORD commanded Moses; and they slew all the males … And the children of Israel took all the women of Midian captives, and their little ones … And they brought the captives, and the prey, and the spoil,unto Moses … And Moses was angry with the officers of the army, with the captains over thousands, and captains over hundreds, who came from the battle. And Moses said unto them, “Have you saved all the women alive? … kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that has known man by lying with him. But all the young girls, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves” (truncated from Numbers 31:7-35).
Looking up from the page, Rachel asserted, back straightened even further: “The Vandals, Goths and Huns were illiterate, and nothing this overtly ambitious exists in Hitler’s Mein Kampf. These are marching orders. And as nasty as they are, I admire their unabashed, straight-talk manner … with few words wasted on attempts to disguise evil as good … a trick that is plentiful in Mein Kampf, and which we get plenty of from American neocons.”
As a student of anthropology, Rachel was convinced that all gods are creations of people, and no people are creations of gods, so she ascribed the entire Bible to scribes … men who created a god in their wannabe image, rather than men who had been created by a god in His image. From that perspective, she rolled on:
“My guess is that the men who wrote these words intended them to be read only by the cognoscenti, and be delivered only verbally to the illiterate masses. Very few people could read back then, so these Israelite illuminati were oblivious to the liability of a paper trail … the way people used to think that emails were private messages … like passing notes in class.”
“So what was in it – those marching orders – for the scribes?” John asked.
“Plunder.” Rachel announced, matter-of-factly.
“Ah, yes, so the scribes were Collection-Plate-Men?”
“But they didn’t offer heaven-for-cash … no carrot?”
“No carrot that incredible … just a better life between dust and dust. And they had one hell of a stick. For example, when Achan, one of Joshua’s soldiers, stole a 50-shekel bar of gold from some goyim, he was supposed to put it in the collection plate … but he put it in his tent instead. Appropriate action was taken:
Joshua and all Israel with him took Achan … and his sons and daughters … and all Israel stoned him with stones; they burned them with fire, and stoned them with stones (Joshua 7:24-25).
That’s how examples got set. As leaders of The Inquisition knew, and as ISIS and the Taliban recently reinforced, burning and stoning have profound effects on the burners and stoners. Screams from flaming victims leave an indelible impression on a congregation, and stoning enables everyone to participate in self-righteousness communion. These are the kinds of rituals that steel believers for battle. It certainly worked for Israel’s Jephthah when he burned his beloved virgin daughter to a crisp (Judges 11:30-39). These kinds of rituals enslave believers to their beliefs.”
Our farmer felt mortified. He had read The Torah three times and knew most of the above words well, but he had ascribed those words to errant scribes. He had missed the connection between “love thy neighbor” and in-group morality, and he had missed the connection between in-group morality and barbarism. Making matters worse, he began to see a connection between in-group morality and dust-to-dust.
As if hoping for a lifeline, John inquired “What about ‘Thou shalt not kill’?”
Not Kill Whom?
As the word ‘kill’ was being formed by John’s vocal chords, his brain sensed that his hoped-for lifeline was going to fall short. Fortunately, Rachel heard the despair in his voice, so pushed her chair back slowly, haltingly, before walking to her Bible shelf. She returned with a volume opened to a page that looked like this:
While lowering herself into the chair beside John, she briefly rested her hand on his shoulder. Pointing to the text with slender, pale fingers — so different from the farmer’s cracked, calloused hands — she spoke as if her words had been rehearsed.
“They wrote like this, on goat skins. A Torah scroll required about 70 goats and a great deal of manual labor. Because durable, portable writing space was so expensive, space-consuming punctuation was minimized. There were no periods, no commas, no first-word capitalization, no paragraphs and no numbers for chapters and verses — those numbers were invented later by Christian translators. There are 613 commandments in The Torah. Unfortunately, some time subsequent to production of the Nash papyrus,” Rachel warned,
“… decisions about where sentences and paragraphs began and ended were made by scribes and translators in a manner that allowed the proto-legal four of the Ten Commandments — the ones about killing, adultery, stealing and lying — to be interpreted as universal morality instead of in-group morality.”
“How did they manage that!?” John interrupted, his curiosity have been
“By spacing and numbering the crux of the Big Ten as separate paragraphs of one short sentence each — the only place in The Bible where short-sentence paragraphing has been imposed. Like this:
 Thou shalt not kill.
 Neither shalt thou commit adultery.
 Neither shalt thou steal.
 Neither shalt thou bear false witness against thy neighbour.
However, without changing any of the words – changing only translators’ punctuation – Deuteronomy 5:17-20 would be more parsimoniously translated (Rachel had a weakness for fancy words): ‘Thou shalt not kill, neither shalt thou commit adultery, neither shalt thou steal, neither shalt thou bear false witness against thy neighbour.’ And a more explicitly accurate translation would be: ‘Thou shalt not kill, neither shalt thou commit adultery, neither shalt thou steal, neither shalt thou bear false witness against ‘your countrymen’ … or ‘your own people’ … or ‘a fellow Israelite’.”
Although Rachel’s hand had been on John’s shoulder only briefly, he could still feel it. The wishful thought that her gesture was more than a natural inclination — more than something she would have done if her visitor had been a lady neighbor, or a child, or her sister — almost stifled his question: “Was the ancient Hebrew word translated as ‘neighbor’ in Leviticus 19:18 the same word translated as ‘neighbor’ in Deuteronomy 5:20 … the ‘neighbor’ in ‘love thy neighbor’?”
“Yes.” Rachel answered, as if responding to the question: ‘Is today Tuesday?’ on a Tuesday. “Killing outsiders on the inside, and enslaving or killing outsiders on the outside, requires ‘Thou shalt not kill’ insiders on the inside … unless, of course, they are gay, in which case Leviticus 20:13 comes into play:
If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death, their blood is upon them.
The skivvy on the proto-legal portion of the Ten Commandments is that a group cannot follow über alles commandments if grudges are being held because of murder, adultery, theft and lying within the in-group.”
“Right.” our farmer confirmed, quietly, as if responding to an accountant who found a debit that had been entered as a credit. “Are Christians as in-group moral as Jews?” John asked.
“You bet! Christians are people! When they coagulate into a critical mass that is sufficiently united and militarized, they über alles everybody they can get their hands on — even different groups of Christians! Jews have done the same to fellow Jews! And Muslims do it to Muslims! After World War II the United States, a mostly Christian nation, was so on top of the world that it über allesed people as far away as Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Bosnia, Serbia, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, Uganda, Somalia, Zaire and even the tiny island of Grenada. It’s that default program of human nature. We are all made of the same stuff. And we all use our most irrational foundations — our religions — to rationalize the worst aspect of our nature. And given the Nicene Creed, Christians march under the same banner as Jews because Christianity is ultimately a form of Judaism … Judaism for non-Jews,” Rachel womansplained.
“I never heard that one!”
“Well think about it. Two thirds of the Christian Bible is the Jewish Bible in its entirety, and the most common Christian prayer is ‘Our father who art in heaven …’ — the prayer that Jesus taught his followers to pray. It’s called ‘The Lord’s Prayer’, but Jesus was not praying to himself. He was praying to his one-and-only god, the God of Israel. So somewhere deep in the most indoctrinated region of their brains, most Christians, not just evangelicals, think they get go-to-heaven-points for supporting Zionism … and they worry about losing points if they criticize Israel. That’s how their 3-in-1 god wants them to think.”
“Three-in-one god?” John asked.
“Yes … the Nicene Creed.”
“You mentioned that. What is it?”
“It was concocted by a group of clerics in a Turkish town called Nicaea in the year 325. They asserted that 3 is 1 and 1 is 3 when it comes to Jesus, the God that Jesus worshipped, and The Holy Ghost … that those three are one entity, The Holy Trinity … so they/it can be worshipped without fear of transgressing the First Commandment … without fear of being polytheists.”
“Sounds like double-talk about triple-talk” John scolded.
“Right, it is. And if a person could time-travel back to Jesus and ask him ‘Are you the god that you pray to?’, after asking you to repeat the question to make sure he understood what you were asking, he would have accused you of blasphemy! But given Christian acceptance of the Nicene Creed, the outstanding theological difference between Jewish Judaism and Christian Judaism is that one group believes their Jewish messiah is yet to arrive, while the other believes their Jewish messiah — Jesus — came, left, and is coming back. So the faithful in both groups spend their lives anticipating the arrival of their messiah … trying to behave in ways that will encourage him to come … and be in good stead when he shows up.”
“Well that’s good!” Farmer John proclaimed. “It’s good if it causes them to behave themselves, even if their imagined messiah is like my imagined cow!”
“It could be more-good-than-bad if Christians didn’t believe they get go-to-heaven-points for supporting Zionism, and if Jews didn’t believe that their ‘light unto the nations’ outshines the darkness of Biblical Zionism. It would be good if it did not blind believers to the direct line that leads from what Gore Vidal called the United States’ ‘hurried recognition of Israel’ to the 9-11 attack” Rachel clarified.
“Ah! Right!” John replied, feeling anxious about having admitted to himself that his imagined cow was an embarrassment. “Who is The Holy Ghost?” he asked, wanting to change the subject.
“Shuuuush!” Rachel whispered in mock alarm. “We can’t discuss that! The Holy Ghost is one of those unknowns that we know we don’t know, and inquiry has been forbidden.”
“Oh, okay!” John whispered in mock agreement.
“The other big difference between Christian Judaism and Jewish Judaism is that Christians try to convert non-Christians to Christianity, while Jews try to discourage non-Jews from gaining Chosen People status.”
Before giving his question a moment’s thought, John asked, “What’s wrong with having more Chosen People?”
“Simple math — if too many people are chosen, being chosen is nothing special. It’s as fictional as Lake Wobegon, where all the children are above average … and as nonsensical as the Nicene Creed. All children can’t be above average, and 3 is not 1. Jewish Jews harbor no confusion in that regard. That’s why Christians prefer Jewish accountants … nobody wants an accountant who can mistake 3 for 1 … or have a soft understanding of averages!”
After a burst of laughter that shot a speck of spit across the table (which John hoped Rachel had not noticed), he inquired, “Why do Christians want non-Christians to become Christians? Why do they proselytize?”
“Plunder without war … goods and services in exchange for the promise of heaven” Rachel answered while walking toward her desk to find the following New Yorker cartoon:
John studied the cartoon for a moment and conjectured “So, back in the day, if the guys on the cliff had been Israelites, and the people below had been prior inhabitants of what became Israel, the caption would just read ‘We’ll kill them and take their food in the name of religion.’ But if the guys on the cliff had been Christians, the caption would be as it is.”
“You got it! And ‘back in the day,’ as you say, in addition to food, the Israelites’ God commanded them to take ‘great and goodly cities, which you did not build, and houses full of all good things, which you did not fill, and cisterns hewn out, which you did not hew, and vineyards and olive trees, which you did not plant (Deuteronomy 6:10-11).”
“In distinction” Rachel continued, “back in the day, Christians would have explained about heaven … and how getting there would require the heathens to share much of their food, their land, their labor, all of their gold … and any other natural resources they might have … with the people who brought them the prospect of heaven.”
“That’s smart, like the Israelites policy toward non-Jews in “cities located far from you” — keep ‘em alive so you can screw them long-term!”
Being on a roll, Rachel responded: “Right again! But Jews don’t try to sell heaven to non-Jews … and almost all of them eschew selling heaven to fellow Jews. The heaven hook is why there are about 2.4 billion Christians, 1.9 billion Muslims, and only about 16 million Jews … less than one quarter of 1 percent of world population. When it comes to getting something for nothing, heaven is the most powerful hook ever invented. Heaven hucksters have convinced most of humanity to sacrifice their freedom of thought, and a chunk of their moolah, to get a reservation at a place that is more fantastic than Fantasy Island. So when it comes to super shysters, whether Christian clerics or Muslim clerics, whether Catholic or Protestant, Sunni or Shia, purveyors of heaven take the cake … not Jews.”
“Wow! A billion is a thousand million” John said softly, as if he was talking to himself, while wondering about ‘eschew’.
“Right” Rachel confirmed, while thumbing numbers into her phone’s calculator. And 2.4 billion divided by 2.4 billion plus 16 million is .99337 …so more than 99% of the people who worship the racist-sexist-homophobic-genocidal-maniac God of The Bible — the god of Zionism, the god that Jesus prayed to, the most worshipped god of all the gods that humans have ever invented — are heaven-striving Christians.”
“Did I read somewhere that the Pope said that there is no hell?”
“Yes, he said that — but he couldn’t let the other shoe drop — that there is no heaven. He has a business to run.”
Gamblers Since Life Began
After a long, contemplative pause, John shook off his partial paralysis and asked “What do you think about those scribes, so long ago, writing that humans have the potential to do anything “which they have imagined to do” — given sufficient understanding and unity of purpose — something like evolve forever?”
“Where did you get that?”
“From the Garden of Eden and The Tower of Babel stories. Reverend Chillingworth, our neighbor to The West, told me those stories. That’s why I started reading The Bible.”
“Ah!” Rachel exclaimed, “You got a sermon from Chillingworth! Did you ever wonder why his eyes bulge out?”
“Graves’ disease?” John proffered.
“No” Rachel reassured him, “It’s because he has so many snakes and cooties in his head … squirming around in there, trying to break free!” After sharing a chuckle, Rachel sat straight up in her chair and responded to John’s question as if she were testifying under oath: “There may be something to those stories. We don’t know enough to know that evolving forever is not possible.”
“We don’t know enough to know that evolving forever is not possible? How do you know how much we don’t know?” our farmer inquired without a hint of impudence because he was holding open the possibility that Rachel actually knew how much we don’t know — given the size of her library.
“Well, Cham and Whiteson say WE HAVE NO IDEA what 68% of the universe is made of, we only really understand about 5%, we make conjectures about 27%, and the rest is pure speculation” Rachel replied, stiffly.
Relaxing her posture, Rachel confessed, “I don’t know how much we don’t know, but that’s what many cosmologists say – including the Great Steves – that we don’t know enough to know that evolving forever is not possible.”
“Cosmologists? People who put on makeup?” John asked.
“No, those are cosmetologists. Cosmologists like Stephen Hawking, Steven Weinberg, Andre Linde and Martin Rees study the universe and predict what’s going to happen.”
“That seems to be the default program.”
“But we can change the default program?”
“We can aspire to have descendants who will be able to control enough of the universe to maintain life and evolution, but even if doing so would be possible for those descendants, our chances of evolving into them are slim. So overall, our chances of having consequence forever are slim to none.”
“Wait a second … if we don’t know that our descendants would not be able to control the universe, you were wrong to say that ‘Nothing lasts forever!’ … because we don’t know enough to know that!” John mansplained.
After a moment’s thought, Rachel admitted “You’re right. I’m sorry.”
“Tell me about ‘slim’.”
“The overwhelming probability is that the universe will continue to expand until every ray of energy and every subatomic particle is beyond the light horizon of every other ray and particle … until every bit of everything is so far away from everything else that there will be no interactions between any two of them, and the last interaction will mark the end of time and the end of what was once the universe … which will occur long after the end of dust.”
“Light horizon?” John asked.
“That’s when a star is moving away from us so rapidly that it’s light will never reach us.”
“Tell me about ‘slim’.” John repeated, trying to nudge Rachel away from accentuating the negative and eliminating the positive.
“The next ice age will almost certainly start within two millennia, and may start within one. As that happens, people will crowd into the tropics. The capitals of all nations that have nuclear bombs are in the northern temperate zone, but the people who live there are not very temperate. By the next glaciation, even Ivory Coast could have nukes. As glaciers head toward the tropics, the fight for real estate will put World War Whatever on a hair-trigger. The degradation of civilization from that war would probably put an end to the prospect of evolving forever. If global disarmament doesn’t happen before the next ice age, some other source of life in the universe may evolve forever, though probably not, and even if it did, we would not be among its ancestors … so our lives, yours and mine and everyone else’s, would not have eternal consequence.”
Although his nudge toward positive territory had clearly backfired, John tried again: “Tell me about ‘probably’.”
After pushing her chair back again, this time even more slowly, and putting her hand on John’s shoulder to help herself finish standing, Rachel went to her cosmology shelf and returned with volumes opened to pages that looked like this:
… and this:
… and this:
While sitting back down, somewhat less irritated than when she stood up, Rachel expounded, “Well, Linde and Guth think that …
“Linde? The chocolate guy?”
“No, that’s Lindt” Rachel enunciated, emphasizing the ‘t’. “Linde, with a ‘d’, and Guth, think that some universes will always exist with eternal inflation of a multiverse. As put by Linde: … ‘quantum fluctuations lead to the eternal process of self-reproduction of the inflationary universe. Quantum effects combined with inflation make the universe infinitely large and immortal.’ And if Linde’s take on The Anthropic Principle is right, The Second Law of Thermodynamics – the ‘law’ that says that everything must turn into nothing – is out the window. But that would not prevent nearly certain death in our part of a multiverse. The Milky Way, our galaxy, will probably be swallowed by black holes that evaporate into radiation.”
“Okay, so if we are in a multiverse, shouldn’t we think of our universe as our knowable universe … the universe within earth’s light horizon (see how fancy you’ve made me!) … a universe that is constantly losing matter that expands beyond our light horizon? Maybe there are two kinds of universes in the multiverse … those that disappear by dissipating, and those that contract into a single black hole and re-explode with a Big Bang that might result in another dissipating universe or a contracting universe … depending on the details of its asymmetry and a new ratio of mass to energy?”
“Wow! I don’t know. Like Linde … and now YOU! … more cosmologists are thinking along those lines – thinking that the Standard Model has lost cachet. Some of them call their alternative Plasma Cosmology.”
“Tell me about ‘nearly certain death’” John fake-whispered, on the off chance that his pseudo-obnoxious prodding might persuade Rachel to take a walk on the wild side.
“Well …” she mused, with palpable reluctance, but not irritation, “Futurists like Michio Kaku have written about populating our universe and possibly worm-holing between universes …”
“Our descendants would look like worms?”
“Probably not, but they would eventually look like something that we would not recognize as our descendants. As put by Martin Rees, ‘Indeed, it’s surely on the cards that human beings — their mentality and their physique — may become malleable through the deployment of genetic modification.’”
Continuing to re-feel his oats, our farmer asserted “It’s okay that we would not recognize our descendants. Blue-green algae don’t recognize us as their descendants. What matters is that our descendants have descendants forever …descendants who would not be there if we and blue-green algae had not been here … descendants who can make the universe, or multiverse, a cow that they can feed and milk forever. Talk to me about ‘possibly’.”
With her eyes tightly closed, as if she might be experiencing a pre-excretory function not covered by any amount of perspiration, Rachel confessed “In 1996, Weinberg wrote: ‘I don’t take the view that life can’t last forever, but only that it seems unlikely, and that you can’t conclude from modern science that life necessarily will last forever.’ And cosmologists like Freeman Dyson and Paul Davies have imagined humanity winning the struggle for existence by evolving forever …and Hawking, when asked by Frautschi about the possibility that some form of life might be able to evolve forever, replied ‘Quite possible if the universe continues to expand forever,’ by which he meant, ‘quite possible’ if the universe expands forever, as distinct from collapsing into the ultimate black hole.”
John stared at the Linde, Calabi-Yau and Hawking & Hertog pages for several minutes before asking “Is the universe slated to expand forever … unless it is disturbed by some form of life that has the purpose of evolving forever?”
“Apparently.” Rachel posited. “In 1998 the Supernova Cosmology Project and the High-Z Supernova Search Team established that the universe is still expanding at an accelerating rate, the way a bullet accelerates after it leaves the barrel of a gun, such that collapse (the more daunting challenge to everlasting life) is not in the cards. There is debate about the rate of expansion, and debate about the regularity of a finite multiverse versus the bizarre-and-largely-untestable nature of an infinite multiverse, but almost everybody has dismissed the possibility that the universe is headed for collapse into a giant black hole.”
“Do you understand string theory?” John inquired, out of the blue.
“No, I don’t even understand dark matter … or quantum mechanics, for that matter — the probabilistic behavior of subatomic particles. Which is okay because Richard Feynman, who won a Nobel Prize for his understanding of quantum mechanics, was famous for saying ‘Nobody understands quantum mechanics.’ I wonder what Feynman would have said about string theory. Some physicists think that string theory may explain everything, and M-theory is the apex of string theory.’
“Sounds pretty highfalutin. I don’t even understand Bitcoin. What does the ‘M’ in M-theory stand for?”
“Crypto currency is all about blockchains and their ledgers!” Rachel quickly condescended.
“Oh, that explains it!” John shot back … immediately wishing he had kept that quip to himself.
Fortunately, Rachel saw the concern in John’s face, so kindly offered “Magic. The M in string theory’s M-theory stands for Magic.”
“So we’re being strung along?”
“Maybe. I don’t know. M-theory may be The Holy Ghost of string theory.
But maybe a technical breakthrough will make the probabilistic behavior of subatomic particles seem about as magical as coin flips … and quantum states about as mystifying as magnets … which are plenty mystifying, though we’ve become inured to their magic. And then there’s action-at-a-distance…
“Well … as Einstein said, it’s ‘spooky’, but for entangled electrons and photons, it’s as if each of us flipped a coin and every time mine came up heads, yours would come up tails, and vice versa … even if you were in outer space and I was here on the ground.”
Feeling a bit like he was in outer space, John asked “Like bar magnets … where if one end is positive, the other end must be negative?”
Raising a supercilious eyebrow, Rachel answered “Probably not.”
“Getting back to entangled electrons and photons, are there such entanglements?”
“We can make them. Who knows? Maybe we will end up working action-at-a-distance the way we work magnetism … before fully understanding either of them. Action-at-a-distance may turn out to be as important to the integrity of communication as breaking magnetic attraction is to generating electricity. Maybe action-at-a-distance will be a key to having “all one language and quantum computing will give us our best chance of understanding the natural world … and so have descendants forever … and win the struggle for existence … but I digress. Sorry.”
“Please! Digress!” John egged her on, sensing a breakthrough. “Do you think we can become the ancestors of descendants who will keep life alive forever?”
“Well … in a recent article entitled ‘How humans may populate the universe in the billions of years ahead’ Martin Rees noted that:
Billions of years lie ahead. The Sun formed 4.5 billion years ago: it’s taken most of that immense time for life to evolve from its still-mysterious beginnings into the immensely complex biosphere of which we’re a part … We may in fact be nearer the beginning than the end of a cosmic process.
The Sun is still less than halfway through its life: it will survive six billion more years before its fuel runs out. And the expanding universe will continue far longer — perhaps forever. So even if intelligent life had originated only on the Earth, it need not remain a trivial feature of the cosmos: it could initiate a diaspora whereby ever more complex intelligence spreads through the whole galaxy … There’s plenty of time ahead …
… humans could claim truly cosmic significance for jump-starting the transition to electronic entities, spreading their influence far beyond the Earth …
Our tiny planet — this pale blue dot floating in space — could be the most important place in the entire cosmos …
Either way, our cosmic habitat seems “tuned” to be an abode for life. Even if we are alone in the universe, we may be far from the final destination of this “drive” towards complexity and consciousness.
“So if we maintain the accelerating pace of scientific progress that we’ve had over the past few centuries, Rachel confided, there is ‘plenty of time’ to overcome the technical challenges that can be overcome. But for reasons we agreed upon … the nature of in-group morality … and nearly everybody’s belief in The God Delusion — that gods are in charge of the fate of the universe — with the most worshipped god, the god that Jesus prayed to, rooting for dust-to-dust … I am not optimistic. My guess is that the technical challenges would require many failed attempts, like building high houses out of stacks of cards, only to watch them fall, before we get it right.”
“But we would learn from failures … and like Rees said, there is plenty of time” John interrupted.
“Right, there would be time for failures and lessons learned, but if any group of people felt that they were not welcome in the house that’s being built, or that their god is being dissed because the far future is His business, they would tug on a card at the foundation until the whole house crashes down. So that would be the first challenge … morphing religion, nationalism and identity politics into advocacy for all of humanity … blending everybody into one inclusive group, because all lives matter.”
“Everybody? John challenged, “Even Black farmers who wear barn-boots when they visit the homes of elegant women … and have no understanding of crypto currency?”
“Yes! Even men like you … super-smart men who look like they could out-bearhug a bear … and jerk a card out of the foundation all by their self … and have no use for Bitcoins! Especially the tall handsome ones! And I like your boots!” Rachel assured our farmer, with a wide smile.
“Have you ever played the lottery?”
“No!” Rachel sputtered, somewhat taken aback by the abrupt change of subject. “Do you play the lottery?”
“No.” Farmer John reassured her. “But if I knew that dust-to-dust would happen unless humans win the existential lottery … win the struggle for existence … no matter how long the odds, I would urge everyone to take that chance — and play fair … and play to win.”
After holding her head in her hands for what seemed like a very long time, Rachel looked up and forced out “Me too … maybe our prospect for existence should be a standard for morality.”
“A standard for morality?” John inquired
“A gauge for deciding whether a behavior, an innovation like CRISPR, or a policy or a law, is moral or immoral. If it improves our prospects for existence … it is moral. If it diminishes our prospect for existence, it is immoral. Given The Butterfly Effect and any non-zero probability of having descendants forever, either everything we do matters, or nothing matters. If good wins out, it will be because the consequences of moral behavior continued to eradiate into the future, while the consequences of immoral behavior became ever less consequential. If bad wins, the opposite. The probability that humans will have a long-term future without evolving is zero, and the alternative to gene editing is natural selection. Unfortunately, as the great evolutionary biologist George C. Williams was famous for saying, “Mother Nature is a wicked old witch,” so the probability that humans, or any other species, will avoid extinction if its fate is left to our selfish genes, is also zero. It follows that any non-zero probability of success with gene editing is infinitely more promising than the alternatives.”
“So when to start?”
“Considering our unique propensity for extinction by self-destruction, I think ASAP is the right time. Dr. He Jiankui attempted to give babies resistance to HIV by altering their genes, and he may have succeeded. Unfortunately, he was imprisoned for trying. But life is a gamble. No gamble, no life. If we survive for a few more generations, Dr. He may come to be seen as a brave pioneer. If his experiment worked, and we survive indefinitely because we direct our own evolution, he will come to be seen as a hero.”
“Unpack … ?” John requested.
“Our struggle for existence is binary — an all-or-nothing conditional proposition. Either everything matters forever, or nothing matters at all. Because there is ultimately nothing to lose and everything to gain, individual and collective existential self-interest compels the conclusion that we should strive to have descendants forever, and common sense compels the conclusion that humans will not have consequence forever unless we improve human nature through genetic engineering. Accomplishing that objective will require moral knowledge and proper moral motivation on a universal scale.”
“Ah! A no-heaven reason to be good! Sounds good to me!”
To which Rachel replied, after a pregnant pause “Might you, my magnificent shaygetz, like to stay for dinner?”
— John Hartung
For more about John Hartung and his works, please click here.
In loving memory of Freeman Dyson (1923-2020), Stephen Hawking (1942-2018), Géza Vermes (1924-2013), George C. Williams (1926-2010), George Carlin (1937-2008), William D. Hamilton (1936-2000), Isaac Asimov (1920-1992), Richard Feynman (1918-1988), Charles Darwin (1809-1882) and Thomas Paine (1737-1809); I thank Professors Steven Frautschi, Andrei Linde, Richard Dawkins and Noam Chomsky for encouragement and advice … and Professor Steven Weinberg for saying : “With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil — that takes religion.”
John Hartung is a Professor in the Department of Anesthesiology at the State University of New York, Downstate Health Sciences University. His Ph D is in Anthropology (Harvard, 1981).