Some of the seeds of things I think about today were planted many years ago. I was an English Literature major at Cornell College, a small liberal arts college in eastern Iowa. I loved the academic and intellectual pursuit. I still do, and I came to faith in that setting.
I distinctly remember a thought that struck me one day in a literature class in which we were reading the sonnets of Shakespeare. It struck me that the great writers time and again wrote about the inevitability of death and a longing for immortality. The next thought was this:
Why do people have this longing, this hope against hope, for eternity?
Much of the sonnets, great writings and other art is preoccupied with the inevitability of death, and the desire for eternal life. Some of it is morose; some of it is inspiring, if not fanciful; but much of it ends with the compromise of posterity and legacy – expressing and manifesting a desire to create things that would live on after death.
We read the works of dead writers today. Whole college courses and programs are based on the works of dead writers. The writers are not around to appreciate the longevity of their works. They lie in the cold, dank ground, their bodies entombed, without feeling, without sense, nothing but brittle bones.
Though they have returned to dust, the works of great writers live on today in the hearts and minds of each generation of readers, but what does it profit those writers, themselves? It is meaningless to them as they lie in the ground.
We see the angst and the tension of the knowledge of the certainty of death coupled with the desire for eternity in Ecclesiastes. The following verses focus on the inevitability of death:
“Man’s fate is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: as one dies so dies the other.” (Ecc. 3:19)
“[A]ll come from the dust, and to dust all return.” (Ecc. 3:20)
“As a man comes, so he departs, and what does he gain, since he toils for the wind?” (Ecc. 5:16)
Instead of resignation to fate, that realization leads to hand-wringing concern over the meaning of life. Why? In Ecclesiastes 6:3-6, the writer struggles with the fact that no matter how long a man lives, whether 100 or 1000 years, no matter how much prosperity a man enjoys during his life, he cannot enjoy the prosperity and take it with him when he dies. In the end, he is no better off than a stillborn child.
“Do not all go to the same place?” (Ecc. 6:6; 9:2)
Still, in the midst of that stark and barren reality, we grasp for whatever meaning we can:
“Anyone who is among the living has hope – even a live dog is better off than a dead lion!” (Ecc. 9:4)
The author concludes that we should, therefore, make the most of what we have while we have it:
“Whatever your hands find to do, do it with all your might, for in the grave, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.” (Ecc. 9:9)
That is a common sentiment today. We see in the history of humankind a continual striving for great things that is motivated by the uncomfortable knowledge that death is inevitable. In many of the great writers and other artists we see an almost desperate effort to attain the unattainable by their striving for posterity.
While panting for immortality in the face of the painful knowing that every life ends with death, wanting to believe in immortality, they settle in the end for a legacy left to others. (Ecc. 9:10)
Why is it that we are so desperate for meaning in our lives to begin with? Why is that we even think about eternal life, let alone pine for it, when “all we are is dust in the wind” as the popular song goes?
How is it that we have any sense of eternity to begin with?
Have you ever wondered about that?
All we know is death and decay. People live and people die. Our pets die. Plants die, especially if we do not take care of them. In fact, all the things around us decay if someone does not take pains to preserve them, and, even then, death and decay is inevitable.
How is it, then, that we understand the notion of eternity at all?
We not only understand it, we pine for it! Even in the face of the seeming impossibility of it, people are preoccupied with the thought of death and the wish that there is something beyond death.
If death was all there is, how and why do we have any sense that there is (or may be) something other than or beyond death?
If there was no such thing as eternity, why would it even cross our minds to consider it? The answer lies in this verse:
“[God] set eternity in the hearts of men.” Ecc. 3:11)
We have a sense of eternity because God exists. He created us in His image, and part of that stamp of God on us is a sense of eternity. We long for it because we are made for God and for eternity.