I was recently thinking about the idea of eternal bliss, as my philosophy teacher posed the following (completely arbitrary) question on an exam: “Do you find the idea of eternal bliss appealing or repellant? Why?” My immediate answer to this was that it is appealing, especially considering the immense suffering that flesh is heir to in the life of this world as well as the fact that it is fairly easy to qualify for Paradise. You just have to believe in God, in accountability before Him, do more good deeds than bad deeds, and avoid the big sins. However, it was only hours after the exam that I began to wonder whether the idea of eternal bliss was repellant…
Why might it be repellant? It seems to imply a kind of stagnation. That is, it would seem boring if the bliss of Paradise is maximal. One could enter heaven and ask God for a beach. If one was maximally happy using this beach, there would be no incentive to change action and one would be sitting on a beach forever! (This is not a bad thing necessarily, but there is the element of stagnation and it is almost as though you have been “programmed” to be completely happy). However, Islam holds that there are varying levels of Paradise, which implies that happiness is relative, not absolute. I have tried rationalizing the concept in my mind, and this is what I have come up with: Each level of heaven will contain unimaginable bliss, which God will provide without any difficulty. But this bliss will not be 100% absolute and there will instead be a certain margin of longing/dissatisfaction in each level of heaven. This margin is what prompts the citizens of Paradise to ask God for more and more, for an eternity. In the highest echelon, there would be a smaller margin of longing as compared to lower levels. Whatever garden one enters, the situation will obviously be much much better than roasting in fire and drinking boiling water for eternity.
I understand, though, that heaven and hell are abstract, mystical concepts that are allegorically described, and so rationalizing them in the manner above is, in a sense, futile. The Qur’an says that no soul knows what delights are hidden for the eye in Paradise. We can’t even begin to imagine what Jannah will be like. Still, I wanted to solicit your thoughts on this issue. Have you ever tried rationalizing the concept in your mind? If so, how did you rationalize it? If not, how would you explain the apparent element of stagnation in absolute (not relative) happiness?
I do not have much to add to the explanation that you have yourself given in your last paragraph. The fact is that the concept of ‘absolute’ bliss is so alien to our minds that we cannot even imagine enjoying a life that provides us with it.
I have tried rationalizing the concept in my mind, and this is what I have come up with: Each level of heaven will contain unimaginable bliss, which God will provide without any difficulty. But this bliss will not be 100% absolute and there will instead be a certain margin of longing/dissatisfaction in each level of heaven. This margin is what prompts the citizens of Paradise to ask God for more and more, for an eternity.
I would not disagree with your explanation completely, yet I would phrase it in a slightly different way: As I understand it, there would indeed be a continual evolution of the great blessings of Paradise, yet none of these evolutionary stages would entail any sense of deprivation, at any level. Every person, at each level, would get even more than his wildest imagination. As you would have it, every person would get 100 percent satisfaction, at each level. No level would entail any unfulfilled desires, aspirations or needs. However, there can indeed be yet ‘unknown’ desires, aspirations and needs at each evolutionary level, which become ‘known’ and ‘fully satisfied’ at each subsequent level.
To understand my foregoing explanation, take the example of the general evolution and development of the humankind, over time, as well as that of an individual life in its various stages.
Consider the desires, aspirations and needs of man during the bronze-age. We know that a person may have lived a life of ‘complete satisfaction’ during that age, without even being ‘aware’ of the desires, aspirations and needs that time would create within man. Thus, the cool shade of a tree may have provided man with ultimate satisfaction in his desire to save himself from the scorching heat of the sun, for he was never even aware of the comfort provided by central air-conditioning facility. The historical man lived a life of ‘complete satisfaction’, without ever experiencing the pleasant environment of the central air-conditioning facility, for this experience was never desired, aspired or needed by the historical man.
The same phenomenon can be observed in the evolving stages of an individual’s life. The concept of ‘complete satisfaction’ for an infant would be substantially different from that of a teenager, an adult or a middle-aged person. Our desires, aspirations and needs evolve considerably over time. Something, which becomes a desire in our adult life may not even attract us during our childhood.
The blessings of Paradise would continually evolve with our evolving needs and aspirations. No stage of that life would entail any degree of dissatisfaction, yet every subsequent level would entail more pleasure and satisfaction, when compared to the preceding level.
I hope this helps.
October 29, 2001