Our World Will Pass Away
In my senior year of high school, my English teacher showed us three examples of an excellent college application essay. The last one, which my teacher made a point of emphasizing had been accepted by Ivy League schools, was understandably also the most remarkable.
The author related an anecdote from her younger days in which she found out through a diversion in a dissection class that the entire universe will eventually destroy itself. This knowledge saddened her heart at first, thinking that someday there would be absolutely nothing left, “not even a formaldehyde-covered desk.”
This Seems to be a Good Thing…
After the essayist explained her starting point, her final conclusion was, at least from a like-minded viewpoint, masterful. I can’t remember the exact words she used, but her overall point was that, if the whole universe is going to pass away, that makes its temporary existence all the more special while it lasts.
This stayed with me because, at the time, I agreed with her almost wholeheartedly. Surely the overall idea is a relatable one, since from what I can see people tend to appreciate something more if they know they can’t have it forever.
…But the Reason Why is Debatable
However, a new angle comes out if we approach this principle of the universe existing from a Christian perspective. Presuming that this high school senior was a non-Christian, then, unlike us, she probably did not have hope in an afterlife. It’s true that the only definite thing in this world is that everything fades. Machines, for example, work perfectly when new, but they never stay that way.
As soon as a baby is born, it’s only a matter of time — whether days or decades — before he dies. But, as the aspiring college applicant wrote, there is an apparent beauty in thinking that everything, good and bad alike, will pass away.
In contrast, though, Christians have a hope in something greater than this world. We have the hope that there is another, infinitely greater life waiting for all of us who believe. This life, we know, will have no imperfection within it whatsoever.
In a recent Mass reading from 2 Corinthians, we were reminded, “This slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, because we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen; for the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.”
Paul is correct, since, if anything eternal exists at all, it must by definition be too great for our senses, or we would have scientific proof of it by now. It then makes sense that this current, flawed world is transient, and nothing in it is permanent, if the hand of God never intended it to be forever.
Is the Transience of the World Everything?
This contrast between Christian and non-Christian views of the ending of the world shows a real beauty of Christianity. First, Christians and non-Christians alike generally agree that this world is transient. But, we disagree on the fundamental reason why. That is, not the material reason, since Christians don’t deny science, but see the hand of God in it.
Rather, instead of stopping at the scientific explanation, we believe that God engineered a transient world for a reason. This flawed world, filled with pain and sin, is meant as a journey, not its own end. Were the rest of our hard lives here all we had to anticipate from day to day, I think that would be infinitely less joyful. We treat this world as a journey that hopefully moves us ever closer to God as it progresses. Those who do not believe in an afterlife see the world of today as everything. Disregarding that this leads to expecting more of an imperfect world than it can give, it means that for atheists, their everything is transient.
There is still the essayist’s point, that the picture of a world full of life is made more beautiful when the day will come that nothing will be left as a memorial of it at all. Again, I see the point here—if existence were just one gigantic coincidence, then the ending would be sad, but good, since it would be the universe returning to its natural state.
Not in the Eyes of the Church
Now, we Christians also believe the end of the universe is a return to its natural order, bringing it back up, not just to the level of Eden, but to the even greater level of Heaven, thus we agree that the eventual destruction of the universe is good. The difference between the Christian and secular viewpoints lies not in that proposition, but in what the secular miss by disbelieving in perfection.
Take a perfect day, for example—if someone were fortunate enough to have one, I doubt he would want it to end. Furthermore, if a perfect world or Being existed at all, it then seems to me that neither could end, since if they were transient and ceased to exist, then how could we, who are imperfect, conceive of the idea of eternity anyway? And, if the perfect world or Being ceased to exist, how could it be described as “perfect” if it were no longer there? Lack of existence is then, according to this proposition, an imperfection.
However, just because the statement “the nonreligious don’t see transience as an imperfection” appears to be true does not immediately mean that it is anything of great importance. After all, there is much they do not understand the same way we Christians do, and that’s only logical, considering the difference of our respective starting points.
There is one final conclusion from the belief that the transient universe is the end as well as the beginning for the human race. Simply put, this is that nothing matters at all except in a small, relative, ephemeral sense. Whether we achieve our dreams or not, whether we act kind or mean to others, even whether we get out of bed in the morning—if everything in the world is doomed, our particular actions hold no more meaning than those of John Doe down the street, and nobody will make a difference that will outlive man.
Now, Sally Atheist might respond with something like, “So everything’s going to be destroyed anyway. I want to be kind for myself, and who cares whether what I do outlasts the earth? Today it’s still good.” Fair enough, Sally. I would be the last to say that satisfaction of one’s own desire to be good is not a strong force, or that today’s good action is nil if it isn’t visible tomorrow.
In This World is the Hope for Another
Having said all this, I would like to end this discussion on a more personal note. Again, here the notable difference between Christianity and atheism is the question of whether there is a form of life that will outlast our own ephemeral universe, and the respective importance of life according to that worldview. The whole reason that high schooler’s essay was so acclaimed was, again, that she thought the universe more beautiful due to knowing that it would end.
As for myself, though my lifelong Catholicism has surely shaped my viewpoint, I take comfort in believing that there is a reason for me to do good, and, further still, for my own life. If we do not live to do good, for what do we live? Christians do not only have hope in the next life because this life is flawed, but because that hope gives us all a greater purpose than just making it through one more day.
Undoubtedly, this life will pass away. Hopefully, once it does, all of us will be experiencing a life much more beautiful — the life with Him who made us.