A Very Brief History of Eternity
In A Very Brief History of Eternity, Carlos Eire traces the concept of eternity as envisioned by human beings throughout their history and the influence that the concept has had on the social, political, economic, religious, and scientific world in which they live. He also discusses the effect of the developments in these various areas of human activity, especially in science, on the way eternity is viewed. Eire begins his book by addressing scientific theories about the creation of the universe, such as the big bang, as well as those about its inevitable end, such as the big crunch. From this discussion, he concludes that human beings and all human endeavor will eventually be nonexistent. He also deals at length with the brevity of human existence, both individually and collectively, in relation to the existence of the universe.
Thus, Eire establishes that nothingness is the fate awaiting all human beings as entities within a universe that exists in a constant state of flux, increasing and decreasing in a continual process of creation and destruction as matter changes form. He then considers the unacceptability of death and nothingness to the human consciousness. It is this horror of coming from nothing and returning to nothing, of being doomed to nonexistence, that he credits with the development among human beings of the concept of eternity. He insists upon the human need to continue.
Eire states very explicitly that his book is neither a theological nor a philosophical investigation into the idea of eternity but rather a history text that examines how the concept of eternity developed, its importance in human existence, its disappearance, and its reappearance. He limits his consideration of the history of eternity to its development in Western culturethat is, in Europe and the Americas colonized by Europeans. He further emphasizes that his book is a survey of the history of eternity in relationship to human’s earthly lives and their quest for a life after death in an eternal realm. Since the concept of eternity as a place of unending existence for human beings is a very human idea, Eire recounts the history of eternity by proceeding chronologically through the history of human existence, relating ideas about eternity to the ways in which human beings live in society and interact with one another.
Eire begins his history of eternity with the meshing together of Greek philosophy and Judaic religious beliefs from which emerged Christianity, the belief system responsible for the idea of eternity in Western culture. In order to help readers understand the role of eternity in Christian thought, he prefaces his actual history of eternity with a consideration of Greek philosophy, explaining its terminology and discussing the monotheism of Judaism. He devotes a considerable part of his book to the early centuries of Christianity and to the Middle Ages, when religion was closely entwined with every aspect of life on Earth.
Eire presents the value of martyrdom, the cult of the saints, purgatory, monasticism, and the Eucharist as the five major Christian beliefs that maintained a close relationship between the here and now and eternity. Martyrs were believed to enter directly into eternal life. Consequently, persecution became a positive and welcome experience for the faithful. The earthly remains of the martyrs (relics) were venerated, and this practice grew into the cult of the saints.
The preservation of relics and their veneration significantly affected everyday life and placed the dead both in eternity and in the temporal world. Eire sees the church and monasterial housing of relics as forging links to eternity for the living. Possessing a church that housed relics promised prosperity to a city, encouraged building, and promoted trade and travel, as people made pilgrimages to the various locations of the relics.
Eire traces the idea of purgatory, a place for cleansing the soul before its entrance into the eternal life, to the fourth century. He presents belief in purgatory and the corollary practice of indulgences and masses for the dead as a strong and ever-present bond between...
(The entire section is 1697 words.)