"What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: 'This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything immeasurably small or great in your life must return to you-all in the same succession and sequence... The eternal hourglass of existence is turned over and over, and you with it, a grain of dust."
Depending on the perception of your life, this idea could be quite joyous or, it could be most disturbing. What if we were to live this life over and over indefinitely? What if this life laid the foundation for our eternal recurrence?
This concept could be argued to be no less realistic than the alternatives, specifically the religious afterlife and the atheistic proposal that our existence ends at death. Thus these three ideas, excluding for now others such as reincarnation, suggest that either life ends at death, is repeated indefinitely, or is spent, for eternity, in heaven or hell. This consideration places burdens of varying degrees on our present lives. Whether these ideas are cognitively considered beyond the overwhelming monotheistic belief in an afterlife, or not, each effects how our present lives are to be lived.
If we believe that we have been saved and are entitled to an eternity in heaven, then this life means little, a drop in the bucket, worthy of any and all sacrifice and suffering. The only goal is to get into heaven. If I believed that, I would devote my entire life to living according to my religious principles- attending church regularly, for example.
If we believe this life is our only form of existence, as Atheists do, it encourages living life to the fullest, and according to one's principles. There is reason to neither accept sacrifice and suffering- nor impose it. Furthermore, there is an inherent understanding that if this is my one chance at life; the same is true for all other living persons and animals. For if my life is precious, so are the lives of others, and life is best lived with mutual respect. It also places a measure of urgency on our lives, for each day is one less day we are alive and essentially the days on a calendar are a countdown to our deaths. It emphatically emphasizes the phrase, "Carpe Diem."
If we believe in Eternal Recurrence, the burden, as Nietzsche suggests, bears an incredible weight. For the incentive to live a good life is all of eternity. The redundancy of living this life repeatedly through time, with all accompanying pains and pleasures, places a lot pressure on living this life to its fullest. If this life is spent in prison, then eternity is spent in prison; likewise if this life is spent doing what one loves to do, then eternity is spent doing what one loves. To make the idea more poignant, imagine that tomorrow were to be lived over and over. What would you do with that day?
While the idea of Eternal Recurrence is not to be taken seriously, it is the point that matters. It was Nietzsche's point as well. These ideas measure across a spectrum of views about this life. On one side, individuals are willing to sacrifice this life for an eternity of rewards, on the other; individuals are desperate to make the most of this life. In between are the Atheists who are encouraged to live life to its fullest, but without the burden of reliving mistakes.
What we believe should dictate how we live. For example, I find no greater hypocrisy than those attempting to get to heaven without living a life according to that premise. Furthermore, with everything on the line, I wonder why people do not invest more into making this decision. A recent book by Stephen Prothero's, entitled "Religious Literacy," noted that most Americans, despite being one the most religious countries in the world, are religiously illiterate. The book notes,
"Approximately 75 percent of adults, according to polls cited by Prothero, mistakenly believe the Bible teaches that "God helps those who help themselves." More than 10 percent think that Noah's wife was Joan of Arc. Only half can name even one of the four Gospels, and -- a finding that will surprise many -- evangelical Christians are only slightly more knowledgeable than their non-evangelical counterparts."
The truth is that most people conveniently configure their beliefs around their lives; affording themselves an afterlife in heaven without making the human sacrifice.
To me, it does not matter what one believes, only how one lives his or life. Whereas what it all means is merely speculation; this life is a certainly. I have made the argument that for all we know we are a fifth-grade experiment for some superior species, just as we, for example, experiment and study ant farms. Or maybe the "Big Bang" was nothing more than a chemistry project to one day be exterminated and washed down the sink as a matter of unimportance. Despite the diversity in opinion, none of us know what our death will bring. We can however, decide how to live our lives. And who knows, maybe we will have the chance to live it all over again- and again.