Religious beliefs about immortality are numerous and diverse. Most religions foresee a postmortem career for a personal soul or spirit, and these range from everlasting residence among the stars to reincarnation.
The ideal eternal life for many Christians and Muslims is to abide forever in God’s presence in heaven or paradise. Judaism’s teachings about what happens after death are less clear. In the Hebrew Bible, the dead are mere “shades” in a darkened place called Sheol. Some rabbinical authorities give credence to the resurrection of the righteous and even to the eternal status of souls.
Jimmy Carter, whose message and autograph are immortalized in the Golden Records, is a progressive Southern Baptist and a living example of religious hope for immortality. Now battling brain cancer and approaching centenarian status, he has thought about dying. Following his diagnosis, Carter concluded in a sermon: “It didn’t matter to me whether I died or lived. … My Christian faith includes complete confidence in life after death. So I’m going to live again after I die.”
It is plausible to conclude that the potential of an alien witnessing the Golden Record and becoming aware of Carter’s identity billions of years in the future would offer only marginal additional consolation for him. Carter’s knowledge in his ultimate destiny is a measure of his deep faith in the immortality of his soul. In this sense, he likely represents people of numerous faiths.
For people who are secular or nonreligious there is little solace to be found in an appeal to the continuing existence of a soul or spirit following one’s death. Carl Sagan, who came up with the idea for the Golden Records and led their development, wrote of the afterlife: “I know of nothing to suggest that it is more than just wishful thinking.” He was more saddened by thoughts of missing important life experiences – like seeing his children grow up – than fearful about the expected annihilation of his conscious self with the death of his brain.
With Voyagers 1 and 2 estimated to exist for more than a trillion years, they are about as immortal as it gets for human artifacts. Even before the Sun’s expected demise when it runs out of fuel in about 5 billion years, all living species, mountains, seas and forests will have long been obliterated. It will be as if we and all the marvelous and extravagant beauty of planet Earth never existed – a devastating thought to me.
But in the distant future, the two Voyager spacecraft will still be floating in space, awaiting discovery by an advanced alien civilization for whom the messages on the Golden Records were intended. Only those records will likely remain as testimony and legacy of Earth, a kind of objective immortality.
Religious and spiritual people can find solace in the belief that God or an afterlife waits for them after death. For the secular, hoping that someone or something will remember humanity, any wakeful and appreciative aliens will have to do.
James Edward Huchingson is a professor emeritus and lecturer in religion and science at Florida International University.