The following essay from Vince Vitale is an excerpt from Jesus Among Secular Gods coauthored with Ravi Zacharias.
Suppose there was a machine (maybe before long there will be!) that would give you any experience you desired. You could choose to experience winning Olympic gold, or falling in love, or making a great scientific discovery, and then the neurons in your brain would be stimulated such that you would experience a perfect simulation of actually doing these things. In reality, you would be floating in a tank of goo with electrodes hooked up to your brain. Given the choice, should you preprogram your experiences and plug into this machine for the rest of your life?(1)
I join philosopher Robert Nozick, who first devised this thought experiment in the 1970s, in thinking that we should not plug into this “experience machine.” And this suggests the falsity of hedonism, a view dating back over two millennia to the Greek philosophers Democritus and Epicurus. If all that mattered were pleasure (in other words, if hedonism were true), then we should plug into the experience machine and we should encourage everyone we know to plug in as well.
We rightly care about more than just happiness or pleasure. We want to not only feel loved; we want to actually be loved. We want to not only dream of accomplishing our dreams; we want to actually accomplish them. We want to not only feel inside as if we have made a difference in life; we want to actually make a difference. Hedonism is not the desire of our hearts; it is all that is left when every other “ism” has failed us.
A recent academic book suggested that, on hedonistic assumptions, because some animals can feel pleasure like human persons but cannot suffer in some of the worst ways as human persons, those animals could be understood to be more valuable than humans.(2) If the acquisition of pleasure and the avoidance of pain is the measure of all, these animals score well on pleasure with fewer deductions for the complex psychological pains such as anxiety and disappointment to which the human psyche is vulnerable. This same assumption led utilitarian Jeremy Bentham to the view that “the game of push-pin [a children’s game] is of equal value with the arts and sciences of music and poetry.”(3) The problem here is not with the logic leading to the conclusions but with the underlying assumption of pleasure as the sole determiner of value.
Pleasure and happiness are good things, but they are not the only good things. We should care not only about feeling good on the inside but also about truth and about the impact that our lives have outside of ourselves. As C.S. Lewis put it, if happiness were all he was after, a good bottle of port would do the trick.(4)
People frequently tell me that they don’t need God in their life because “I’m happy as I am.” That’s great! I believe that happiness is a gift from the God who “fills your hearts with joy” (Acts 14:17). But Christianity offers so much more than happiness. The person in the experience machine is very happy as they are. Some animals may be very happy as they are. Should we therefore plug into the experience machine or wish we were animals? In either case, the result of hedonism is the loss of humanity.
According to Christianity, there was one person in history who could have plugged into the experience machine: Jesus. In fact, Jesus could have done one better. He could have not created at all and just eternally enjoyed the perfect pleasure of relationship within the Trinity. Or, once he had created, he could have stayed far away from the vulnerabilities of this world. He could have lived a nonhuman existence overflowing with pleasure and devoid of all pain.
Instead, Jesus created a world that would be broken by his creatures—a world that would grieve him in many respects—and he chose to enter that world as a human being, with all the susceptibilities to pain and suffering that human existence guarantees. This is the life that Jesus chose. As He put it, “No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord” (John 10:18). In choosing this life over a life of infinite, uninterrupted pleasure, and yet living the most universally lauded life of all time, Jesus’s life is a powerful and sustained argument against hedonism.
A few years ago I saw a commercial that depicted a baby being born, and then in thirty seconds it fast-forwarded through the child’s entire life until before you knew it he was old and gray and hunched over, and finally he fell down and crashed into a grave. Then words flashed across the screen: “Life is short. Play more Xbox.” Really? Is that the best we’ve got? Life is short, and it’s fragile. Is the answer really just to play more Xbox—to distract yourself and try not to think about it, to plug into an Xbox experience machine because there’s nothing you can do about it anyway?
The future that the Bible offers is so very different:
God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death” or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away (Revelation 21:3–4).
Let us hope with those for whom hedonism is not an option. Let us hope with them that death need not be our end. Let us hope that God is with each one, until the very end, offering this hope.
Hedonism fails, and we know it fails. It fails regardless of whether you pursue pleasure or you are denied the pursuit of pleasure. And yet, if we are brave enough to consider the questions and answer them honestly, how much of our lives are lived worshiping at the altar of pleasure? What percentage of our lives are spent plugged into an experience machine? Who is getting hurt in the process? And what opportunities for honest relationship are passing us by?
Jesus does want us to be happy—absolutely. But his call on our lives is much grander and nobler than that. As Jesus modeled, he wants us to respond with integrity to the failure of hedonism. He wants us to have tears for others. He wants those tears to unite us with a God who shed tears—a God of love and of justice. He wants following that God to lead us to the sacrificial love and service of others that alone brings not only pleasure but forgiveness, peace, purpose, and hope—the very fullness of life.
Vince Vitale is director of the Zacharias Institute at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (New York: Basic Books, 1974), 42–45.
(2) See Mark H. Bernstein, The Moral Equality of Humans and Animals (Hampshire, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).
(3) Jeremy Bentham, The Rationale of Reward (London: J. and H. L. Hunt, 1825), 206.
(4) C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2014), 48.