All sorts of cultures tell stories about people who live forever. Tithonus, according to Greek mythology, was the lover of Eos, the goddess of the Dawn. He received eternal life from Zeus but not eternal youth. Growing old forever, he yearned for death.
Ashwatthama, the mythical Indian warrior, raided the rival camp of the Pandavas during a brutal war. His punishment was to live for 3000 years, roaming the woods in torment.
The Wandering Jew, according to Christian legend from the 13th century, made the unfortunate decision to mock Jesus on his way to the cross. As a result, he was cursed with eternal life. His story is re-told by George R.R. Martin, Mark Twain, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and dozens others.
Sir Galahad, one of three knights from the Round Table to eventually discover the Holy Grail experienced immortality. But even he did not want to live forever. He asked to die, but was given the privilege of ascending into heaven.
A common thread runs through all these legends. Immortality ends up being a curse rather than a blessing. No one who lives forever enjoys it.
Yet Woody Allen famously said, “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying.” So why is our culture obsessed with beating death? Do we really want eternal life?
Today leading experts in medicine, technology, and philosophy predict the imminent death of death. Are they right? Are humans finally on the verge of finding eternal life? Is that even a good thing?
The Inaccessible Tree
We first get a glimpse at immortality in the creation story of Genesis. The garden of paradise contained two special trees. Eating from the tree of knowledge brought a consequence of death. But the center of the garden featured the tree of life. We aren’t told explicitly, but God’s creation apparently ate freely from the tree of life. But this access would not last.
After their disobedience and rebellion, God revoked their access to this tree.
Then the LORD God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever– ” therefore the LORD God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life. — Genesis 3:22-24
Many people believe God withholds pleasure from his creation. This is a rare instance when God actually does withhold something. Whatever access to this remarkable tree Adam and Eve once enjoyed is taken away.
The story describes God’s speech trailing off as he considered the possibility, “lest he reach out his hand and live forever…” From God’s perspective, this scenario was too painful to imagine. But why?
Stop and think for a moment. What if the people you know lived forever? What if your boss never grew old and retired? What if your neighbors never moved on? What if the political leader you disagree with held his position for all time?
And what about yourself? Yuval Harari explores the idea of immortality in Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. He claims that people who live forever
…will probably make them the most anxious people in history. We mortals daily take chances with our lives, because we know they are going to end anyhow. So we go on treks in the Himalayas, swim in the sea, and do many other dangerous things like crossing the street or eating out. But if you believe you can live forever, you would be crazy to gamble on infinity like that.
It might sound nice to live forever. But the reality of eternal life on earth may not be so attractive.
Perhaps that causes us to see God “sending him out” from the garden in a different light. Was God withholding something? Or protecting his creation from an unimaginable disaster?
God restricted access to the tree of life. The flaming sword prevented every intruder from any direction. No mortal could defeat the cherubim. Even the location of the garden was soon lost to history.
It seems that even very early in the story of creation, God took extreme efforts to protect his creation from the dangers of immortality.
Technology of IMMORTALITY
Yet we seem nearer than ever to reaching that forbidden tree.
Some of the smartest people in the world promise that biological immortality, the inability to die from aging, is inevitable.
Ray Kurzweil, the renowned futurist claimed, “I believe we will reach a point around 2029 when medical technologies will add one additional year every year to your life expectancy.”
Martine Rothblatt founded the biotech company United Therapeutics with a mission to grow new organs from people’s DNA. He said, “Clearly, it is possible, through technology, to make death optional,”
In 2013, Google helped to launch Calico Labs, a company aimed at fighting aging. In January of 2018, they discovered that the naked mole rat doesn’t face a higher risk of death as it ages. If the naked mole rat could live forever, could we?
Listening to these predictions, it seems possible, even likely, that we will live forever. Could it be true?
I wonder how different our optimism is from the medieval kings who sent out knights to recover the Holy Grail. Or that of the 2nd century BC Chinese Emperor who issued an empire-wide decree to search for immortality potions. Or Ponce de Leon, sent with the power of King Ferdinand in 1512 to finally obtain access to the fountain of youth.
Are we really closer than these intrepid explorers?
Finding Eternal Life
What will actually happen if we find eternal life? Will it be a blessing? Or a curse? Who will get to live forever? If only the rich and powerful get to live forever, what will happen to the balance of power? Imagine the poor and vulnerable in a world of wealthy immortals.
What will happen to justice systems? Inheritance? How will the nature of family and community and vocation change? Can we grow enough food for everyone to live forever? Where will we put all the garbage?
Are we naïve enough to think we’ll only have to pay for immortality once? If I have to pay Microsoft every year to use Excel, surely the technological fountain of youth will use a subscription model.
The practical questions surrounding an eternity of life on earth are overwhelming. None are reasons to forego research, but they might give us pause. In fact, they might even cause us to think about death differently.
The Gift of Death
What good is death? Is it entirely a punishment for a rebellious child? Or is it a kind of mercy?
In the 2nd century, Theophilus of Antioch suggested that God gave death as a gift to put a limit to sin. He wrote, “He did not suffer him to remain in sin forever.”
If death is a gift to me because I don’t have to live in sin forever, it is even more so a gift to those around me. Death limits my effect on the world. My choices cannot have unending impact. Even the worst and most evil empires of the world have to face the death of their leader.
In a curious way, death also gives dignity to my decisions.
When I used to play video games growing up, my friends would share their cheat codes. These sequences of instructions would grant you unlimited lives in the game. Always having 999 lives meant the games were a lot easier to complete. But it also led to a kind of ridiculous carelessness. Nothing really mattered. Why be careful?
But the choices in my life do matter. I can bring real harm to myself and others. My choices are powerful enough to bring an end to another’s life. This life matters. My choices are important and powerful.
In a strange combination, then, death does two things. My choices affect the world in real ways. But not forever.
Would all that change in Kurzweil’s version of the world?
Real Eternal Life
Now we have an interesting paradox. Death is a gift in light of man’s sin, but Christians claim that death died with Jesus on the cross. How do we reconcile these two things?
We need to shift our definition of true immortality. The biblical vision doesn’t describe simply living on earth in our current condition forever. It’s an entirely new kind of existence.
In fact, the overarching story of the Bible centers around this promise of eternal life. God creates life. Life is overcome by death. Death itself is defeated, giving way to new life. This new life remains.
But how does God keep his promise?
Some Christians believe the eternal life offered through science lines up well with the promise of the Bible. The Christian Transhumanist Association suggests that God’s promise of eternal life will come through the efforts of science. Micah Redding sees the resurrection of Christ pointing to the eventual victory of science in offering eternal life.
The cherubim with a flaming sword could suggest otherwise.
A 2016 study published in the journal Nature agrees that science may have already extended the human lifespan as long as possible. They claim that 115 years is the maximum reasonable lifetime of a human. 125 represents the absolute limit of life.
Consider Genesis 6:3 as God’s possible intention for the human lifespan. “My Spirit shall not abide in man forever, for he is flesh: his days shall be 120 years.“
So does this mean we should stop trying to achieve biological immortality? Should we lobby for legislation to prevent immortality research?
I don’t think we need to. Worrying about people finding a way around the flaming sword is unnecessary. We simply won’t be able to get there.
Even if we will never find the absolute cure for aging, I believe it’s important to work toward eradicating disease and increasing human health. The fact that God himself has protected us from going too far means we can innovate with abandon. Many an important discovery has come while chasing the fountain of youth.
At the same time, know that God has a different kind of eternal life waiting for us. Its beauty will far outweigh any life we could achieve through our own efforts.
Returning to our original question, do we actually want to live forever? Absolutely. But I want a life improved, not just a life extended. I want the new life that God has promised.
Father to five; husband to one; helping Christians engage thoughtfully as they follow Jesus Christ.
Pastor at Peninsula Bible Church in Palo Alto, CA since 2007. Graduated from Stanford University with a degree in Industrial Engineering and worked for Oracle Corporation as a Senior Product Manager designing software solutions.