Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The fountain of youth

They were allowed to torment them for five months, but not to kill them, and their torment was like the torment of a scorpion when it stings someone. And in those days people will seek death and will not find it. They will long to die, but death will flee from them (Rev 9:5-6).
Immortality is the Holy Grail of medical science. The basic purpose of medical science is to postpone death. A secondary purpose is to improve the quality of life. Reduce physical suffering. 
One reason science has been unable to find the cure for death is because it hasn't figured out why we age. There are competing theories of senescence.
But suppose medical science does figure out the key to immortality. Would that falsify the Christian faith? After all, Scripture says human mortality is not a natural condition, but a penal condition. A divine punishment for original sin. 
If, however, medical science can keep people youthful, does that mean the Biblical explanation for the aging process is false? A superstitious prescientific explanation?
Several issues:
i) This isn't really a new issue. Medical science in general has been ameliorating some natural evils caused by the fall of man. If that is not inconsistent with Christian theology, then neither is figuring out how to block the aging process.
ii) From an eschatological perspective, medical science simply delays the inevitable. Humans will still face the judgment.
iii) In addition, although death is punitive, there are situations in which the inability to die is punitive. Take Rev 9:5-6. There's a sense in which torment is worse than death, if death brings relief. That's why some people commit suicide. That's their way to escape physical pain, psychological pain, or the prospect thereof.
iv) In fact, Rev 9:5-6 suggests a point in the future when humans will be unable to die. But that will be a curse. And that will still be temporary. Eventually, they will face the final judgment. The day of reckoning awaits.
v) What would a fallen world populated by immortals be like? At first blush, that might seem to solve our greatest problem. But consider the consequences.
The ruling class would impose draconian birth-control measures. Mandatory sterilization. Forced abortion. Maybe even universal sterilization–with sperm banks as a backup. 
Of course, that would meet with stiff resistance in some quarters. The desire for children runs deep.
You'd need a police state to enforce a moratorium on pregnancy and child-bearing. Right off the bat, utopia would take a dystopian turn. 
vi) To be ageless doesn't make you indestructible. Even if you can't die from disease or old age, you can still be killed. Accidents. Murder. Natural disasters. 
Because we know that death is inevitable, humans take calculated risks. Driving a car carries the potential for death or disablement. But we accept the risk. It's a tradeoff. The benefits usually outweigh the risk.
If, however, death was not inevitable, then that would drastically change the risk assessment for many things we ordinarily do. We'd become a society of hypochondriacs. We'd become fanatically risk-averse.
If death is not inevitable, then the stakes of undertaking potentially life-threatening activities is immeasurably higher. It would lead to social paralysis. Most folks would be petrified to do anything slightly hazardous. Yet almost nothing humans do is risk-free. Many necessary, mundane activities are potentially harmful or fatal. 
We play the odds. Most of us take reasonable precautions. 
But paradoxically, a world in which death is not inevitable is far more dangerous than world in which death is inevitable, for you have far more to lose. In a fallen world, immortality would quickly degenerate into hell on earth. 
All by itself, immorality doesn't make you safe. You can still be harmed. Still be killed.
So there's a sense in which the fountain of youth is poisonous. Even if it conferred immortality, there's a hidden cost. 
vii) In the new Jerusalem, there's more to immortality than eternal youth or agelessness. There's providential protection. Not to mention impeccability.


  1. Just quickly, I'd add, even if medical science can halt the aging process at a certain point, it doesn't necessarily mean it can reverse it. Imagine if we could live forever, but we'd have to do so as ~100 year olds.

    Likewise, medical science may not necessarily be able to cure other problems. Say if we could live forever, but we had to do so paralyzed from the bottom down. Or we had to do so with a neurodegenerative disease. Or we had to do so at the cost of living with a nasty chronic cancer.

    There are some fates worse than death. :-(

    1. That's an interesting thought. Imagine a society where a majority of the population has a weakened immune system. Germs would be a bigger threat than ISIS!

  2. On a related issue, lots of folks settle for less because, in the long run, we're going to die anyway. Nothing is for keeps. But if a fallen world was populated by immortals, then people might kill for a villa on the Côte d'Azur.

  3. Imagine immortal Kim-Jong Il, Hitler, Mao, Stalin, Nero...the list could go on and on. Nightmare scenarios for "will to power" proliferation.