There was an interesting news item in today’s Australian (and other media outlets) about a new scientific breakthrough which may add extra years to human life. According to the reports, a team at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in California has found that a gene from a nematode worm is helping mice and other animals kept on a near starvation diet outlive well-fed ones by up to 40 per cent. The experiments now being conducted on mice may one day lead to the enhanced longevity of humans.
Now there are at least two issues that arise from this that can be discussed. The first is simply to ask the question: of what value would a longer life actually be? Is the extension of human life necessarily a good thing?
Of course everyone wants to live longer lives. Who wouldn’t? We all want to be around to enjoy our kids, our grandkids, and maybe even our great grandkids, among other things.
But is a longer lifespan the be-all and end-all of human existence? Is mere extension of physical life the greatest good? Perhaps not, some might argue, but it could be a means to other greater goods. Point taken. But it all depends on what those goods are.
Some people might think that it would have been good if Napoleon or Stalin or Mao lived longer lives. Of course others might wish that a longer life was available to a Mother Teresa or a Gandhi. Character and quality of life, in other words, is part of what needs to be addressed here, not just mere length of life.
Simply extending life so that we can go one being our own selfish pigs is nothing to get very excited about. But if our desire to live longer is so that we can be of greater help to others, to serve one another, to be a force for good in the world – now that is a more worthwhile end to have in view.
The truth is, over the past centuries, human life expectancy has greatly increased. We are now living longer than ever before. But are we living better? Has our extra length of days meant that we have become nicer, more generous people? Many would argue that we seem to be getting worse as a people, not better.
Often missing in the discussions of seeking to live longer – if not to become immortal – is the question about what constitutes a human person, and human dignity. What is the purpose of human life? Why have we been given our threescore and ten? Will it make any difference if we end up with sixscore and ten years instead?
Ethicist Leon Kass rightly notes, “It is not just survival, but survival of what that matters”. (Toward a More Natural Science, Free Press, 1985, p. 315) He continues, “Simply to covet a prolonged life span for ourselves is both a sign and a cause of our failure to open ourselves to this – or any other – purpose. It is probably no accident that it is a generation whose intelligentsia proclaim the meaningless of life that embarks on its indefinite prolongation and that seeks to cure the emptiness of life by extending it.” (Ibid., p. 316)
Or as he says elsewhere, “Once we acknowledge and accept our finitude, we can concern ourselves with living well, and care first and most for the well-being of our souls, and not so much for their mere existence.” (Life, Liberty and the Defense of Dignity, Encounter Books, 2002, p. 270)
While we all may want to live longer, the question is, to what end? I am not sure if a world full of 200-year-old Hugh Hefners, Saddam Husseins, or Paris Hiltons would be such a great thing.
But a second issue worth focusing on is this: there already is one way to extend human (mortal) life. Indeed, we actually will all live forever, in one of two eternal destinies. Eternal life is promised to those who are right with God, while eternal death awaits those who reject him.
But these concepts – ‘eternal life’ and ‘eternal death’ – while biblical, can be misleading. It is not that some will live forever and some will not. We all are born for eternity. We will all live beyond the grave. It is just that some will live in the presence of an all-loving and all-benevolent God – what we call heaven – while others will live outside of God and his love, and will simply stew in their own selfishness and misery, and that of others – a place we call hell.
So in one sense, the quest for this-worldly immortality is a bit foolish and short-sighted. This life is really just a short preparation period for our eternal place of abode. Thus it is important how we make use of our time here.
Those who reject God and embrace materialism as the only reality will of course find such talk to be worthless. And they are the ones most intent on seeking man-made immortality. They know – from their point of view – that when they die, that’s it. There is no more.
But human efforts to seek immortality have often been tried before. We have some clear episodes of this that appear in the opening chapters of the Bible. Both attempts at obtaining immortality by human effort alone led to tragedy.
The first was when our first parents gave in to the tempter’s suggestion: “you will not surely die”. And the second was the sad episode of the Tower of Babel. Two failed human attempts to avoid death and become like God.
But we have been trying to do this ever since. As but two recent examples, consider several secularist attempts: the “new man” of Marxism, or the thousand-year Third Reich of Hitler. Other attempts of an earthly utopia and/or eternal life here and now could be mentioned.
Suffice it to say there is only one way to have real eternal life, and that is the way God has designated. All other attempts will end in failure. As Jesus said, “Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” (John 17:3) Or as Paul puts it, “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:23)