Longer Life, Better Life, Eternal Life

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)

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10 Replies to “Longer Life, Better Life, Eternal Life”

  1. The one whose life had the greatest impact on the world finished his earthly course at the age of thirty-three.
    John Nelson

  2. Bill, good discussion, but this may be a little too sweeping:
    “The truth is, over the past centuries, human life expectancy has greatly increased.”

    Life expectancy has fluctuated over the period of Biblical history, but in the last 2-3 centuries, it has certainly increased a lot mainly as a result of advances in medical science and knowledge of diseases and causes of various life-threatening conditions eg. bleeding & sepsis etc. Earlier than that may be harder to establish.

    Meanwhile, the philosophical question of longevity was included as a side-plot in the Robot series – Robots of Dawn, Caves of Steel, Naked Sun – of Isaac Asimov (famous sci-fi writer, atheist and evolutionist).

    John Angelico

  3. It’s unlikely that science will ever be able to significantly extend human life spans given that death is a consequence of the Fall. What seems immutable is that all men are mortal and then comes the Judgement.

    Ewan McDonald, Victoria

  4. I think Psalm 49 in the NLT gives us a true perspective:

    “They trust in their wealth and boast of great riches.
    Yet they cannot redeem themselves from death by paying a ransom to God.
    Redemption does not come so easily,
    For no one can ever pay enough
    to live forever and never see the grave.” (vv. 7-9)

    “But as for me, God will redeem my life.
    He will snatch me from the power of the grave.” (v. 15)

    Luke Beattie

  5. Bill a great comment again.

    If we cultivate trust in God and respect his ‘new commandment: love one another’ (in today’s gospel) life beyond the grave is the only thing that really matters.

    The benefit of a longer life could be the opportunity to make greater reparation for our sins.

    Pat Healy

  6. The quest for longevity seems like another sugar coated slander against God’s name and his sovereignty. The Genesis account continually reminds us that God himself shortened the life span of man due to their increasingly sinful nature.

    Though any medical breakthrough in the area of long life would be much welcomed by those worried about death, is at best a Band-Aid solution. For true life is not measured by age or success, but measured by a life that is transformed by a intimate relationship with Christ.

    Chris Trodden

  7. It’s easy to understand the desire for mankind to seek a longer life. The rate society seems to be travelling at today will either, by technological advance, increase our ability to live or shut down that ability. Is it possible that the machines we create will in fact become our downfall?

    Personally, I don’t want my life to be extended so I can cruise around the nursing home, throwing out cliche pick up lines to all the babes playing bingo at the age of 160. There has to be more to this earthly existence. Sure, if we are making a contribution to society for a longer period than we would the norm, fine, however if it is to simply stay here longer… then no thanks. If we are eternal beings then I am anxious for the next stage of our existence; eternity.

    Jesse Chatelier

  8. Something we need to question is, why exactly do we want to live a longer life? Will a few extra years make much of a difference? We ask for an extended life, but why should this be granted to us when we waste the days we’re already given?
    Our lives in relation to eternity are only very short, but it’s possible for so much to be experienced and accomplished in such a short time. We should be focusing on using our time on earth more wisely rather than trying to extend our lives. If we were using every single day to the maximum productiveness, then maybe it would be reasonable to ask for more time on earth; Although God so designed our lifespan obviously certain that it was enough time to accomplish the things He’s purposed for us to do.

    If the answer to our question is, to get more from life, let’s think about making better use of our time. And if the desire for an extended life comes from the need to escape death, find salvation in Jesus and discover that life goes far beyond our time on earth.

    Hannah Shand

  9. The most probable way for human advancement to extend life is by means of scientific breakthrough. Is this something we want? Other comments have asked the question why would we want to stay, but I would ask do we really want to stay at the cost of being human?

    This may sound strange but to keep our hearts ticking and our limbs moving science is creating bionic or fake replicas of human anatomy. Will there be a point where this goes too far? As Jesse and Hannah have both pointed out, why would we bother extending life if we had no reason to.

    The pure and simple fact is that we are no longer made to live to 500 years old, but we are improving living conditions which has brought the life expectancy of the general population in western culture up in recent years. But no amount of scientific advancement will change the fact that this life is temporary.

    Like others have said before me, why do we want to extend our lives here on this earth when we are accepted through Christ into eternity.

    Ben White, Victoria

  10. Our time on earth is very short compared to time in eternity where there is no ‘time.’

    To be kept on a near-starvation diet to live longer seems to me a heavy burden to carry and to really be prolonging more suffering rather than enjoying life to the fullest it can offer. So is there really any point in extending our earthly lives with that catch in mind? I would much rather live life to the full now and forever in eternity where there is no suffering, pain, hurt and sorrow.

    Even if life is made possible to be extended a little longer isn’t this just delaying the inevitable? Do we really need a few more years to feel more fulfilled in life or is it because we want to take solace and gratification from the things of the world rather than the things of eternal significance?

    Nick Foord

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