Physical immortality: Why not? Because it’s impossible: We don’t know anyone who has it and we don’t understand how it would work, either the biology or the psychology or the politics.
Telomeres shrink and cells stop dividing eventually. And if they didn’t and each of us had the potential to live forever, we’d have to stop having children. Otherwise the fight for food would become fierce. Most of us would starve. And, until we did, the traffic on Route 17 would be unbearable.
The ways that physical immortality for human individuals could go wrong are countless. Granted, if everyone forwent procreation, we could forget the dystopian scenarios stemming from overpopulation, but wouldn’t the cost of our immortality then be that humanity would stagnate? On your millionth birthday and no end in sight, wouldn’t you wonder, What’s the point?
Meet the transhumanists. They come in different stripes. Some think that we can make an end run around death by uploading our consciousness to computers. That’s not physical immortality, though. It’s mind–body dualism or, more accurately, contempt for the body, the assumption being that it’s of no account. This is no project for athletes or supermodels or anyone who may be weak or plain but nonetheless enjoys being a specimen of Homo sapiens.
Others look for physical immortality through better bioengineering. They haven’t cleared the second hurdle, the social and emotional complications that would arise if they reached their goal, because they haven’t cleared the first hurdle yet, the stubbornness of death. The Hayflick limit is harder than diamond. They aim to break it and thereby to eat of the Tree of Life and live forever. Promethean? “Quixotic” would be closer to the truth.
Yet others, more modest, seek merely to improve their health and vigor in the final third or so of what they hope will turn out to be their 120-year excursion from conception to natural death. They call what they do “life extension.” It’s one part conventional Western medicine, one part alternative medicine, and one part common sense: Watch what you eat, get enough sleep, drink enough water, exercise in moderation, and, though at age 110 you might not win tomorrow’s Boston Marathon, maybe you could break four hours.
“Life” and “life more abundantly” is what Jesus says he came that we might have (John 10:10). He healed the sick, raised the dead, and produced food and drink from scraps and strong faith. For three years he performed biomedical miracles prolifically. In his personal war against death, his coup de grace was the event that Western and Eastern Christians alike (their lunar calendars agree this year) commemorate for the next several weeks beginning today.
It’s 11:30 p.m. on the East Coast. For commercial purposes, Easter is done for the year, but 24 hours cannot contain the celebration in the Church. The endlessly astonishing news that a dead man came back to life and still lives fills up the liturgical calendar all this week and radiates with gradually diminishing intensity to Ascension Thursday, when the wonderment booms again, like a supernova; Western Christians formally observe Easter even longer, through Pentecost.
Two thousand years after the fact, the planet’s human population has grown 30-fold, and 30 percent of it are at least nominally followers of the man who removed from death its finality and sting. Many follow him seriously, as present-day Christian martyrs worldwide attest. Born 2,000 years ago and killed in his 30s, he rose from his tomb a few days later and for a few weeks walked the dusty roads of Judea and Galilee, baffling his friends and neighbors. He departed the planet bodily. To those who watched, he looked like he ascended into the sky. He lives today, flesh and blood, soul and spirit, somewhere in this universe. He promised to return. He’s the first fruits: Those who have believed in him but now “sleep” will rise too. On God’s schedule, not necessarily theirs, their bodies will be reconstituted and reunited with their souls, mysteriously; they could hardly be reunited otherwise.
Physical immortality: Why not? It’s possible: We know someone who has it, though we still don’t understand how it works, either the biology or the psychology or the politics. Unlike some religious leaders, Jesus prescribed no health regimen or political philosophy, unless you consider “render to Caesar what is Caesar’s” to be other than a statement that we have bigger fish to fry. Transhumanists aspire to achieve the Christian promise by their wits and labor — through the sweat of their brow, as it were — as opposed to receiving it as a gift. Count on them to make a hash of it. See Mary Shelley.
The gospel has many facets. Apologists who lead with the good news about salvation and redemption give the answer to a question few people ask. The heart of the heart of the faith has always been the resurrection. “If Christ is not risen, then our preaching is vain, and so is your faith” (1 Cor. 15:14). Christians, take your cue from the transhumanists. Their answers are wrong, but their question is right. They busy themselves trying to create a knockoff of the genuine article. Give thanks for the genuine article, and never tire of directing your neighbors to it. Remind them that it’s theirs for the asking.