In the Epic of Gilgamesh, written over 4,000 years ago, Enkidu, the great friend of the demigod Gilgamesh, dies. Afraid of death, Gilgamesh asks the sage Utnapishtim, the only survivor of the Great Flood, about the secret to immortality. Utnapishtim gives Gilgamesh a number of tasks, all of which he fails. But that was the point. Gilgamesh learned that immortality is beyond his grasp and returns to Uruk to live out the rest of his life as king.
The first emperor of China was Shi Huang Di. Buried in a tomb decorated with the famous terracotta soldiers, he also feared death and called on Chinese alchemists to create an elixir that would allow him to live forever. The alchemists believed they could make immortality possible through a perfect balance of the five elements: water, wood, fire, earth, and metal. Unfortunately for the emperor, the elixir contained mercury (because it is both a liquid and a metal), which likely contributed to the emperor’s death.
Attempts to achieve immortality have continued (and continued to fail) right up to our own time. Medieval European alchemists believed they could produce “the philosopher’s stone,” which would perfect the imperfect, turning lead into gold and making mortal life immortal. Enlightenment thinkers of the late 18th century rejected the mysticism of alchemy but continued to speculate about the means to attain physical immortality. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was written as a cautionary tale about scientific hubris, in response to the more modern attempts of medicine and biology to preserve, extend, and improve life.
Today, the quest for immortality continues. Through cryogenics, freshly deceased persons or animals are frozen, their blood replaced with “medical grade antifreeze” to prevent ice crystals from destroying cells. So, the idea goes, once medical technology is able to heal whatever caused their deaths, these creatures can be thawed, healed, and restored to life, possibly with additional enhancements. This approach assumes, among other things, that life and memory can be repaired if the body is repaired and the heart restarted.
In other words, life is seen in purely mechanical terms. This is an equal and opposite error to those pursuing immortality through cybertechnologies, believing that if our consciousness can be downloaded into computers, we can continue to exist as a sort of ghost in a machine. In this techno-gnosticism, our bodies are optional and not a necessary part of life. In this way of thinking, we are our minds, and our minds are nothing more than sophisticated software that can be downloaded into a computer, machine, or perhaps a new robotic body.
Other modern attempts at the Fountain of Youth—such as nutritional strategies, supplements, alternative medical practices, and gene-editing technologies like CRISPR—do not seek as much to avoid death as to extend life. These range from becoming more serious about healthy living to more extreme alternatives. A number of billionaires have been investing in research into life extension, including Sam Altman of OpenAI, Jeff Bezos, Google co-founder Larry Page, and Brian Armstrong of Coinbase. Some believe that our medical technologies will eventually reach a state of “Longevity Escape Velocity,” in which advances are increasing lifespans faster than the years go by, therefore bringing us to the point of immortality.
Despite our long history of failed attempts to live forever, many of which caused more harm than good, scientific hubris remains a temptation almost impossible to avoid. But we should take Mary Shelley’s warnings seriously. Some of these longevity experiments will be interesting and ultimately harmless. Some may even help. Others, such as those involving gene-editing technology, will leave their own monsters waiting in the shadows, and it is unlikely, if history is any indication, that we will be able to see them coming.
A more basic problem is trying to defeat death while thinking it is only a material problem to be solved. No latter-day elixir can satisfy our fear of death, which is a physical consequence of metaphysical realities. What ancient emperors and modern tech barons so desperately seek is exactly what’s offered in Christ: His eternal life exchanged for our mortal, sinful life. This exchange does not come from a laboratory bottle filled with who knows what, but from an empty tomb. Ultimately, because He defeated death, our bodies will be perfected beyond what even the most optimistic biohacker could dream.
Yes, death remains an enemy. But it is a defeated foe, and all who are in Christ will ultimately see its defeat when we are resurrected to life eternal. This is the truth behind what are reported to have been Tim Keller’s final words: “There is no downside for me leaving, not in the slightest.” And Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s, as well: “This is the end—for me, the beginning of life.”
This Breakpoint was co-authored by Dr. Glenn Sunshine. For more resources to live like a Christian in this cultural moment, go to breakpoint.org.
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