Postponing Death and Living Longer: Thinking Theologically

Episode: 
79

Would you like to live to be 100? Half of all children born since the year 2000 will live that long, according to some researchers.[1]  We’ve seen dramatic reductions in infant mortality and improvements in living healthier, longer lives. One hundred years is not enough for some people, who have proposed living 1,000 years . . . pursuing a wistful quest for immortality like the elves in Lord of the Rings.[2]

I’m not kidding. Have you heard of the “Mprize”? It’s a cash award for the research team that breaks the world record for the oldest living mouse. The prize is sponsored by the Methuselah Foundation, aptly named after the Bible character who lived 969 years. [3]

Few of us want to live as long as Methusaleh, but what could be wrong with wanting to live a longer, healthier life? It’s an understandable, natural desire. Life is a good gift, and we are instructed to take good care of our bodies.

How do we think about an issue like “living longer”? One perspective is to look at potential social upheaval. Longer life for everyone could mean that the majority of people are over fifty, living decades beyond retirement. Among other things, this could impact the workforce and the allocation of healthcare resources.

While social factors are relevant, it is more important to step back and think about it theologically.  What I mean by “thinking theologically” is to think from a biblical worldview about the deeper issue of our attitudes toward aging and mortality. We might agree that aging is a natural part of our life cycle, but regret our sagging muscles and stiff joints as old age approaches. Medicine and technology have made significant advances in reducing the aches, pains and diseases of aging. It is entirely appropriate for us to be grateful for that.

On the other hand, efforts to prolong life or postpone death could be rooted in a fear of death or the dying process. Check your motives: is the treatment requested because someone is feeling guilty or can’t let go of a loved one? Christians are not immune, and may express our fear of dying, by asking for extensive and expensive end-of-life treatments. The question we need to ask ourselves is: when can we say, enough is enough?

We can ask the same question when it comes to rejuvenation technologies. Do we know when to say, enough? Laser treatments for varicose veins or an anti-aging face peel may not seem extravagant. But what about stem cell therapies, nanotechnology, genetic interventions, or even artificial organs? Postponing aging can become a wasteful, all-consuming dream.

I suggest that our model is not Methusaleh, but Moses. In humility he prayed, “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”[4]  It’s not about how we feel or look, but about how well and how wisely we live.



[1] Joseph Brownstein, “Most Babies Born Today May Live Past 100,” ABC News, October 1, 2009, http://abcnews.go.com/Health/WellnessNews/half-todays-babies-expected-live-past-100/story?id=8724273#.T5mwjY521aN (accessed April 25, 2012).

[2] Aubrey de Grey, “We Will Be Able to Live to 1,000,” BBC News, December 3, 2004, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk/4003063.stm (accessed April 25, 2012).

[3] “Methuselah Foundation Brochure,” http://www.mprize.org/?pn=mj_about_mission (accessed April 25, 2012).

[4] Psalm 90:12 (NIV).

 

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