Who Wants to Live Forever

Spotify played me a poem a few days back, A Kind Invitation by Tyson Motsenbocker.  In the poem, Death and Love are personified and visit a man in three episodes.  In the first two they go hand in hand but at the end Death sans Love comes to the man alone, revealing that in his presence “Love’s face shines brighter, the colors of the earth burn truer, and time itself speeds.” In other words, without death, the brightest parts of life are not nearly so bright. 

While a beautiful poem in its own way, that message raised my hackles.  Why?

As I pondered, I realized the answer to that question had to do with the conception it gives of death itself.  The poem paints a picture of death as an integral part of existence, that it pushes us to be more than we can be without it, that somehow knowing we will die makes us better.    

But the Bible tells us that despite appearances or our current state of existence, death is not normal.  The Bible portrays our created normal as eternal life, something that will one day be restored to us.  Or does it?

This hits at something that I’ve been working through for a long while, and some elements that definitely move towards the conjecture I named this site for.  Let me summarize these points as follows, and we will see if I can build any support for them through the rest of the post. 

  1. We talk as if we like the idea of eternal life, but most of us actually fear it a little.  This manifests as an almost slavish clinging to our current lives.      
  2. Being immortal does not equal living forever; that is a categorical error.
  3. Death is an imposed limit, not our natural state, but perhaps a natural component of our world.
  4. Death, as a limit placed upon us, was imposed upon us for our benefit.

Ok, now that your flabbergasted, let’s get started with number 1.

Do we really fear eternal life?  Let’s consider popular images of the concept.  When you think of stereotypes of heaven, what comes to mind?  In the Global West, we usually give it a Christian patina, with clouds and harps and oodles of contemplation.  Maybe we are theologically more correct, we know that angels are wholly different from us, not something we become when we die, so we emotionally spiritualize heaven instead.  It becomes an eternal worship service, hands raised to God as everyone sings “Holy, Holy, Holy,” over and over and over forever.  Oh, and there are mansions somewhere and a crystal sea, but the important thing is worshipping God forever. 

Anyone who has ever been through a really long set of choruses at one of those fancy churches with the drums enclosed in a little plastic box knows there are times you are just ready to be done singing.    

Of course, there is always the alternative, but as much as some of us might try to romanticize Hell, it is the decidedly less pleasant place. 

The truth is the image we generally have of either place looks unappealing. 

Unfortunately, fiction paints an even more bleak or convoluted picture of life everlasting, and I am not just talking about The Good Place.  Fiction most often deals with this through some sort of “immortal” being, meaning someone who for some reason is immune to death.  Nevertheless, they walk through life among the rest of us.   Sure, you live forever, but at what cost?  While there are myriad examples of this being bleak, we will focus on a couple. 

One is the 80’s movie Highlander. If you have not seen the film, it is quite bizarre in premise, but suffice it here to say that the main character, the titular highlander, is a qualified immortal; he cannot die unless killed in a ritual battle. 

One of the clearest points that draws his immortality into question is when he falls in love early in the film.  He is aware he cannot die, but chooses to ignore this and be wed to a mere mortal.  The couple’s life together is covered in 80’s montage, a frolicsome dance of two people through remote Scottish mountain domesticity (hence the film’s name) in which she gradually ages by suddenly sporting a gray wig and bad makeup, culminating in a scene in which her still-30-something lover holds her hand at her old-age deathbed.  Throughout the whole sequence, the Queen song Who Wants to Live Forever? plays in the background, proffering at one point the question “Who dares to live forever when love must die?”

A similar sentiment is evident in the novel, Tuck Everlasting, in which the author makes immortality into a gentle curse.  At one point, Angus Tuck pointedly laments his immortality.  “Living’s heavy work, but off to one side, the way we are, it’s useless, too. It don’t make sense. If I knowed how to climb back on the wheel, I’d do it in a minute. You can’t have living without dying. So you can’t call it living, what we got. We just are, we just be, like rocks beside the road.”

As one blogger put it, “According to Tuck, life just means more when you know it will end.”

Whether Highlander, the Greek myth of Tithonus or its Tennyson variation, Gulliver’s Travels, Tuck Everlasting, or the X-files, Western culture has long been caught up in contemplation of the occupation of eternity, i.e. what would we do with forever, and we do not judge it favorably.  Fun for awhile, but rather lackluster overall. 

This mild disapproval often extends even to the thought of an abnormally lengthened life.  A spate of recent articles question the quality of a longer life or raise philosophical issues with living longer.    

Does that mean people would generally rather slip into the sweet embrace of darkness?  Seriously?  History points out the error in that.  How many emperors and powerful men spent lifetimes and whole kingdoms or fortunes searching for fountains of youth and elixirs of immortality?  Daoist researchers in China developed gunpowder, or “fire medicine” as it literally translates, in an attempt to defer death.  I doubt that one would have made it out of clinical trials. 

So if we disapprove of living forever, but also do not want to die, what are we actually afraid of?  Let me suggest that the true focus of our fear is the contemplation of forever.  What we want is our happiest moments to be eternal.  But we cannot conceive of forever because we are conceiving of it temporally and a solution may be to shift our perspective.

If you have not noticed, thus far throughout this post, I have tried to avoid the term “immortal.”  While we use it and “eternal life” interchangeably, they do not signify the same thing.  Scripture shows a clear distinction.

How so?  It is simplest just to say that immortality is the opposite of mortality.  This is most clearly seen in that God is immortal.  We are not.    

The term Immortal is a way of describing from our perspective what God is by describing what He is not.  He is all the omni’s, omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, omnibenevolent, etc. etc.  We, on the other hand, although designed in his image as potent, present, benevolent, and so on, are not and cannot be all-powerful, all-knowing, etc. 

To be mortal, then, is to be created, part of this world or system that God made but is not a part of.  This mortal world includes just about everything that we consider to be part of existence: biology, physics, time, energy, space, etc.  To be immortal is to be outside of that system; not subject to it.  (Angels fall into a unique place, perhaps part of another connected system). 

In contrast to immortal, the phrase eternal life, which in the English translations has a temporal designation, can sometimes, though not always, be understood as being bound up within this system[1]; which means being bound by the rules of this system.  In other words, when this system ends, that component of life would end as well.

The rules of our system have never been too limiting.  We know a great deal and can learn.  But we do not and never have known everything.  We are able to do many things and can practice to accomplish more, but we cannot and could never do whatever we wanted.    

Those limits exist for too many reasons to go into here, but a few are worth elaborating on.  One was simply to point us to Him, the unlimited one.  He created a system with us as His regents, but of which He was not part.  All of our limitations in their own ways point to His unlimitedness, we approach but never reach His infinity (the part of me that vaguely remembers taking calculus twenty years ago just shuddered). 

This is especially true if the limits I see are, as are some in our case, the result of decay or deficiency.  An unfinished sketch begs for completion.  A broken bowl is a testament to the utility of its unbroken whole.  A sentence without an ending is just a…

Most of our limits are fairly straightforward.  We have physical needs; air, energy, etc.  We have emotional needs; love, achievement, etc.  We can only run so fast or climb so high.  Some of our limits have changed since our creation, such as knowledge, which we touched on in the last post. Strangely enough, our knowledge has become less limited since the beginning, expanding when we ate of the tree of knowledge. 

Death, too, is a limit, and like our knowledge, it has changed from its original state.  In fact, its change is directly related to the expansion of our knowledge. 

When Adam and Eve were cursed to die and then banished from Eden, one of God’s actions was to place a Cherub with a fiery sword at the entrance to the garden with the express task to guard the way to the tree.  The Bible tells us the reason. And the Lord God said, “The man has now become like one of us.  He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.” (Genesis 3:22) 

There are a couple of thoughts to pull out of this verse.  1. Now we have become like God.  I have not seen many sermons which really dive into the meaning of that statement.  The now and the have become both mean that this is a present state that did not previously exist.  Before we ate of the fruit, we were less like God.  The serpent is called the father of lies but he apparently gave us at least a partial truth, we did become like God, and because of that God cut us off from the tree of life. 

Hmmm🤔, we are commanded in a variety of other places in scripture to become like God and imitate Him, but here the result of having become like Him is to be condemned to death. 

I would posit that this might sort of be like tossing the car keys to my 8-year-old.  He might have played hours of Mario Cart.  He might be incredibly conscientious and levelheaded and a thousand other attributes we admire in drivers, but his legs are too short, and even if he could reach them, he has no idea what the pedals do, much less how to drive a stick, or any of the myriad other skills we expect a driver to have mastered before they enter the roadway.  For me to give him the keys is asking for a car wreck.  There are aspects of his identity as he is now that would make it eminently irresponsible for me to allow him to just take the car and go. 

A quick caveat here, this does not imply that God was similarly irresponsible putting the tree of knowledge in the garden, any more than I am letting my son see the car, touch it, ride in it, etc.  Another analogy might help.  I have chemicals under my sink in colorful bottles.  The words on the front are all Chinese and written in Chinese characters that I am almost certain my children have not yet studied.  The potential certainly exists for them to mistake the contents of these bottles for a beverage.  But I have actively warned them “on the day that you drink of those bottles, you will surely die.”  I have gone a step further and warned them against even opening those cupboards without a parent nearby and have personally given them a chance to smell the nasty chemicals to see how bad they smell and so on.  While I am vigilant lest I hear someone playing around in forbidden cupboards, I am not terribly concerned that they will violate my stricture on this. 

Poison Control exists for a reason, but there comes a point where a child has matured enough to understand the dangers inherent to the consumption of household chemicals.  This means that I either no longer need be concerned for his safety, or if he does endanger himself, it points to problems that go well beyond inadequate parental control. 

2.  A second point with a slight aside, there is a tree of life from which fallen man could eat and live forever.

We evangelicals tend to get really hung up on how many days there are in Genesis 1 and whether water covered the planet, but I rarely see anyone talk about the biblical reality of a tree of life, of the almost literal Ambrosia and Nectar that God cuts us off from.  It’s there people. In Genesis and Revelation.

Maybe we have decided it is hard enough in this post-modern world to argue for 6 days of creation and angels and snakes and 2 progenitors – adding an elixir of immortality to the mix would be a step too far. 

Maybe we just have trouble getting our heads around the idea of bodily eternity and are more comfortable with it being something we could never have had in a fallen world.  Maybe we simply have not thought about it.  Or maybe we have thought about it too much and decided that talking about this as a real tree leads people to invest stupid amounts of money and materiel on finding it.  Spanish Conquistadors searching for the fountain of youth and Chinese Emperors searching for the elixir of immortality were bad enough in their time.  The new Titans of Technology do not need theological motives to bolster their hubristic efforts to physically conquer death

Whatever the reason, people spend a lot more ink and effort on one tree than the other. 

But the text is clear.  God cut us off from the tree of life specifically because it conferred a considerably heightened if not everlasting lifespan.  There are a couple implications here to consider.    

  1. The text shows that eating the fruit of the tree of life causes those who eat it regularly to live as long as they eat of it, possibly to the duration of the world, and it shows that God is concerned over what mankind, now fallen would do with that kind of time and security.  This means that fallen man could live forever and that the absence of the tree, maybe even for pre-fallen man, would have meant death.  This fact would fit with any theology that grants the possibility of death before the fall.  Death could have been a part of the system that God designed from the outset.  Does that mean that there were no advantages to being in a pre-fallen state?  Of course not!  But if this is true, living forever was not the best part. There is a lot of work yet to be done on what this implies.  
  2. We were designed to mature, presumably towards God’s purpose of Theosis, i.e. becoming more like God, i.e. what Paul describes as replacing the perishable with the imperishable.  There are many facets to being like God.  All are good, but some are dangerous in the absence of others.  For instance, the possession of the knowledge of good and evil in the absence of mercifully inexhaustible love or omnipotent capability carries with it considerable disadvantage for humanity and the world over which we were made to rule, sufficient disadvantage that God converted our mastery over this world including over death itself to subjectivity to it. 

As fascinating as the first implication is, I want to focus on the more mundane second implication here; God limited our lives because life without end coupled with sinful grappling for power is a bad combination.  How bad? 

In Genesis 6, we are described as fighting against God himself.  Genesis 6:3 says, Then the Lord said, “My Spirit will not contend with humans forever, for they are mortal; their days will be a hundred and twenty years (NIV).” 

Why would we “contend against God?”  It is a horrid mismatch.  I can remember times when my oldest was a toddler throwing a fit, and I would hold him upside down by one foot away from myself, while he yelled and swung his fists, rage in his eyes.  He had every intention of doing harm to me but did not really stand a chance, he could not even reach me, but he nevertheless stood much greater odds of defeating me than any of us have of legitimately contending against God. 

Yet we try.  How does God respond? By further truncating our lifespans.  God has already cut us off from living forever.  Now he is going to shrink our lives down to ten to twenty percent of what they were immediately after the fall because even subject to death, we were still pressing the limits of what God could tolerate.  Because of this, in Genesis 6 we are told the lifespan we can look forward to as well as the process whereby it shrunk to its current diminutive state. 

It starts this by clarifying how we contend with God.  The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. (Genesis 6:5, ESV). 

It is vogue nowadays to critique God in this story for the wrath apparent in his elimination of the better part of humanity.  Think the Russell Crowe/Aronofsky film of a few years back. 

That was a strange film. It played way too much with the Nephilim. If there is merit in that film, it is to point out that even people in the midst of miracles might walk away with scars.  They reasonably posit that Noah’s post-flood drunkenness was basically PTSD; if you had seen everyone you know outside your immediate family drown; had heard them banging against the sides of the boat while you floated off to safety, then spent months bobbing around waiting for the rain to stop, I would wager you would want some liquid comfort as well.    

But let’s look at God’s motives for a moment. Pause and think about what it means that mankind was so wicked that, though hyperbole, even the ever-merciful and omnipotent father was having second guesses…

To argue that a loving God would not go to such lengths is to argue that Man could not be adequately wicked to justify it.  But living memory demonstrates that men with what we would consider average lifespans were capable of turning the peaceable people of their countries into denizens of almost pure darkness.  Hitler died in his bunker at the end of the war at 56.  Stalin was 72.  Mao was 84. 

Imagine any of those guys living for even the 120 years of Genesis 6, or the 930 years of Adam, or to the end of the age, whenever that would be.  That thought alone shows just how merciful God was imposing death on us. Case closed, let’s go home.

“Wait, those were wicked men,” you might protest, “what if it was a good person instead?”

I am glad you asked.  Let’s run that thought experiment.  Let’s put the tree of life somewhere, probably not Florida, and let’s say that for some reason the gate is left unguarded.  Maybe the Cherubs are on strike this week.  To round out our scenario, there is only one tree; it cannot be transplanted; and it has limited but regular harvests of fruit like most other fruiting trees.  Similar to the benefits conferred by its fruit, this tree does not die.

In such a scenario a regular fallen but basically good human could reach out and pluck of the tree of life.  For the sake of argument, this is a decent guy, maybe even a paragon of decency, like a Socrates or Confucius.  He should not be a Christian, because redemption and the presence of the Spirit in a Christian life would complicate this thought experiment.  He’s just as close as we can get to Jesus without the Divine Logos qualifications. 

Thankfully, he’s not simply a regular Joe, who would probably charge entry.  Imagine what you could charge for the nectar of immortality.  If the fruit does indeed provide some sort of degeneration blocking metabolic wonderment and Adam is truly indicative of how it works/worked, immortality would appear to require regular consumption which would seem a very dependable source of income, at least until somebody with more power comes and takes it. 

But our guy is a genuine lover of wisdom who knows that profiting off this tree is both petty and ends badly.  His goal is to benefit the maximum number of people.  As he ponders this aim, he would realize that what is best is to withhold the tree and even its existence from everyone else and instead use it to make himself a benevolent but undying emperor who never needs to be replaced. 

Why not share?  Because in the absence of redemption the biggest issue is likely trust. This is true of everyone including the philosopher himself, which he knows.  While there may be a few people who would eat of the tree and be relatively content, there is no guarantee that anyone he knows would be among those people, even those who most have his trust.  The more people he reveals the tree to, the more likely someone would be to reveal it to someone else.  The more people who know about it, the more likely someone is to decide they can manage it better, resulting in an epic war between de facto immortals.  Almost every scenario plays out this way.  In the absence of pure trust, relying on anyone else is simply too risky. 

Because he knows he cannot fully trust even himself, he may briefly entertain ignoring the tree and forgetting about it, but that is to leave its exploitation to random chance, in other words, to open up the possibility that someone far less considerate might discover the tree, resulting in the same cascade of horrific war scenarios mentioned above. 

The only righteous and sensible way to approach this tree is as a burden that he must hide and bear alone.

But this philosopher’s burden would be the world’s salvation, at least as long as he felt he could reasonably trust himself.  Imagine the value of a sufficiently wise ruler who could not die. He would embrace duty, spending literal eons perfecting his knowledge and craft, and there would never be a succession.

Would people notice the anomaly?  Of course, meaning he would have no choice but to move into circles of power.  He would quickly become an advisor to kings, then a king, and before too long THE king, the only one.  Years would become decades would become centuries.  In a relatively short span of time, no one would be alive who remembered a time when he was not THE king. 

But the end would begin almost as soon as his golden age had begun.  Within 50 years, he is for all-practical purposes alone.  How much connection can he really have with people who are all going to die away in the blink of an eye?  He would basically come to be considered at least a demi-god, separating him categorically from everyone else.  He would have opponents, but how could they really fight him.  They would be quicly come to be countered out by supporters or maybe even worshippers. 

Yet even at the outset, he recognized his own fallibility.  His difference will increase his distance, and as he spends more time in isolation, either real or virtual, he will come to keep company only with his pride and a growing sense of self-loathing.  One side of him knowing he is better than everyone else; the other hating how proud and arrogant he has become, yet always convinced that he must stay the course as long as he can, for the good of humanity. 

Furthermore, no matter who might come to worship him, he is not a god.  He makes mistakes.  He has a healthy brain with no flaws, but that brain still has a cap to what it can do.  Faces will still grow fuzzy over time.  Facts will be forgotten. 

Life is an absolute morass of causal factors, factor A playing off factor B and causing factor C which bounces back to affect factors A,B, and D, inasmuch as we are able to understand, ad infinitum. Being but a man, he is limited to identifying only as many of these factors as any other man would see.  Even allowing for enhanced, uncorrupted brain power, he is still grossly underpowered when it comes to recognizing causal factors. 

Because of this, as a ruler, he will continue to be subject to the challenges any other ruler faces, making decisions that please some people and anger others.  Some of those decisions will undoubtedly be wrong, hurting people, maybe even cheating them.  No matter how benevolent he tries to be, because of his limitations some people will still be upset and probably for good reason. 

Additionally, the further he grows away from the humanity of the people he serves, the less he understands them, the more misunderstanding is situated between him and the people he rules.

Which means that given enough time, someone will get fed up and try to overthrow him.  He has two possible reactions; abdicate or fight.  To abdicate is to utterly renounce everything, including the tree.  Maybe he would not disclose its existence, but that just returns the world to its state at his outset, albeit with citizens who are now aware that there is a means to live forever.  Maybe he turns the tree over to his successor, which means that any advantage to his constancy is lost in having the uncertainty of a new ruler who could do literally anything. 

The most stable option, ironically, is the chaos of the fight.  He is all but invincible, meaning victory is all but certain.  Yet the grievances that began the uprising still exist and will only get worse.  Putting down this rebellion requires an embrace of ruthlessness.   The more ruthless, the more quickly he can put it down, but being ruthless means losing more humanity.  In other words, to fight is to become even less connected to his roots. 

He would always remain the best bet in a fight, but over time as the gulf widens between him and his people, he would less resemble his creator and more resemble a monster that his subjects had a duty to overthrow, which would inevitably increase the assaults and uprisings.  The more of a monster he becomes, the less ably he would fight.  Eventually, given adequate time, maybe after a thousand or ten thousand rebellions, someone else would win.  They would discover the key to his unique power.  And they would supplant him, locking him away from the tree until he withered. 

And the cycle begins anew.  Whether the next one distributes the fruit or hordes it, every scenario always ends up the same, commencing a whirlpool of decay; power becoming tyranny becoming destruction becoming chaos becoming power, over and over and over until everything ends. 

I know that is a bleak picture, but that is the picture painted by scripture.  In the days of Noah we can imagine hundreds or thousands or even millions of very long-lived “rulers,” some of them no-doubt well-meaning enough, but all of them somewhere along that thin red line of dark disconnectedness, all of them thoroughly convinced that their vision for the way things should be was the only one that mattered, that no one else could understand, and any resistance must be destroyed for the good of humanity. 

Hinduism’s oldest texts, the Vedas, have origins in oral tales that extend back to the dawn of history.  One of these, the Rig Veda, describes a brutal, cyclic, series of wars between rival factions endlessly seeking power and dominion over each other.  They call this process samsara, “the cyclicality of all life, matter, and existence.”  It is possible that this is a parallel account of the state of existence that God found despicable enough to wipe out.  

If that was the world Noah lived in, a million little Hitlers goose-stepping around each other, can anyone really blame God for destroying it?  Can we really blame Him for making sure that we cannot live that way for the duration of this world?

Death is a substantial limit.  We can only imagine how glorious life would be if we did not need to worry about whether or not tomorrow everything we know will be overturned by the absence of someone we care deeply about; if we could run or jump or soar or “try everything” without any fear of paying the ultimate price.  The limits death places on us feel very nearly unbearable. 

But the alternative is a form of life that far from being better makes all the oppression and evil we have seen in the world we know look like kindergartners fighting over toys.  Eternal life in inescapable darkness would probably make us yearn for death.  In a way, death is like a timer God has set on our experience of this broken world, this far and no farther.   

But death, like the unfinished sketch, boldly declares the completed picture of the master artist.  

Our decent guy became a monster ultimately because he did not trust anyone except himself, because he knew no one was reliable.  His logic was impeccable.  He did the right thing inasmuch as he could.  His solution to the problem of the tree stands out among all other possible responses, probably providing the greatest relative period of peace and stability, but it still failed and in the end the hero became a monster.  Why? 

Because he is mortal.  He is limited.  He is not God.  Becoming the emperor of everything, while the best solution, is only a permanent solution when that emperor is not bound by the limits natural to our system.  Only then can we trust that He will always have our best interests at heart, and through trusting him learn to trust everyone around us.  Thankfully God made arrangements for just such a permanent ruler.

Imagine being able to trust everyone implicitly. No one would ever try to hurt us.  If someone were laughing, it would never be at us unless we had told a joke.  If someone were crying, it would be in joy, not in agony.  We would never have to prove our word. We would never have to question anyone else’s intentions or purposes.  If someone were to tell us something, we could always believe them. 

That sounds like a heaven worth living in.

Immortality is not sitting on clouds plucking harps unless that really floats your boat.  It is not an eternal worship service, though to be sure we will worship.  Who wouldn’t want to celebrate the creator who was able to put such an exquisite system together?  But there will be enough else to do that eternity won’t be long enough to finish it all.  Does death make this life sweeter?  Not at all, but it makes the next one all the better.

Who wants to live forever?  I do.

[1] The term for eternal in eternal life is a translation of terms in Greek and in Hebrew that literally translated mean something like “world of worlds” or “world without end.”  In Genesis 3:22 for instance, live forever, is literally “live to the worlds.”  Live forever is not a poor translation, but it can just as easily be understood, “live up to the next world.”   

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