Friday, October 01, 2010

Future Science, Eternal Life, and Theology

I like to read the speculations of futurists - scientists and psuedo-scientists who opine as to what the future holds- and especially how technology will change our lives in the near and long term. You'll also see such topics on tv (I caught a recent series narrated by Jonathan Frakes which touched on this - "That's Impossible")

Ray Kurzweil is one of my favorites. But he also has some strange ideas that don't mesh well with my own Confessional Lutheran worldview. One of those ideas, shared by some other futurists, is that it's possible for humans to live forever.

The idea goes like this. At some point technology, including nanotech robots injected into our bodies, spare parts grown in a lab, genetic advances, cloning, and cybernetic enhancements - will allow us to combat the aging process, or perhaps even effectively stop it, so that we will be essentially able to live forever. In fact some of these futurists believe there are people alive today that stand a very good chance of living to age 1000 or beyond!

Given the rapid advances science has made recently, and the increasingly rapid rate of such advances, it's not too far of a stretch to imagine the widespread use of some or all of these technologies. But what does this mean for theology?

The Christian faith teaches that death is a consequence of sin. So how does the idea of avoiding or cheating death indefinitely square with that? I've been pondering the possibilities. Here are some thoughts:

1. "Getting around death" would really be a turning upside down of God's judgment, and it seems a frightful thought. That we would enjoy everlasting life of our own doing is an attempt at making ourselves divine - which is the same as the original sin. But where is the line between prolonging life and prolonging it indefinitely? Today we have all sorts of scientific advances that have extended our lifespan. At what point are we "playing God"? I don't know.

2. God might well nigh just prevent us from ever reaching such a state of affairs. So far there are certain problems that have science "stuck" and the advances aren't coming as fast as some have predicted. Perhaps aging and death will be an area we just can't crack.

3. Perhaps this final bit of tampering will be the last straw, and will coincide with the end of days. After all, we know that he is "coming soon".

4. Perhaps eternal life in sin would be its own punishment. God justly barred Adam and Eve from the tree of life, precisely because he didn't want them to eat of the tree and live forever in their sin. For the Christian, physical death is freedom from this fallen body, and we look forward to a resurrected, glorified body. Jesus uses the analogy of a seed that must be planted in the ground and die, so that the plan can arise and live. Maybe "eternal life" at man's own doing is a dream that will bring only tears, and therefore God will let people do it to themselves? Giving them over to their sin? I wonder...

5. As I understand it, every so often people just die. No cause is ever found. No illness can be blamed. People just sometimes "wake up dead". I wonder if the same won't eventually happen to all, even those who live to advanced ages, with all the help science can give, that God in mercy or in judgment will simply call a person's number and there they go.

6. Genesis 6:3 "his days shall be 120 years" Kretzmann says this means 120 years until the great flood of Noah. I tend to agree. But it's striking that 120 seems to be the upper age limit for man - at least since the days of the great patriarchs of old who lived even up to 969 years (Methuselah).

I also wonder about the implications of other scientific advances, especially as they relate to theology. For instance, how much can we tinker with the human genetic code before we get something that isn't human anymore? I'm all for switching off a disease gene here and there, but what if we get a hybrid "manimal". Or again, will God in mercy prevent us from such feats?

I am reminded of the scattering and confusing he did at Babel, to prevent us from doing the "impossible". Will he do the same again soon? It wouldn't surprise me.

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