Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Immortality or Eternal Life?

In a provocative essay for the New York Times, philosopher Todd May suggests, “This is the paradox death imposes upon us: it grants us the possibility of a meaningful life even as it takes it away.” He begins by pointing out that, as essentially forward-looking creatures, the finality of death offends us. But, he goes on to argue that without death, life would lose its shape and become formless. He alludes to a story, Immortality, by Jorge Louis Borges in which immortal beings become unconcerned with their lives or surroundings. Immortality, which he characterizes as one damn thing after another would be boring.

Once you’ve followed your passion — playing the saxophone, loving men or women, traveling, writing poetry — for, say, 10,000 years, it will likely begin to lose its grip. There may be more to say or to do than anyone can ever accomplish. But each of us develops particular interests, engages in particular pursuits. When we have been at them long enough, we are likely to find ourselves just filling time. In the case of immortality, an inexhaustible period of time.

I suppose he’s onto something. If immortality is just mortal life extended indefinitely there might not be much to commend it. Our limited mortal selves cannot bear immortality in that sense. Borges gets at this. As does Anne Rice in the desperate and lonely immortality “lived” by the vampire, Lestat. Living forever in the sense of life as we know it is less attractive than might be assumed at first.

But, as a Christian, I have to say that is not my hope. Mere immortality is not the same thing as eternal life. The Bible is surprisingly circumspect in describing just what eternal life means. But there are hints.

First of all, the Christian hope is not to avoid death. Death is indeed the hard reality under whose shadow we live. But, we confess that the one who is Life itself entered into that hard reality and took it upon himself and died a mortal death on a cross. Still more, we confess that Life transformed the reality of death through resurrection. So, now the shadow of death is the shadow cast by the cross with the light of resurrection glory shining from beyond.

Because we hope for resurrection, our hope is not for our exhaustible and exhausting lives extended over inexhaustible time but for life transformed. Thus, one of the most enduring images of that hope is the prophet Isaiah’s vision of the Peaceable Kingdom in which all that makes it a curse for so many to be born is transformed into health and harmony. Similarly, the vision of the New Jerusalem in the Revelation to John points to the healing of all that corrupts and destroys along with all within and without that keeps us from complete and mutual joy. Our hope is for all creation, perhaps all of history – and us in it – to be transformed.

We do not hope for this life extended beyond death. Rather, we expect to be transfigured, or as Dante would have it, transhumanized. We expect to be “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 2:4) capable of enjoying God who is Eternal Life and capable of being in-joyed by God.

Our passions and interests are limited because we are finite and the things we love are finite. But, if our loves and desires can be caught up in the love and desire that is God, they become endless and endlessly desirable. The great fourth century theologian, Gregory of Nyssa, put it this way

Because there is nothing above to break the impetus of the soul, and because the very nature of the good is to attract those who look up toward it, the soul rises always, extending itself forward through the desire of heavenly things, as the Apostle says [Philippians 3:13], and its flight will lead it always higher. Desirous as it is never to renounce the summits which are above itself, and in view of what it has reached already, the soul is given a movement of never-ending ascension, and it finds always in its past achievements a new energy for soaring higher; for spiritual activity alone has the propriety of nurturing its strength while expending it, and not to lose, but rather to increase it through exercise.
(The Life of Moses II 225 – 226)

Unlike mere immortality, the Christian vision of eternal life is not just an extension of this life which would surely become tedious if not altogether unbearable. Beings of such immortality would understandably sooner or later become unconcerned with their lives and surroundings. But eternal life is receiving the capacity for eternal joy and enjoyment. In eternal life there is no boredom or loss of interest and passion.

We get a glimpse of this in those saints who have been able to love the finite things and people of this world as icons through which they have loved God who is infinite and infinitely desirable. Seeing things and people as icons of the Eternal, the saints have engaged their eternal desirability. By God’s grace, following the example of the saints, we can hope not just for immortality beyond death, but for foretastes of eternal life even now. And we can begin to engage our lives, the lives of others, and our surroundings as means by which we enjoy and are enjoyed by the God of Eternal Life. In so doing, perhaps our capacity for passion, interest and caring will be nurtured even while being expended, and increased through exercise – preparing us for eternal life.


adhunt said...

I wonder if perhaps an allusion to the Elves in Tolkien might be in order. Often in Scripture - I'm thinking particularly of the end of Revelation or some of the OT visions of a restored Jerusalem in which lives YHWH - we hear of Israel or the Church as "ruling" or "judging" and bringing "healing to the nations" or whatever.

Not wanting to be crudely literalistic I wouldn't imply that our resurrected lives will be the same as our mortal lives only going on for a much longer time, but since it is after all our bodies which are raised, transformed yes but bodies nonetheless, it seems a possible vision of resurrected life might be something along the lines of the Elves. Their extended existence gives them a somber wisdom with which they "rule" or perhaps "guide" Middle Earth. They are deeply spiritual, they posses incredibly craft skills, etc...

All I'm saying I guess is that perhaps Tokien had a bit more of an imagination than Tod May as to what immortality might look like.

Matt Gunter said...


I was thinking exactly this as I reflecting more on this earlier this morning. I read or heard somewhere that Tolkien thought of the elves as what humans might be like without the Fall.

I wonder if the category "human" is, after the fall, a fundamentally unstable category. We are now balanced between being either transhumanized
or dehumanized. The path of the one leads toward something like the elves. The path of the other leads toward something like Gollum.