Culture At Large

"Soft immortality" or eternal life?

Shiao Chong

“Why would someone immortal want to live? Where would his or her drive come from?”

These are the questions Marcelo Gleiser asked in his recent NPR post, “Soft Immortality: Would You Do It?” Gleiser ponders if immortality would be a curse - a meaningless, boring existence. Without being bound to time, to an ending, would our actions and choices still be meaningful? Could we still experience the tragic and the sublime? Would we still be human? If science advances to the point at which we can prolong our lives indefinitely - what Gleiser calls “soft immortality” - should we do so? Or is mortality also a blessing?

As Christians, these questions take on added nuance. God’s gift of eternal life to all those who believe in Jesus makes us ponder what it might be like for us to live for eternity. Should Gleiser’s concerns be ours too?

My take is that Gleiser’s soft immortality and the Bible’s eternal life are two very different things.

For starters, Gleiser assumes that our bodies and our world will remain basically the same as they are now. Science will not fundamentally change our bodies, but merely arrest the decay of cells and prevent the growth of cancerous cells. And it is this same earth that we will spend our soft immortality in. Hence, it is logical for him to wonder if we might run out of meaningful things to do or discover.

The Bible, however, suggests that we will have resurrected bodies. And if Jesus’ own resurrected body is any sign of what we might expect for ours, then our resurrected bodies will be different yet similar to our current bodies. The post-resurrection Jesus ate and drank, and can be recognized. (He even bears the scars from His wounds). But He also appeared and disappeared, and can also be incognito at points. We simply do not know what our resurrected bodies will feel like when we live eternally with God. Will the differences change our abilities, or our capacities, and hence affect how we view meaning in a timeless existence?

The Bible suggests eternal life is qualitatively, not merely quantitatively, different from our current lives.

Furthermore, the Bible promises that we will enjoy eternal life in a new heaven and earth, where sin and presumably its negative effects no longer infect the world and its living creatures. Again, we simply do not know for sure what that kind of reality looks like. What would a world without sin be like? In other words, what would this world look like if it exists up to its full potential, not encumbered by the negative effects of sin that holds it in bondage? Would that world be far more wondrous, exciting, even more infinite, for us to explore, discover and enjoy? Would eternity in such a place be boring?

And imagine our own lives without sin clinging, and often ruining, us. How would our lives be if each of us were to live to our fullest potential? Is that partly what Jesus promised as abundant life or life to the fullest?

In other words, the Bible suggests that eternal life is qualitatively, not merely quantitatively, different from our current lives. In fact, it is perhaps due more to our modern, Western post-industrial bias that when we read “eternal life” in the Bible, our minds immediately think of the length of life, and often exclusively so.

But I would wager that for first-century Jews and Christians, though the concept of length is not absent, it is the kind or quality of life that comes foremost in their minds when they hear the phrase “eternal life.” Just as our modern phrase of “chill out” means to relax and not literally to “get outside and get cold,” the phrase “eternal life” for ancient Jews points more to “life in God’s age to come.” Namely, it refers to living in God’s new heaven and earth, in the restored age where evil is defeated, shalom is restored, everything is as God intended and life is, well, abundant and forever.

Topics: Culture At Large, Science & Technology, Science, Theology & The Church, Theology