A preacher’s kid growing up in the Bible Belt, Micah Redding had a particular view of the physical world and God’s work in it. Singing popular hymns like “This World is Not My Home” and “I’ll Fly Away,” he took away this message: It’s all going to burn anyway, so why bother with the environment or curing diseases? That’s a distraction from the gospel. Our bodies don’t go to heaven, just our souls.
When he started studying the Bible for himself and reading authors like N. T. Wright and C. S. Lewis, Redding formed a theology that more closely embraces the material world. “If we believe the material world is good, we have to engage in the transformation of it,” he said. He sees science and technology as part of God’s vision for the world, which, for him, includes radical life extension.
Redding points to Isaiah 65, where “one who dies at a hundred years will be thought a mere child,” as well as the extremely long-lived Genesis patriarchs. “Scripture really places this value on human life, relationality, and productivity,” he said. “We have to appreciate that idea as part of our embrace of the material life.”
In 2013, Redding founded the Christian Transhumanist Association (CTA), a group bringing faith and ethics into transhumanist conversations. Transhumanists, who believe that human capacities can be enhanced by science and technology, hold a gamut of views. Some are anti-aging researchers applying biomedicine to improve humanity. Aubrey de Grey, for instance, who headlined a recent CTA conference, studies preventative maintenance for the human body and believes the first human to live to 1,000 has already been born. Others look to computing advances; futurist Ray Kurzweil has predicted that by 2045 artificial intelligence will surpass human intelligence, leading to “the singularity,” where everyone’s brain will be connected to “the cloud.”
These predictions may seem outlandish, but recent breakthroughs in the science of aging do make modest, if not radical, life extension a real possibility. Various studies on lab animals have extended lifespan by up to 30 percent, while others are using gene therapy to attempt age reversal on dogs or racing to find a prescription drug that would delay or even reverse the aging process.
While Redding is cautiously optimistic about how life extension projects could be part of God’s abundant life for us, others are decidedly critical. “Nothing is gained theologically by extending our lifespan,” said theologian Ephraim Radner. “There’s no greater, deeper understanding of who we are as human beings. Tacking on another 15 years will obscure further the reality of who we are as creatures.”
Radner’s view might be more prevalent among Christians than Redding’s. A recent study among university students found that those who scored higher on certain measures of religious belief (including deference to God’s will and belief of positive afterlife participation) were less likely to want life extension. “From our data, it is clear that the Christian population is less in favor of life-extending technologies than non-Christians,” said Loren Martin, a study co-author and psychology professor.
Why Do We Age?
“Think of your body as a leased car,” S. Jay Olshansky and Bruce Carnes write in their book The Quest for Immortality. Your genes are the driver, and their goal is to get you to the finish line, reproduction. Once you have reached that point, your body itself is expendable. Your genes are no longer invested in maintaining the vehicle, as they have already traded in for a newer model. Aging and death are accidents in the race to genetic immortality—your DNA passed on to the next generation.
So goes the prevailing theory of aging, based on the idea that natural selection for the fittest only occurs up to the period of reproduction, after which whatever “harmful” genes that lead to the diseases of aging are increasingly expressed. “Aging, in this view, is due to the lack of selection; it’s not selected for or against,” biologist Leonard Guarente said in a media interview. “If there’s no selection for robust health, aging happens.”
If aging occurred “accidentally,” scientists and others see medical advances as chances to alter some of the unintended consequences. Discoveries in the field have increased exponentially in the past decades, leading many to the conclusion that “aging is modifiable,” Olshansky, a biodemographer, told CT. Popular media have often translated this message as “We can solve aging!”
Biblical theology contrasts the view that aging is a problem to be fixed. In scriptural times, few achieved old age, write retired professors Richard Hays, of Duke Divinity School, and Judith Hays, of Duke School of Nursing. To attain elderly status was a gift, worthy of special respect and entailing unique responsibility. “Nowhere is growing old itself described as a problem. Nowhere are elders described as pitiable, irrelevant, or behind the curve, as inactive or unproductive,” they write.
Though aging isn’t a problem in the Bible, death certainly is. The beginning of Genesis describes the death that came with Adam and Eve’s disobedience to God, while New Testament writers proclaim Christ’s resurrection as triumph over death. Scripture also says that the longevity of early humans—Methuselah lived 969 years—was shortened to just 120 years as a result of humanity’s increasing wickedness (Gen. 6).
The connection between sin and premature aging and death has led some, such as Redding, to conclude that part of Christ’s redemption, which frees us from the bondage of sin, involves relieving the negative effects of aging and prolonging our years of productive, relational life. “If we lost lifespan because of our violent actions, that’s something we can regain through Christ,” Redding said.
Others caution against the straightforward connection between sin, aging, and death. According to J. Richard Middleton, the death that results from the fall in Genesis 3 is not biological death, or the introduction of mortality, but rather the antithesis of the abundant life that God intended. We were created to be mortal, Middleton said in a 2018 conference.
Radner agrees, arguing that wisdom comes with honoring the contours of our created life with its various stages and limits, including aging and death. Abundant life, according to these theologians, doesn’t consist of more life, or even healthier life, but rather in recognizing our created nature and restoring right relationships between humans and the rest of creation. “It strikes me that in a world where people still kill each other, the goal of lifespan extension is at best a secondary one,” Radner said.
The Coming Aging Treatments
In the Bay Area, a company called Ambrosia offers young plasma infusions for $8,000 a pop. Elysium Health, founded by Guarente, sells a supplement called Basis, which, through a chain of metabolic effects, activates longevity-controlling proteins called sirtuins.
These and other biotech companies are on the cusp of a wave of anti-aging treatments that spring out of legitimate research. But few have been clinically tested on humans, and none have made it through the long FDA approval process to show safety and efficacy. That could change soon, Tony Wyss-Coray, a Stanford neurologist, told CT. His own biotech company, Alkahest, is currently running clinical trials of young plasma treatments on small samples of Alzheimer’s patients, though preliminary results are less striking than mouse models.
In those studies, old mice whose circulatory systems were joined to young mice showed increased neuron growth, while old mice given just young plasma also showed improvement from age-related cognitive conditions, including better memory and spatial learning. It was enough that, in a 2015 TED talk, Wyss-Coray reported that young blood might actually reverse aging.
Many other aging-treatment trials are now underway, from senolytics, which uses drugs to remove old, worn-out cells, to the drugs Rapamycin and Metformin, which appear to mimic a state of limited nutrient availability. One California-based research group has now successfully reprogrammed the epigenome (an outer layer of proteins covering the DNA) in prematurely aging mice, rejuvenating organs and extending lifespan by 30 percent.
“It is not likely that there will be a silver bullet for aging any more than there will be a silver bullet for cancer,” wrote Guarente. “However, there will likely be novel pharmaceutical interventions for the effects of aging emerging directly from aging research.” Wyss-Coray predicts that such treatments could become available in the next five to ten years.
Olshansky cautions against expectations that coming treatments will dramatically prolong human lifespan. Predicting benefits in humans based on studies of mice can be inexact at best.
Still, these researchers hope their work will eventually bring the general population up to current highest average life expectancies (84 years for Hispanic females) in a healthy way. “Aging is not necessarily disease,” said Paola Sebastiani, who studies the genomes of extremely long-lived individuals to identify what protects them against the ravages of old age. Her work has shown that, among those who live to up to 100 or more, there is a “compression of morbidity”—a delay in the onset of age-related diseases.
“Our goal is not lifespan extension,” she said, “but finding ways to help people stay healthy as long as possible.”
The Substance of Things Hoped For
The coming aging treatments may not deliver the extreme longevity enjoyed by biblical patriarchs, but they are enough to spur serious Christians to wrestle with how these technologies will undoubtedly change our experience of aging and death.
Perhaps the best way to understand these changes is to learn from the past. Between 1900 and 2003, medical advances including antibiotics, improved sanitation, and vaccines brought average life expectancy in the US from 49 up to 78 years, a 59.1 percent increase.
Radner observes that this transition altered our desires and attitudes—on everything from fertility to suffering—in ways nobody could have predicted. Crucially, he wrote in A Time to Keep, the improvements of the last century “sequestered” death, disconnecting the experience from ordinary life. Now, he said, our inherent identity as creatures receiving life as a gift from God, moving on toward death and passing on this gift to the next generation, has been obscured.
Which is not to say we should refuse the offer of better health or more years of life, Radner said. “The question is—what kind of efforts are we putting into them and what do we want people to get out of them? What time, how much money, do we spend? Where are we placing our hopes?”
As a former hospital chaplain, Jessica Bratt Carle has similar concerns. Watching sick patients and their family members consider heroic, life-saving efforts, she has wondered, “Are we really wanting to live longer, or wanting to put off death longer?” On the other hand, Carle noted, the expectation that we should all live healthy lives up to old age has sometimes resulted in the opposite situation—people wondering if life is really worth living with much more limited capacities brought on by illness and disease. The cultural idols of independence, ability, and productivity—for which the desires for health and longevity often stand as proxy—will only be reinforced with ongoing biomedical developments.
Visions of the Good Life: Competing or Complementary?
Melanie McKinney, 63, already has her funeral planned and paid for. If given a chance to receive treatment that would prolong her healthy years by, say, a decade or two, she said she wouldn’t take it. “I don’t want anything that’s man-made to extend my life. Something about that does not speak about our Creator.”
Redding, the Christian transhumanist, sees nothing contradictory about trusting God and using science to extend lifespan. Our identity, he said, is rooted in God’s work as a creative and cultivating being, a work he invites us to join. “That is science and technology at its most elemental form. To embrace those is to understand our human vocation at a deeper level.”
Most Christians would accept that God’s good purposes for us can involve medical intervention, and yet there is something to McKinney’s concerns. Philosopher Yuval Noah Harari gets to the heart of it. He writes in his recent book Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, “Medicine is undergoing a tremendous conceptual revolution.” Whereas its stated goal has been to heal the sick, now it is increasingly being used to “upgrade the healthy.”
This constant self-upgrading is the aim of transhumanism, a goal that worries Wheaton College English professor Christina Bieber Lake. “Transhumanism is wrong,” Lake writes in her book Prophets of the Posthuman: American Fiction, Biotechnology, and the Ethics of Personhood, “not because it promotes change, but because it promotes a dangerously thin definition of the good life, as if to be healthier, have a longer life, or experience less suffering will necessarily amount to a better life.”
The challenge for the church, as we face the imminent biomedical advances of the coming decades, is to articulate a more robust, compelling version of the good life. Conversations like those organized by Redding, where we hash out the interplay of faith and science, are critical.
At the same time, the church must continue to proclaim the basic reality of our existence, as summarized in the Ash Wednesday call, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.” Life is a gift. Philosopher Diogenes Allen made the distinction between extended life and eternal life—extended life is what we are trying to make for ourselves through scientific solutions. Eternal life, on the other hand, is “a different kind of life, which we can experience and have to a degree in this life but can have fully only after death.” Eternal life, in other words, is received.
To the extent that we receive this eternal, abundant life, Christians offer it to others—through loving our neighbors and building communities of mutual care and hospitality. This is our ultimate goal. Though caring for bodies may be part of this process, it is not everything.
We are also called to question the attitudes and structures that make “the good life” as it is understood by society only available to some. Why does life expectancy for African Americans still lag 3.4 years behind white Americans, according to most recent 2014 data? How is it, to paraphrase theologian Stanley Hauerwas, that a wealthy man at the end of his life can receive a heart transplant, while a child in poverty dies of pneumonia?
Can old, sick, or suffering people still live a good life, even if they don’t have good health? And how can the church, writes theologian Joyce Ann Mercer, value the vocations and experiences—even the bodies—of older adults when they’re frail and dependent, past the point of productivity?
How we answer these questions will determine whether a Christian vision of the good life remains distinct and compelling in the coming decades, as science and technology promise—and deliver—their own versions.
Liuan Huska is a writer living in the Chicago area. Her forthcoming book on chronic illness is publishing with InterVarsity Press.
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