Can Science Give Us Eternal Life?

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Can Science Give Us Eternal Life?

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From our earliest history, mortal man has sought in vain for immortality. Spanish explorer Ponce de León is famous for his futile search for the fountain of youth. Most other names are lost in history. The searchers had one thing in common: They all failed. Medical science is on a path that some feel will succeed in ending human mortality by reversing- or at least drastically slowing-the aging process. Can science extend our lifespans into hundreds, or maybe even thousands, of years? Some think it's only a matter of time. A recent spate of books and magazine articles claims that this and other remarkable prospects are possible for the near future. Progress in the battle against aging Over the last century advances in medical science have extended life expectancy far beyond the proverbial threescore and ten. Life expectancies in the United States in 1900 were only 48.3 years for men and 51.1 for women. By the mid-1950s they had increased to 66.0 for men and 71.7 for women. By 1996 the figures had risen to 75.7 and 82.7. The U.S. population includes more than 50,000 people who have lived past 100 years of age, and the number of people who reach that milestone doubles every 10 years. People over the age of 85 constitute the fastest-growing segment of the population. Similar figures exist in other developed nations. Now, for the first time, prognosticators proclaim that an end to the aging process may soon be within reach. "The Coming Triumph Over Aging" is the title of the first chapter of a 1998 book, Cheating Death, by Marvin Cetron and Owen Davies. In the preface to his book Immortality: How Science Is Extending your Life Span-and Changing the World, also written in 1998, author Ben Bova predicts: ". . . Human immortality is no longer a fantasy or a dream but may be achievable within this generation." The book boldly concludes: "The first immortals are already living among us. You might be one of them" (p. 251). What is the basis for such hopeful predictions? Are such previously unthinkable life spans on the horizon? If so, what challenges will they pose for future generations? Does the Bible offer insight on this topic? Progress in biological science The increasing length of human life can largely be credited to advances in the health sciences. Fundamental advances in medicine and sanitation have all but eliminated smallpox and other diseases that wiped out thousands of lives in years past. (Regrettably, this good news is partially offset by the fact that degenerative diseases such as cancer and heart disease continue to exact a heavy toll in human suffering, in spite of the sophisticated equipment and vast array of medical procedures available.) Science has made astounding achievements in developing prosthetics and transplants as a means of replacing diseased organs and other damaged body parts. The first successful heart transplant dates to 1967. Doctors can replace many other organs, sometimes more than one at a time. The main limitation seems to be lack of organ donors, but the controversial cloning process promises to come to the rescue by developing healthy replacement tissue in the laboratory. One is reminded of a line from the old TV series, The Six Million Dollar Man: "We can rebuild him; we have the technology." Yesterday's fanciful Six Million Dollar Man and the Bionic Woman may be fictional prototypes of future real people. Understanding aging As awesome as this technology may seem, transplant surgery deals merely with the effects of accidents, disease and aging. Scientists are gaining information on how aging and diseases occur, with the hope of learning how to reverse them. Researchers have learned much about processes that occur in cells to bring on aging. Two theories have emerged—entropic (wearing out) and telomeric (death by design). Aging and reproduction seem to be universally connected throughout most forms of life, whether they be microscopic one-celled organisms or human beings. Life and vitality appear to be designed to peak at the time of procreation and decline thereafter. It appears that a self-limiting program is built into our genes. Like computer viruses, substances within our bodies attack and destroy cells to bring on aging and eventual death. Scientists try to locate, understand and turn off the aging switches built into living organisms. Experiments involving melatonin, antioxidants, free radicals and the growth hormone somatrophin have yielded interesting results in laboratory tests. Lives of test animals have significantly increased. The prospects for human life are yet to be determined, as are risks and side effects. In 1986 a team of scientists embarked on the most extensive scientific research project ever undertaken. The Human Genome Project seeks to map the genes of the human body and their functions. Genes are the master blueprints of our cells. They contain codes that regulate all of life's functions. The human genome is the scientific term for the composite genetic material of the human body. Close to 100,000 genes must be analyzed and described to complete this encyclopedic effort. Prospects and possibilities When the project is complete, the next step will be to determine how to use the resulting knowledge to manipulate body processes for practical benefits. Potential benefits are impressive: * Early detection (by genetic predisposition) and possible elimination of disease. * Slowing or eliminating aging. Ben Bova predicts, "Aging will evaporate like a bad dream" (Bova, p. 123). * Restoration of youthful functions (a scientific fountain of youth). * Extension of life span and perhaps even physical immortality. Of course it will take time for any of these benefits to become available. So, in the meantime, these mind-stretching possibilities have spawned the practice of cyronics—the freezing of dead bodies with liquid nitrogen in hopes of future restoration to life and health, perhaps even immortality, via medical and scientific methods such as those mentioned above. Problems of the postmortal era However, even with the most optimistic outcome of current and future developments, the prospect of physical immortality, or even greatly extended life spans, poses a host of challenges and problems. They include: * Medical limitations. At this point the best medical science can hope for is to slow the process of aging or prevent death by disease and old age; death by injury would still loom over humanity. Knowing about genes does not confer the ability to manipulate them any more than drawing a blueprint guarantees how or if a house will be built. Genes take orders from elsewhere; they don't initiate them. Scientists must still analyze genetic interaction with a host of environmental factors. Until researchers learn more about root causes of disease, there may be a need for periodic adjustments, which could be very costly. Tampering with the delicate intricacies of cellular interaction could produce a medical Frankenstein's monster of uncontrolled cell growth—in a word, cancer. * Economic considerations. The financial cost of extending life could limit its benefits to the wealthy. On the other hand, if treatment becomes readily available, many other economic challenges will arise. Longer life spans would result in people needing to workindefinitely. Retirement would have to be postponed or even eliminated. Insurance, pension plans and retirement income programs would have to be revamped, reduced or discontinued. * The ability to read the genetic code of an employee or potential employee could result in layoffs and refusals to hire as well as insurance denials and higher premium costs. * A massive transformation of the medical industry also threatens as conventional medical treatment becomes obsolete. * Population problems. As life spans increase, which they most surely will, overpopulation will exact a greater toll on dwindling natural resources. Birth-control measures will become ever more critical. If man were to achieve immortality, how long would it take to reach a saturation point beyond which life could not continue? * Social, cultural, ethical and moral considerations. A host of social challenges would need to be dealt with, such as discrimination against the poor, elderly and diseased unable to afford life extension. And, on the other hand, discrimination no doubt would be directed against those who for philosophical, ethical or religious reasons choose not to extend their lives by scientific means. * Religious and philosophical issues. If science were able to offer physical immortality, what religious and philosophical challenges would such an offer pose? The meaning of life would change. The limitations of physical life provide boundaries and parameters that define life as we know it. As King Solomon wrote almost 3,000 years ago: "To everything there is a season, . . . a time to be born, and a time to die" (Ecclesiastes 3:1-2). What if life goes on indefinitely? What will future immortals do with all that time? Golfing for eternity, even for those who could afford it, would soon grow stale and boring. Meaning and purpose in life would become a vital necessity for happiness. The prospect of physical immortality poses a major challenge to religion. Marvin Cetron asks, "Will religion still have something to offer people whose salvation is as near as the local pharmacy?" (Cheating Death, p. 15). The age of enlightenment led many to look to science, discounting the need for God. The prospect of immortality could result in a quantum leap into the arms of medical science. Would immortality from the realm of science deal a death blow to religion? Biblical perspective on immortality Will God allow scientists to manipulate the genetic code to presume to offer eternal life in the flesh? Computer programmers construct databases with grids that allow flexibility but prevent fundamental changes. Has God written genetic codes that cannot be changed? Or is there no limit to what He will allow man to accomplish? Before attempting to answer this question, let's back up and put the matter into a spiritual perspective. Any attempt to gain eternal life apart from the plan of God is doomed to fail. Man's quest for eternal life began long before Ponce de León. The potential for immortality dates back to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. God offered eternal life through the tree of life (Genesis 3:22). Death would be the penalty for partaking of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Satan's first lie to mankind was that man would not die but would gain knowledge by taking of the forbidden tree (Genesis 3:1-5). He managed to convince Eve. Adam went along with his wife, and the course of history was set. Ever since, man has sought eternal life by means of the tree of knowledge, reaping a mixture of good and evil results. The latest advances in scientific knowledge are no exception. Can man avoid death forever? Because of sin, death is inevitable for all mankind (Romans 5:12; Hebrews 9:27). God has designed the human body to conform to the limits of mortality. The body begins its demise after peaking during the reproductive years. Genetic researchers observe this planned obsolescence at the cellular level as they continue their determined research into ways to alter the genetic code. Will God allow man to reverse the aging process and live forever? It's possible man could make great strides toward that end. Note that after the incident at the tower of Babel—a human attempt to thwart God's plan and punishment for sin—God's response was, "Now nothing that they propose to do will be withheld from them" (Genesis 11:6). Does this include learning how to turn off the death switch at work in our genes? If so, eternal life in the flesh (or even a greatly enhanced life span) will be fraught with problems. In the end, man still cannot escape death in the plan of God. Regardless of the longevity of human life, Jesus warns us that God "is able to destroy body and soul" (Matthew 10:28). Conditions at the time of the end of this age are destined to be like those at the time of Noah (Matthew 24:37-39). Other than the handful of lives preserved on the ark, all flesh was destroyed in the Flood. Peter speaks of the time when fire will sweep over the earth to burn "both the earth and the works that are in it" (2 Peter 3:10-12). So, regardless of how long medical science might be able to extend human life, the time will come when nothing physical will remain. God's plan for eternal life The good news is that God plans to destroy death and once again offer immortality to mankind. However, it won't be through scientific advances, but through a resurrection from the grave. The entire 15th chapter of 1 Corinthians is devoted to this awesome topic. Our physical existence is only temporary. The ultimate destiny of mankind is eternal life in the family of God—by His design, not man's. He reveals that our limited physical bodies will be instantaneously transformed from mortal flesh to immortal spirit (1 Corinthians 15:20-26, 33-54; Philippians 3:20-21; 1 John 3:1-3). No transplants, artificial parts, drugs or therapies are required! Revelation 21:4 assures us that death, disease, even pain and sorrow will evaporate like a bad dream (to borrow the words of a previous quote). God's version of eternal life will be freely given and available to all who follow Him (John 4:9-10, 14; Revelation 21:6; 22:17). There will be no need for a medical industry or insurance. Life will be meaningful and busy. We will work without tiring—or retiring (John 5:17). There will be no need for income. Social security will be replaced by spiritual security, compliments of Almighty God. All social, cultural, ethical, moral and spiritual problems will be eliminated (Revelation 21:27; 22:14-15). Population problems and overcrowding will not be an issue in the New Heavens and New Earth. God's plan more than meets the challenge to religion. God has incomparably more to offer than the local pharmacy could ever hope to provide. Eternal life is more than a chronological matter. Immortality without meaning and purpose would be a curse. The Bible's offer of eternal life includes an intimate relationship with the great "I Am," the Author and Designer of life (John 17:3). Looking into the future Regrettably, we live in the dark ages spiritually (John 1:5; 9:4). Although scientific and technological knowledge abounds, mankind utterly lacks spiritual truth (2 Timothy 3:7). This condition is destined to change dramatically. The greatest age of enlightenment is yet to be ushered in, at the return of Jesus Christ. God's Word tells us that "the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea" (Isaiah 11:9). Life on earth will take on exciting new meaning as mankind learns to live according to and enjoy the blessings of God's perfect law of liberty (Isaiah 2:1-4; James 1:25). All will come to know God's plan for immortality—eternal life in His glorious Kingdom. In the meantime, science will continue to find ways to expand the quantity and quality of human life. Time will tell how much science can improve health and longevity. But all that ultimately will pale into insignificance by the plan of God. Can scientists give us hundreds or possibly even thousands of years of life? They certainly will try. But, even if mankind achieves remarkable breakthroughs, physical immortality from the hand of man will include all the problems and pain of our present life—and more of them spread over more years. The apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:19 tells us that hope limited to this physical life indeed would be a pitiable existence. Any scientific development is a cheap substitute compared to eternal life in the Kingdom of God. GN

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  • sharon56
    Many years ago, I ran into an old lady at the grocery store who had just turned 100. It stood out to me not only because of her age, but it happened to be my birthday on that day too, only I had just turned 23. A young man who knew her noticed her in line and told her, "Happy birthday, Ms_!" She smilingly thanked him and told him that she was 100 that day. He said, "Really! Well I hope you have many more." At that her expression changed and I could see sadness in her eyes. The kind of sadness that comes with years and years of pain, disappointment, and tears. Then she said softly, "No, Baby, I don't want many more. I'm ready for the Lord to take me home soon." The point is that imperfect and sinful man will continue to be imperfect and sinful on this earth, even if they could live here forever. People would continue to be cruel, selfish, and ruthless, perhaps even more so. Eternal earthly life, even if possible would just prolong the inevitable earthly problems, pain and sorrow that come with living in a sinful, fallen world.
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