Can Man Attain Immortality?

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Can Man Attain Immortality?

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If announcing human immortality weren't surprising enough, the cover story of the Feb. 21, 2011, issue of Time also astonishes in how that's envisioned. The article quotes a science-fiction novelist and mathematics professor who told a NASA symposium in 1993 that "within 30 years, we will have the technological means to create super-human intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be ended" (quoted by Lev Grossman, "2045: The Year Man Becomes Immortal," emphasis added throughout). While that was stated 18 years ago, many still believe in such a future.

The article speaks further of advances in artificial intelligence leading eventually to "smarter-than-human intelligences with which (with whom?) we might one day share the planet" and considers various possibilities:

"Maybe we'll merge with them to become super-intelligent cyborgs, using computers to extend our intellectual abilities the same way that cars and planes extend our physical abilities. Maybe the artificial intelligences will help us treat the effects of old age and prolong our life spans indefinitely. Maybe we'll scan our consciousnesses into computers and live inside them as software, forever, virtually. Maybe the computers will turn on humanity and annihilate us. The one thing all these theories have in common is the transformation of our species into something that is no longer recognizable as such to humanity circa 2011. This transformation has a name: the Singularity."

The teaser for the article defines the Singularity, a term borrowed from astrophysics, as "the moment when technological change becomes so rapid and profound, it represents a rupture in the fabric of human history."

The Bible has long foreseen today's increased knowledge as part of the end of what could be called "the human era"—the present age of human misrule. As the prophet Daniel was told, "Shut up the words, and seal the book until the time of the end; many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall increase" (Daniel 12:4). The book of Daniel itself would not be fully understood until the close of man's age was apparent. Then transportation would be revolutionized along with an unprecedented growth in knowledge.

After this, as was also foretold, will commence God's wonderful age. And it is in this context that the Bible also speaks of immortality, but not remotely as science fiction imagines—or even as most religion does.

The roots and limits of our runaway technology

The exponential technological growth in the computer field is extraordinary. Back in 1997 Garry Kasparov, then reigning world chess champion, lost his match with IBM computer Deep Blue. And now in February 2011, IBM's supercomputer Watson won against human contestants on the American game show Jeopardy.

How has humanity reached this level of technology?

On a fundamental level, the Bible reveals that God made human beings in His own image and likeness (Genesis 1:26-27). Mankind was endowed with a mind patterned, though on a far lesser scale, after that of the Creator of the universe, with all of its manifold ramifications.

Much later at the construction of the Tower of Babel, when civilization recommenced after Noah's Flood, God acknowledged the vast potential of human ability: "And the Lord said, 'Indeed the people are one [unified here in a wrong pursuit] and they all have one language, and this is what they begin to do; now nothing that they propose to do will be withheld from them" (Genesis 11:6). Instead of propose, the earlier King James Version uses the term imagined.

Yet there are limits. For what people imagine must be within the realm of what is physically possible. And man seeking to create a living artificial image of himself, particularly his mind—and to perpetuate himself through it—is beyond human capacity. Man will never be able to duplicate himself in this way or somehow "live on" through such artificial means because the human mind is not strictly physical. It includes the human spirit, which imparts intellect to the human brain—and this comes from God (Job 32:8; Ecclesiastes 12:7; Zechariah 12:1; 1 Corinthians 2:11). People cannot engineer or transfer that which is spirit.

Nevertheless, people might be able to create something that mimics the human mind in some respects.

Contrasting unpredictable man with God's eternal reliability

The Time article says that "it's impossible to predict the behavior of these smarter-than-human intelligences" that people think are coming. As was noted, some have even thought about these turning on people—the stuff of science fiction movies. Sadly, if man really was able to create an even more intelligent version of himself, the passing on of his own flawed character traits in the process would be a real concern.

Thankfully, God in creating human beings purposed to duplicate His flawless character within us. God is perfect and completely reliable. Consider just one verse: "Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning" (James 1:17). And God means for us to become like Him and His Son Jesus Christ (1 John 3:2). Again the Bible shows in many passages that those who become part of God's divine family will in their conduct adhere to their Creator's spiritual law of love.

Of course, man rebelled, seeming to thwart God's plan. But God's plan to ultimately lead humanity to be like Him goes on just as intended. This plan includes giving the gift of eternal life or immortality (Romans 6:23) to all who receive forgiveness of sin through Christ and who remain committed to developing godly character. And ultimately, as Scripture shows, today's increasingly disturbing, aberrant conduct will disappear forever.

Speaking of those who deem the artificial intelligence advancements to be inevitable, the Time article says, "They're taking the long view and looking at the big picture." Of course, for the truly big picture, we need to rely on God's Word, the Bible. This Book of Books reaches back before time began and looks forward into eternity.

So let's turn to God's Word and see that men and women may indeed become immortal, but this comes only as an act of our divine Creator, and it requires our adherence to His view and way of life.

The biblical truth about immortality

In all human history, the only man who has become immortal is Jesus Christ—when He returned to spiritual glory, omnipotent dominion and immortality with God the Father at His resurrection from the dead. The apostle Paul thus described Him as "the blessed and only Potentate, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality" (1 Timothy 6:15-16).

But Jesus Himself said that the Father sent Him so that others "should not perish but have everlasting life" (John 3:16).

Paul explained, in what is called the resurrection chapter of the Bible, that this would require a complete transformation: "Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does corruption inherit incorruption" (1 Corinthians 15:50). Mortal human beings, subject to death (Hebrews 9:27), cannot make themselves immortal by technological means. Only our Creator can impart immortality to humanity.

When it comes to religious beliefs, many erroneously believe we already are immortal through a spiritual soul that continues to live after the death of the body. In this view, we go consciously to heaven or elsewhere immediately upon death. Yet Scripture makes clear that human beings have no such immortal soul. There is no consciousness in death. The "dead know nothing" (Ecclesiastes 9:5; compare verse 10). That's why the Bible repeatedly describes death as "sleep" (Daniel 12:2; Psalm 13:3; 1 Thessalonians 4:14). Thus, life after death is only possible through a resurrection, which is exactly what the Bible promises.

As Paul explained further in the resurrection chapter, referring to Christ's return at the end of this age: "Behold, I tell you a mystery: we shall not all sleep [in a period of unconscious death], but we shall all be changed—in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality . . . Then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: 'Death is swallowed up in victory'" (1 Corinthians 15:51-54).

Man's ability to imagine and create is truly marvelous and seemingly unbounded. But thankfully God will allow humanity to have a glorious, immortal future only through our developing His character and being made perfect in the divine family of God, the Kingdom of God!

We can only briefly touch on these remarkable biblical truths in a relatively brief magazine article. To understand much more, request or download our free booklets Are We Living in the Time of the End? and What Happens After Death?  WNP