Aging, The Resurrection and The Mission of God

Jordan Wilson comments
| Science

Will people my age (31) live to the age of 130+? I think the answer is...probably. Wild prediction you say? Ask someone in 1916 what they thought about the probability of a man on the moon was by 1969. Ask someone in 1916 what they thought about the probability of the life expectancy going from what it was then (50) to what it is now (80). Or in 1918 when the life expectancy dropped to below 40 (influenza epidemic). Recent medical discoveries and human aging research are indicating that lives will soon be extended to ages not seen in 5,000 years.

Something to get out of the way at the outset. Despite Genesis 6:3, the Bible does not limit mankind to a limit of living 120 years. We know that Noah and his sons lived hundreds of years after the flood and that Abraham, Isaac & and Jacob who were born after the flood all lived well past the age of 120. It is plausible that this verse is simply saying that as a result of all the evil in the prediluvian period, God would bring the flood judgment upon man in 120 years. In any case, given that people who were born after the flood lived well past 120 years, an arbitrary 120 year human lifespan cannot be the meaning.

But is it really possible for mankind to have a measure of success in beating back the effects of the curse of sin in substantively extending human life spans? It would seem so.

The National Geographic has a truly incredible series called Breakthrough. It’s produced by the very talented Ron Howard and it seeks to “provide a thought-provoking and imaginative perspective on scientific discovery as it unfolds. Each episode follows scientific explorers working on cutting-­edge projects with breakthrough potential.”  Breakthrough recently devoted an entire episode to topic of aging where they chronicle the work of many different scientists all hard at work trying to understand what causes aging and how to fight it.

The following is a snippet of dialogue from the program, where different scientists & doctors are recounting the breakthrough of Dr. Cynthia Kenyon, UCSF School of Medicine:

KENYON: So I was studying worms, and my plan was to just change genes at random and look for worm mutants that live longer.We taped worms for five minutes every day for their whole lives. I had these little petri dishes. One had normal worms, old, and the other had the mutant ones, moving around. And I thought, I want to be those worms.

DEMING: Cynthia's fundamental finding was that you could change a single gene in a worm and have that worm live twice as long as normal.

GORDON LITHGOW: That was an incredible moment. And frankly, people didn't believe it. You could change a single gene and see a 70%, 75% increase in longevity.

SIMON MELOV: And that started to propel this idea that maybe aging was just like any other biological phenomenon. Maybe you could manipulate it through the power of genetics.

KENYON: And right about 1998 or so several labs working on fruit flies showed that if you change the same gene, they live longer.

LITHGOW: Then people started doing this with chemical compounds, showing similar effects.

MELOV: That movement slowly started to expand and proliferate into other disciplines.

KENYON: Several labs found that making similar gene changes could also extend the lifespan of mice.

LITHGOW: We know of hundreds of genes now that when altered, changed the lifespan. So aging itself is modifiable. The question now is, is it modifiable in us?

In focusing on reversing the effects of aging holistically as opposed to focusing only on fighting specific diseases like cancer, heart disease etc, it seems that we could be on the precipice of a quantum leap forward in human lifespan. As described in the episode, It seems that so many diseases are interconnected with overall health. When we approach medicine from the humble perspective of trying to understand how God made his creation to function and then adjusting the sails, God blesses it. Don't get me wrong, I'm very thankful for all the disease specific and symptom-mitigating medicine we have developed. But we should think of those as the Band-Aid solution while in the meantime we should be aggressively going after the root causes of death like aging and a lack of holistic health.

The rest of the episode is equally fascinating but whether it be genetic research or the development of new drugs, the question arises: Should we as Christians be excited about these developments?  Pagans seem to care. To what extent should Christians care? More than pagans? Less than pagans? Are these sorts of endeavors a distraction from the Great Commission, or a byproduct of what God is doing in redemptive history?

Ultimately the root cause of all death is sin, and until we receive our glorified resurrected bodies with Christ, death will remain an enemy. But greater than the curse is the truth is that God became man and defeated death through his resurrection. The immaterial became material, and the risen Christ remains material seated at the right hand of God. This is the embodiment of spirit and flesh combined in glorified sinlessness. The material is not seen as inherently evil as in stoicist dualism or as a distraction to "true spirituality" as in asceticism and pietism. No, in Christ, we are going to inherit the physical earth with our physical glorified bodies joined together with our spirits. Therefore the physical also matters. Therefore human dignity and human flourishing matters. We are made in the image of God.

Humans were not created to live in drudgery—serving despot rulers seeking to bring glory only to themselves using human beings cattle.  For the despot, why care about inventing the wheel or a pulley when you can simply force forty slaves to lug a boulder to the top of the pyramid. Or if you are a despotic husband in a 3rd world country, why create a wheelbarrow for your wife, it’s her job to serve you while you sit and relax. This kind of systemic injustice is exactly what the incarnation subverts in countries where the Gospel is first introduced. It's to America's incredible shame that chattel slavery remained as long as it did in a nation so saturated with the Gospel. This is a much greater evil than a nation acting like pagans act in ignorance. This was at least in part perpetuated by a feeble theology of the imago Dei and a latent pagan dualism that was never quite stamped out during the reformation and going all the way back to Plato. This dualism was obvious in even the "conservative" Presbyterian theologians of the day as evidenced by R.L Dabney. For anything good you might say about this man, he was a blatant racist perpetuator of the vile institution of American slavery, and thought blacks inferior to whites. Let this dualism fester and you can be sure it will eventually pop up its ugly head.

On the flip side, it is amazing to see the degree to which the discipling of the nations has been accompanied by a dampening effect upon the curse on the physical creation to the extent that Christians (or in God's providence non-Christians) apply a biblical worldview in their pursuits. This discipling of the nations was a direct result of the incarnation of Christ.

This is because on the whole, there is a connection between obedience to the law and physical blessing. Don't let the prosperity gospel rob you of that truth. There are exceptions galore to this Biblical principle in the sin cursed world we still inhabit. Horrible things happen all the time to people generally following the law. Good things happen to those in rebellion to it. The problem of the prosperity gospel is that it offers God's stuff as the dangling carrot, rather than reconciliation with God himself. The truth remains, when God reconciles us to Himself, He not only saves us but He changes us into people that love to follow and obey His law as an act of worship. To the extent that a people follow God's law, they will see a measure of blessing flow to them, and to those around them in society, and a tangible effect upon the creation can be seen. This is part of the reason why Israel was supposed to be a light to the nations, blessing the nations around them. This is why in Isaiah 65 we see death being beaten back even in the current age of the inaugurated New Heavens and New Earth prior to Christ’s consummative return. It is said that “a young man dies at one-hundred”.

The opposite is also very clear in societies that reject God's law.  Curses very evidently are flowing to them. What happens to a society full of fatherless homes? What happens to a society absent of a theology of human dignity? What happens to a society where we depart from God’s transcendent standards of justice? The connection between the rejection of God’s law and temporal curses is clear.

Out of love for neighbor, Christians need to care about building a society that obeys God’s law, bringing blessings from heaven on this earth. None of this is to say that Christians should be caught up in the things of the world like materialism, vain pursuits, selfish ambition or worldliness (sin). There are plenty of verses about this in Scripture. But we shouldn't mistake these exhortations for an embracing of escapist ambivalence which they never meant to convey. As our Great High Priest, Christ did not pray that we would be taken out of the world, but that we would be kept from evil.

I think there are well meaning Christians whose theology of the great commission is the equivalent of leaving the waitress a scripture verse in lieu of a tip. Don’t be that guy. Christians should be actively seeking out how they can love their neighbor both temporally and eternally, and not think of their work laboring against the curse as an “unspiritual” activity having nothing to do with the great commission. How can we make disciples and teach them to obey Christ’s command to love our neighbor if we are ambivalent about our neighbor’s earthly plight?

Christian, heavenize the earth. Till your last dying breath.

I highly recommend the book How the Bible Made Your World by Vishal Mangalwadi. Almost every important instance of innovation technology we now enjoy can be traced back to a worldview that was affected by the incarnation of Christ. I had no idea how true this was. Secondly the book The Mission of God by Dr. Joseph Boot contains a wonderful perspective on the Christian’s engagement in society and the Great Commission.


Jordan Wilson

Jordan Wilson is pursuing the Great Commission with his wife and children and is a regular contributor at New City Times.