Zoë Life

Immortality Is Different in Kind from Prolonging One’s Days

In the ancient world, daily reminders of death once hung like frontlets between the eyes of any person in any society. This stubborn fact didn’t change much in the medieval world, or the pre-modern world, for that matter. But at some point, in the wake of the industrial revolution, and as the rise of modern technologies facilitated the developed nation state, the modern world was born, and the reminders of our mortality began to vanish.

Death is “obscene” to modern eyes. For some time now we have been placing our dead out of sight. Our cities are no longer constructed around churches, whose graveyards used to contain “God’s Acre,” as Longfellow puts it, “The place where human harvests grow.” Although one can still find hallowed cemeteries in the middle of public space, especially in the “Christ-haunted” South, the norm today is to mitigate any signs of our mortality and shun the psalmist’s admonishment to “number our days, that we gain a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90). Often, we even hide old age.

Our hospitals conceal death behind their antiseptic doors. And our churches have turned their graveyards into parking spaces. Nowhere is the effort to avoid death more evident than in the billions of dollars spent on research and occult medical procedures to discover the fountain of youth.

The Latest Immortality Projects

In the past twenty years, for instance, scientists have explored “parabiosis,” the process by which living organisms are joined to the same circulatory system. Studies found that “plasma transfusions may also rejuvenate an old rodent’s brain,” and this quickly led to the race for “immortality.” Clinics began offer this procedure, and Silicon Valley was rife with transhumanists going in for it. The vampiric trend to “suck the blood of young people” took off, eventually flagging the attention of the FDA. The popularity of this practice cooled when more research emerged, however. But the most recent craze has been in the realm of “fecal transplants,” what is colloquially referred to as the “poo pill,” where researchers claim to have reversed some of the effects of aging in the retina and brain of mice through stool transplants.

Perhaps the dystopian trope of people surviving into unnatural long life on organ replacements and virile blood transfusions is cliché now. Before the superrich turned into vampires, and before Hollywood imagined Blade Runner, The Island, or the likes of Altered Carbon, Huxley told us of a coming world where babies roll off the laboratory assembly line and where entire slave classes are eugenically reproduced to serve the Alphas of society. Bradbury too gave us stark portents of dialysis like oil changes and places where body parts are interchangeable like Hondas.

A 2017 New Yorker article posed the question, “Can billions of dollars’ worth of high-tech research succeed in making death optional?” Author Tad Friend notes,

The great majority of longevity scientists are healthspanners, not immortalists. They want to give us a healthier life followed by “compressed morbidity”—a quick and painless death. These scientists focus on the time line: since 1900, the human life span has increased by thirty years—and so, as a consequence, have cancer, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and dementia. Aging is the leading precondition for so many diseases that “aging” and “disease” are essentially metonyms. Accidents and violence are the leading causes of death up to age forty-four, then cancer rises to the top, and then, at sixty-five, heart disease. Healthspanners want to understand the etiologies of cancer and heart disease and then block them. Why do we almost never get those diseases at age two? How can we extend that protection to a hundred and two? But if we cured cancer we would add only 3.3 years to an average life; solving heart disease gets us an extra four. If we eliminated all disease, the average life span might extend into the nineties. To live longer, we’d have to slow aging itself.

Friend reminds the reader, however, “The Greeks warned about the danger of grasping for godlike powers. It didn’t work out well for Asclepius or Achilles, and it worked out even worse for Tithonus, whose lover, Eos, begged Zeus to grant him eternal life but forgot to request eternal youth as well.” The testimony of Holy Scripture is no different in its prohibitions about messing with Natural Law. And in another sense, the Bible is even more instructive. 

 Timeless, not More Time

As there are many words for our overly taxed English word love, so Scripture also distinguishes between two kinds of “life”: bios (βίος) and zoe (ζωή). “Bios” is the basic organic life in all living things, from paramecium to pine trees to people, while Zoe is what C. S. Lewis calls “spiritual life.”

When, for instance, Christ tells the Parable of the Sower, bios appears as an inferior kind of life: “And as for what fell among the thorns, they are those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life [βίος], and their fruit does not mature.”

With every reference to the Resurrection, however, Christ uses the term Zoe to clarify a superior kind of life: “I am the resurrection and the life [ζωή]. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live [ζωή]” (John 11:26). What does this mean for those who search for the cup of immortality and spend vast sums of money finding the fountain of youth?

“Eternity is quite distinct from perpetuity,” writes Lewis in The Discarded Image, and this distinction “from mere endless continuance in time” has been lost today. “Perpetuity is only the attainment of an endless series of moments, each lost as soon as it is attained. Eternity is the actual and timeless fruition of illimitable life.” Here Lewis is drawing from Boethius, who explains that eternity “is the whole, simultaneous, and perfect possession of boundless life” (V.vi).  

In spite of the machinations of vampires or the elysian dreams of Silicon Valley techno-gods, “what man, in his natural condition, has not got, is Spiritual life—the higher and different sort of life that exists in God.” What we need is Zoe. “A man who changed from having Bios to having Zoe would have gone through as big a change as a statue which changed from being a carved stone to being a real man.” This is what Christ came for, that we might have life more abundantly.   

Resurrection, not Postponed Death

Bios is not the same thing as Zoe. Healthspanners and immoralists are both mistaken; both misunderstand the meaning of Christus Victor and the Resurrection. Christ came not that we would have a greater quantity of days in endless, struggling against forces of entropy and the thermodynamic decay of the breaking down of our Bios. Rather, he came that we might have a qualitatively different and higher form of illimitable life, where “the body of death” which Paul decries is transformed into such a weight of glory that its substance is more real than even the already passing atoms of an aging earth.

Devin O'Donnell is the Vice President of Membership and Publishing at the Association of Classical Christian Schools. He is author of The Age of Martha: A Call to Contemplative Learning in a Frenzied Culture (2019). He was the Research Editor of Bibliotheca in 2015 and has worked in classical Christian education for 20 years. He and his family live in the Northwest, where he writes, fly fishes, and remains a classical hack.

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