Sunday, August 13, 2023

Sermon: “Unlocking Eternity”, Ecclesiastes 3:9-17 (August 13, 2023)

The other day, when Nick and I were out to dinner, he brought up an experiment he’d read about recently (Our shared love language seems to be catching each other up on unusual or significant news stories). The article in question was about a scientist who’d figured out how to control aging in mice.[1] At first, I assumed this meant that he could speed up or slow down the rate of aging a little bit, but no; this scientist has figured out how to accelerate AND EVEN REVERSE aging in the experiment subjects. As you might expect, our dinner conversation quickly turned to the moral implications of this experiment, especially its role in the ongoing human quest for immortality.

Human beings have been seeking ways to cheat death for centuries, through magic, religion, engineering, and science – truly, trying anything and everything we can think of to avoid it.[2] Like so many before me, I don’t especially like the idea of my eventual death, either. Is it because I feel like there’s still so much left for me to do? Is it because I’m afraid dying will hurt? Is it because my ego hates the idea of “me” not existing anymore? (I’m not gonna lie; it’s definitely at least a little bit that last one.) Belief in eternal life helps to mitigate this anxiety a bit, but still, my unease with death persists.

Yet at the same time, the idea of NEVER dying is somehow almost MORE unnerving to me. It’s hard to explain why, but it just feels…wrong. I don’t object to the idea of scientific discovery EXTENDING life through medical advancements, but for some reason, unlocking the secrets to immortality crosses some sort of invisible ethical line in the sand. It makes sense for humankind to fear the unknown realm of death, but then how can the idea of living forever make us equally (if not more) uncomfortable?

Few parts of scripture address the difficult questions of life and death as directly (and bluntly) as Ecclesiastes – our final example of biblical Wisdom literature. It famously begins by lamenting that life is entirely pointless, because no matter how hard you might work while you’re alive, both the rich and the poor, the weak and the powerful, ALL OF US die in the end. This may sound like a rather nihilistic view, but it’s not, really. Ecclesiastes never arrives at the conclusion that there’s no God and that life is empty of meaning. On the contrary, God is assumed as a given, and the book ultimately concludes that, in fact, our universal mortality means that we should spend our lives “Eat[ing], drink[ing], and be[ing] merry”. Ecclesiastes’ argument isn’t against God and life itself, but rather against how human beings choose to live.

The primary criticism lobbied against humanity in Ecclesiastes is that we’re fixated on acquiring more in life – more power, more wealth, more authority, more respect. We work so hard to achieve these ends for ourselves, but it all winds up being in vain. Everyone dies sooner or later, and as the saying goes, “You can’t take it with you”. God has ordained it so that there is a beginning and an end to all things on earth, and no matter what we’ve done, we all start and end in the same place: “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.”[3] As mortals, we have no control over this, so according to Ecclesiastes, a life lived in pursuit of “more” is a life completely wasted.

What we DO have control over is what we do with the time we’ve been given. Therefore, Ecclesiastes reasons, “There’s nothing better for [us] than to enjoy [our]selves and do what’s good while [we] live. Moreover, this is the gift of God: that all people should eat, drink, and enjoy the results of their hard work.” In other words, the best possible life is one in which we make sure that each person has what they need, each person does what’s good, and each person is able to directly benefit from and find joy in whatever work they’ve done. No social classes. No poverty. No tax loopholes. No capitalist food chain. It may sound unrealistic (and possibly unpatriotic) to our ears, but God has made everything fitting in its time, and Ecclesiastes insists that this is what’s fitting for us, in the limited time we’ve been given.

The reason we struggle with this is that, while we inhabit a small fraction of time on this earth, God has also placed infinity on our hearts. We KNOW that there is more beyond us, and while that fact is what allows us to experience humility and awe, it can also lead us, in our brokenness, to crave more for ourselves. In biblical times, this craving manifested most often in economic systems of inequality, some of which persist to this day. These days, we’re pushing the boundaries between “us” and “eternity” even further, which is how we find ourselves, as a society, robbing mice of their AARP eligibility and retirement benefits (metaphorically speaking).

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that this research is evil or wicked at all. Over the course of our dinner conversation, Nick and I agreed that immortality doesn’t necessarily have to be the endgame of de-aging. There’s a LOT of age-related diseases (and suffering associated with them) that could be reduced or even eliminated thanks to this discovery. Can you imagine the decline in injuries due to osteoporosis? Or fewer heart attacks and strokes because of reduced cholesterol? Or completely eliminating the heartache of having to watch a loved one suffer from dementia? It’s hard to believe that God would be against any of this. And I don’t think they would.

But it’s not GOD’S thinking we need to be concerned with here; it’s ours. We have to be honest about how and why we would use these advancements. Some of humanity – I would hope it’d be most of us, but I’m honestly not sure – some of us would absolutely only want to use these abilities to ease suffering and create a world closer to the one described by Ecclesiastes. There may be some who WOULD seek personal immortality with good intentions: to give themselves more time to help others. But we all know that there would be plenty of other people who would use this ability solely for their own advancement. To get more, to have more, to BE more. And that’s not a faithful way to use the time that we have – whether it’s three more years or three hundred more years.

So, I guess that’s what makes me feel so uncomfortable with this anti-aging experiment. It’s not necessarily because of the potential for immortality in and of itself (although it IS weird to think about), but because I fear that in human hands, the pursuit of and potential for immortality will drive us further and further away from the lives that God wants us to live. It will cause us to take the present for granted. It will feed our hunger for more and more. It will blind us to justice and righteousness, to everything but preserving ourselves at all costs. With eternity out of our hearts and in our hands, but without the knowledge of God’s plan, our concern will turn inward. And that’s what frightens me.

But frightened or not, for better or for worse, humanity keeps marching forward into the future that we’re determined to make for ourselves. The author of Ecclesiastes could never have imagined that we’d be talking about the possibility of living on this earth forever, but I think that even if he had, his point would still stand. If we do one day manage to reverse human aging, we still – still! – won’t be able to know God’s mind. We still won’t know how it all ends. And it WILL end: as Nick and I realized at dinner, being able to reverse aging may be a step towards human immortality, but it won’t eliminate death altogether – there’d still be accidents, biological anomalies, and other things we still can’t control. Only God is, and will ever be, sovereign. And so, the task set before us would remain the same: to do good with whatever time that we have.

As those with eternity yet locked away in our hearts and still without the knowledge of God’s eternal plan, the answer to what we should do in light of the scientific discoveries lying ahead of us is surprisingly simple: we live the way Ecclesiastes calls us to live in whatever days that we have now. We keep doing this until it stops sounding impossible and starts sounding sensible – even desirable. We stubbornly insist on doing what is good, and only what is good, regardless of its effect on us personally. We refuse to let ourselves become fixated on more and more and more, and instead allow a life of joy, discovery, and fulfillment be enough for now.

Science will (and should) keep marching forward, but allowing achievement to become its only end would be a terrible mistake. It would leave us in never-ending competition with one another, without anything of actual lasting worth to show for it. On behalf of humanity, we, as God’s people, must be a tireless voice insisting that universal human well-being is the only TRUE end worth working towards. Through science, through innovation, through politics, through art, through theology – every human endeavor is at its best when it’s making sure that we ALL get to “eat, drink, and enjoy the results of [our] hard work.” If THIS is message that we leave behind when we finally return to dust, then the eternity in our heart can be satisfied with its legacy. Even Ecclesiastes won’t be able to accuse us of living a pointless life.

After all is said and done, the possibility of humans being able to reverse our own aging is still fairly far out on the scientific horizon. Fortunately for me (and my anxiety), the burden of determining this practice’s morality won’t lie on the shoulders of my generation, nor, possibly, on those of the next. But whenever the question does become imminently urgent, I hope that those tasked with answering it consider their motivations and goals. Do they want to reinforce the gap between the haves and the have-nots? To increase our nation’s military strength? To gain bragging rights? To be “better” than everyone else? Or do they want to reduce suffering, make health care more accessible, and give everyone a chance at the sort of life that Ecclesiastes endorses? There’s no way for us to know what decision they’ll ultimately make…but we can use the time we have now to ensure they make it in a world where we don’t need eternity to live a good life. Amen.


[3] Genesis 3:19

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