Why Christians Should Support Radical Life Extension

Why Christians Should Support Radical Life Extension
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"Never again will there be...
an infant who lives but a few days,
or an old man who does not live out his years;
the one who dies at a hundred
will be thought a mere child" (Isaiah 65:20, NIV)

In Isaiah 65, the great prophet of the Jewish scriptures looks forward longingly to a day when no one would die in infancy, and 100-year-old grandparents would be considered youngsters.

In saying this, he connects two things which have sometimes become separated: our physicality and our spirituality--our religious aspirations, and our desire to improve earthly life.

We sometimes think that these are two separate, even competing, ideas. We sometimes think that being a spiritual person means not caring about the physical world.

This would have shocked the first Christians. For them, the resurrection of Jesus wasn't simply a body coming back from the dead -- it was the sign and declaration of God's commitment to the world. In the resurrection, God was declaring that death's days were numbered, and that he would be pushing back death from the universe, as he restored and redeemed creation.

St. Paul describes this in 1 Corinthians 15 and Romans 8 as a process that begins with Jesus and spreads outward until death is eradicated, and the entire cosmos is filled with freedom and life. For the first Christians, this was the mission of God. And they would participate in that process.

This is why Jesus sends them out to heal the sick, feed the hungry, and bring life to the dead. He’s asking them to participate in the fight against death in all its forms. No wonder, then, that even today so many hospitals have names like Saint Thomas and Saint Mary's -- healing has always been a significant part of the Christian mission.

Today, we have new options for extending that work. A new class of life extension technologies are being pursued by researchers from Google’s Calico Labs, the SENS foundation, and many others.

The ultimate aim of many of these researchers is "indefinite life extension", and an end to the aging process as we know it. But what does that mean?

The Long History of Life Extension

For all of human history prior to 1900, the primary way people died was infectious disease.

Over the last century, that's changed dramatically. Our life expectancy has more than doubled, and the primary way humans die is now heart disease or cancer. We've changed how we die, and as a result, we've changed when we die.

Curing any major disease will change that again, extending life even farther. But we may be past the point of diminishing returns for fighting individual diseases. Now, we might need to do something more preventative.

Currently, when people die in their senior years, we chalk this up to "natural causes". In reality, "natural causes" are just disease, and the diseases we associate with the aging process--like cancer, heart disease, dementia--are caused by the gradual accumulation of cellular damage. People don't just grow old; rather, their bodies are subjected to relentless attack, day after day, until eventually, they aren't able to repair the damage anymore.

Life extension technologies aim to repair this cellular damage.

When someone experiences a heart attack, we rush to restart their heart. When someone gets cancer, we work to remove the disease.

We are now looking at the possibility of being able to address things before they get that far. We could heal the damage of heart disease before it becomes a heart attack, we could eliminate cancer before it grows into massive tumors, we could reverse accumulated brain damage, before it becomes full-blown dementia.

That's what it would mean to be able to heal cellular damage. But if we did that, the aging process as we know it would be over. Instead of facing a slow decline into inevitable terminal illness, our parents and grandparents would experience a long and healthy life, able to see their grandchildren and their grandchildren's grandchildren.

This wouldn't be the end of death--but death would no longer involve a painful, extended process of ever-worsening degeneration.

Much of the pain and suffering of the senior years would be removed. The struggle of watching loved ones lose a debilitating battle with illness would be relieved. Aging would stop being seen as a loss, and begin to be seen as the unmitigated opportunity to gain wisdom and experience.

Naturally, many people have significant concerns. Would this technology be only for the rich? What about over-population?

These are good questions. Curing disease and extending lifespan has always created new challenges, and this will be no different. But that's not a reason to avoid doing good--rather, it's a reason to be proactive and visionary, and to aggressively tackle these challenges as they arise.

Life Extension and The Biblical Vision

So is this scenario of increased lifespans consistent with the Biblical vision?

Yes, it is.

First, it's consistent with the Biblical commission to heal the sick, and the Christian tradition of establishing hospitals and caring for the ill.

Second, these technologies would be repairing physical damage -- which is continuous with current medical treatment and practice.

Third, it would relieve vast amounts of human suffering -- the currently unavoidable disease and degeneracy of late middle age.

Fourth, it would improve the depth and wisdom and resilience of our culture.

And finally, it is exactly what the prophet Isaiah hoped and longed for -- a day when everyone would get to see their grandchildren and their grandchildren's grandchildren -- a day when your hundredth birthday meant you were just a child.

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