How to Live Forever
Or, Jesus, Jeff Bezos, and the quest for eternal life
“And this is life without end, that they may know you, the only true God, and Yeshua Messiah whom you have sent.” - John 17:3*
“Clearly, it is possible, through technology, to make death optional.” So said Martine Rothblatt, founder of the biotech firm United Therapeutics, in an article some years back in the New Yorker. That article traced how Silicon Valley is seriously working on infinite life extension, an aim that has captured the imaginations of everyone from Amazon founder Jeff Bezos to billionaire investor Peter Thiel. Both have put millions into life-extension research so that they can live into the ripe old age Thiel has described as—“forever.”
It would be easy to dismiss this dream as the latest technological hubris; one more effort to transcend the limits of the given human life in the name of self-actualization. But anyone who has experienced death and loss, might find some sympathy for the desire to hold on to a loved one, especially if we had the power to stop their death or reverse it.
In the New Yorker piece, Ray Kurzweil, an inventor and futurist on the payroll of Google, was profiled for his mission to bring back his deceased father. Kurzweil is creating a digital replica of him, an avatar fed by everything about his father’s life. While it seems a desperate act, I can certainly sympathize with the impulse if I were it were someone close to me.
“Death,” Kurzweil said, “is a great robber of meaning...It robs us of love. It is a complete loss of ourselves. It is a tragedy.” The Christian faith is not entirely out of step with such a statement. If we thumb through the scriptures, we will find Death named as an evil and an enemy, the consequence of sin that is overcome by God’s ultimate victory in creation. For many, overcoming death is what Christianity is all about. They signed up on the basis of Gospel passages that promise that in Jesus we’ll never ending life.
But what exactly is eternal life and what death does it save us from? Is there a difference between what Jesus is promising and what Google is working to create? To make sense of these questions we need to attend to another word central to the Gospel—knowledge. It is in the realm of knowledge, and how we understand it, that we can sort out what eternal life means for Jesus and how that compares with what it means for Jeff Bezos.
In the Middle Ages, those bright centuries of philosophy and learning, scholars were great at making distinctions and giving names to them. It was at that time that philosophers began to name two modes of knowing: curiositas and studiositas, curiosity and studiousness.** As abstract as they may sound, these two words carried with them concepts of real consequence. For the people of that time, curiosity was a different reality than the word we use now. It was a kind of possessive knowledge. Its aim was to know something so that we can control it and have it for ourselves.
The other form of knowing, studiositas, from which we get our word student, sees knowledge instead as a kind of participation. Here we don’t know by acquiring knowledge but instead by becoming a kind of member of what was known and understood. This is a relational kind of knowing and it is this sort that is at the heart of all biblical understanding. It is no accident that Jesus never called for people to be Christians, some status to possess, but instead called for disciples—students who would come to know him and the life of his Father in a deep and relational way.
With those two kinds of knowledge in mind, what sort do you think the tech companies seeking a solution to death are after? Theirs is a pursuit of curious knowledge, the kind they can circle around and enclose, turning it into a product by manipulating the world and putting it up for sell. For them life without end is simply an engineering problem carried out on bodies that they see as little more than machines with minds that are like code. But for Jesus, everlasting life means something far greater and more profound. It is a gift born of relationship that can never be owned but is instead offered and received.
“This is life without end, so they that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus, the Messiah, whom you sent.” To have life without end, for Jesus, is not something we can achieve by possessing the right set of facts, even the right set of beliefs, like some final exam of life. Instead, Jesus is inviting us into the knowledge that is a participation in God’s own self—the relationship of the Father and the Son and the Spirit in which we can become members in a life of love that been in existence from before time. To enter this knowledge, we are called to be students of Jesus, disciples who learn to enter his way of being.
To learn this way, transforms our lives and our deaths, the gifts we receive from our relationships and the loss we endure when our loved ones pass from this reality. When we let go of life as a thing we possess, we can then find it again in the circle of God’s love as a gift we enjoy in the community of the divine. This is what Jesus means by promising that if we lose our lives for his sake, we will have life without end. In the love of the Messiah the loss of our bodies and our minds no longer matter so much, as painful as that can be in the short term. And as a result, we don’t have to manipulate and control the world any longer, desperately trying to hold on to what was really never ours. Instead, we can trust that the true place of our living is in the embrace of the God who created us, restored us to wholeness, and energizes us with the living breath we call the Holy Spirit.
To know this God, to join this relationship that is life without end, does not require some new plan or project. It is nothing that could be captured by a program or a pill. Instead, it requires the restful and unhurried withdrawal from the rushing world, the attentive listening and seeking, that is the true act of prayer. Like the disciples after Jesus’s ascended to heaven, ours is a work of waiting for the Spirit, dedicating ourselves to prayer as the task by which we learn to know all that really matters. It is through this work of prayer that we become disciples of Jesus, students who know Him through deep relationship, and find that our lives are now given to the God who will hold us in his love forever.
*I recently had a wonderful conversation Graham Pardun over at Sabbath Empire about his use of Yeshua Messiah for Jesus Christ. He makes a good case, so I’m going to try it out here from time to time. Yeshua, as Graham put it, is the name Jesus’ mother gave him. It would be more naturally translated as Joshua, but through a long history we got Jesus. His community and disciples, however, would have known him as Yeshua. The wonderful writer Francis Spufford also uses Yeshua in his beautiful book, Unapologetic. Messiah is also the Jewish name for the expected Anointed One that in Greek is called the Christ. Stay tuned for a full length audio recording of my conversation with Graham soon.
**I learned of this concept second hand from a friend who is reading Paul Griffiths’ Intellectual Appetite.