Recently, I’ve been thinking about eternal life and its implications, as reflected within Lent and Easter.
In Genesis 3, YHWH removes our access to Eternal Life after Adam and Eve eat of the “Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.” Yet, Jesus’ death is presented as the perfect sacrifice for our salvation and reconciliation with God: a promise that we too shall be resurrected, someday. So I wonder, is Eternal Life a good or bad thing; and how does it differ from being resurrected, reconciled and saved?
One implication of Eternal Life is that time no longer matters. For someone who has Eternal Life, no day is any more, or less, valuable than any other. They have unlimited time to complete unfinished business, correct mistakes, or finish their “bucket list.” So, what value would any particular day (or century) have for them? Would love or friendship be valued when time is of no concern?
Many writers have thought about Eternal Life…
Jonathan Swift in “Gulliver’s Travels” imagines an immortal race called the Struldbrugs. They live forever, but do not have eternal youth: their minds and bodies eventually deteriorate to the point where every breath is torment – but they cannot die. Immortality for a Struldbrug is a curse, not a gift.
In “The Lord of The Rings”, J.R.R. Tolkien presents a race with eternally youthful bodies: the Elves. Yet immortality is a burden for them, too: They are a people not quite in tune with the world. A people whose bodies do not age, but who carry profound sadness because they know everything they create, everything they love, will eventually pass away – and they cannot stop it. They are doomed to outlive everything around them, and cannot escape from their past to live fully in the present.
Science Fiction author Robert Heinlein imagined the achievement of immortality through technology. In his novel “Time Enough For Love” is Lazarus Long, who is two and a half millennia old. (Or so, but who’s counting?) A man who is medically “rejuvenated” whenever old age afflicts him. But Lazarus is tired of life. Like the elves, Lazarus has seen everything he creates or loves pass away.
Heinlein also points out that our brains are not infinite: If we live long enough, we run out of room for new memories. Even if that weren’t a problem, our memories get cluttered and disorganized with age. (In one of my favorite passages, Lazarus complains about hunting all morning for a book, only to realize he’d put it down a century ago.) Through Lazarus we see that even with youthful bodies, our minds (and spirits) will still age.
Periodically, Lazarus has his mind “washed” of old memories to make room for new ones, but this raises a new question: what good is immortality when memory no longer links you with the person you once where? Immortality is a burden for Lazarus because he outlives his youth, and because of the broken connection between his present and his past.
Mortality makes time precious: every day is a gift that cannot be recaptured. The flip side of this is that we cannot go back and make different choices when things don’t turn out as we hoped. We cannot choose to avoid the pain that is the inevitable result of the choice to love.
In the end, we need to ask ourselves whether it is worth it: to live a life like that of Lazarus, or the elves, or the Struldbrugs, or the timeless existence Adam and Eve had before they ate of the fruit.