By Dr. Todd Daly
So what are we to make of the aging process? Is it ‘natural’ for us to grow old and die, or is aging a result of the fall, precipitated as it was by human sin? Can scripture give us any guidance with respect to aging? Is there any normative age mentioned in the Bible? Can it be wrong to desire a long, healthy life?
In trying to formulate a theological understanding to the origins of aging, we are best served by turning to the creation narratives in Genesis. Where did aging come from? Within Western Christianity, it has commonly been assumed that aging and death resulted from the fall (Gen. 3, Rom. 5:12-21), where, to put it somewhat cumbersomely, Adam and Eve were ‘demoted’ from a state of “being able to not die,” to “not being able to not die.” But does this mean that Adam and Eve were free from aging before the fall? Many theologians believe so. It is worth nothing however, what Adam and Eve lost in the fall. The text never tells us that they were immortal before the fall, only that they had been barred access to the Tree of Life, lest “they live forever” in the sinful state of knowing good and evil (Gen. 3:22-24). In fact, St. Augustine believed that they ate from this tree before the fall, “lest age decay them.” This is significant, for some Christian bioethicists have argued that biotechnology is best used in overcoming the effects of the fall. If aging is one of these effects, then we would seem to be warranted in waging a technological battle against aging.
To assert that aging is natural to our humanity is not to suggest however that sin is utterly unrelated to our growing old. The first eleven chapters of Genesis reveal that God gradually curtails human longevity on account of sin. Indeed, the brief story of the ‘Sons of God’ and the ‘daughters of men’ in Genesis 6:1-4 is paradigmatic of the transgression-punishment cycle in first eleven chapters. It is interesting to note the progression of three Hebrew words in this narrative are the same used to describe the account of Eve’s sin: The Sons of God saw that the daughters of men were good, and took them for wives (Gen. 6:2). Eve saw that the fruit was good, and took it (Gen. 3:6). And in Genesis 6 we learn that God limits the human lifespan to 120 years.
By the time we reach the psalms, we find a plea for God’s mercy amidst a life of toil and judgment which spans no more than seventy years—or eighty, if one has strength (Ps. 90:12). But this could hardly be considered as any kind of moral norm. Moreover, the “prolonging of one’s days” is often listed as a reward for obedience (Ex. 20:12, Deut. 5:33, Prov. 3:1-2). In the New Testament however, we find the significance of long live relativized by the promise of a future resurrection from the dead (1 Cor. 15). Paul speaks to the very real tension between this life and the next—‘to live is Christ and to die is gain.’ (Phil. 1:21) Christians are to daily take up their crosses—which reflects a willingness to live the kinds of lives that may actually lead to an early departure from this world.
Are Christians then to eschew longevity research? It may depend on just how this longevity might be achieved. It is interesting to note that some early Christians believed that there was a way to slow down human aging, engaging in disciplines that would enable a return to Adamic life in Eden before the fall. For some, the idea of Methuselah-like lifespans was achievable. We’ll talk about this next week, and the implications it has for Christians today.