Death is the theme of the most recent issue of Philosophy Now. Two of the main articles debate whether it would be a good thing for scientists to overcome death. Nick Bostrom’s “The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant” argues with vigor that death isn’t something we should “gracefully accommodate”. Technology to retard the aging process, and perhaps even to halt and reverse it, may well be within the grasp of this generation, and scientists should make it a priority to pursue such technology. We have “compelling moral reasons to get rid of human senescence.” On the other side, Mary Midgley argues that the promise of endless life is a poisoned chalice: the cost of prolonging our lives would outweigh the benefits.
The exchange between these two naturalist philosophers offers remarkable insight into the secular humanist view of death. One might argue that their main points cancel each other out and point us to the necessity of a religious solution to the problem of death. Bostrom argues, on the one hand, that death is a Very Bad Thing and that we should want to see it overcome. He’s right. Yet it’s odd that an evolutionary naturalist would so passionately argue the point. On his view, death is entirely natural, and what’s natural is normal (granting, what is quite disputable, that the notion of normality is intelligible on a naturalist view). Indeed, death is an essential component of natural selection, the engine of evolutionary progress. From the Darwinian perspective, we owe our lives to death.
Meanwhile, Midgley points out that a secular immortality would be far from heavenly. She’s right, though not quite for the reasons she identifies. We might put an end to “natural” deaths, but there would still be accidental deaths, not to mention the intentional taking of life, along with every other outworking of human depravity. Science cannot eradicate sin. Where there’s sin, there’s hatred; where there’s hatred, there’s murderous intent; where there’s murderous intent, there’s murder. Even if we abolished aging, death would hardly have lost its sting.
Secular immortality is merely the indefinite prolonging of a screwed-up world. For most of us, if not for all, everlasting life in this world would be closer to hell than to heaven.
As I listened to a stirring Easter sermon from John 11 on Sunday morning I was reminded afresh of the wonderful and incomparable hope offered by the Christian gospel. The eternal life offered by Jesus Christ is not merely “getting rid of human senescence”. It is the defeat of death in every respect. It is life in all its fullness, what Jesus called “abundant life” (John 10:10). That entails defeating not only physical death, but also the sinful human condition of which death, both physical and spiritual, is a consequence (Rom. 5:12-21; 6:23). It entails uniting us to the One who is the source and fulfillment of all true life. Only then will the sting of death be removed; only then will the victory be won.
I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:
“Death is swallowed up in victory.”
“O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?”
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
(1 Corinthians 15:50-57)