The leading project of the Scientific Revolution is to give humankind eternal life.
In his book Sapiens, a Brief History of Humankind historian Yuval Harari lays out what he calls “the Giglamesh Project”. Just as in the ancient epic poem the hero Gilgamesh sought to solve the human problem of death, we too seek to no longer die and we employ all our new-found power of science and technology in this quest.
Of all mankind’s ostensibly insoluble problems, one has remained the most vexing, interesting and important : the problem of death itself. Before the late modern era, most religions and ideologies took it for granted that death was our inevitable fate. Moreover, most faiths turned death into the main source of meaning in life. Try to imagine Islam, Christianity or the ancient Egyptian religion in a world without death. These creeds taught people that they must come to terms with death and pin their hopes on the afterlife, rather than seek to overcome death and live for ever here on earth. The best minds were busy giving meaning to death, not trying to escape it.
That is the theme of the most ancient myth to come down to us – the Gilgamesh myth of ancient Sumer. Its hero is the strongest and most capable man in the world, King Gilgamesh of Uruk, who could defeat anyone in battle. One day, Gilgamesh’s best friend, Enkidu, died. Gilgamesh sat by the body and observed it for many days, until he saw a worm dropping out of his friend’s nostril. At that moment Gilgamesh was gripped by a terrible horror, and he resolved that he himself would never die. He would somehow find a way to defeat death. Gilgamesh then undertook a journey to the end of the universe, killing lions, battling scorpion-men and finding his way into the underworld. There he shattered the mysterious “stone things” of Urshanabi, the ferryman of the river of the dead, and found Utnapishtim, the last survivor of the primordial flood. Yet Gilgamesh failed in his quest. He returned home empty-handed, as mortal as ever, but with one new piece of wisdom . When the gods created man, Gilgamesh had learned, they set death as man’s inevitable destiny, and man must learn to live with it.
Disciples of progress do not share this defeatist attitude. For men of science, death is not an inevitable destiny, but merely a technical problem . People die not because the gods decreed it, but due to various technical failures – a heart attack, cancer, an infection. And every technical problem has a technical solution. If the heart flutters, it can be stimulated by a pacemaker or replaced by a new heart. If cancer rampages, it can be killed with drugs or radiation. If bacteria proliferate, they can be subdued with antibiotics. True, at present we cannot solve all technical problems. But we are working on them. Our best minds are not wasting their time trying to give meaning to death. Instead, they are busy investigating the physiological, hormonal and genetic systems responsible for disease and old age. They are developing new medicines, revolutionary treatments and artificial organs that will lengthen our lives and might one day vanquish the Grim Reaper himself.
Until recently, you would not have heard scientists, or anyone else, speak so bluntly. ‘Defeat death?! What nonsense! We are only trying to cure cancer, tuberculosis and Alzheimer’s disease,’ they insisted. People avoided the issue of death because the goal seemed too elusive. Why create unreasonable expectations? We’re now at a point, however, where we can be frank about it. The leading project of the Scientific Revolution is to give humankind eternal life.
Harari, Yuval Noah (2015-02-10). Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (Kindle Locations 4113-4123). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
It is noteworthy that Harari uses the term “eternal life” and not “everlasting life”. Is it an oversight? Perhaps, but one that I think illuminates not just his “Gilgamesh Project”, but our embrace of the myth of progress in its entirety. Is no longer “dying” the old fashioned way “eternal life”?
In today’s text we find one of the most passages in the New Testament, John 3:16
16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
The contrast between these two statements exposes the great gulf between two perspectives on life.
Let’s imagine that science and technology provide for us nano-bots who scrub our veins of the plaque that causes heart disease, and the plaque that causes Alzheimer’s. Small regulators regulate the hormones in our blood to keep our moods optimal. Scrubbers and rejuvenaters make our aging skin like that of a youth. Shampoos restore our baldness and reverse the graying. Organs that wear out are regrown using our own genetic material and we all walk around as our beautiful, optimal 25 year old selves. This isn’t so hard to imagine is it?
Now go up to a 25 year old in their peak of power, beauty and health and say “wow, how great it must be to be YOU! Surely the world is perfect for you!”
They might say that sure, life is OK, but of course soon enough you can probably prompt them to divulge an litany of complaints. They have their anxieties, worries, sufferings, struggles probably none of them actually involving their physical bodies.
Now you may say, “but wait, what if I could employ my wisdom and knowledge that I’ve gained over my last 50, 60, 70, years! Surely I could be the 25 year old I never was.”
Yes, I think that’s true. But would you have gained this wisdom without tears, loss and threat of death? Imagine if you were always 25, never fearing death. What would that do to the YOU inside, the one that seems to merely INHABIT this skin?
Running this imaginary scenario really isn’t so hard. A 25 year old doesn’t worry much about death today, but does that mean they experience “eternal life”? Just because you remove one source of concern, pain or anxiety, doesn’t mean you REMOVE concern, pain or anxiety. If Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs illuminates anything in conjunction with middle class California living it is that our biological survival although foundational is only the beginning of the conversation about what it means to be human or to live or to have “eternal life”.
Take a moment to imagine what life in the world would be if there was no death. Would it THEN be a utopia? It isn’t a utopia for those who have their physiological and safety needs met. That’s only the beginning of the conversation.
I can’t help but imagine that Harari’s use of “eternal life” must be an echo of the Biblical usage. A scholar like Harari I assume can of course read Greek and if he bothers check out the Greek behind the English “eternal life” he’d note that in Greek it is “life of the age” ζωὴν αἰώνιον. Right away you need to know a bit more about the context. What do we mean by “age” here? It’s not just “physical death being banished”, it’s a quality of life. It is synonymous with “the kingdom of God” or “the life of heaven” or “the life of the age to come” with all of the theological content of these ideas poured into it.
I think Harari knows this because I think this is exactly what he is talking about when talks about our embrace of the myth of progress. We imagine that if we can cheat death by technical means, surely we can eliminate all other miseries. Shouldn’t this be possible?
Let’s imagine that you have perfect health, a winning lottery ticket to provide for yourself all the plastic surgery and personal accessories available. Let’s suppose you can make yourself famous and powerful, Oprah, only with her Anne Margaret/TV Guide body. What will the chief obstacle to your happiness and self-actualization be, all the way to the top of Maslow’s pyramid?
As Jean-Paul Sartre observes, “hell is the other” Our greatest challenges will always other people, what they do, how we see them and how they see us and how we see them seeing us.
This whole modern march of technology has been an increase in power, but imagine people with more power not dying? What will become of it? Where will it go?
You might feel good about it as long as YOU have the power, but what if your enemy, or your friend, or the people you share your home with have MORE power and more importantly, power over YOU!
John 3 begins with the famous scene between Jesus and Nicodemus, a Pharisee and member of the Jewish ruling council. He’s curious enough and honest enough to know he needs to investigate Jesus, but he’s cautious enough and prudent enough to not jeopardize his reputation by meeting him in the open, so he sneaks to him at night. Jesus lays on him the ambiguous saying in Greek “No one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again/from above”. This last word ἄνωθεν can either mean “again” or “from above”. Jesus in the Gospel of John regularly plays with these ambiguous phrases where Jesus’ listener erroneously takes it one way but Jesus means it the other. That happens here. Nicodemus hears “born again” as in going back through Mommy’s birth canal but Jesus means “born from above”.
Here its important to know again that “eternal life” is roughly synonymous with “kingdom of God”. Jesus is talking about how one sees, enters or receives this quality of life, in this age and the next. Nicodemus must be “born from above” to SEES the kingdom and this not something Nicodemus can accomplish, despite his power, his learning or his status.
Jesus then explains, reveals, asserts himself in the context of a very strange Old Testament story.
John 3:13–18 (NET)
13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven—the Son of Man.14 Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up,15 so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” 16 For this is the way God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world should be saved through him. 18 The one who believes in him is not condemned. The one who does not believe has been condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the one and only Son of God.
Snakes and the Son of Man
Jesus makes his point to Nicodemus by referring to one of the strangest stories in the Old Testament.
Numbers 21:4–9 (NET)
4 Then they traveled from Mount Hor by the road to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom, but the people became impatient along the way. 5 And the people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness, for there is no bread or water, and we detest this worthless food.” 6 So the Lord sent poisonous snakes among the people, and they bit the people; many people of Israel died. 7 Then the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you. Pray to the Lord that he would take away the snakes from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. 8 The Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous snake and set it on a pole. When anyone who is bitten looks at it, he will live.” 9 So Moses made a bronze snake and put it on a pole, so that if a snake had bitten someone, when he looked at the bronze snake he lived.
We’ve been working through the book of Numbers and if you’re familiar with the desert stories this is one of many with a similar scenario. The people are grumbling ingrates, God gets fed up with them and Moses intercedes on their behalf so that the whole project doesn’t go off the rails.
Most Americans today will first stumble on the idea that God would send snakes to punish them. OK, I get that, but I want you to get beyond that strangeness to see more strangeness in this text. Why should God tell Moses to make a bronze snake, put it on a pole and have people look at it? That sounds terribly pagan.
It in fact sounds exactly like what the Philistines did when they stole the ark of the covenant and God plagued them with rats and tumors. 1 Samuel 6 talks about how they made golden rats and golden tumors and put them in a box next to the ark as offerings to try to placate the God of Israel and make the tumors, rats and death stop as they try to return the ark back to Israel, and it works! See, ancient people believed in a technical solution even if it was with a supernatural deity.
Shouldn’t the LORD have told Moses “have the people face the tabernacle” or “bring out the ark and have the people look upon it and they will be saved.” The tabernacle and the ark were physical, manipulable emblems that could have served in this scenario, but he doesn’t. He is told to make this snake, something that it appears has some pagan connections in the ancient near east, and later the snake would be preserved and employed as an idol which would trouble later generations. This whole thing seems so very unlike the God that says “you shall not make for yourself a graven image of any likeness in heaven above or the earth below.”
Displaying What You Killed
The most obvious connection is that if your problem is snakes, hanging a snake on a pole can become a banner of victory. A bronze snake is in a sense an idealized snake. If the children of Israel had been brought up on Disney pictures rather than Egyptian ones they might have interpreted a snake on a pole as “believe we can overcome the snake!” Clearly the message for an ancient was “your god can overcome the snake”.
Hanging the things that you killed, or the things “delivered over into your hands” on a pole was a common practice in the ancient near east. The Assyrians and many other empires would not just kill the people they were subduing but they would hang up their kings, champions and warriors on display in order to make their own name great.
“If our gods through us delivered ___________ (ancient mighty warrior name) into our hands that we could not only kill him but devastate his people so completely that we can mock and mutilate their lifeless bodies for display and sport, what chance do you have!”
You can find the story of the death of Saul in 1 Samuel 31.
1 Samuel 31:8–13 (NET)
8 The next day, when the Philistines came to strip loot from the corpses, they discovered Saul and his three sons lying dead on Mount Gilboa. 9 They cut off Saul’s head and stripped him of his armor. They sent messengers to announce the news in the temple of their idols and among their people throughout the surrounding land of the Philistines. 10 They placed Saul’s armor in the temple of the Ashtoreths and hung his corpse on the city wall of Beth Shan.
11 When the residents of Jabesh Gilead heard what the Philistines had done to Saul, 12 all their warriors set out and traveled throughout the night. They took Saul’s corpse and the corpses of his sons from the city wall of Beth Shan and went to Jabesh, where they burned them. 13 They took the bones and buried them under the tamarisk tree at Jabesh; then they fasted for seven days.
I think we all get the point. The corpses of our enemies are the trophies of our gods and of our power. Today, since we have no gods, we just keep it all for ourselves.
The Son of Man Lifted Up
You might have noticed that Jesus didn’t simply use the first person here, he slipped again into talking about himself in the third person as “the Son of Man”. When Jesus does this he refers to a character in Daniel 7 in the Old Testament. This “Son of Man” is the hero of Daniel 7 who receives a kingdom from “the Ancient of Days” taken from the beasts of the chaotic seas symbolizing the empires that had been devouring Israel. What we would expect would be that this “Son of Man” would be impaling and displaying the slain serpents and monsters on a pole, that they would be lifted up to torture, ridicule, but Jesus doesn’t do this. Jesus says that “The Son of Man” must be lifted up and everyone who believes in him will have “eternal life”.
We are brought back to what we talked about two weeks ago with cross bearing and Jesus’ zeal for his father’s house being the cause of his death . This Jesus kingdom seems so utterly upside down. The allusion is so obvious to us, the empire conquering “Son of Man” will be lifted up on a pole by Imperial Rome and Chosen People Israel to mockery, humiliation and death, and we are suppose to look upon this in belief and in this we will receive “eternal life”? It’s no wonder he had only a few followers and most of those abandoned him in his arrest and execution.
Crisis of Belief
When we set this up in this way the crisis of belief seems clear. We see science and technology as extremely successful and effective. The world around us seems to prove it over and over again. When someone is sick we rush them to the hospital, if the pastor shows up to pray, well that’s nice too I suppose, but it’s the doctors and the medicine that are vital. Don’t we see this proven over and over again by Jehovah’s Witnesses that refuse even simple things like blood transfusions and die because of it?
So if a doctor says “Through my medical science I can secure for you ‘eternal life'” and Jesus says “believe in the Son of Man lifted up and you will receive eternal life” it seems like no contest at all. If we have the wealth and opportunity to secure medical science it seems like the safe bet. Jesus seems rather archaic, foolish and superstitious in terms of who can really come through.
We saw however, initially, that we’re not really talking about apples and oranges here. Even if medicine will be able, someday, to keep you looking, feeling and living like a vibrant 25 year old it goes no place in dealing with “the Other” meaning “other people”. You may in your medical crisis go to the doctor and the surgeon and be restored, but you’ll return to the relationships you left. You may leave those relationships to look for new ones but in time most often old or new issues return.
It is noteworthy that when CS Lewis wrote an imaginative book about hell it was a world where you could have anything you wanted simply by wishing for it, but in that world everyone lived far apart from each other because they could not get along with one another. When offered the reality and community of heaven most residents of hell preferred their solitary existence. What part “eternal life” can your doctor really deliver to you?
Snakes, Rats, Tumors and People
Jesus’ image is penetrating. Rats, snakes and tumors are relatively easy to manage, people are different. This is why the empires of the world put people on poles and those who look to them for eternal life are hoping that the empires will put “the evil” people on poles, the people that they believe are the source of the problem. No matter how many people get put on poles, however, the evil never seems to end. Adam blames Eve. Cain kills Abel. Judas sells Jesus to his enemies. This is the way of the world. Technology just makes the killing more efficient. We can now wipe whole nations from the face of the earth with the press of the button.
Jesus doesn’t say “believe in me when you see me put my adversaries on a pole” he says “look at the Son of man on a pole and believe in him”. This is then connected with God’s love for the world, not to destroy it like most folks setting up poles for their enemies, but to give it the quality of life that heaven enjoys.
The Original and the Copy
We imagine that some day we will create machines that will make us beautiful or keep us beautiful. When and if we ever have this power, I suspect it always be overshadowed by the glory of the original creation that gives beauty and power quietly, humbly and without regard to power and wealth.
Both systems are in fact asking for you to look to them with faith. One says “some day we will be able to deliver on all this, but you’ll likely die first and never taste it.” The other offers it to especially to the poor and the weak, to those who don’t have the power or the advantage to secure it for themselves.
The promises of coming singularity may come to the most wealthy and privileged on the planet, but it is cold comfort for the billions who have lived, died or will never qualify for its privileges.
The more I thought about it the larger question was “what could 6th grade me really comprehend?” The limit wasn’t really with what I, now at 51 could say to him, it was what he was capable of hearing.
I’ve been blessed with good health all of my life. I don’t have any medical advice for him, at least not yet. 🙂 The problem is that my 6th grade self couldn’t understand most of what I could say to him.
This illuminates the first part of John 3 where Jesus basically tells Nicodemus that his access to eternal life is completely dependent on what comes to him from above. He must be born from above, by water and Spirit otherwise all other options are future. This earth cannot afford “eternal life” for numerous reasons. No technology we may discover in the future will undo the loss of the past. The best that technology will be able to accomplish is “long lasting people” but eventually nature will wind down and even these human-gods will succumb to the death of our present universe.
What Jesus is offering in his resurrection is a renewed cosmos where death is not just robbed going forward, but robbed going backwards.
While this only comes to us from above, born from above, the invitation is made to look at the Son of Man lifted up. We are invited not to hoist the enemy other on a pole, but to take up our pole and believe in our hero splayed for the amusement and mockery of his enemies.
He who was lifted up, unlike every snake in the desert, comes out of the tomb with a new body, not one of old skin stretched over old bone made to look smooth, but with scared as emblems of victory and wisdom. It is the us that only God could make through history and beyond the grave.
Gilgamesh killed in order to try to beat death. This is how the world tries. Jesus willingly dies for us, and beats it in the empty tomb.
As we his followers believe this we begin to embrace it and the healing already begins even as our outsides decay.
There is of course nothing wrong with embracing the gifts of science. They ought to be embraced just as the gifts of air, food, and water should be embraced, but to make them our hope for “eternal life” is to make them into an idol and to set us and others up for disappointment and despair.
What we really need is to learn to love “the Other” and that love only comes with embracing the other at our own expense. Every good father and mother does this with their child.
What we see now are the followers of this man lifted up on a pole bringing more than just health to a world of broken, lonely people whether or not they have good health. People who sacrifice their time, their money, their enjoyment to give comfort and care to those the world sees as disposable, dispensable or using up too many resources. Harari in an interview notes that the problem of unproductive people is rushing at us quickly. We will try to keep them quiet probably with drugs and video games. This is now, already, too easy to see.
The Christian walks through Lent knowing they will die, just die, and are therefore freed to give their life for their neighbor, because they will of course receive a new life. This is not dreary obligations but joyful sacrifice.