To listen to the news hype, you’d think scientists had discovered the legendary fountain of youth, the means by which we may finally be able to reverse the aging process.
The 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology/Medicine went to three American geneticists, two of them women, for their research on telomeres, parts of our chromosomes that have been likened to the plastic tips that keep the ends of shoelaces from fraying. Shortened or eroded telomeres have been linked to disease and aging, and the race is on to study the possibilities of rejuvenation.
Not surprisingly, dietary supplements for the nutritional support of telomeres have begun to spring up. “What was once considered science fiction is becoming reality,” declares one website. If people “want to live to 100 or beyond,” they are advised to take the proper supplements; some sell for as much as $600 for 90 capsules. Are they effective? I can’t say. But marketers know that some people will pay handsomely for a pill that promises longer life.
At that price, the poor need not apply.
We’re already living longer than ever before. In the United States, average life expectancies have increased by about 30 years since 1900. But we don’t simply want to live longer, we want to live better, and want medical science to provide both.
In that regard, I doubt that as a group Christians are much different than anyone else. Think about it. If you believed a pill would keep your hair from turning gray, would you take it? Even if you had to take it every day? Twice a day? What price would you pay? What side effects would you accept? What if the pill was for wrinkles? Memory loss? We might draw the lines in different places, but I suspect most of us would pony up at some point. Personally, I wouldn’t buy the cure for gray hair. But memory loss? I’d definitely think about it.
Christians talk about eternal life. Often, when telling people the good news of Jesus, we quote the well-known promise: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16, NRSV). But what does that mean? The biblical notion of “eternal” life is not merely a quantitative one, not life on an endless number line; it’s also a qualitative promise of blessedness, of life as God has meant it to be.
That’s true even for the life we live now, in bodies worn down by age or disease. The gospel is not a pill to end suffering. But Jesus, knowing our anxieties, asks:
Who among you by worrying can add a single moment to your life? … Instead, desire first and foremost God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness … [S]top worrying about tomorrow, because tomorrow will worry about itself. (Matt 6:27,33-34, CEB)
We should take good care of the bodies God has given us, all the way down to the cellular level. Researchers tell us that our telomeres can be damaged by chronic stress, improper diet, and a lack of exercise. Surprise, surprise.
But at some level, what we really want is a blessedness that no supplement or medical procedure can confer, one that is ours even as our bodies fail. And that, Jesus says, means seeking and living in the reality of God’s kingdom. Because that’s the only life that we would really want for eternity.