I’ve been thinking a lot about immortality lately. Not sure why. Perhaps because of the release of the last Hobbit movie. Anyway, the concept of immortality fascinates me, as it has many people since time immemorial. So much of our existence is touched by our strife to stay alive just another second of another day. We eat because we don’t want to die. We go to doctors to slow the aging process and to repair or prevent damage to our bodies that may threaten our lives. Almost everything we do is done ultimately either to lengthen life or (for the more realistic among us) to get the most out of a life which we know will be relatively short.
Like hunger which proves the existence of food, I think the desire for immortality proves that human beings were meant for it. To be perfectly honest, whenever somebody says that they don’t want to live forever, I don’t really believe them. We call people who resist food in some way anorexic or bulimic, and we call those who don’t want to live suicidal, which the vast majority of the secularists who sneer at immortality certainly are not. Even if, philosophically, they do not see anything to be gained in living forever, chances are that from moment to moment they are just as dedicated as the rest of us to avoiding death. God only knows how many folk tales, myths, and legends are concerned in some way with immortality or the search for immortality. Today I only want to talk about a few, and how immortality might look in the real world.
My favorite immortal beings all of fiction are the Eldar in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Legendarium (known popularly as the Elves). According to The Silmarillion, the Eldar were created specially by Eru Illúvatar to be the firstborn of his children (the secondborn being the races of Men). Unlike the secondborn, the Eldar are naturally immortal, immune to aging and sickness. They could be slain by violence, but barring some exterior intervention the Eldar do not die and continue existing through the long ages of Arda*. If their spirits are separated from their bodies by some kind of violence, they do not truly die, but are reincarnated in the Halls of Mandos.
The catch to all of this is that although their spirits can never permanently be separated from their bodies, they are bound in a special way to the fate of Arda. Whereas the spirits of Men are released from the Arda to be with Eru Illúvatar, it is thought that the Elves must die when Arda dies and that their spirits are not truly deathless like that of Men or of the Angelic Powers of Arda. The mortals of Arda, however, do not understand this, and are exceedingly envious of the long life of the Elves.
I have often wondered what it must be like to live hundreds upon hundreds upon thousands of years, and this not because of some devilish witchcraft or scientific advancement but simply by virtue of the natural course of life. What must it be like to look back upon centuries piling up behind you, and you always young and unchanging? Scientists tell us (and honestly, it stands to reason) that if human beings were to live thousands of years, eventually we would be unable to remember anything and time would race by so fast that we would hardly be able to make any sense of it. Notice how as you get older, time sees to go by faster and faster. This is because each day takes up less and less of your life. Imagine after a thousand years how fast a day would seem. It also stands to reason that beings who are created to live so long, or otherwise have evolved an extensive lifespan, would have some way of coping with this phenomenon, and indeed it does not seem to be a problem for the Eldar. They also have the luxury of being surrounded by beings who share their lot, and do not have to see all of their friends die over and over and over the way a lone immortal human might.
There is another kind of immortality in the Western canon that is far more nefarious than the various races of naturally immortal beings. Vampires, for example, are considered by many to be immortal. The Twilight series, for example, meditates quite extensively on the concept of agelessness. However, the immortality of vampires and other undead creatures is quite different form the immortality of the Eldar or of the Greek Gods. These are creatures who, though their consciousness continues forever and their body never deteriorates physically, are really more dead than alive. For them, immortality is a curse and a burden. They are deprived in some way from being completely part of the world as a natural immortal would be. Vampires cannot eat real food, but must suck the lifeblood out of some other creature. Frequently they cannot be about in sunlight. Much of the same things are true about zombies and werewolves and dybbuks and other “undead” beings.
This resonates also in Tolkien’s Legendarium, with respect to naturally mortal creatures who try to take immortality for themselves or in some way expand their lives unnaturally. The nine men who in their lust for power allowed themselves to be corrupted by Sauron have become immortal, yes, but are reduced to invisible shades who must give themselves shape using black hoods. They live in a shadow-world and are deprived of any freedom or autonomy. They exist only to serve Sauron, and when he is cast down, they die also. Similarly Gollum, and to a lesser extent Bilbo, who keep bear the One Ring for some amount of time, become old in spirit, even as their bodies stay young. Bilbo describes feeling “thin” and “stretched” just before giving up the Ring. Gollum, though upwards of five hundred-years-old, has been turned into gangly, animalistic carnivore scrambling for a living off the rocks. He can hardly stand to be in the sun. Men who tried to storm Valinor and take immortality from the Elves suffered the destruction of their island Kingdom of Númenor. Immortality is only given, never taken for oneself.
In Eastern Christian theology, it is death itself, not sin per se, which is the enemy of God and of mankind. Mortality, itself the consequence of a sin, causes the passions, which lead to more sin and death. It is an endless cycle which was interrupted and transformed by the Incarnation of Christ, the only Athanatos (Immortal One). Many Church Fathers taught that God always intended to share his divinity with human beings, and that Eve and Adam’s sin was not desiring to be God, but heir attempt to take divinity for themselves, rather than cooperating with God by grace to fulfill their destiny with God in Heaven. After the Fall, the Incarnation which had been planned from all eternity, became a rescue mission to save the children of men from death. Christ did this by giving up his Immortal life, descending to the dead, and rising up again of his own volition. Because eh was a man, he broke the bonds of death over all men and assumed human nature into the divine nature.
CHRIST IS RISEN FROM THE DEAD, AND BY DEATH HE HAS TRAMPLED UPON DEATH, AND TO THOSE IN THE TOMBS HE HAS GIVEN LIFE!
One wonders what the world would look like had man never fallen. If not one single human being had ever died, the world would be an incredibly crowded. My own personal theologoumenon is that the Christian concept of death has more to do with spiritual death and separation from the Eternal Life of God than merely with the ceasing of bodily functions. Notice how we never talk about the death of the Theotokos, but of her Dormition. Since the Theotokos was not touched by any stain of Original Sin, it is safe to assume that she was naturally immortal, and that her Dormition before her Assumption was not strictly speaking a death, but merely a kind of falling asleep in this world. The Eastern tradition teaches that the body of the Theotokos did not see corruption (i.e. did not begin to decompose), a phenomenon occurring frequently throughout history in the cases of very holy people.
With the advent of genetic sciences, immortality has now become the subject of pseudo-scientific inquiry. We now hear about concepts like uploading consciousness and slowing the decay of our telomeres in order to slow aging and prevent senescence. I suspect all of these attempts to take immortality by force will come to naught, but if they don’t, more power to them. Still, there’s no life like eternal life, which is not dependent upon tricking the body to do what you want, but on the body and blood of God himself. “The soul of man is immortal and imperishable,” said Plato, good old gnostic that he was. Of course, Christians believe not only in the immortality of the soul, but also of the body which will be resurrected and glorified at the end of time.
“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?”
We are all, either to glorification or damnation, immortal. Now let’s act like it.