While I was growing up on Chicago’s northwest side, word circulated among my group of friends that a local gentleman had been boasting about “living forever.” He meant physically, here on God’s good green earth.
The man apparently spent time and energy studying all the latest scientific leaps in prolonging human life. The more delirious of such researchers were bent on finding a Ponce de Leon formula for “eternal youth.”
The U.S. and Russian space programs were working toward sending a man to the moon. Polio had been conquered by a breakthrough vaccine. Science, in all branches, was king. And human corpses were being frozen for long-term preservation against the day when science would provide a cure for what they died from. Then, the thinking went, the corpses could be resuscitated, treated and restored to life.
People of great wealth were actually setting aside funds in their wills for their remains to be frozen and stored toward an eventual resuscitation.
All of this frenzy to “capture immortality” points to an innate human longing: To achieve a life without death — a life that would go on and on and on. And let us enjoy endless wonderful experiences and happy moments. One glorious sunset after another. One perfect day at the beach after another.
The one-time cardinal Joseph Ratzinger — now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI — references this innate hope in his deep dive into religious thought, mistitled “Introduction to Christianity” (SF: Ignatius Press, revised edition, 2004). (“Mistitled” because the work is very complex and dense.)
Reaching back to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and their eating of “the forbidden fruit” (that Satan said would make them “like God”), man has been attempting to discover a way of cheating death and “living forever,” Ratzinger suggests. He adds: Two ways have been tried — living on in one’s children and, the second, achieving fame (through art, writing or roles in film, etc.) that will keep a person’s memory alive.
Both ways ultimately fall short. One’s progeny also die and the paterfamilias or matriarch becomes, after a few generations, a distant blur in family history. Unless one is Plato or Dante or Michelangelo, even literary or artistic fame fades into obscurity.
If man attempts through his own human resources — or even leaning on science — to attain to a life without end, he will utterly fail, Ratzinger assures his readers. Only through adhering to a love that is “stronger than death” can a man or a woman hope to overcome death and find an everlasting existence “on the other side.”
And that, Ratzinger declares, is the meaning of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, which is what the Easter liturgy proclaims every spring. “God … is absolute permanence, as opposed to everything transitory,” Pope Emeritus Benedict says, adding, “His (Jesus’) resurrection IS our life.
“If he has risen, then we have risen too, for then love is stronger than death.”
Furthermore, “after his resurrection, Christ did not go back to his previous earthly life … (Instead he) rose to … definitive life, outside the possibility of death, in the eternity conferred by love.”
That, briefly, is the Christian promise and its greatest hope: That living in, by and through Christ, we become adopted brothers and sisters of Christ and sharers in his never-ending life with God the Father — in realms of glory.