Do You Want to Live Longer?

One of the marvels of modern science is the prolongation of life. Based on the EncBritannica, Upper Paleolithic life expectancy was 33 but in classical greece it was only at 28. Medieval Britain was only 30. The early 2oth Century was only 31. One hundred years ago the avg was well under half of what life expectancy is now — 67.2 for the whole world. Mix into this the privileged of the West or compare men and women and we’ve got a modern marvel, for which many of us are profoundly grateful.

But living longer isn’t the whole picture. Gilbert Meilaender, one of the more intelligent and articulate writers on Christian ethics, and clearly one of our finest stylists — he’s got the touch of an essayist, and for me that’s the ticket, has a new book — Should We Live Forever? The Ethical Ambiguities of Aging (from Eerdmans).

In this opening flourish of ideas Meilaender explores four options in the modern world when it comes to the prolongation of life. If life is a gift from God, we think, we want more of it. But Meilaender’s concern is that the hope of life after death has become faith that death can be defeated. That seems to be one of the intents in modern science. So he asks why we think of aging as a problem in need of solving. Is it? Is it about adding life to years or years to life?

Fundamental to modern science is that disease and aging are intertwined, so if we eliminate diseases we enhance our aging — or we prolong life. Meilaender’s question: Why do we age? Can we know? (What do you think?)

He offers four considerations:

1. The disposable soma (body) theory: the evolutionary biology theory. Since the body houses DNA that is passed on, evolution has most preserved those bodies that populate. Following our reproductive capacities evolution we are not as needed so evolution hasn’t concerned itself with maintenance or with prolongation; if focuses on replacement and reproduction. But Meilaender probes whether or not (he thinks not) biological evolutionary theories can answer “Why?” or give purpose. One might contend, from this theory, that humans should not have children and they’ll live longer; or that the more children the better since more DNA of the person is handed off. This theory cannot account for human aging as a good. Is this adequate reason to live longer?

2. The national nursing home scenario — the downside of the remarkable progress of disease control. We can prolong life but it often means prolonged aging or senescence. Thus, “prolongation that is not also age-retardation is unlikely to offer what we really want” (11). Does this make you want to live longer?

3. Compressed morbidity: if we can prolong good days and compress bad days then we have made genuine progress. We can then live longer at the peak of our powers. Meilaender is unconvinced this theory makes sense of realities. How does this theory work into your desire to live longer?

4. Meilaender’s theories work toward purpose and teleology. Is there a purpose that makes most sense? He thinks so — he thinks a complete life, flourishing, the good life leads to a better theory: love. Love reshapes life into the desire to live longer because this is the kind of expression seen in lovers: “Oh but a little longer.” Our freedom to step beyond our limits is connected to love — the desire for love to last forever. Is love the ultimate rationale for the desire to live longer?

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  • Diane

    If we can call love a rationale, than yes, love is the ultimate rationale for wanting to live longer: love of God’s creation, love of the people, living things and beauty God has put on this planet. The great longing for eternal life that God puts in our hearts puts immortality at the heart of Christianity. I think many of us would want long life on this earth, without the ravages of age, if we could achieve it. But the love that motivates a desire for life goes hand in hand with peace as well. All the longevity advances in the world can be wiped out in an instant by an atom bomb.

  • J.L. Schafer

    “One of the marvels of modern science is the prolongation of life.”
    Yes, science has increased life expectancy dramatically, but impact of war, crime, poverty, infanticide, etc. all play a role, and these are not strictly science at work.

  • Scot, I don’t see anything here about that great motivator: fear.

    I would suggest that love is the strongest motivator for why we want our loved ones to live longer. But I think fear of the unknown is what drives our strongest desires for longevity. Even for Christians the afterlife carries a lot of ambiguity, and with that, a certain amount of trepidation.

  • Joe Canner

    Several thoughts:

    1. Re: “One might contend, from this theory, that humans should not have children and they’ll live longer; or that the more children the better since more DNA of the person is handed off.” According to evolutionary theory, aging is not a consequence of having children (well, maybe it is sometimes, but not because of evolution), aging is a consequence of evolution selecting for those who reproduce, without regard for longevity, or perhaps even at the expense of longevity. If we stop having children will not live longer; we will just become extinct. The only way that I can think of to evolve longevity is to encourage fertility among the elderly.

    2. The main reasons life expectancy has increased so dramatically in the last 100 years is because of antibiotics, vaccinations, and other advances in infection control which have reduced infections in otherwise healthy infants, children and young adults. Once people survived common infections, they survived until diseases of old age kicked in. Recent advances in heart disease and cancer have made relative small improvements in life expectancy and high rates of obesity are about to reverse a lot of those those improvements.

    3. I strongly resonate with #2 and #3. We have not really accomplished anything in medicine if we prolong life without improving quality of life for the elderly. With improved quality of life it would be more reasonable to increase the retirement age, helping to buffer Social Security and Medicare from the rising costs associated with increased longevity.

    4. As much as I shy away from the soteriological gospel (thanks to you, Scot), I think it has a role to play in aging. It seems that many people are afraid to die and opt to prolong life at all costs, even at the expense of quality of life. Perhaps this should inform how we preach the gospel, especially when the audience is mostly older folks.

  • Larry Barber

    The change in longevity isn’t nearly as pronounced as the figures above suggest. The figures given above are life expectancy at birth and are hugely affected by child and infant mortality. If you look at life expectancies after reaching adulthood the changes aren’t nearly as large. Science and medicine (and engineering) have done wonders in reducing child mortality (though the first year of life is still the most dangerous), but haven’t done nearly as much in eliminating or being able to treat the causes of death among older adults.

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    What Larry said, except e have to also correct for major epidemics etc. That is another area where medicine made a big impact.

    The biggest causes of paleolithic death was most likely infant mortality, hunger and wound infection. Epidemics probably only arrived in the neolithic, as the population density rose and people became a bit more sedentary.

    I wonder if the stats above include death from direct human causes – war, insurrection and crime?

  • Kenny Johnson


    What Larry said. A 25 year old in medieval Britain didn’t think he only had about 5 years to live. In fact, there was a good chance he would live into his 60s. Infant and child mortality rates heavily skew the life expectancy numbers down.

    Even in the U.S., where it’s probably 74 for men. But if you are a healthy 65 year old, you have no reason to believe you couldn’t live to be 90.

  • Marshall

    This “disposable body” theory is reductionist bunk. Since humans live in extended family groups … at least until recently … and “success” however defined involves social transmission, the presence of effective elders is important. How many people credit a grandparent with giving them a leg up in life. Not to mention craft skills that require practice over a long life to mature.

    We are not only individuals, we are societies.

  • Karl

    Larry @5 and Kenny @7 made the point I was going to make. High infant and childhood mortality severely skew the life expectancy numbers for those early societies.

  • NateW

    I can see there being two fundamental reasons to want to prolong life. First would be man’s natural constant sense that fulfillment and happiness must lay just beyond the horizon of the present moment. We have not been able to grasp ultimate happiness within this present moment, so we bear a constant sense that more time is needed. We have a longing for union with the eternal but just can’t get our hands around it. Second would be something like what Paul means when he says “To l I’ve is Christ, to die is gain.” It is peace with the fact that the “Good Life” is impossible to grasp that enables us to truly desire to LIVE not just survive. This desire to live long is not a fear of death, but rather a desire to continue dying daily for others that they might cease chasing happiness and discover eternal peace in the present moment.

  • I agree that there is ambiguity about the post-mortem future in the biblical material: we may talk about seeing a spouse or uncle Joe or grandma again, but there is no evidence of any post-mortem interaction of human beings, certainly not until one is also post-resurrection, and on top of that there is Jesus’ word that marriage is ended period with the death of a spouse and does not take up again in either the pre- or post-resurrection post-mortem existence. Thus, unless one really knows, experiences, and wants to be with Jesus (which Paul says does happen post-mortem, although he does not talk about any interaction, so perhaps it is simply silent contemplation at least until the resurrection) one wants to stay in this life – unless one is trying to escape pain for who the at least somewhat unknown.

    Indeed, very often one experiences love concretely in this life, so might wish to hold on, unless one has had such experiences of the love of Jesus and his Father that that love is more real than the concrete (but fading as folk age and die) love of this age. That is one reason why urge my students to explore the Christian contemplative tradition, not theoretically, but experientially.

  • Scot McKnight

    Peter, isn’t Jesus after his resurrection sufficient proof of resumed relations?

  • TJJ

    The holy grail of “good aging” is living extended years without chronic physical disease, mpairment and pain, and with sharp mental and balanced emotional ability. Absent that, I am not sure mere added years is all that desirable. I am a believer in living very fully and deeply now, today, and being thankful for each “today” that I can do that.