According to the writer of Proverbs, “death and life are in the power of the tongue.” So is cultural change, which most often comes with efforts to change language use and the definitions of words. For example, Harvard Medical molecular biologist David Sinclair is combining innovation in the lab with innovation in language. In a recent CNN article, one of Sinclair’s financial backers described the goal of his research as changing the definition of the word “aging.” He wants to “make aging a disease.”
Sinclair claims to have successfully interrupted the aging process in mice by turning adult cells back into stem cells. Some animals are designed with a similar capability, albeit in a more limited way—think, for example, of an octopus re-growing a leg that has been cut off. Using that same idea, what Sinclair calls an “ancient regeneration system,” he hopes to regenerate cells that deteriorate with age. Already, he has been able to repair ocular cells in older mice, allowing them to recover their “youthful” eyesight.
His ultimate aim, of course, is to develop anti-aging therapies for humans. Though some concern has been directed toward the safety of Sinclair’s process, what goes largely unquestioned in media coverage is Sinclair’s chief aim. In other words, as so much medical ethics goes these days, if we can do it, then we should.
Medical ethics from a Christian worldview perspective is not that simple.
Whenever Christians can affirm aspects of work like David Sinclair’s, which attempts to overcome the consequences of the fall, we should. The Bible teaches that death is an enemy, and that humans were not made to die. And humans should recognize that the ingenuity and passion for exploration that often inspires medical progress are God-given.
To accuse people like Sinclair of “playing God,” as if that were an insult, is not helpful. After all, according to Genesis 1 and 2, human beings were created by God to, in a sense, “play God.” We are not to pretend that we are God, of course, but He did gift us with the ability to work alongside Him to accomplish His purposes for the world He made. After the fall, He promises to eventually restore His creation, so our work alongside Him continues. The mandate to build and create, tending the garden of His world, is to be done within the moral limits that reflect His character and how He created the world.
Within this framework, causing or hastening death is a great evil, but so can be attempts to avoid death “at all costs.” Jesus’ own death was an act of unprecedented evil but also only fully understood in the context of His obedience to the Father’s will. Jesus lay down His life, and many Christians have followed in His footsteps. Thus, there are certain moral goods—such as the will of God—that are higher than avoiding death.
Keeping these sorts of things straight is essential to ethically pursuing and employing technologies, like those that promise to “reverse aging.” In his book Bioethics: A Primer for Christians, bioethicist and theologian Gilbert Meilaender counsels Christians to view the freedom to pursue medical progress not as freedom from restraints, such as death. Instead, we should consider ourselves free to work alongside God imitating Him on the path He set out for human flourishing. This will mean, very often in fact, not doing (as God described the men who built the tower of Babel) “whatever comes into our minds to do.”
Meilaender counsels Christians to fight the temptation to use medicine, not merely as a way to care for our bodies, but from the desire to control them. If the chief end of medical research and practice is to live on our own terms, we will inevitably make moral compromises along the way. It was the serpent who promised Eve that she could live as she wished but evade death, which was not only a lie, but not sufficient justification for attempting to usurp the authority that only belongs to God.
The goal of medical research and practice should be to help people flourish in the bodies, times, places, and limits that God has given us. From this beginning, Meilaender suggests that the “principle” which should “govern Christian compassion” is not to “minimize suffering,” but to “maximize care.”
Our purpose is not to avoid suffering or even death at all costs despite that they are effects of the fall we are called to oppose. Rather, we take into account that in God’s mercy, even our suffering can be redeemed for good. We lament the hard realities of our fallen world, and we seek to understand them within the larger context of creation and resurrection. Thus, we know that death is not the end of life, nor is life only a prerequisite to death.
Publication date: July 8, 2022
Photo courtesy: ©GettyImages/fizkes
The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Christian Headlines.
BreakPoint is a program of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. BreakPoint commentaries offer incisive content people can't find anywhere else; content that cuts through the fog of relativism and the news cycle with truth and compassion. Founded by Chuck Colson (1931 – 2012) in 1991 as a daily radio broadcast, BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today's news and trends. Today, you can get it in written and a variety of audio formats: on the web, the radio, or your favorite podcast app on the go.
John Stonestreet is President of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, and radio host of BreakPoint, a daily national radio program providing thought-provoking commentaries on current events and life issues from a biblical worldview. John holds degrees from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (IL) and Bryan College (TN), and is the co-author of Making Sense of Your World: A Biblical Worldview.