Book Review: Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How it drives Civilization

by Rev. Jefferson Vann

I really do not think I have been wasting my time, but you be the judge. I have just read a 320- page book on immortality by a person who does not believe in it. The book is called Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How it drives Civilization by Stephen Cave.1 The book is an amazing and entertaining investigation of how the world has sought to come to grips with a paradox: on the one hand, everybody knows that they will die, but on the other hand, nobody wants to believe that this life is all there is.

Cave suggests that all the ways humanity has invented to deal with this paradox can be summed up in five “immortality narratives.”2He asserts that these ways of dealing with death have been the “underlying driver” behind a number of advances in civilization.3

1. Death is real, but we can beat it by staying alive.

Here Cave traces all the ways we humans have sought to extend life so that we postpone our date with the Grim Reaper. He concludes, however, that “success rates to date are not reassuring.”4 Eventually, no matter how healthy people are, they eventually croak. This means of gaining immortality is a dead end.

2. Death is real, but we can beat it by being raised again.

Cave attributes many world religions with being proponents of what he calls the resurrection narrative, but he especially notes how Jesus and Paul popularized the idea. It teaches that “although we must physically die, nonetheless we can physically rise again with the bodies we knew in life.”5 But for Cave, this view has an intrinsic problem in that we can never be sure if it is really me who is raised, or just a replication that happens to look like me. So, for Cave, hope of a resurrection is dead, too.

3. Death is not real, because we survive it as immortal souls.

Cave shows how this view had its beginning in the Greek mystery cults, was incorporated by Plato into his anthropology, and borrowed by Augustine as he sought to define Christianity’s doctrine of the afterlife. Cave says that this view “has come to be the dominant belief in Christianity and is central to Hinduism, Buddhism and many other religions.”6 It offers a solution to death by positing that the real essential person will always survive. But Cave can find no scientific proof of any such survival, so nixes that idea, too.

4. Death is real, so we can only live on in the lives of others.

Cave calls this the most widespread immortality narrative of all, and he titles it Legacy.7 People either try to make themselves remembered by what they do, or by who they leave behind: their children. But for Cave, even this is an unprofitable way to live your life, because nothing – not even a legacy – lasts forever. Even Alexander the Great will one day be “Alexander who?”

5. Death is real, so just accept it and make the best of the lives we have.

Finally, Cave suggests his solution to the paradox. He draws on an analogy that goes back to the “Epic of Gilgameshand supports it with texts from Ecclesiastes.8 In essence, it is wrong to worry about living forever. Instead, we should be making the best of the tremendous gift of life now.

As a believer in Christ, and the resurrection he promises, I can agree that we should not worry about living forever, but I cannot agree that we should concede this life as being all there is.

Cave does not claim to be a believer in Christ, and he has rejected the notion that Christ can make good on his claims to raise the dead. But, interestingly, Cave is quite accurate in his assertion that a resurrection was exactly what Jesus offered. He said that, according to the New Testament, Jesus’ “death on the cross and the resurrection three days later … heralded the coming of the End Times and revealed God’s plan for humanity: to raise the faithful from the grave to eternal life.”9

Cave asserts that Paul picked up that ball and ran with it. Paul preached Christ as raised from the dead, proof that God will raise the dead. Cave explains, “by focusing on the resurrection, (Paul) could claim that Jesus had defeated death, not just for himself; but for all humanity; the crucifixion and resurrection had undone the curse of the Fall that brought death to mankind – ‘as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ’ (1 Corinthians 15:22).”

Cave compares what Paul asserts in the New Testament with what present day churches are teaching in their pulpits. He concludes that “the majority of Christians today have sided with the Greek belief that we have a soul, that it lives on after our death, and that it goes straight to heaven (or hell). But this is the opposite of what was preached by the early Christians, including both Jesus and Paul.”10

Cave speaks from outside the box, but he has quite a clear view from there. He can see that many Christians have abandoned the biblical hope of eternal life through resurrection for another hope. We conditionalists champion the biblical hope. And we have an answer to Cave’s arguments against it as well. We have faith in God. We find it not at all impossible for the God who created us to raise us from the dead. It will be us in our entirety, not just a likeness, a replication of what we once looked like. Why do we have the audacity to believe such a thing? Because we are children of Abraham, who “reasoned that God could even raise him from the dead.”11So, we do not see seeking immortality from the God who can deliver it as a futile quest.

Jefferson Vann is an elder at McAlpin Advent Christian Church in Florida and Relevant Church in Virgina.He and His wife, Penny, serve the ACGC Department of World Outreach as Asia-Pacific Area Directors and Global Training Coordinators. 

[1] Stephen Cave, Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How it Drives Civilization. (New York: Crown Publishers, 2012).

[2] Cave, 2.

[3] Cave, 14.

[4] Cave, 4.

[5] Cave, 4.

[6] Cave, 5.

[7] Cave, 6.

[8] for my take on those passages, see Analyzing Ecclesiastes 9:5, not enough, false hopes for reward, and Sheol: The Old Testament Consensus.

[9] Cave, 95.

[10] Cave, 97.

[11] Hebrews 11:19 NET.

 

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