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When you hold a Bible in your hands, you are holding one of the most precious objects imaginable. No antique or priceless artifact, no famous piece of art or giant diamond is more precious than whatever medium communicates God’s own self-revelation.
The Bible is not just the most printed, distributed, and quoted book in the history of the world; it is God’s own word to us. These are the very words of God in one coherent word (message). It is not the pages and ink themselves that are of such value. It’s not the mere jots and tittles, letters and markings, but the content of what God himself has said.
What a marvel it is today that we have in one manageable volume (or app or audio collection) the record of God’s inspired speech to humanity through his prophets and apostles. Tony Reinke celebrates the wonder of the access we have today to God’s compiled word:
As God’s plan moved from a come-and-see religion (Old Testament) to a go-and-tell focus (New Testament), chisel and stone gave way to primitive advances in paper and ink, making it possible for written communications technology to advance. God’s words, first scratched in stone, then on processed animal skins, and then on products of trees, would become the Creator’s centerpiece for drawing together his people separated by continents, languages, and millennia. Over time, the many scrolls of the Old Testament and the many books and letters of the New Testament were gathered into a codex, translated, and mass-published as a single book of unified authority that we now conveniently carry in one hand. Every time we open our Bibles, our souls are being fed through centuries of technological advancement. (12 Ways, 32–33)
In this way, the Bible is the most important piece of technology you’ve ever touched. So, what do you do with one? How do you make the most of something so valuable?
What Comes First
The obvious first answer is read it. That’s the most basic, straightforward, initial way to engage any collection of words. Books are written, and published, to be read. The biblical authors wrote down the stories, visions, prophecies, and letters so that other people in their day, and those who would come after them, could read about (or have others read aloud to them) what God had said and done in history.
Bible intake begins at the speed of reading. Like a movie producer designs his reel to be viewed at normal speed, so Bible intake begins with typical reading, perhaps at the speed you’re reading this article. But reading is just the beginning of fruitful engagement with the Bible.
The Bible is a book, but no ordinary book, and so we do far more than simply read. Let me suggest five basic, but life-transforming, actions to take with a Bible.
1. Ask questions, expect answers.
The Bible is indeed a very old book, but not one that will fall apart in your hands. Yes, handle God’s words with care, but not because they are fragile. His word will meet the cynic’s most demanding challenges. God can handle your questions. All of them. Every legitimate query will have its answer in due course.
Don’t be afraid to pause and pose questions — the simplest kind and the very hardest — and then expect to find answers. And be ready to do what it takes to pursue them. We call this Bible study. And it can be time-consuming, and greatly rewarding. Perhaps the main obstacle that keeps us from doing it well today isn’t that we’re not smart enough, but that we’re too lazy to put in the energy to ask the hard questions, and the time it takes to really pursue the answers.
2. Pause and ponder.
Study shapes the mind, but the ancient practice of “meditation” feeds the heart. Meditation is the slow-food of Bible intake. Study slows down our reading in one way, but meditation does so in another, and to another degree. Meditation is almost certainly the most underrated way of engaging the Bible in our day.
If reading watches the film in normal speed, and study views a scene in slow motion, meditation freezes the frame, and then enjoys the brilliance and glory of what’s happening at that specific moment. Meditation pauses, not to discover the meaning, but to steep our souls in the significance, and try to feel a greater sense of it in our hearts. Meditation funnels our Bible intake to the heart. It takes the mental work of reading (and study) and presses it down into our emotions to better feel the weight of the meaning. Meditation also pairs well with Bible memory, and the most fruitful memorization, I’ve found, is a rigorous form of meditation.
3. Respond in prayer.
The most natural next step after lingering in meditation over God’s words to us is to speak back to him in prayer. We can “pray the Bible” in at least two senses: one stricter, another more substantive. You might want to pray back to God the precise words of the biblical text, quoting back to him exactly what he’s saying to us. But another way to “pray the Bible” is to take in his words, meditate on them, press them to our hearts and make them our own, and then pray back to God, in our own words, in view of what we’ve heard from him in his speaking to us.
Either way, don’t leave the cycle of communion incomplete by just reading and studying God’s words, and even meditating on them, and then turning to walk away. That’s not a relationship. How amazing that God not only makes himself known to us. He not only speaks to us. But he also wants to hear from us. He listens. Prayer is an astounding gift.
We haven’t yet learned the fullness of what to do with a Bible if it’s not inspiring and guiding our prayers.
Prayer is a good initial step of response to the words of the God of the universe, but let it not go unsaid that obedience is essential. When we open the Bible, we come into contact with the King of kings. Through Christ, we approach his throne of grace. Hearing his words, and not obeying them, is a ticking time bomb. He is patient and kind (Romans 2:4). He makes his sun to rise on the righteous and unrighteous (Matthew 5:45). He is patient toward us, not wanting any to perish (2 Peter 3:9). But he will not always suffer our disobedience.
Pray that you will never lose the profound seriousness of coming into contact with the very words of God.
One way in particular to share God’s word is one-on-one Bible reading. Invite a neighbor, co-worker, or friend to sit down with you and read a brief passage together, perhaps from the Gospels, and discuss for a few minutes. Taking God’s very words in the Bible as the catalyst for interaction is powerful. One-on-one Bible reading may be the single most effective step you can take to bring a nonbeliever to faith.
Another way to share God’s words, whether quoting them exactly or paraphrasing to clarify the meaning, is to put them into the various rhythms of communication in our lives. Whether it’s an encouraging email or text, or something we mention in the course of conversation, or in praying aloud with others, or even sharing through social media, we have dozens of opportunities every day to share what we have read, understood, and tasted in God’s word.
Reading the Bible is just the beginning of experiencing the weight and wonder of the very words of God. Next time you sit down with the Bible, slow down, steep your soul in God’s own voice, and don’t let go till he blesses you.
No one is absolutely addicted to pornography. You can say no to porn. Trust a better promise.
The 106 minutes felt like months. Every moment pulsed with adrenaline and fear, waiting for another German assault — bullets from behind, bombs from above, torpedoes from below.
Some 400,000 soldiers utterly exposed — not storming the beach, but retreating in the sand, only to be pummeled with a hailstorm of heavy explosions. Only twenty miles of water stood between them and their homeland (twenty-five world-class swimmers have been able to swim it). But the Nazis made the English Channel an ocean for one week in 1940.
On the brink of military disaster in the Battle of France, Churchill called for an immediate evacuation. He had hoped to rescue 45,000 men, a horrifyingly small ten percent of the troops trapped at Dunkirk. He believed the other 355,000 to be lost, save a miracle.
As many have written, Christopher Nolan has made a masterpiece, but I will not try to review Dunkirk. Dunkirk is the kind of movie that reviews you.
Strangers to War
The vast majority of my generation has never seen war like this. Modern warfare, since the attack on 9/11, is real warfare, with real risk and real causalities — devastating thousands of families. Brave sons and daughters have been lost in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere. But the wars have not been felt across America like World War I, World War II, or Vietnam. Many millenials, myself included, are simply strangers to war.
I was not in danger while I watched Dunkirk (except, maybe, for a heart attack). But I felt the danger involved in that kind of war more acutely than ever before. Everything is at stake. The next moment is not guaranteed, or even expected. The enemy hides behind the corner, under the water, and in the clouds. Death hangs over you at all times, making every second of life so much more real, so much more urgent, so much more precious.
A film like this holds a hundred lessons, but the next day, I feel one more deeply than the rest: all of life is war. The peace, comfort, and luxury of life in America today are lying to us, lulling us into a spiritual nap, while hell hangs in the balance and heaven makes hell against evil. The realities of World War II are far closer to our actual reality. It may not feel like it, but we are engaged in the greatest war ever fought. In fact, as followers of Christ, it is not hard to see ourselves among the 400,000 at Dunkirk — so close to home, yet surrounded on every side, and praying for deliverance.
What Is War?
For strangers of war, life often feels more like Call of Duty than the Battle of Dunkirk. When we read passages about warfare in the Bible, we’re more likely to picture ourselves on a couch with a Bluetooth controller, than in an RAF fighter plane battling the Luftwaffe.
God says, “Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul” (1 Peter 2:11). Satan loves to shoot holes in the engine of our imaginations, and watch fuel pour out of the meaning of the Bible’s metaphors. He wants us to see “war” and think video game, not life and death. When the apostle Paul says, “Fight the good fight of the faith” (1 Timothy 6:12), he meant fight, not play. He meant violent confrontation, not occasional recreation.
“We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). The worst wars in history are merely a shadow of the most important war — the war that decides whether you spend eternity paying reparations for your sins or celebrating your miraculous evacuation from condemnation.
A movie like Dunkirk makes Call of Duty suddenly look like Candy Crush. And finally makes life feel like life, again.
The Bible uses war imagery to describe our battle against Satan and all his demons, but it also uses war to describe what is happening inside of us. The beach at Dunkirk is the shore of our hearts. The boats are floating perilously on the waters of our thoughts and desires. Temptations do not just hover over our heads, like bombs waiting to be dropped at precisely the right moment, but they are planted like mines in our indwelling sin.
James writes, “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you?” (James 4:1). Similarly, Paul confesses, “I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members” (Romans 7:18–19, 23). Are you aware of the battle being fought for your heart — the rifles, tanks, missiles, bombs all being fired inside of you every minute of every day? Are you prepared to fight for your life?
Sadly, we feel the weight of Nolan’s war far more acutely than we feel the weight of our own.
Mirage of Peacetime
Not everyone should see Dunkirk. Even with very little in the way of graphic violence or profanity, the relentless suspense may overwhelm many. But we all need to feel the reality of war. John Piper has said, “Until you know that life is war, you cannot know what prayer is for.”
The church never settles into peacetime, waiting for another Hitler, or another Stalin, or another Kim Jong Un to rise. They are plastic pawns compared with our enemy, and he never rests or surrenders. But his defeat is secured, and his days are numbered. The English Channel between us and victory is a lifetime of fighting a war we cannot lose. Every new day is a new battle, another real step toward victory.
The horrors and realities of life-and-death war are one of the most compelling and true pictures of the Christian life. God has written this into history, into the Bible, and (through his common grace) into Dunkirk, because nothing else quite captures the gravity and severity of our reality.
Dunkirk uncovers a war many of us need to see, because we all need to be reminded that life is war.
A catechism can help children interpret the Bible, point them to important Scriptures, and capture the whole counsel of God’s word.
We read our Bibles not only to see Jesus and love him, but so that we can begin to look like him.
Grace has brought us safe thus far, and grace will bring us home.
No one can offer you longer lasting or fuller joy than Jesus himself. He alone offers you boundless joy.
Whenever we read, we want to know what an author intended us to see and experience. This conviction has huge implications for why and how we read.
First, it implies courtesy. If you wrote me a letter with instructions for how to get to your house, and I got lost because I put my own creative meanings on your words rather than getting inside your head, I would be disrespectful.
Courtesy says, “Do unto authors the way you would have authors do unto you.” If you put your intentions in a letter, a contract, or a sermon, you would expect others to try to draw out what you put in. We should do the same for authors when we read.
Second, It implies humility. When we read this way, we confess that we don’t know things and that others probably do. So, we want to learn through reading. We are not reading merely to see a reflection of what we already know. We are reading to learn about reality outside ourselves that we don’t already know.
Of course, there are other goals in reading besides learning, such as the pleasure of a good story or a well-crafted poem or essay. But we’ll have to leave that be for now.
Third, reading in search of an author’s intentions implies the objective existence of reality outside my own mind. We are not reading simply for subjective experiences. We are reading to discover more about objective reality.
The author is one of those objective realities outside of me. He exists and has insights about reality that I don’t have. I want to see what he has seen and test it, and, if it’s true, embrace it so that I grow in my knowledge of reality and my enjoyment of all that is good.
The author’s intention when he wrote is another objective reality. He had an intention when he wrote. Nothing will ever change that. It is there as a past, objective event in history. An author can change his mind, but not his past.
I may or may not be able get at his intention (because I am weak reader, or he was a weak writer, or some other reason). But believing the author’s intention is there, and is worth finding, profoundly affects the way we read.
What Kind of Questions Do I Ask?
When I read a word, what I want to know is What did the author intend by it? not simply the ideas just come into my head when I say the word? When I read a sentence, what I want to know is What did the author intend by it? not What new ideas do I have when I read it? This is, in fact, the meaning of the word “meaning” as I use it. The meaning of a sentence, a word, or a document is what the author intended for us to understand by it.
It’s fine to learn more from an author’s writing than he intended. And it’s fine to get pleasure from taking the words of a poem differently from what the author intended. But we will remain pigmies in our understanding if we don’t humble ourselves by seeking to think an author’s thoughts after him, and experience the emotions he hoped we would.
So in what follows, whenever I talk about the meaning of a word or a phrase or a proposition or a document, I mean what the author intended us to understand, not the ideas we have while reading.
1. I ask questions to unlock the riches of Scripture’s meaning.
I start here because our minds are generally passive until something needs to be figured out. Or to put it another way, we do not generally think until we are faced with a problem to be solved, a mystery to be unraveled, or a puzzle to be deciphered.
Until we are thinking about what we are reading, we will miss some of the meaning of Scripture. Until our minds shift from passive reading to active reading we will drift right over wonderful insights.
Paul said to Timothy, “Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything” (2 Timothy 2:7).
Think about Paul’s command! Does it mean God gives understanding apart from thinking? No. It says, “Think! And God will give understanding.” He will give it through our thinking.
But most of the time our minds are passive. They are not thinking. They are drifting and coasting. But once there’s a problem we want to solve or a mystery to figure out, then we start to think. Our mind becomes active.
That’s why the habit of asking questions is crucial. And I mean mainly asking ourselves questions, not asking others. Asking others shorts circuits your thinking process. There are times you will need to ask others. But if you form the habit of asking yourself, you will become one of those people others come to with their questions.
Asking ourselves questions is a way of creating a problem or a mystery to be solved. That means the habit of asking ourselves questions awakens and sustains our thinking process. This in an incredibly fruitful habit. Amazing things happen when you form the habit of asking yourself questions as you read.
You become a Sherlock tracking down clues with ever greater excitement as the plot of passages thickens.
You become a lover wanting to see and savor more and more of the message your God has sent you.
You become your own cross-examining attorney forcing you to answer the questions others may ask you before they ask them.
You become a tree planted by living streams, and you find yourself growing and becoming strong.
You become a teacher ready with questions and answers for others who want to discover with you.
2. I ask questions about the meaning of words.
In other words, I ask about definitions. I ask more specifically about what the word means here in the specific sentence. (Remember, we are asking about what the author intended by it, not what we think it means.)
This assumes words have different meanings in different sentences. That’s true. They do. For example, the word “life” might mean earthly life or eternal life. Which did the author intend when he wrote a particular sentence?
3. I ask about the way phrases work.
By a phrase I mean a group of words without a verb that describe some action or person or thing. For example, “The man with leprosy.” “With leprosy” is a phrase that describes the man. Or “Mortify your sins by the Spirit.” “By the Spirit” is a phrase that describes the action, “mortify.” It tells us how we mortify our sins.
We ask about how phrases work because they are not always clear. For example, “Pursue the obedience of faith.” “Of faith” is a phrase that describes obedience. But how does it work? Does “of faith” mean “obedience that consists of faith”? Faith is commanded, so when we have faith, we obey the command. And so is faith obedience? Or does “of faith” mean “obedience that grows out of faith”? In this case, faith and obedience are not the same, and faith is the cause of obedience.
4. I ask about the relationships between two or more propositions.
A proposition is a group of words that has a verb and subject and so makes some kind of statement or asks some kind of question. How propositions relate to each other is one of the most important questions you can ask. For example, suppose you read these two propositions:
- Work out your salvation with fear and trembling.
- God is the one who is at work in you.
How are they related? We don’t know without a connector word or phase. Connectors (conjunctions) are words or phrases like: and, but, because, for, so that, in order that, although, if-then, and so on. What if the connector of these two propositions were “so that”?
Work out your salvation with fear and trembling so that God is the one who is at work in you.
What’s the relationship between the propositions? It could be purpose: “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling with the purpose of getting God to work in you.” Or it could be result: “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling with the result that God is the one who is working in you.”
But what if the connector were “for,” which is the one Paul actually uses in Philippians 2:13?
Work out your salvation with fear and trembling. For God is the one who is at work in you.
This would mean that God’s work came first and was the cause of our work. Totally different theologies can be taught with the change of one connecting word.
We could spend so much time on the various ways propositions can relate to each other, but these are summed up in my booklet Biblical Exegesis.
5. I ask how propositions help determine the meaning of words.
There is a hermeneutical circle, but it is not a vicious circle. You can’t know accurately what a proposition means until you know the meaning of the words, and you can’t know accurately the meaning of the words until you know the meaning of the proposition.
Words have a limited range of shared meanings. As we begin to read the words, any wrong guesses we make about their meanings usually is set right by the end of the sentence or by the connection with other sentences. Here are a simple and a complex illustration about how propositions clarify what its words mean:
God did not leave himself without witness, doing good, giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons. (Acts 14:17)
We know in general what a “witness” is. But only when the final proposition is connected with the first one do we know that the “witness” refers not to a person but to rain and fruitful seasons. Here’s a more complex example:
We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. (1 Corinthians 1:23–24)
Who are the “called”? The word all by itself could refer to those who hear the word of the cross preached by Paul. Paul “calls” everybody in one sense. When he preaches Christ, he does not limit his call to salvation. He calls everyone to repent and believe.
But the way the propositions fit together, “called” in verse 24 can’t mean that. The “called,” verse 24 says, receive the word of the cross as “the power of God and the wisdom of God.” But we know from verse 23 that many of those who heard the message did not receive it that way. They received it as stumbling block and foolishness.
Therefore, the called are not all who hear the word. So, in verse 24 “call” can’t mean the general call that everyone gets through the sermon. It must refer to a call of God that he gives only to some. And it must have a special effectiveness because all who get it see the cross as power and wisdom. Therefore, theologians refer to it as effectual call.
So even though words carry several meanings in and of themselves, the content and relationships of the propositions around them usually clarify the specific meaning the author intended them to have.
6. I ask how the point of a passage fits with the points of other passages, especially if it seems that the points don’t fit with each other.
One of the most fruitful habits of asking questions I have is to ask how the apparent meaning or point of a passage fits together with other passages that seem contradictory or inconsistent.
I never assume the Bible is inconsistent, but that I am not seeing all I need to see. That’s why this habit is so fruitful. If I have not seen enough to explain the apparent inconsistency, then it is likely that asking how the texts fit together will help me see more.
And seeing more is what we are after. We want to see as much as is really there. Here’s an example of this kind of questioning. In Romans 5:8 Paul says,
God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
But in Psalm 11:5 it says,
The Lord tests the righteous, but his soul hates the wicked and the one who loves violence.
So God loves us while we are sinners. And God hates the wicked. When we see this tension between God’s love for sinners and hatred for sinners, we should start thinking about possible ways these two truths fit together. This means we start asking more questions.
- Are two different groups being talked about in “sinners” and “wicked”?
- Are the sinners that God loves not included in the sinners that God hates?
- Is there a difference between “sin” and “wickedness” so that he really doesn’t love the wicked or hate the sinners?
- Did something change between the Old Testament and the New Testament so that God does not hate the wicked today?
- What, more specifically, does God’s hate involve?
- Does the hate he has for the wicked exclude the possibility that he might love them too?
- What would be the different kinds of hate he might have?
- Is one kind of hate the intense loathing of a person’s wicked heart?
- Is another kind of hate the intense purpose to destroy?
- Could the loathing be present without the purpose to destroy?
- If so could he love those whom he loathes by aiming to rescue them from their loathsomeness and from his hate?
- What other texts should I look at to help answer these questions?
These kinds of questions pour into the mind when two passages in tension with each other are brought together with a view to figuring out how they fit. It’s amazing how much we learn in this habit of asking questions about apparent difficulties. Few things make a person deeper and richer in their knowledge of God and his ways than this habit of asking how texts cohere in reality when, at first, they don’t look like they do.
7. I ask how the meaning applies to the way you live and the way the church and the world lives.
The aim of biblical writers is not only that we know things, but that we do things. So part of our response to Scripture is to form the habit of asking questions concerning application — to us and to our church, other Christians and our relationships, and to the world, unbelievers and institutions.
This means that the task of application is never done. There are millions of ways a text can be applied to millions of situations and relationships. Our job is not to know all these applications, but to grow in applying the meaning of Scripture to lives and the people and institutions around us.
Questions about application are not mainly a quest for meaning (the author’s intention), but for the difference the meaning will make in our lives. But the fact is that asking application questions often sheds light on things in the text you had not seen.
For example, it is very likely that until a church tries to actually apply the passages on church discipline that they will not read them carefully enough to see what they are specifically saying. Every new effort to follow through the processes will send you back to the Bible to see what else is there.
For example, until I tried to apply the teaching of Matthew 18:15–18 I had not noticed that some time may pass between taking two or three witnesses to confront an unrepentant brother and the next step of taking his case to the whole church. But when application forced this question on us, we saw indeed that there is nothing in the meaning of the text to suggest that the next step was immediate. This raised the question about how we are to relate to a person in that period of time, and we had more work to do in searching the scriptures.
This is not uncommon. Efforts to apply the meaning of a text often help us ask questions about the text that reveal things we had not seen. So even though our goal is to find the meaning of a passage and then apply it, it is also true that the actual application of the meaning often raises questions that shed more light on the meaning.
8. I ask what affections are fitting in response to the truth of this text.
The aim of reading the Bible is not merely knowing, but also believing and hoping and loving. The whole range of human emotions are possible reactions to the meaning of the Bible. God gave us the Bible not just to inform our minds, but also to transform our hearts — our affections. There is always a more or less fitting way for our affections to be moved by the truth we see.
For example, horrible truth should not have the same emotional effect as beautiful truth. God’s unapproachable holiness should not produce the same emotion as God’s tender nearness. The rebuke of Jesus should not produce the same emotion as the commendation of Jesus.
So part of responding to Scripture is asking the question “What is a fitting emotional response to the meaning of this text? Am I experiencing that?”
God’s word is honored not just by being understood rightly, but also by being felt rightly. A blank response of the heart to glorious truth is a defective response to the Bible. So we are not done asking questions until we have asked about what emotions are fitting in response to the Bible’s meaning, and whether we are experiencing those emotions.
While it may be a struggle sometimes, the essence of Christian love is not choice, duty, or obligation. It overflows in our hearts by the Holy Spirit.
Few prophets of the technological revolution are more respected than Ray Kurzweil, and his answer is Yes. One day, soon enough, science will deliver us from physical death, from the awful reality of mortality, and from the snubbing out of our conscious existence on earth.
Human evolution now demands such steps, Kurzweil says. “Our bodies are governed by obsolete genetic programs that evolved in a bygone era, so we need to overcome our genetic heritage” (The Singularity, 371). The idea of transhumanism is that we can evade our biological bodies — like a man fleeing out the top hatch of a damaged submarine, or maybe more like a thumb drive escaping the top hatch of a damaged submarine.
Kurzweil is talking about a form of mind uploading — the ability to extract the cognitive dimension of the human experience, digitize it, separate it from biological mass, discard the biological body, and end up with some sort of consciousness contained inside a computer who is you, eternal you, deathless you.
Standing in his way are supernaturalists, like us, because for Kurzweil, “a primary role of traditional religion is deathist rationalization — that is, rationalizing the tragedy of death as a good thing” (372).
But even pragmatists are slow to embrace Kurzweil’s promise.
In an attempt to escape this fallen world, what if we instead find ourselves eternally stuck inside it? Since the time of Prometheus, the Greek demigod, or more recent stories of people stuck in a conscious coma, aware of everything around them but unable to move their mouths or bodies, the inability to die can become the ultimate trap, the most haunting horror.
Recently, when asked if he would embrace the immortality of a demigod, podcaster and life hacker Tim Ferriss said no, he wouldn’t. Easy answer. But if he was given an exit option, to end that eternal existence when he wanted it to end, “assuming that option is on the table, yeah, I would take that option.” In other words, immortality at the hands of technicians raises haunting insecurities about whether or not such an exemption from death would be worth “living.” Hence the need for an “escape” button option, to terminate what is left of us.
The connection got even more interesting when Ferriss was next asked if humanity would be better off if immortality was an option. “I’m all for extending my functional life span, but I am not pining after immortality,” he said. Why? “I worry about having all the time in the world, or the perception of having all the time in the world.”
“If I were immortal,” he concluded, “I would feel no rush and no compulsion to do many, many things.”
Inhumanity of Deathlessness
Ferriss’s responses bring us to the more immediate concern. For us the question is not whether or not by 2045 we can mind-upload and shun our biological baggage. A lot of those predictions are too far off for anything beyond sci-fi plots.
But the fact that this discussion exists reveals a more proximate question: Do you think in your lifetime, deathless consciousness will become technologically possible? And would you take it?
What we think of Kurzweil’s prophecies — and the prophecies of all transhumanists — codify how we view the body today. As Ferriss already hints, if I am to live forever in a disembodied state, all urgency disappears. What need would I have for resolve today?
In the transhumanist view, all of the things we now take for granted — our biology, our sexuality, our reproduction, our biological gender, our work, our food, and the fabric of our family heritage — all of it gets quickly emptied of its embodied value. The ideal becomes the liberated self-consciousness, now free to evolve in perpetuity, unburdened from biological baggage.
In opposition to this vision, theologian Ephraim Radner maybe said it best: “Death marks the place where the complexities of our ongoing mechanisms of life generation are shown in their miraculous purity and vulnerable givenness. If we look carefully at the way we live our lives — sexuality, work, food, relations — we necessarily come face to face with our deaths. This is not simply because death is the flip side of life, but because death is the fleeting vantage from which to see life as it is” (A Time to Keep, 48).
Ferriss intuits what the theologians have already put to paper. As Radner warns, “Life without death, death apprehended and death experienced as the pressing boundary of our subjective beings, is inhumane and leads to inhumanity” (42). Life without death leads to violence against the body today: gender transitioning, plunging birth rates, male body hatred, digital media isolationism, and more.
The Path to Joy
C.S. Lewis’s sci-fi work That Hideous Strength predates Kurzweil’s post-genetic fantasy by about sixty years. In it, Lewis forecasted a technological hope that we could do away with the body as unnecessary and leave the brain as our fundamental self. In his view, the only biological functions are the tubes feeding the brain. “The individual is to become all head.” Indeed there is a drooling head. But even the drooling head Lewis envisioned could be mind-uploaded into the cloud of Kurzweil. Personhood is reduced all the way down to a brain-powered digital processor — food, sex, love, adventure, relationships, all rendered down into fabricated electrical impulses for our simulated eternity.
But Christianity is no “deathist rationalization.” We hate death. Death is also our enemy. Death is the most formidable enemy in the cosmos. Death is the last enemy that will stand (1 Corinthians 15:26).
We don’t rationalize death; we tell death to “Go to hell!” for that is where it must go (Revelation 20:14).
Faced with death, my body is not a cocoon of evolutionary baggage to be evaded. Our bodies make it possible to procreate, and eat, and work, and form familial bonds — all the beautiful things that make us human and not robots, all the gifts that make this life worth living, and all the things which grow in their beauty under the shadow and reality of death.
The new Gnostics want us to believe that we are merely minds trapped inside bodies. We are not. We are souls animated by will and affection and loves and longings, blended with physical bodies — with needs and tastes and feelings. We are embodied beings, not perfect and not evolved, created from the dust we cannot evade on our own or through technology. In Christ, we have already passed from death to life (1 John 3:14–15). Therefore, it’s not by evading the pains and limitations of physical life, but by embracing them, that we find our purest rejoicing (2 Corinthians 6:2–10).
Our death is, whether we like it or not, the dark and pressing reality which makes our living possible.