Culture At Large

The renewed interest (and false hope) in cryonics

Nick Olson

What if, upon death, you could preserve your body in the hopes that some as-yet-undiscovered technology might one day raise you back to life?

Recently, Wired ran a piece chronicling a moderately growing enthusiasm for cryonics research. According to the article, cryonics is “the preservation of deceased humans in liquid nitrogen at temperatures just shy of its boiling point of −196°C/77 Kelvin.” With 250 people “cryopreserved” and 2,000 more signed up with hopes for “resuscitated life with a little help from freezer storage,” the trend raises some obvious questions about the desire for such a fantastical endeavor.

The piece is inevitably couched in religious/spiritual language and, most interestingly, it revolves around the human desire for a “second life.” And not just any rebirth - the cryonics faithful desire embodied immortality. The piece begins: “Life after death, for most people, is a faithful belief in a spiritual hereafter, a transfer to a higher, non-bodily consciousness. For cryonics enthusiasts, however, a ‘second life’ … here on Earth is the goal.”

But what if a Platonic, disembodied afterlife is more a historically embedded, popular misconception than a plausible theological reflection?

A confession: if I thought God’s Kingdom was going to be a spiritual eternity of higher-conscience floating around, I’d probably hope against hope for cryonics, too. Indeed, there’s something inherently dissatisfying about these mythical visions of a disembodied afterlife, and I think that “something” is the negative connotations it provokes about created existence itself. It implies a pronouncement of Heaven defined in wholly escapist terms. This implicitly negative pronouncement runs counter to a holy judgment on created existence rendered from the beginning: “It is good.”

If I thought God’s Kingdom was going to be a spiritual eternity of higher-conscience floating around, I’d probably hope against hope for cryonics, too.

A hope defined by fleeing isn’t blessed enough to sustain us because it’s not rooted in anything tangible. But God’s eschatological program isn’t escapist - it’s restorational: “[N]ot only the creation, but we ourselves … groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” As theologian N.T. Wright has worked so hard to highlight, the implications of Christ’s resurrection - and our participation through Him - is that God will “give life to [our] mortal bodies.”

But interest in cryopreservation isn’t just the natural desire for bodily immortality. It’s also representative of an imaginative investment in avoiding mortality in both word and deed. Absent the confessed need for the Physician and the spiritual transformation He brings, cryonics is an unwitting quest to preserve ourselves as we are in our spiritual impoverishment. Part of our collective existential plight is the day-to-day refusal to think about death’s impending doom and why it hovers over our collective conscience. We fill our daily lives with all manner of distraction from this reality - including the prospect of literally avoiding death via cryopreservation. But our unwillingness to face the inevitable is a willful ignorance which produces a false reality wherein certain spiritual and moral questions are rendered avoidable.

The Wired piece concludes by stating that there’s no concrete evidence that cryonics will ever actually work. But there’s other, more concrete evidence to suggest that an embodied “second life” has been frozen for us at the cross, and has been in steady defrost since the resurrection. German Reformed theologian Jürgen Moltmann proclaimed that “God became man that dehumanized men might become true men. We become true men in the community of the incarnate, the suffering and loving, the human God.”

This is the crux of the issue: Our desire to conquer death comes about most fully only after we receive victory over the spiritual death that sinfulness produces. And our desire for embodied self-preservation needs to be qualified by the hope for renewal that the Incarnation and Resurrection together substantiate.

Topics: Culture At Large, Science & Technology, Science, Theology & The Church, Theology