Cryonics, October 1990

CRYONICS AND ORTHODOXY

by John Warwick Montgomery

The following essay was reprinted from CHRISTIANITY TODAY, 12, 816 (May 10, 1968), with the permission of the author.


In the latest Our Man Flint film dubiously honored as an American cultural export by voice-dubbing into French, the bad guys (in this case gals -- an international political conspiracy of women) try to freeze the good guys, rendering them harmless for now but subject to potential usefulness years (or centuries) later. Observing the products of this biological cold storage, our hero remarks: "It's not exactly the classic idea of immortality."

But it is a limited kind of immortality -- and far from being merely a science-fiction stunt or a gimmick to absorb footage in a B-grade film, cryonics (the technical name of the field) is a reality. Important publications dealing with the topic are appearing (the most comprehensive in English is R.C.W. Ettinger's The Prospect of Immortality); some nonprofit organizations have affiliated to form the Cryonics Societies of America (a national conference took place at the New York Academy of Sciences in March [1968]); some funeral homes have installed cryogenic equipment; cryonic "ambulance" units are in the offing; and already several people are in storage.

The basic principle of cryogenic interment is simplicity itself. On the basis of successful experimental freezing and reanimation of lower animals such as rotifera and organs of higher animals such as chicken hearts, cryonics advocates propose the cooling of a human body to liquid nitrogen temperature (-321°F) -- or later, when more sophisticated permanent installations become feasible, to liquid helium temperature (-449°F) -- thereby storing the person at the time of "death" or at a terminal stage of illness so as to permit his resuscitation later, when medical knowledge has learned how to cope with his disease and to restoring the damage his body has suffered.

As a consequence of increasingly extensive transplant operations today, organ culture and regeneration in the foreseeable future, and the definite possibility of rejuvenation techniques and of artificial genetic improvement through control of gene patterns (affecting both body and mind), there is every chance that physicians of the future will be in a position not only to revive the clinically dead or near-dead person of today but even to improve his life over what it was at its highest point during his original earthly existence. From such possibilities, flights of fancy readily take off; think, for example, what a relatively modest estate would be worth three centuries from now (at compound interest) when recovered by its newly awakened owner!

Bankers can be left to worry about the juicy financial aspects of cryonic suspension, and the scientists have their work cut out for them. What about the theological question? Is cryogenic storage legitimate, and if legitimate is it in fact desirable for the Christian?

Some "orthodox" objections to cryonics can be hypothesized -- and readily answered:

  • 1. "Cryogenic interment is not even mentioned, much less advocated, in the Bible." But though everything the Bible teaches or touches is veraciously revelatory, one cannot conclude that the Bible contains all truth! The Bible is not a cosmic Encyclopaedia Britannica; cryonics would be objectionable only if it violated biblical teaching.

  • 2. "Cryonics is against the will of God; if he had meant us to live longer he would have given us the natural power to do so." But the same argument could be applied to the airplane: "If the Lord had wanted us to fly, he would have put wings on our backs."

  • 3. "Cryonics would presumptively alter man's basic character through gene manipulation and surgical rejuvenation." But in biblical revelation man is defined in his relationship to God, not in terms of his physical or mental characteristics; thus Dr. Blaiberg, with Clive Haupt's heart, is no less a person, responsible before God, than he was before his "alteration."

  • 4. "Cryonics is anthropocentric -- glorifying mortal man as a Faust rather than the eternal God, 'who only hath immortality.'" Although this argument has superficial cogency -- and is aided and abetted by admittedly non-Christian cryonics writers in the religious domain (e.g., R.C.W. Ettinger, in The Christian Century, Oct. 4, 1967) -- the fact is that cryonics, like all other technical scientific accomplishments from automobiles to atomic power, can be used either to man's glory (and thus his destruction) or to God's glory.

  • 5. "We should want to get to heaven fast, not remain on a sinful earth." But note carefully the Apostle's words (they should become the sedes doctrinae for orthodox Christian cryonics): "I have a desire to depart, and to be with Christ, which is far better; nevertheless to abide in the flesh is more needful for you." (Phil. 1:23,24). Here Paul opts for earth, not because it is better than heaven (far from it!) but because the preaching of the Gospel is so desperately needed here. This, needless to say, is justification enough for extending one's time of earthly service to Christ.

In point of fact, orthodox believers have not responded negatively to the cryonics program. Quite the opposite, as illustrated by the impressive sermon on the subject delivered by Lutheran pastor Kay Glaesner in 1965. Said he: "Christianity and the church have always been interested in the extension of human life. . . . The church of Christ does not retard science." (The Christian Century, Oct. 27, 1965).

Rather, it has been mainline theologians of mediating neo-orthodox and existentialist leanings who have excoriated the idea. Joseph Sittler of Chicago, for example, has called the concept an "exalted form of madness," owing to its "radically nonhistorical concept of what a human life is": to extract man, a "profoundly historical being," from his existential setting is to destroy him (Time, Sept. 30, 1966). Here is an excellent example of the genuinely reactionary nature of existentially grounded theology: man is defined by categories ("historicity") that arbitrarily prohibit his legitimate activity. (One is reminded of Denis de Rougemont's wholly appropriate blast, in his Meanings of Europe, at Sartre's comparable political pessimism.) Contemporary theology, no longer subjecting itself to revelational perspective, is perpetually subject to a non-revelational "hardening of categories" of the most reactionary kind.

Just as it was orthodox believer C.S. Lewis who took space travel seriously and faced in depth the theological question of human contact with other intelligent creatures, while liberals were engaged in obscurantist documentary criticism and political demonstrations, so it will be (I'll wager) the truly progressive evangelical theologians who develop serious theologies of cryonics. And they have the most to gain. Personally, I would gladly have chipped in to defray the costs of eventually resuscitating Warfield, Machen, Pieper, or Lewis, had cryogenic interment been around at the time of their clinical deaths. I shudder to think what they -- or the Fathers or the Reformers -- would say when faced with today's secular theology.

I'm for cryonics: the future could well gain from those in the present who have come experientially to acknowledge the absolute lordship of the Christ of Scripture.