Cryonics, December 1990
CRYONICS AND RELIGION
By Derek Ryan
Cryonics has gained a great deal of notoriety recently, thanks in large part to Phil Donahue, Larry King, et al. And while the Alcor staff has done a wonderful job of addressing the scientific, legal, political, and ethical questions that have been voiced, there remains a vital issue largely ignored both recently and in the past, allowing a large section of intelligent, scientifically-minded individuals to object to the practice of cryonics without researching the above aspects whatsoever. That issue is the supposed incompatibility of cryonics and religion, specifically Christianity.
Statements like: "Cryonicists intend to raise the dead, claiming power that only God holds," "The desire to extend life on Earth contradicts what is taught in the Bible," and "The souls of those in cryonic suspension are caught in a hellish limbo between Heaven and Earth." have been accepted as maxims among Christians (though the last is more often imagined than stated). Are these statements -- and others like them -- fair? More importantly, are they biblical? I contend that the ideas behind cryonics are fully compatible with the biblical view of life, and furthermore, that the intended results of cryonics coincide with many specific commands of the Bible.
Cryonics: Extending Life or Raising the Dead?
A major objection many Christians have concerning cryonics hinges on today's common misconception of death. Because cryonic suspension cannot yet take place until after legal death, cryonics is often viewed as occultish. Many Christians regard Alcor as a group of "witch-doctors" out to raise the dead when, in fact, only God has that power. However, presenting clearly the true definition of "death" can often solve this problem.
As medicine has advanced, the accepted definition of death has changed. "Death" meant something rather different to physicians in New Testament times than it means to today's physicians. One of the biggest obstacles Alcor has had to overcome is the inadequacy of the current definition of death. Though it is changing, it is still not accurate in that it is still function-based. Despite overwhelming scientific evidence that the current legal definitions of life and death are flawed, misconceptions persist. Because Christianity teaches that the soul departs the body at the time of death, this issue plays a major role in shaping the Christian view of cryonics.
Science, particularly neurology, has shown that man is an informational being. Memory and personality, and therefore identity, are contained in the brain. They do not depart the body at the cessation of respiration, nor at the cessation of circulation, nor at the cessation of brain activity. This has been demonstrated repeatedly by patients on the operating table and drowning victims in frozen lakes, all legally dead, who have recovered with complete retention of memory, personality, identity, et cetera. Until identity-critical structure in the brain breaks down, any pronouncement of death is purely arbitrary.
"It is this knowledge -- that anyone who retains identity-critical brain structure is not dead -- that gives cryonicists the hope that they will succeed." It is also this knowledge that must put to rest the first major Christian objection: the belief that cryonicists hope to "raise the dead." Suspension patients cannot be defined as "dead" if the term is to retain any of its meaning. While these patients are certainly damaged, they are not dead. They are patients awaiting treatment, but they are not dead in that they are not irretrievable. Cryonics is a legitimate attempt by rational men to carry today's "terminal" patients to tomorrow's life- saving technology. Radical medicine, yes. Occultism and witchcraft, no.
The Sanctity of Life
Since cryonics should be classified with other life-saving medicine, a proper Christian view of medicine must now be established. If it can be proven that the advancement of medicine is in accord with God's will, if God is concerned with improving and extending life on Earth, then it necessarily follows that cryonics is in accord with God's will. A popular Christian objection to cryonics maintains that God is not concerned with man's Earthly physical condition, that He is only concerned with man's soul and spirit.
The Bible has much to say about human life. God created man in His own image. He breathed into man the "breath of life." Before man's fall, immortality was his natural state. After his fall, death came as part of the curse. It has been argued, by no less respected Christian thinkers than C.S. Lewis and Henry Morris, that death is not a normal part of life, but rather is an interference with the normal process of life. It seems that all death can be attributed either to disease or accident. Life, then, is the norm, not sickness and death.
Much of the Bible concerns itself with the relief of sickness and death. Most of the miracles attributed to the prophets, Christ, the early Christians, and Christians through the centuries have involved healing the sick and raising the dead. In fact, Christ commanded his disciples to "Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead. . . ." (Matt. 10:8). Though Christians are to take no thought for the day, let the day care for itself, and seek first the kingdom of God, many of the tasks assigned to the Church nevertheless deal with relieving the temporary, Earthly problems of men, that they might afterwards open their hearts to the truth of the Gospel.
The book of Job offers much insight into the significance of life on Earth. While in the deepest pit of human depravity and despair, Job still opted for life. His wife and friends (who represent worldly philosophies) pleaded with him to curse God and die. "Job opted to praise God and live, and live he did. God recompensed Job's faithfulness with many rewards, not the least of which was long life."
Job is by no means the only biblical example of faithfulness rewarded with longevity. God promised the children of Israel, "And ye shall serve the Lord your God. . . and I will take sickness away from the midst of thee. . . the number of thy days will I fulfill." (Ex. 23:25,26)
A truly biblical perspective of the earthly experience must necessarily conclude that God is concerned with rectifying man's condition in soul, spirit, and body. The notion that God is not concerned with life on earth, specifically physical life, is not biblical. In this context, medicine, including cryonics, is not only approved by God, but commanded by God.
After establishing that cryonics is life-extending medicine, and that such medicine is completely harmonious with God's plans for man, the next question usually approached involves the condition of the soul of one who is suspended. If the conclusion that suspension patients are not dead is accepted, then this question is easily answered. The soul of a suspension patient would be in the same condition as the soul of any man who is in a coma, unconscious, or simply asleep.
Unfortunately, many Christians still view suspension patients as dead. But even this is no obstacle to cryonics in view of the explicit biblical teaching on death and the fate, both temporal and eternal, of the soul. There is much confusion among Christians today over this topic, so it is important to go directly to the Bible itself for enlightenment.
Christ's parable of the wheat and the tares (Matt 13:29,30,37-43) is especially revealing. After the householder had sown the wheat, his servant reported that tares [weedy grasses] had started growing with the grain. The servant asked, "Wilt thou then that we go and gather them up?" The master replied, "Nay, lest while ye gather up the tares, ye root up also the wheat with them. Let them both grow together until the time of the harvest, and in the time of the harvest I will say to the reapers, gather ye together first the tares, and bind them in bundles and burn them, but gather the wheat in my barn."
The beauty of this parable is that Christ explains it for us. "He that soweth the good seed is the Son of Man; The field is the world; the good seed are the children of the kingdom; but the tares are the children of the wicked one; The enemy that sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the world; and the reapers are the angels. As therefore the tares are gathered and burned in the fire; so shall it be at the end of the world. The Son of man shall send forth his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity; And shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth."
When shall the tares be gathered and the wheat harvested? Not until the end of the world!
When we add to this parable Christ's words in John 5:28,29, the doctrine becomes clear. "Marvel not at this: for the hour is coming in which all that are in the graves shall hear his voice, and shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation." Jesus taught that both the good and the bad would come from their graves to receive either life or damnation.
Additionally, Peter claimed, "The Lord knoweth how to deliver the godly out of temptations, and to reserve the unjust unto the day of punishment," (2 Pet. 2:9) providing us with the key word in this issue: reserved. It is clear that the souls of the dead go nowhere until the end of the world, and that it is God himself who has them reserved.
The exact state of the soul from the time of death until the end of the world can be ascertained through applying a bit of science to the teachings of Paul in 2 Corinthians 5. Paul taught that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Father, and vice-versa. In light of the above biblical passages, it must then be assumed that the individual soul experiences no time between death and the judgment. The body exists in time and space, but the soul does not. To the soul, there is no time lapse after death, and therefore no limbo to endure.
Whether suspension patients are believed to be fully dead, or simply in a sleeping state, the fate of the soul is not an obstacle to cryonics.
The Christian's Purpose
Finally, since cryonics does not violate biblical principle, and because it actually fulfills part of God's purposes on Earth, the discerning Christian must now pose the all important question: Is life extension something Christians should actively pursue? The Apostle Paul wrestled with a question similar in principle to this one, revealing the Christian's entire purpose for Earthly existence in the process.
In his letter to the Philippians, Paul compares the desire to die and go to heaven with the need to stay on Earth. No Christian would argue that heaven is not a completely moral goal for every believer, but Paul reveals, in plain language, why heaven is an end that can wait. "For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. . . . For I am in a strait betwixt two, having a desire to depart, and to be with Christ; which is far better: Nevertheless to abide in the flesh is more needful for you. And having this confidence, I know that I shall abide and continue with you all for the furtherance and joy of faith." (Phil.1:21,23,24) (Emphasis mine.)
Herein lies the purpose of the Christian life: ministry to others. Were personal salvation the end of God's plans for the individual, no Christian would need to remain on Earth after salvation. God would just take each new Christian into heaven the way He did Enoch and Elijah. But God has more, much more, in His plans for each Christian. Though the believer may want to go to heaven as soon as possible, and rightfully so, it is more needful for others that he stay on Earth.
As was first suggested by John Warwick Montgomery in 1968, the Apostle's words in Phillipians 1:24 "should become the sedes doctrinae for orthodox Christian cryonics." They provide more than enough reason for the Christian to desire cryonic suspension.
It is appropriate to conclude with a quote from the Reverend Kay Glaesner, pastor of St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church.
"Christianity and the church have always been interested in the extension of human life. . . that he (man/woman) might be more fruitful in bearing God's witness and doing God's work.
"We have in our hospitals at this very moment electronic stimulators, inhalation techniques, blood transfusions, and many other mechanical medications. These represent only a few of the prosthetics which are used and fostered by our medical sciences and approved by the Christian church. . . . It follows, therefore, that cryogenic [suspension] can certainly be approved and substantiated by the Christian church provided that the same criteria (proper scientific and legal safeguards) are used.
"I am all in favor of extending life. Day by day I pray that God will direct us how to use the techniques, medical sciences, healing, and miracles since he is the Physician of all physicians. . . life could be extended a year, one hundred years, or a thousand years, but there is still no doubt in the minds of thinking people that such. . . is but a small span in the totality of God's plan. No art or craft of man will evade or nullify the judgment of God. We shall resurrect whether in body, in the grave, or in the frozen casket. . . .
". . . the church of Christ does not retard science. . . In this world of ours there are greater things, greater potentials about 90 percent of which we are still in the dark. When we discover new planets in orbit, or new dimensions in the galaxies, or new prosthetics for assisting or extending life, this only proves to us how wonderful, great, unsearchable and inscrutable is the mind of the almighty God."