Recent advances in genetic engineering and molecular biology have demonstrated that inroads have been made against the ultimate adversary, death. With the continuing advances in genetic technology, science has turned its attention to the idea of extending the maximum human lifespan. Life spans have already been extended in yeast, roundworms, fruit flies, and mice via gene manipulation. While longevity has to some extent been under our control through proper diet, healthy lifestyles, and cures for numerous diseases, current attempts at life extension are aimed not at how we live, but how we age.1

Here however, we encounter a mind-numbing array of theories not only on aging, but also on the means by which aging may be allayed. Aging theories have been classified into two broad categories: damage, and programmed theories. Damage theories assert that aging and death are the result of accumulated free-radical-producing errors in cell reproduction. Programmed theories see the aging process leading to death as genetically regulated. The damage theory associates cellular senescence with the Hayflick limit-the 1961 discovery which revealed that human somatic cells, cells that make up our body, divide a limited number of times. The Hayflick limit does not apply to all cells however. Germ, cancer, and stem cells, frequently referred to as “immortal cells,” show no limits to the number of divisions they may undergo. Recently it has been discovered that these cells contain an enzyme dubbed telomerase that is absent in somatic cells. Telomerase prevents the shortening of telomers, the non-coded DNA bits attached to the end of a chromosome which shorten over time and eventually lead to cellular senescence, a major factor in aging.2

Evolutionary biologists however, doubt that overcoming the Hayflick limit is of any real significance to forestalling the aging process.3 But the fact that the life span of other multicellular organisms can be extended by the control of a single gene is significant. In light of such findings, Banks and Fossel are lead to conclude, “The unquestioned conviction that we cannot alter aging and the cellular underpinnings of the diseases that accompany the aging process is no longer strictly tenable.”4 While even a modest extension of the human life span may be several decades away, the limited success in other organisms raises a host of challenging questions for the church. Is the extension of the human life span a good thing? An understanding of sin-death relationship may be a good place to start.

Among theologians, there is disagreement on whether physical death is natural, part of the created order, or a consequence of the fall in Genesis 3 (also Romans 5:12-21. Under the latter conception, death came by way of pronouncement from God (Genesis 2:17), by banishing Adam and Eve from access to the tree of life, by which they would have attained immortality. This distinction takes on added significance when one considers John Feinberg’s helpful suggestion to employ genetic technology to overcome the effects of the fall.5 While it is unclear whether Feinberg had life extension in mind, his proposal would read as an endorsement of life extension via genetic manipulation for those who see physical death as a consequence of the fall. In view of life extension, Feinberg may wish to reformulate or qualify his assertion.

It appears then if death is understood as a consequence of sin would not preclude a genetic battle against death by slowing the aging process. But there are other scriptural themes which will help us think about this problem. There will be more to say in Part 2 as we investigate the ideas of a 120 year life span (Genesis 6), death as conquered, and the relationship between wisdom and longevity.

1. Dwayne A. Banks and Michael Fossel, “Telomeres, Cancer, and Aging: Altering the Human Life Span,” Journal of the American Medical Association 278, no. 16, (October 1997): 1345.
2. S. Jay Olshansky, Leonard Hayflick, and Bruce A. Carnes, “No Truth to the Fountain of Youth,” Scientific American (June 2002): 79.
3. Banks and Fossel, “Telomeres, Cancer, and Aging,” 1345-1348.
4. Olshansky, Hayflick, and Carnes, “No Truth,” 80.
5. Banks and Fossel, “Telomeres, Cancer, and Aging,” 1348.
6. John S. Feinberg, “A Theological Basis for Genetic Intervention”, Genetic Ethics: Do the Ends Justify the Genes?, Kilner, Pentz, Young, eds. (Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans, 1997), 187.