by Thomas Donaldson
reprinted from Cryonics December 1985 by kind permission of the author
Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.
This article is one more in a series on the historical precursors of immortalism. Let me begin by saying straight out that I am an atheist and place no moral or factual credence upon the stories of The Bible, either Old or New Testament. It's not even clear to me that a living Christ, as a historical figure, ever existed, nor that the sayings attributed to him were ever said by him if he did exist.
However, in common with most immortalists, and even more with cryonicists, I've had to consistently meet with Christians, or people who claim to be Christians, who insist adamantly that immortality just isn't God's will, and so forth and so on.
Finally I decided to actually read The New Testament. This was an interesting experience. I thought that I would share it with other cryonicists.
The books of The New Testament are very badly written, and in places quite incoherent. Jesus does not always show up as a very admirable character, doing things such as petulantly blasting a fig tree because it had no figs and he was hungry1. I cannot agree with the morality of Jesus, which seems to me to be brutal, unkind and primitive (cf for example on divorce2). His constant admonitions that we must follow his word seem quite egotistical. This guy is not really a very admirable character.
However, after reading The New Testament I find many severe problems with the standard interpretation of Jesus' teachings. Just what did Jesus believe (according to these stories) about physical immortality?
The very first thing we notice on reading The New Testament seriously is that very many of the miracles performed by Jesus consist of: (guess what?) reviving the dead. He doesn't do this just once. He does it all over the place, and it seems that this constant resurrecting of people was the major reason why he achieved such a following. Lazarus is only the most famous example; you might care to look at other places in The Bible too, such as Matthew 9:23-25. Sure, Jesus also gave sight to the blind, healed those with palsy, etc, but his major starring miracles consisted of reviving the dead.
Not only did Jesus revive the dead, but he gave his apostles the same power, and urged them to go out into the world doing the same3. I will quote:
Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, RAISE THE DEAD, cast out devils; freely have ye received, freely give.
The ability to do these miracles depends on belief.4
... verily I say unto you, if ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, "Remove hence to yonder place;" and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible to you.
Jesus is saying that if we believe in him, we too will acquire his powers.
Furthermore, if we read The Bible in the sense of ordinary language, we discover that Jesus was claiming that belief in him would result in eternal EARTHLY life. The story of Lazarus in The Gospel according to St John brings all this out very clearly. I will quote it at length, particularly because much of its meaning depends on its context.5
21. Then Martha said unto Jesus, Lord, if thou hadst been here, my brother had not died.
22. Jesus said unto her, They brother shall rise again.
23. Martha said unto him, I know that he shall rise again in the resurrection at the last day.
24. Jesus said unto her, I am the resurrection, and the life; he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live:
25. AND WHOSOEVER LIVETH AND BELIEVETH IN ME SHALL NEVER DIE. Believeth thou this?
What is happening here is that Jesus is telling Martha that he is NOT referring to Lazarus rising from the dead "at the last day", but instead he is saying that Lazarus will rise NOW. He is drawing a clear distinction between the immortality HE offers and the standard religious interpretation of resurrection on the last day.
We can find plenty of support for this interpretation in other books of The New Testament. If we want some really good passages we can look, for instance, in Revelations 20: and 21:1-4.
As an atheist, I will say here that copyists and religious charlatans have obviously rewritten the New Testament books many times. The first four books, in particular, read transparently as a pastiche. They could only read the way they do if they had been edited, fixed, and stuffed about to support one or other religious view. George Orwell's 1984 has existed throughout human history! However the quotations I have given are still there.
Friend Stuart, a Christian who has argued that Jesus was proposing physical immortality, has pointed out the quotation from John 11:26. Especially when read in context, it is definitely NOT talking about spiritual resurrection in the Last Day.
Anyone who considers these passages is faced with three possible interpretations:
1. The entire story is a load of bull.
2. These statements were meant to be interpreted allegorically or metaphorically.
3. These statements were meant to be interpreted literally. They therefore mean that NO ONE since Jesus Christ has truly believed Christ's teachings.
I believe that it is very hard to support interpretation 2. If the point of Jesus' message is simply that we will achieve a spiritual resurrection on the Last Day, then why does Jesus resurrect Lazarus in the first place? If death only means that we go to heaven, and particularly if it means going to heaven FOR BELIEVERS, then what is to be achieved by resurrection? What would be the point of the Lazarus story in the first place?
Clearly, physical resurrection must have some very real value for believers in Jesus' teachings. Not only that, but Jesus himself in his answer to Martha is specifically denying the metaphorical interpretation.
As for the third interpretation, it has the embarrassing consequence that no one has yet learned how to "believe" Jesus. What, after all, is this belief to consist of? Clearly this belief cannot consist of mindless repetition of the sayings of Jesus, since there is a lot of that going on and we notice that all those that do it have died.
Furthermore, just to shake up the Christians a bit, NOWHERE in this book do we find any strictures on the MEANS that believers in Jesus are to employ in order to live forever. It does not say that we are to achieve this goal by singing and dancing about lighted candles and a pentagram, or by attending a church, or by standing on street corners reading The Bible. It just says that if we believe in HIM we shall never die.
If someone dies, that shows they cannot have believed. Whatever they were doing, it wasn't the right thing. We note that the world is littered with the bodies of revivalists, prelates, and preachers of all kinds.
It does seem that prayer and fasting are required to achieve these powers. Just after he says that all thing are possible to those who believe, Jesus says6: "Howbeit this kind goeth not out by prayer and fasting." For what it is worth (just trying to pursue this line of thought further), if in 1985 we want to find people trying to cure palsy and raise the dead, and have some success in that endeavour, we'd look towards scientific medicine. Perhaps all those who say that it would be impious to do all these things badly misapprehend the meaning of "belief", or "prayer", or even "fasting". Perhaps more atheists than prelates believe in Christ.
We all know of millenarian and charismatic versions of Christianity. The Watchtower Society (Jehovah's Witnesses -ed), when we read their literature, claim an interpretation which comes hauntingly close to out and out immortalism. Unfortunately they seem to equate belief in Jesus with some kind of psychotic fugue. Moreover, its numbers also aren't noted for fantastic longevity. The interesting point, though, is that their interpretation of The Bible is actually better founded in what The Bible SAYS than the standard interpretation! This observation, of course, only bears as much weight as we wish to put upon The Bible itself.
Actually, of course, as read by immortalists the one thing which comes out very strongly in these old stories from The Bible is exactly how desperately people did want immortality in those days. Two thousand years ago, before even the English language existed, people felt as immortalists do about grief, death, and immortality, and clutched at every preacher for some hope that the death they saw falling upon everyone around them would never fall upon them.
1. The Gospel according to St Matthew 21:18-19
2. The Gospel according to St Luke 16:18
3. The Gospel according to St Matthew 17:20
4. The Gospel according to St Matthew 17:20
5. The Gospel according to St John 11:21-44
6. The Gospel according to St Matthew 17:21