The Renewed Quest for the Elixir of Life – Amakiri Welekwe

Spreading the Good News

The Renewed Quest for the Elixir of Life

According to the historian, Flavius Josephus, Nimrod the infamous lead architect of the tower of Babel once vowed that he would avenge himself on God for bringing death on their forefathers. Through his efforts and bravery, he would overcome the curse of death placed upon rebellious humanity, and achieve happiness. He failed on all fronts.

In the Epic of Gilgamesh, one of humanity’s oldest tales, the title character embarks on an epic quest to attain immortality. After many trials, he eventually hears of a flower on the ocean floor that will restore his youth. And, despite a warning from the only people ever granted immortality by the gods—that his quest will ruin the joys of life—Gilgamesh plucks the flower from the watery depths. Unfortunately, his success doesn’t last. Gilgamesh inevitably loses the flower, and eventually, like all mortals before and after him, dies.

Alchemy, with its roots in ancient Egypt, was driven in part by this same quest for immortality. One of the main goals of alchemy, aside from the transmutation of metals, was the creation of a panacea to cure any disease, and to attain physical immortality. Interestingly, the word “panacea” which has become a regular English word for “remedy,” was actually the name of the goddess of universal remedy in Greek mythology. Panacea was the daughter of Asclepius (the ancient Greek god of medicine). Alchemists in various ages and cultures have sought the means of formulating the elixir.

In ancient China, Chinese alchemists developed their own unique alchemical techniques with the goal of creating an elixir. It is said that many emperors, nobles, and officials consumed what they thought were elixirs of immortality to extend their lives, not knowing that they were poisonous and ended up dying. Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of unified China, had long harbored the obsession of ruling forever. He sent Taoist alchemists with hundreds of young men and women to find him this “elixir of life.” As he aged with no hope in sight, he became desperate and started ingesting potions containing the highly toxic mercury sulfide made by his alchemists to prolong his life. His quest for immortality led to an early grave. What he feared most came upon him without mercy.

Similar stories exist in other ancient cultures and civilizations such as India, Greece and Rome and, by extension, the whole of Europe. In medieval Europe, for example, alchemists swindled aristocrats by promising to defeat death and deliver immortality, all to no avail. This eventually gave birth to what is now the science of chemistry. Scientific alchemists dropped the Arabic prefix “al,” and the word “chemy” or “chemistry” replaced alchemy as a term for the scientific study of physical and chemical processes. However, alchemy retained its ancient mystical and philosophical flavor, which eventually gave rise to the modern day concept of alchemy.

For thousands of years, our forebears rummaged the spiritual and natural world for guidance and remedies to ease pain, cure diseases, and revive the sick. Modern Western medicine, which has its roots in the ancient Greek temples of Asclepius (god of medicine), has become one of humanity’s most powerful weapons to push back death and extend our lifespan. Through a mix of superstition, trial and error, and a gradual accumulation of empirical knowledge, a form of science evolved that we know today as medicine. The discovery of the invisible death armies we call germs (bacteria, viruses, and fungi) that cause disease, and the invention of antibiotics and vaccination was a pivotal moment in humanity’s fight against death. The ancient medical approach known as humorism, which was thought to explain the cause of disease, gradually gave way to the modern day germ theory of disease.

So we thought we had finally acquired the tools to defeat death. But, sadly, in spite of our wonderful achievements in the field of medicine, we still haven’t conquered death. According to Yuval Harari, “So far modern medicine hasn’t extended our natural life span by a single year. Its great achievement has been to save us from premature death, and allow us to enjoy the full measure of our years.”

However, up to this point, all efforts by humanity to overcome the curse of death have been unsuccessful. Everyone in history who invested money, energy and time in the hope of acquiring immortality all met the Grim Reaper. And yet the dream of physical immortality and everlasting life hasn’t ebbed.

In the 21st century, Silicon Valley capitalists and the rich around the world are on the match again for immortality and even divinity. Follow the money as they throw millions of dollars at immortality research and antiaging startups. Many are pitching their hope on the promise of technology and profit-driven capitalists to defeat death and deliver immortality to the benefit of humanity. They look forward to the day when they can upgrade their bodies and upload the content of their brains to computer systems.

Again, to quote Yuval Harari, “We don’t need to wait for the Second Coming in order to overcome death. A couple of geeks in a lab can do it, given enough time and money.” Really! His statement reminds me of the famous saying by Winston Churchill: “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” If there’s anything we can learn from history, it is that all those who embarked on this journey share something in common: they failed. What most people fail to realize is that no amount of human knowledge and technology can help us escape God’s decree that we are dust and to dust we will return in our appointed time (Genesis 3:19). Yes, the technology developed along the way may help us solve some difficult health challenges, and possibly slow the aging process and improve life expectancy; nonetheless the quest to conquer death as a technical problem will ultimately prove to be futile.

But the good news is that God has already made a way for humanity. Jesus in His resurrection has won us the age-long coveted victory over death, and He invites everyone to come drink from His “elixir of life” (John 4:14). While the tech companies and their geeks seek to achieve immortality, God is offering us something more than immortality. He is offering us eternal life—God’s own life. Immortality is merely about quantity, and that’s about it. An immortal life that is completely disconnected from God leaves you utterly desolate. But eternal life is not just about quantity; it is also about quality. The good things we experience and the source of supply play a vital role in its quality. The emphasis is placed on “the excellence of the meal” presented (eternal life), as well as “the caliber of the person” who provides and enjoys it with you at the dining table (The Lord Himself). Eternal life is a life that is directly connected to God—the very source of life—and lavished with endless goodness. This is the greatest gift of all. It’s a big deal.

Why would any rational being want to put their faith and hope in human interventions and the promise of technology to produce a new life in the here and now? One indisputable fact about humans and the technology we create is that we are fallible. Throughout history, there have been numerous instances where humans and technology have failed to meet expectations. In contrast, God has a proven track record of fulfilling His promises without fail. When God makes a promise, it can be trusted completely, as He always follows through on His word. So who would you rather trust: God or Yuval Harari and “a couple of geeks in a lab”?

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