I had another birthday at the end of June. I turned 47, which means that 50 is on its way. In the last couple years, I’ve been thinking about my own mortality. I know I’m not THAT old, but I do have a health condition that remains undiagnosed. And every few months I hear about another person in their 40s who has died. This all starts me wondering. Will I be plucked from this world in the middle of my most productive years? Or will I live to see my children’s children?
I went to the web to get some help with this question and I discovered a Canadian research group running an online health calculator (projectbiglife.ca). After filling out a survey on eating habits, exercise, and weight, I found that despite my health concerns I’ve got the limber body of a 42-year-old, and am projected to live to 86. Just to be clear that is a 61% chance of living to 86. But what if I blow a stop sign and get hit by a gravel truck? What if my heart decides to find a new rhythm while I’m out shooting hoops? Alternative endings abound.
And while I face other risks in life, there are added risks that threaten all of us. COVID-19 has reminded us that no one is an island. We all share life together. We are all affected by each other’s decisions, and by events that are totally out of our hands. All to say that any life-span projections from projectbiglife.ca need a giant asterisk.
Humanity faces existential threats that we might be able to mitigate or diminish: global warming, subversive artificial intelligence, and lethal pandemics. But we also face threats that are entirely out of our control: asteroids, earthquakes, wandering stars. Even the earth has a limited lifespan. In the BBC article “How long will life survive on planet earth?” it is predicted that in 5 billion years the sun will become a red giant. Add a couple billion years more and our ballooning sun will engulf the earth’s former orbit.
It would seem that there is an end to everything. Many of these endings aren’t happy at all.
It is easy for me to get lost in anxiety and fears about the end of my life or the end of our planet. Will I spend my last days in a hospital ward hooked up to a ventilator? Will the mercury plummet as a new ice age begins, making challenges of COVID look like a walk in the park? In “The Future” Leonard Cohen croaks:
“Give me back the Berlin wall
Give me Stalin and St. Paul
I've seen the future, brother
It is murder”
When I worry about these menacing possibilities I find it helpful to dig into another story, with a more hopeful ending. I think about the last chapters of the last book of the Bible. In the book of Revelation, the writer shares a vision of the earth’s future:
“I saw Heaven and earth new-created. Gone the first Heaven, gone the first earth, gone the sea. I saw Holy Jerusalem, new-created, descending resplendent out of Heaven, as ready for God as a bride for her husband. I heard a voice thunder from the Throne: “Look! Look! God has moved into the neighbourhood, making his home with men and women! They’re his people, he’s their God. He’ll wipe every tear from their eyes. Death is gone for good—tears gone, crying gone, pain gone—all the first order of things gone.” (Rev 21:1-5 from The Message by Eugene Peterson)
According to the Bible, God remains active in human lives and keeps a hand in global history. With God’s involvement, it all ends well. Instead of everything wrapping up with the incineration of the earth we are given a picture of a restored Eden. And for those who don’t trust fairy-tales we’ve are also provided a preview. Jesus’s death and resurrection is the teaser for of God’s epic ending: heaven comes down to earth and death is undone
This alternate ending makes me hopeful about the future. This alternate ending is more encouraging than life-expectancy calculator that says I have an edge on some of my peers, and more encouraging than scientific calculations that project a long shelf-life for the earth.
While I have every expectation that I will die before the arrival of this God-given future, I am trusting that I will be caught up in it. I am also trusting that the care I show for myself, for others, and for the earth will be part of the good things that are coming.
And so, I pray: “Help me, O God, to live as those who are prepared to die. And when my days here on earth are accomplished, enable me to die as those who are ready to live.”