Liz Wann is a freelance writer who lives in Philadelphia with her husband and two sons. She is Editor in Chief at MorningbyMorning.org and regularly contributes to Desiring God, Think Christian, Christ and Pop Culture, and The ERLC. You can find more of writing at lizwann.com and follow her on Twitter @liz_wann.
Peter Pan is one of my favorite stories. Neverland is a place throbbing with human longing—a magical paradise where a boy with eternal youth lives at its center. Though we know the story isn’t real, that doesn’t stop our hearts from yearning for the eternal youth and beauty it represents. We strive to attain it.
Our cultural obsession with youth and beauty presents itself through the anti-aging industry. We hate to see beauty fade away. We color the silver hairs that slowly overtake our youthful roots. We lather on anti-aging creams that promise to make wrinkles fade. We surgically modify our bodies to make them seem young again.
Science is also on this anti-aging quest.
According to The Guardian’s science correspondent, Hannah Devlin, a new form of gene therapy may reverse the aging process. Devlin says that this adds to the mounting evidence already in existence, which says that wear and tear is not what leads to physical decay, but an internal genetic clock that causes our bodies to enter a state of decline.
“The scientists are not claiming that ageing can be eliminated, but say that in the foreseeable future treatments designed to slow the ticking of this internal clock could increase life expectancy,” says Devlin.
According to this research, Peter Pan might be a real story someday. At least, in some sense.
Age reversal, dying gray hair, buying anti-aging products, and getting plastic surgery are not sins in and of themselves, but they do point to a universal human condition: a longing for life and a fear of death.
These longings go back to a story truer than Peter Pan—to a real garden—a true paradise we lost. In this garden were two trees: life and death side by side. Our first parents, Adam and Eve, had full freedom to eat from the fruit of the Tree of Life. But instead, they desired what they couldn’t have: the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. This tree had the power to make them gods, giving them knowledge only God possessed. They went after the alluring power of control and autonomy. And this one choice brought death to all.
No wonder we long for youth—we lost it.
In his Christian Guides to The Classics: Milton’s Paradise Lost, Leland Ryken says that the paradise of the Garden of Eden is “an image of longing—longing for the irretrievably lost,” and, “a universal human longing for a place that no longer exists in our physical world.” We all desire something we lost and seek to summon it back to existence through earthly and physical means. Aging just feels wrong—because it is. We were made for eternal life, not this momentary death of a life.
There is something valid in these desires for eternal youth.
Death’s Big Adventure
Though death is wrong, God has also designed it as the gateway to life. A time will come when death will be no more, but until then, we all grow old and die. Now, in order to regain the life we want so much, we must enter through death—in a spiritual sense, as well as a physical one.
We tend to avoid facing death in all its forms. Instead of embracing our mortality, we seek to reverse it. Ecclesiastes 7:2 says, “It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart.”
Unlike Adam and Eve, we’re called to humble ourselves and be content to be a mortal subject of God. It is God himself who uses death to humble us and to remind us that we are but dust (Ps 103:14). Christ is our supreme example of embracing mortality, and ultimately death, in order to rise eternal.
To those who have not turned to Christ, death’s dark shadow looks threatening. But for those who believe, Lilias Trotter says in Parables of the Cross, “Death becomes a beginning instead of an ending, for it becomes a means of liberating a fresh life.”
Our desires and our bodies groan against the curse from one choice made in a garden. But if we follow in the footsteps of the one who died and rose again, we will eat of the Tree of Life again. As John records for us in Revelation 22:1-2, “Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month.”
Death is only a temporary darkness that leads us to a place full of eternal light. Growing old and dying is sad, but then we’ll see the one who will wipe away our tears. No more crying and no more dying. It’s just like Peter Pan said himself, “To die will be an awfully big adventure.”