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Cryonics won’t give eternal life

25 November 2016

THE tragic story of the 14-year-old cancer sufferer who won permission from the High Court for her body to be cryogenically preserved has two aspects that need to be kept distinct.

The first is that the girl, who died in October, had every right and reason to rebel against the illness that cut short her life, and to long for a better deal. The quest for fullness of life goes to the roots of who we are. We are programmed first to survive, and then to seek fulfilment. To die young, with so much promise unrealised, is simply heartbreaking.

But there is a second aspect to this case which needs exploration. Writing about the case last weekend, after it was initially reported last Friday, one columnist baldly claimed that when people of faith speak of life beyond death, they are seeking the same sort of thing as those who support cryonic preservation. This is simply untrue. Life extension is not the same as resurrection.

The cryonics movement came to prominence in the United States in the 1960s, building on the theories of immortalist thinkers from Russia, and inspired by science-fiction accounts of future resuscitation. Today, there are some 2000 people who have paid to have their bodies, or sometimes just their heads, preserved.

Cryonic preservation is, of course, a shot in the dark — not only because nobody knows whether it will ever be possible to bring dead people back to life and cure what killed them in the first place, but also because it is almost unimaginable that anyone in the near or distant future would wish to bring the dead back, except as part of a bizarre experiment.

I suspect that many feel that there is something distasteful about the desire to live beyond one’s time, and a recognition that it can only ever be at the expense of those who are not yet born. Nature is not interested in preserving the dead, or in immortalising those now alive, but in generating new life. There is, as scripture says, “a time to be born and a time to die” (Ecclesiastes 3.2). Faith does not deny death, or seek an earthly immortality.

Hope in the resurrection was not part of biblical faith from the beginning. It grew out of a concern for justice, and the question how God’s cause could be vindicated if death and failure had the last word. Justice is also the underlying theme in those faiths that teach reincarnation. Each new life builds on the moral basis of the old.

It is because of this that I want to pray for that teenage girl; that she may “rest in peace and rise in glory”. Not that she may be restored by a gruesome scientific process, to suffer and possibly die again in this vale of tears.


The Revd Angela Tilby is a Canon Emeritus of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford.

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