During my surgical training, I helped care for an aging professor who bemoaned his declining health. His mind still moved in academic circles, pondering the high points of chemistry and physics, but arthritis had so fused the bones in his neck that he couldn’t nestle into a pillow anymore. Cancer riddled his chest, and squandered nutrients, until his frame wasted to skeletal proportions. The simple routine of enjoying a meal pitched him into coughing, and pneumonia festered from the secretions that pooled in his lungs.
One day, after one of many bronchoscopies to clear his airways and ward off a ventilator, he motioned to me and mumbled something. I drew closer, listening for his raspy voice above the hiss of the oxygen mask.
“Don’t get old,” he said.
Wages of Sin
While our medical conditions and paths in life vary, all of us will join this professor in his grief at some point, if our Lord tarries, as we endure the failure of our earthly bodies.
It’s easy to dismiss this truth when we’re healthy and can so easily enjoy the fruits of God’s exquisite design. When we savor the rush of air through our lungs as we run, or the vigor of our limbs as we dance, the precision and fluidity of God’s creation moves us to thanksgiving. We join with the psalmist in his praise: “You formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:13–14).
And yet, our vitality has a time limit. When we neglect the truth that the body is a temple for the Holy Spirit, we prime ourselves for disease (1 Corinthians 6:19–20). The cigarettes we smoke blacken our lungs; our overindulgences at the dinner table coat our arteries in cholesterol; our extra glasses of alcohol inflame and destroy the liver.
Even when we aim to steward our bodies well, our health eventually fails, because “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). The consequences of sin penetrate even to our vessels and bones, unraveling the physiological systems that God has meticulously interwoven. As we age, our immune system deteriorates, and we succumb to infections. Calcium hardens our arteries, driving our blood pressure dangerously high. Our bones thin, our spine weakens, and we stoop toward the dust from which we came. Even our face reveals the march of time, as the production of elastin in our skin dwindles and creases deepen around our eyes.
This inching toward death, with our bodies slowly falling apart as the years march by, awaits us all. As Paul reminds us, “Sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (Romans 5:12). The brokenness that afflicts the world also afflicts our earthly bodies, ushering us from the bloom of youth into pain, fragility, and ultimately the grave. For many of us, humiliation and pain, frustration and grief accompany us on our decline.
Redemption of the Body
Yet we have hope.
As we toil in the shadow of the cross, despising our tally of diagnoses and wrangling with ever-mounting aches and pains, we cling to the promise that when Christ returns, “he will wipe away every tear from [our] eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4). We confess our belief in the “resurrection of the body” through the Apostles’ Creed, because the New Testament teaches that the transformation already begun in us through the Holy Spirit will come to completion in the new heavens and the new earth.
“We know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now,” Paul writes. “And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:22–23). In saving us from all our sins, Christ has also saved us from their wages, including the heavy toll upon our bodies.
Christianity, then, doesn’t promise that our souls will float in heaven, wrenched from their corporeal vessels. Instead, when we pine for Christ’s return, we anticipate a complete renewal: a softening of the heart, a sanctification of the mind, and even a renewal of the bodies that in their present form so easily wither and break. And all so we might know God and enjoy him forever, for his glory.