Were humans created mortal or immortal?
Two recent events pressed this question upon me. First, I booked out some time to focus on the writing of a book, part of which considered the Genesis creation texts. The second event was unplanned…
… then the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being. Gen 2:7
What is the significance of man being formed from the dust? Some commentators want to draw attention to the intimate process of creation by comparing the formation of man to a potter molding clay. There is indeed an intimacy present in this account but it has more to do with the image of breath, than the the image of a potter and clay. The problem is that dust is not clay. It does not have the same properties and cannot be formed the way clay can be. So what is the significance of the earthling being formed from dust? It has been argued, convincingly I think, that dust refers to human mortality as can be seen in Genesis 3:19.
The earthling is created mortal, finite, earthy, yet God breathed into his nostrils the breath of life which transcends the purely mortal aspect of human existence. The finite creature is given the capacity to participate in the infinite being of God. Yes, there is part of us that is earthy and temporal, but there is also a part of us that comes from beyond ourselves and opens us up to the transcendent – the breath of God. This capacity to continually transcend our own limits, to be part of creation, yet capable of transforming it and reaching beyond its appearance to its underlying source, is unique to humanity.
A week after writing the above paragraphs, I was present as my dad breathed his last breath. Although we were prepared… I was not ready. And I don’t think we ever can be. Such events remain surprising, overwhelming and unbearable.
Mary-Anne, my mom and I were present at the hospital for his last breath. The most heart wrenching yet precious sight. Shortly before I said: “Dad, it’s your choice, do you want to come home and spend a few days or weeks with us … or do you want to go and be with the Lord now? It’s your choice.” Then my mom sat down and asked: “Do you want to come home with me?” He shook his head – No! We thought he was joking as usual. “Do you want to go be with Jesus and your son Eugene?” He nodded his head – yes! As was their custom, my mom softly prayed in tongues with him. Mary-Anne stroked his head and sang Yahweh. He opened his eyes to look at me and make sure I was holding his hands. His breath slowed down. Within a couple of minutes he breathed his last.
The night before his burial I woke up at 3am thinking of John 17:20-24
“I ask … that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us… The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. “
Jesus, knowing that he would soon die, speaks about a transformation of relationship. His presence would no longer be bodily, but neither would he be completely absent. He remains one with the Father, and this union is something we can partake of even now. The love that is the very reason things exist, is a love that receives every human breath back into its embrace. (Eccl 12:7) And even while we remain, we may partake of this same embrace.
The frailty and temporality of human life was deeply impressed on me during this time. However, it was not the futility of the temporal that impressed itself on me, but the opposite. It is exactly the temporality of life that makes it so precious. If anything is available in limitless abundance, it somehow loses its value. There is a way in which limitation increases value. The fact that we only have so much time to say what we want to say, to do what we want to do, to love as we desire to love, to be and become … it is exactly the finite space we have in which to live that gives every moment value.
In many early philosophies, these human complexities developed into a dualism that split the human into distinct and opposite parts. In Gnosticism, the earthly part is seen as evil and despised, and the spiritual part is seen as good and can be liberated through knowledge. No such hard dualistic border is drawn in the Biblical text. God is the Author of both the earthy aspect of the human and the divine breath. The earthling is a union, albeit with paradoxical qualities.
So were we created mortal or immortal? In short, the answer is yes … we were created both mortal and immortal. Our bodies have always been mortal. Yet the relationships that happen within these bodies, form us and shape us and as such its effect continues far beyond the body. Love continues.