When it comes to immortality, sometimes you can try too hard
By any reckoning Qin Shi Huang was obsessed with his own mortality. Even at the age of 13, as soon as he assumed the throne in 246 BC, work began on preparing his mausoleum. No less than 720,000 people were involved in its construction which took place over some 37 years. You could say this underground burial site was somewhat over-the-top. Preparations included the manufacture of 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots with 520 horses and 150 cavalry horses, all in terracotta. As Jacqui commented as we walked through the exhibition on this first Chinese Emperor at the Liverpool World Museum: “What made him think that this terracotta army would be any use?” And such was the Emperor’s belief in the afterlife, it seems real people, living human beings, accompanied him to the grave – his concubines of course but also servants and even some high officials. As it happens, such was Qin Shi Huang’s desire to achieve immortality that he commissioned alchemists to produce an elixir for immortality. I’m sure they meant well when they added some mercury but it was this mercury which killed him at the age of 49. Sometimes you can try just too hard. In walking round I was reminded of a similar exhibition at the Museum of High Altitude Archaeology in Salta, northern Argentina, which we visited last May. This featured Los Niños, the three Inca children sacrificed some 500 years ago on the 22,000-foot summit of Mount Ampato. The intense cold meant that their bodies had been perfectly preserved. Our mission partner, Andrew Leake, insisted I read in preparation the definitive book written by Johan Reinhard, the archaeologist who discovered their bodies deep in the ice. Fascinating and somewhat gruesome. Found with the children, considered privileged in their religion, was a collection of grave goods: bowls, pins, and figurines made of gold, silver, and shell. Like Qin Shi Huang they had all they needed in their life to come. According to Inca beliefs, the children did not die but went to live in a paradise with the gods This meant they could watch over their villages from the mountaintops like angels. Chinese and Inca, totally different cultures separated by nearly two millennia – and yet both preoccupied with the after-life, even to the extent that people were sacrificed in the process. There does seem to be a deep-seated human longing for immortality, an understanding that there is more to life than what we can see and experience in the here and now. I’m no social anthropologist but it does seem that such a preoccupation seems prevalent and not just in pre-scientific cultures. In fact, it is the Nobel prize winning scientist, George Wald, who observes “Since we have had a history, men (I assume he means, people) have pursued an ideal of immortality.” Whether you like it or not, we all have “Intimations of Immortality.” Which is my cue for quoting William Wordsworth: Hence in a season of calm weather Though inland far we be, Our Souls have sight of that immortal sea Which brought us hither, Can in a moment travel thither, And see the Children sport upon the shore, And hear the mighty waters rolling evermore. The writer of the Old Testament book Ecclesiastes says as much: “God has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” (Ecclesiastes 3:11) That’s a wonderful phrase: “God has set eternity in the human heart.” Of course, today’s culture would suppress this understanding. In commentating on this verse, biblical scholar Michael Eaton writes: “Our consciousness of God is part of our nature, and the suppression of it is part of our sin.” The prominent advocate for agnosticism, Clarence Darrow, took the opposite line: “In spite of all the yearnings of men, no one can produce a single fact or reason to support the belief in God and in personal immortality.” Clarence died in 1938 and it would interesting to ascertain whether he has now changed his mind. However, the Biblical emphasis is not on the afterlife; in fact, the scriptures are surprisingly reticent to speculate on what happens after we die. No magnificent mausoleums here. What counts is how we live before God in the here and now. But what the Bible does teach is that as disciples of Jesus we should have no fear of death, not because we are immortal but because God is faithful. He owes us nothing but in Christ gives us everything. This gives the Christian a resilience, a refusal to be cowed by our own mortality. Accordingly the apostle Paul can rejoice: “If the Spirit of God, who raised Jesus from death, lives in you, then he who raised Christ from death will also give life to your mortal bodies by the presence of his Spirit in you.” (Romans 8:11) No need for magic potions here, even mercury-free.