Part 2 of a Lenten journey through the last seven sayings of Jesus.

At my church last Sunday evening, we were thinking about transhumanism. A strange topic for an evening service, I know. But if you had been there to hear Professor Stephen Williams’ presentation, you would appreciate that transhumanism is a very real challenge deserving our serious attention. 

And yet, as potent a challenge as it may be, the reality is that many will have only the vaguest notion of what is meant by the term. So, perhaps a quick definition is in order. Simply put, transhumanism is a project aimed towards creating the post-human, that is, an enhanced humanity, in every way superior to our current model — Humanity 2.0

I know, I know… This all sounds like something from a Philip K. Dick novel… But, what was once was dismissed as science fiction is now garnering mainstream attention (and considerable financial investment, to boot). For confirmation, look no further than the Humanity+ website and its appeal for doners to support its mission to ”elevate the human condition”.

Now, at this point, you are probably wondering what all this has got to do with Lent, never mind the second of the last sayings of Jesus. Well, perhaps this comment from the co-founder of Humanity+, David Pearse, will reassure you that my introduction is not entirely tenuous. Take note, in particular, of his use of the p-word.

If we want to live in paradise, we will have to engineer it ourselves. If we want eternal life, then we’ll need to rewrite our bug-ridden genetic code and become god-like … only hi-tech solutions can ever eradicate suffering from the world. Compassion alone is not enough” (cited here; read the full interview here).

Now do you see the relevance? Transhumanism is a project that seeks to make Christianity redundant. It is about achieving for ourselves what Christ promised the penitent thief on the cross: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

The brashness of Pearse’s ambition epitomises the modern mindset. In this age of technological wizardry, it seems that we have no more need for God. We captain our own destiny. There is nothing to limit us, except perhaps the scope of our collective imagination.

Of course, the hubris of this transhumanist project is not lost on those of us who have a different understanding of what it means to be, well, human.

The Bible tells us that we are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). (Or, a little lower than God, to quote John Calvin’s translation of Psalm 8.) This, of course, is not to forget that we are at the same time fallen and in desperate need of fixing. But it is to state that, for all our flaws, we stand at the pinnacle of creation.

In the sense, the idea of the post-human really is a work of science-fiction, after all. Science might allow us to alter our genetic makeup, or enhance us with computer chips and bionic arms (can you tell I’m not a scientist?), but science will never be able to create an improved humanity. That’s because the perfect human has already lived. Scripture tells us that Jesus Christ is “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation” (Col. 1:15). In other words, he is humanity restored. Humanity as we were created to be — the image bearers of God.

That’s why I don’t buy the phoney paradise promised by Pearse. It smacks too much of Sugar Candy Mountain, that elusive utopia preached by Moses, the old crow, in Orwell’s Animal Farm

Christ’s paradise is far more real and far more desirable that the sterile, technologically enhanced future of Humanity+. For one thing, the paradise promised by Christ is for today as much as it is for tomorrow.

“Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

That promise was for the thief, but in a very real sense it is a promise for us too.

To appreciate this, we need to set aside the sci-fi trope and go back to the Garden of Genesis 2. There we discover that paradise is more than a place, it is a state of being. The nineteenth century Russian Orthodox theologian, St. Innocent of Alaska, states this quite beautifully when he writes: “Adam was in paradise and paradise was in him”.

As I reflect on the seven last sayings of Jesus, I have been reading Paul Dominiak’s excellent book, The Falling of Dusk. Citing our Alaskan saint, he makes the point that this was a common understanding of paradise among the first believers. “For the early Christians,” he writes, “sharing in Christ’s life, death and resurrection re-opened paradise as a spiritual condition for the here and now, as well as a future promise of heavenly union.”

Perhaps this is a vision of paradise the church needs to recover. I have been critical of the transhumanists, but is their vision all that different from what is espoused by many in the church? Too often, I think, we imagine God’s paradise the way transhumanists imagine their technological utopia. (Let’s not forget, Orwell’s old crow was called Moses for a reason). But God does not promise escape from this world; he promises renewal. And, as Dominiak argues, that renewal is available to us in the here and now, not just in the world to come. Paradise, he argues, is a dynamic with an inner present and an outer future. It brings consolation and spiritual nourishment today, while enabling us to live with the future memory of the renewed society and the restored creation of tomorrow.

I am reminded of a line from Dallas Willard that I have used in more than a few sermons: “The gospel is less about how to get into the Kingdom of Heaven after you die, and more about how to live in the Kingdom of Heaven before you die.”

Of course, this will mean little to the supporters of Humanity+. They are too set on rebuilding Babel to recognise that Heaven is already here among them.

The crucified man on Jesus right did not make this mistake. He understood that compassion was enough. In fact, he knew that compassion was all that could ever be enough.

And so, this criminal asked a seemingly impertinent question: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

Thanks be to God that he did.