DAVID DOHERTY: The Elixir of Life, the Coronavirus, and the Cross

April 9, 2020

Our world has many tales of the Elixir of Life, a medicine that saves one from illness and physical death. This elixir comes in many forms, some of them not literally potions: a religious relic, a magic fountain, a historically significant location, a body of secret knowledge, and so on. A quick scan of one’s favourite movies, novels, and even songs will probably reveal the Elixir of Life as a fairly common theme, though it may not receive much explicit recognition in our culture today. The prominence of this idea, I think, is indicative of a universal human desire to avoid the suffering—physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual—that comes with sickness, aging, and death. My grandmother sometimes tells me, “Don’t get old!” and my typical reply is “I’ll try.” The exchange is tongue in cheek, of course, but even so, we are unwittingly voicing a deep cry of the human heart: “I don’t want to deteriorate and die!” or perhaps “I don’t want my loved one to deteriorate and die!”

The Christian faith does not grant us exemption from these feelings. We usually don’t want to suffer, either from the regular hardships of a healthy life or from illness and the gradual decline of our physical health. Consequently, we find ourselves longing, and perhaps even searching, for some kind of Elixir of Life. Christianity, however, contains no such thing. This is one longing of the human heart that our religion does not satisfy—at least not directly.

The twentieth-century Christian philosopher and theologian William Temple once made a comment that speaks powerfully to these longings. He said, “The Christian doctrine is a doctrine of eternal life, not immortality but resurrection. The difference is profound. The method of all non-Christian systems is to seek an escape from the evils and miseries of life. Christianity seeks no escape but accepts these at their worst and makes them the material of its triumphant joy.”[1] Temple surely would have acknowledged that Christians often rightly avoid specific instances of suffering. Here he is focusing on the whole of the Christian message. Our religion, he says, is not about exemption from all hardship but rather promises victory over hardship.

Temple’s comment is congruent with the life of Jesus, especially the dark days we focus on in our devotions and church services leading up to, and on, Good Friday. As a real human being, Jesus experienced suffering, and he didn’t always greet it cheerily. It is even reasonable to speculate that he longed, to some extent, for the Elixir of Life. Among the most moving scenes in the Gospels are the narratives of Jesus’s time of prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matt 26:36–46 // Mark 14:32–42 // Luke 22:39–47). Thinking of the horrible suffering and death he was about to face, He prayed, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42 NIV). The Father did not grant Him deliverance. Jesus suffered and died a miserable death on the cross. But then He rose again, having conquered death.

As Christians, we are united with Christ, and we walk in the path of Christ. This means that, in the words of 1 Pet 4:13, we “participate in the sufferings of Christ.” Like Jesus, we will suffer and face physical death. But also like Jesus, we will rise again, having triumphed over the worst the Enemy and the world have to offer. What then will there be to harm us?

Last year I visited with a middle-aged Christian who was in hospital after being diagnosed with a terminal illness. She had been reading an allegedly Christian book, given to her by a well-meaning friend, with some problematic ideas about God’s healing. This book, as she understood it, was arguing that if she prayed hard enough and had enough faith, she would get better. She didn’t buy into these ideas but found herself feeling troubled and confused by them as she saw herself declining day by day. As she shared this with me, I wished that I could have offered her the Elixir of Life. I wished that I could have assured her that the right prayers or the right amount of faith would guarantee her recovery. But I knew I couldn’t do that. I knew that what I could offer her was, to adapt Temple’s words, the Elixir of Eternal Life. Sitting with her in the hospital room, I shared Temple’s wisdom, and we talked about it for a while. She seemed encouraged and spoke a word I will always remember: “hope.”

During this terrible public-health crisis, people across the world are feeling an intensified longing for the Elixir of Life. Of course, even though no such elixir exists, we should work tirelessly to save lives and protect people’s quality of life. The Christian response is not to indulge in suffering or to throw in the towel and wait for the destructive forces in our world to sweep us and others away. Furthermore, God’s saving and healing action is not restricted to the afterlife. He can and does act here and now, and we should be ceaselessly praying for mercy and rescue. But even as we do all this, we will see the devastation that the virus causes, and in those painful moments we should remember that the suffering that comes our way will not, cannot, ultimately overcome us as long as we abide in Christ. Because we are in Him, we can weather any storm that we face. And due to His sacrifice on the cross two thousand years ago, we have the sure promise of, as Temple said, “triumphant joy.”

May you find encouragement and strength in these words. On behalf of all of us at Emmanuel Bible College, I wish you good health and renewed faith this Easter.

David Doherty
Messaging & Communications Officer

[1] William Temple, quoted without citation in Arthur Lichtenberger, “The Resurrection Life Is Now,” The Living Church 138 (March 29, 1959), 8.