Can science abolish death?

Though we fear it, for Christians death is a necessary and even a welcome moment, writes Prof. Eamonn Conway

A 14-year-old girl, known only as JS, died from cancer on October 17 last. She had requested to have her body cryogenically frozen in the hope that she will be brought back to life sometime in the future if a cure for her disease is discovered.

“I don’t want to die but I know I am going to…I want to live and live longer and I think that in the future they may find a cure for my cancer and wake me up”, she informed the judge who ruled on her case, “I want to have this chance.”

She is reported to have told a relative that she hopes to come back to life in 200 years.

Cryonics involves the preservation of a body in liquid nitrogen in the hope that medicine will eventually find a cure for the disease that caused the death. It holds that some day death will be reversible. 

JS’s body is now frozen in a cryonics facility in the USA. We can hardly imagine the suffering JS went through as she faced death at such a young age, or how distraught her family must be.


Theologians, it seems, have no monopoly on speculation. During the week there were interviews with medics, lawyers and ethicists who were asked intriguing questions about the possible survival of the brain and the implications of coming back to life in hundreds of years’ time.

In fairness, these experts readily admitted that they have more questions than answers. It seems belief in science requires as much of a ‘leap of faith’ as belief in God. However, there was no media interest in questions about the soul or eternity.

What can we, as Christians, contribute to the debate?  Cryonics raises several serious moral issues we cannot deal with here. Here the focus will be on the Christian understanding of death.

We begin by talking about life, which, as John Keats said, is “the vale of soul-making”.

I remember hearing the late Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich preach: “Johnny Murphy went to Mass, never missed a Sunday, but Johnny Murphy went to Hell for what he did on Monday.” As Christians see it, we are working out our eternal salvation in how we live our daily lives. In all our freely made choices and decisions we are saying ‘yes’, or possibly and tragically, ‘no’, to God.

These aren’t equal alternatives. We are made for life with God. The sacraments, prayer and so on, are there to ensure we say ‘yes.’ We cannot say with certainty that all people will be saved but this is what God wills and we are obliged to hope for it (I Tim. 2:4).

Yet we have freedom. It is one of God’s greatest gifts to us. We cannot make someone love us. Nor does God make us love Him. By giving us the gift of freedom God is taking our lives seriously and is inviting us to do the same.

If life is about freely choosing God what is the purpose of death? For the Christian, death is that moment when our stance before God becomes confirmed for all eternity. There is no going back.

Fearful as we may be of death, we can see that from the Christian point of view it is a necessary and even a welcome moment. As long as we exist in the realm of time and space we are only able to surrender ourselves provisionally to God. There is always the freedom to change our minds, to turn away.

In death what ‘dies’ is the daily burden of having to ‘die’ to all that is not God and God’s plan for us. In death, this falls away forever.

In principle, we should be able to face our deaths confident in the hope that we are handing our lives over to a gentle, loving Father. God can bring our lives through death into eternal communion with Him and with our loved ones.


In practice, even for the most fervent Christian, believing this can be difficult. Why is this so?

Christians believe that we tend to experience death not as God meant us to experience it. In our experience, death has a “sting”
(I Cor. 15:56).

This is the “wages of sin” of which St Paul spoke (Rom. 6:23). Original Sin has ruptured our relationship with God both in life and in death. Our personal sin compounds this original loss of trust in God.

At Easter we proclaim with confidence that “if we have died with Christ then we shall live with him (Rom. 6:9); that “death is swallowed up in victory” (I Cor. 15:54).

The death spoken of here is not biological death. We still have to die biologically. It is death experienced as rupture, as separation and loss of trust that are the effects of sin; this is overcome in Christ.

In baptism we unite ourselves with Christ and accept him as our brother. By “dying with him” (Rom. 6:8) in the course of our daily lives we believe he will bring us through death into eternal life just as he was brought through death by his Father.

So what does this have to say to the issue of cryonics?

Even its most devout proponent accepts that at best cryonics might postpone death but is unlikely to ‘cure’ it.

Christians welcome scientific developments that ease suffering and enhance life, but is cryonics one of them? In any case, is the prospect of being revived in a couple of hundred years really all that appealing? Or of living forever?

The cryonics debate provides a fresh opportunity to proclaim the joy of the Gospel; to profess our belief that in death life is changed, not ended. “Our loved ones’, Pope Francis writes, “are not lost in the shades of nothingness; hope assures us that they are in the good strong hands of God.” (Amoris Laetitia, n.257)

Is this likely to console a dying 14-year-old girl or her distraught parents?

Understandably, a dying child longing for a chance at life will seek consolation where it can be found. Yet what genuine hope does an experimental cocktail of chemicals offer that just might preserve brain function for possible future revivification?

At times of painful and tragic loss the words of faith can also ring hollow. What makes a difference is accompaniment by a community of faith that brings these words to life; that embodies and renders present to those suffering the only love that is stronger than death, that is, the love of God in Christ.

I view the interest in cryonics both as indictment and as invitation: as indictment, in that we Christians have failed to proclaim a core Gospel truth sufficiently; as invitation, in that it is evidence of a world still crying out for the Good News that can only be found in Christ.


Fr Eamonn Conway is a priest and theologian.