Biblican Creation, Aging,
The decline of our physical facilities which foreshadows our death called "aging" or "senescence" can be considered "normal" for us only because everything in this world is subject to decay and death. But aging and death are not "normal." We who know God in Christ and the Bible as His inerrant revelation to us understand that aging and death entered the world not as originally created by God but as a consequence of Adam's fall into sin (Genesis 2:16-17; Genesis SI Corinthians 15:22). Regenerate men will in eternity partake of an "agelessness" which seems to be a prominent feature of the new heaven and earth by which God will replace this present fallen world (Isaiah 65:20; 2 Peter 3:18; Revelation 21:1). C. S. Lewis is faithful to Scripture in his beautiful poetic description of the redeemed in glory: "... no one in that company struck me as being of any particular age. One gets glimpses, even in our country, of that which is ageless-heavy thought in the face of an infant, and frolic childhood in that of a very old man. Here it was all like that."1 Elsewhere in the same story he speaks of seeing the face of his beloved teacher George MacDonald, "and somehow I divined the network of wrinkles which must have surrounded [his eyes I before rebirth had washed him in immortality."2
The hoary head is a crown of glory,
if it be found in the way of righteousness.
Those of us who are chronologically "old" know that much "younger" minds and emotions continue to dwell in us, belied by wrinkles, rheumatism, white hair and dimming sight and hearing. That aging and death are not "normal" is also shown by the long lifespan of pre- flood man and of the post-flood patriarchs, closer to the time of creation than we. Man was intended by God to live forever with Him, the Fountain of Life, the ever-vigorous "Ancient of days" (Daniel 7:7, 13, 22) in Whose likeness man is made. Unlike unbelievers "who have no hope" (I Thessalonians 4:13) we who by God's grace abide in Christ "Who is our life" (Colossians 3:4) will taste and see God's original intention fulfilled in ourselves. For us, therefore, aging and death are but portals to living and reigning forever in perfect, blessed oneness in love with Him (John 17:21-26). The sting of death, the victory of the grave, and earthly aging and corruption will be removed from us forever (I Corinthians 15:50-58).
While the Bible truly describes the burden of our physical aging in this present life (for example, Ecclesiastes 12), it also shows blessing and honor attending the old age of godly men and women. The fourth commandment teaches us to honor our fathers and mothers "so our days may be long in the land which the Lord our God gives us" (Exodus 20:12). The ultimate fulfillment of His promise, of course, is to behold Him in glory. We see a foretaste of this fulfillment in aged Simeon and Anna who beheld the infant Jesus in the temple, prophesied and praised God and spread the good news of His Coming "to all them that looked for redemption in Israel" (Luke 2:25-28).
The aged are exhorted to be godly (Titus 2:2-3). Older women are charged with a special ministry to teach young women "to be wise, to love their husbands and children, to be discreet, chaste, homemakers, good, obedient to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be blasphemed" Titus 2:3-5). Younger believers are to treat older ones as fathers and mothers (I Timothy 5:1-2), an expanded application of the fourth commandment. Responsibility for the care of the needy, including of course the aged among them, rests first with their next of kin (I Timothy 5:8) and thereafter with the Christian community. Notwithstanding slanted capsule histories of Christian philanthropy in some secular college textbooks,3 the factual record of Christian charity is outstanding and undeniable. It extends from the Book of Acts in the first century to the work of Mother Theresa of Calcutta today, from the advanced social welfare work in the Christian Byzantine empire4 to the outreach of the Salvation Army or Father Damien's work with the lepers of Molokai.
An appraisal of secular social welfare programs through government legislation and taxation is beyond the scope of this paper; by comparison, Christian aid to the needy, even when involving "having all things in common" (Acts 4:34-37) is never coercive but always and only the voluntary expression of love of neighbor (Acts 5:4). To help the needy is to abound in the grace of God Who "loves a cheerful (not coerced) giver" (I Corinthians 8 and 9, especially 9:7). Today's coercive and bureaucratic secular welfare programs may well be in part the result and punishment of professed Christians' past neglect or lack of this grace of giving cheerfully from the heart. Finally, ns biblical Christian principles are increasingly rejected as the absolute foundation of morality, we see the rise of a utilitarian "cost-benefit" trend to provide only for "productive" or "socially useful" people and get rid of "useless eaters" (the handicapped and aged) by euthanasia, already a common practice in formerly Christian Holland and pushed in the United States as well.
Despite much inquiry the physical factors contributing to the onset and process of aging are still unclear. Both genetic and environmental causes are apparently involved. The mechanistic theory that the body ages and dies simply by wearing out like a machine is no longer widely held. Presently proposed genetic theories include (1) the "autoimmunity theory of senescence" which maintains that with increasing age there are more cell mutations in cell divisions, causing the body to produce antibodies and thus in essence to destroy itself (2) a genetically programmed brain-endocrine "master plan" which "codes" for the aging process; (3) the "collagen theory" which postulates that aging is caused by the growing rigidity of the collagen found in the connective tissues of the body); (4) the `hormone theory" which supposes that aging is caused by lack of a specific hormone. Environmental factors like diet, activity or stress certainly also play a part in at least the rate of aging.
The presence of both genetic and environmental factors in aging would be predicted from the biblical creation perspective, since the fall affects man's genetic as well as environmental inheritance. It also, of course, greatly affects man's behavior which in turn may help or harm his physic~ fitness. Studies of long-lived individuals and populations agree that moderation in all things, diets low in meat and fat but high in fruits and vegetables, and low stress through a basic surrender to the will of the deity are common to them all, again pointing to the state of man before the fall.
Secular interest in aging goes back to classical antiquity. It increased significantly with the rise of life expectancy in the nineteenth century resulting in a larger proportion of the aged 65 and over) in the population. Some 11 per cent of Americans are now in this category, which will rise to perhaps 12 per cent by 2,000 A.D. While the aged account for more than their proportional share of medical care, there is a dearth of specialists in geriatrics, and a general reluctance of medical personnel to deal with aged patients due to their image as irritable, set in their ways, and essentially useless burdens upon society. This image is obviously largely a false stereotype. Erdman Palmore developed a very useful 25-point quiz to help lay people and professionals rid themselves of such misconceptions. Here are ten questions from the Palmore quiz (answers at end of article):
1.About 80% of the aged are healthy enough to carry out their
normal activities (T/F)
2. Most older workers cannot work as effectively as younger workers (T/F)
3. In general, most old people are pretty much alike (T/F)
4.The majority of old people are seldom bored (T/F)
5. The majority of old people are socially isolated and lonely (T/F)
6. The majority of old people have incomes below the poverty level (as defined by the Federal Government) (T/F)
7. Older people tend to become more religious as they age (T/F)
8.At least one-tenth of the aged are living in long-stay institutions (nursing homes, homes for the aged, etc.) (T/F)
9. Most old people are seldom irritated or angry (T/F)
10. The health and socioeconomic status of older people (compared to younger people) in 2000 A.D. will probably be about the same as now (T/F)5
The "social Darwinist" philosophy, dominant in England and America in the latter nineteenth century and also in pre-World War I and Nazi Germany, which urged that "individuals who could not survive via their own means should be allowed to perish,"6 also worked against the aged. A similar attitude is being espoused in our own generation here in America as the bills for health services to the aged keep rising. Already Governor Richard Lamm of Colorado has publicly asked (Spring 1984) that the aged voluntarily die to make room for the young. He compared the aged to "falling leaves fertilizing the ground."
The systematic study of aging, gerontology, did not become a separate academic discipline until after World War II. Like psychology and sociology from which it emerged, gerontology does not have any one generally accepted research-governing theory for its academic area. The early "disengagement theory" (the aging individual achieves life satisfaction by withdrawing or "disengaging" from activity and society) has now largely been replaced by the "activity theory" (the aging individual finds life satisfaction by keeping active). Various other theories also command a following, such as "role theory," "labeling theory," `age-stratification model," and so on. The beginning student of gerontology encounters a growing list of special gerontology terms such as "birth cohort" (a group of individuals horn in the same year or grouping of years); jeopardy" (a certain trait or characteristic to which society reacts negatively, such as advanced age; a person who is black, female and old is said to be in "triple jeopardy"); "secondary relationships" (relationships that are formalized, unemotional, impersonal, and highly specialized, and that involve individuals acting in only one role), etc. In experimental studies of aged individuals gerontologists seem to labor more frequently than other social science investigators under the so-called "Hawthorne Effect," that is, the distortion of an experimental study by the fact that the participants in the study know they are being studied and therefore alter their behavior.
Historical gerontology literature often stresses the purported fact that the elderly began to be perceived as useless with the rise of industrialization and the early pensioning of workers. In a very able analysis Carole Haber convincingly argues, however, that the entire subject of the perception of the elderly is in flux and that books on this subject are outdated almost as soon as they appear. She reports that the age at which people become "superannuated" varies with the societies in which they live as well as with other circumstances such as wealth and family relationships. According to Haber the policies of professionals actually increase the stereotype of the aged as "useless" and also the segregation of the aged from their communitjes.7 Public policies adopted after America's urbanization and industrialization to help the elderly, and the Social Security program enacted in 1935 removed the old from competition on the labor market and "have ensured the dependence of a large proportion of the elderly"8
When all is said and done, how we tend to think of the elderly largely depends upon the impressions made on us by the real-life older people we ourselves have personally met or lived with, a fact surprisingly little considered in gerontology literature. Do we want to be like the older people we know when we ourselves grow old?
In this respect, again we who stand upon the Bible have an advantage over unbelievers in that it gives us authoritative aged "role models." For example, the list of God's heroes of the faith (Hebrews 11) includes Enoch, at the age of 365 years brought directly into God's eternal presence without seeing death because he pleased God. At the age of 600 years Noah by faith prepared the ark. Aged Abraham by faith obeyed God and sojourned `in the land of promise, as in a strange country," By faith aged Sarah his wife received strength to conceive Isaac. By faith aged Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau, and aged Jacob blessed Joseph's sons. By faith aged Joseph foretold the departing of the nation Israel from Egypt. By faith aged Moses kept the Passover and passed with his people through the Red Sea. So many godly aged people are listed for us in this one chapter of Scripture!
Elsewhere in the Bible we find aged Caleb who had trusted God's good promises about the land of Israel and inherited Mount Hebron, with his strength undiminished (Joshua 11). Aged Naomi plants the love of God and His people in the heart of her young daughter-in-law Ruth. We have already mentioned aged Simeon, and Anna "who was "of a great age ... a widow of about fourscore and four years, who departed not from the temple, but served God with fastings and prayers night and day" (Luke 2:36-37). The aged apostle John, the beloved disciple of Jesus, "your brother and companion in tribulation, and in the kingdom and patience of Jesus Christ" and banned to Patmos "for the word of God, and the testimony of Jesus Christ (Revelation 1:9)" is given the Book of Revelation of final things to share with us. There is not room enough to tell of the many other aged Christians whose faith and godly walk we find in Scripture and in history to behold and emulate.
Finally there are the aged saints we have known in our own lives. Humanly speaking I owe my salvation in Christ to my aged father, "over 65" when I, then still an unbeliever, grudgingly acknowledged his love of Christ and Scripture as the root of his perseverance, simplicity, and abiding joy and peace of heart under great tribulation (a crippled leg, failing eyesight, robbed of his profession and in constant peril as the husband of a Jewish wife under the Nazis). I remember Mrs.Gail Martin, whom I met and loved in the 1960s. She kept active in church and family till struck with terminal cancer in her late eighties. But her faith and cheerfulness did not waver, no, not even in the final weeks of gradual, fatal starvation. Thus she powerfully "showed God's strength to this generation, and his power to every one that is to come" (Psalm 71:18j. Our Living Lord had by no means "cast her off in the time of old age" or "forsaken her when her strength failed" (Psalm 71:9). On the contrary, "when she was weak, then she was strong" (II Corinthians 12:10).
What beloved, aged saints are part of your life? When we ourselves grow old, may we by our Lord's grace follow in their steps even as they followed in Christ's.
1 C. S. Lewis, The Great Dicoree New York: Macmillan, Seventeenth Printing,
2 ibid., p.6l.
3 For example in Richard C. Crandall, Gerorittilogy: A Behotiorol Science Approach
Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., Inc., 1980), pp.27, 28.
4 See Detnetrios J. Constantelos, By2antine Philanthropy and Social Welfare (New
Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1968). especially Chapter iS on the
Byzantine ~Gorocomeia" (homes for the aged,.
5 The entire questionnaire was originally published in The Gerontologist, Vol.17, No.4
6 Crandall, Gerontology, p.35. Also see Ellen Myers. Monistir Evolutionism as a Pseudo-
Paradigm" in Creation Social Sc&'nce and Hornanitias. Qoorterb, V:2 (Winter 1982),
7 Carole Haber, Beyond Sixty-Fite: The Dilemma of Old Age in America's Post (Cambridge
University Press, 1983), pp.125-126.
Achenbaum, WAndrew, and Kusnerc, Peggy Ann. Images ofOld Age in America:
the Present. AnnArbor, MI: Institute afCerontMogy, 520 E. Liberty Street, Ann Arbor,
Botwinnick, Jack. Aging and Behotior: A Comprehensite Integration of Research
Findings, Second Edition. New York: Spring Publishing Co., 1978.
Brown, Mollie, ed., Readings in Gerontology, Second Edition. St.Louis: The C. V. Macby
Cicero, Marcus ThIlius. On Old Age, trans. by Frank 0. Copley Ann Arbor, MI: The
University ofMithigan Press, 1967.
Constantelos, Demetrios 3. Bysontine Philanthropy and Sociot Welfare tNew Brunswick,
NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1968.
Cox, Harold, ed. Aging, Second Edition. Guilford, CT 06437: The Dushkin Publishing
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Crandall, Richard C. Gerontology: A Behavioral Science Approach. Reading, MA:
Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., tnc., 1980.
Haber, Carob. Beyond Sixty -Five: The Dilemma of Old Age in AmericaS' Post. Cambridge
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Kuhn, Maggie. On Aging: A Dialogue, edited by Dieter Hessel. Philadelphia: The
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Lewis, C.S. The Great Divorce. New York: Macmillan, Seventeenth Printing, 1970.