Numbering Our Days

Daniel Meeter

The lifespan of a dog is about 4,400 days. A mouse gets six hundred. Human beings get 25,560 days, or by reason of strength, 29,211. Tortoises get 40,000, and sequoias get 365,000 and more. Why aren’t we content with our number? Why do we, of all creatures, expect to live forever?

The biblical Hebrews did not believe in human immortality. There is not one word in the Torah about life after death, which is remarkable when you consider how fixated on immortality was the Egypt the Israelites left. The Hebrews expected to live on in their descendants (thus the anxiety about being childless) and to be “remembered.”

The desire for immortality is not distinctive to Christianity, although various religions differ on what our immortality will be like. Since my childhood, I have disliked the whole idea. It kept me awake at night — the thought of endless, endless, endless, unceasing, unending endlessness. I used to pray, “That’s all right, God. Hank (my brother) can live forever, but I can just die when I die.”

It’s said that Tolkien’s elves were his idea of what humans would be had Adam not fallen, with an immortality fit for the earth, not heaven. He has an elf describe to a man how different their experience of time is from ours. The elves feel it less (like sequoias?): they are more in the eternal present. They don’t count their days. It’s always today.

Much like biblical Hebrew. Its sense of tense is so different from ours — no past, present, or future, as in our Cartesian view of time and as our translations demand. Its two tenses are the perfect, for completed action, and the imperfect, for continuous action. It’s obvious the Hebrews experienced time differently than we do. Jon Levenson has argued that they did believe in eternal life, though not as the unending extension of immortality but rather as entering the eternal Today in Zion’s Temple. For St. Paul, it’s sharing in the resurrection life of Christ today.

I don’t believe that the Bible or the creeds teach either the immortality of the soul or going to heaven when you die. But they certainly teach “the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting” (the better translation would be “life eternal”). Whatever that eternal life will be like, counting the days of it would seem inappropriate.

So why should counting our days now give us a heart of wisdom? Might the shortness of them engender that same destructive lust for elvish immortality that ruined the Numenoreans, Tolkien’s men of the First Age? I think you have to be already pious and penitent for day-counting to be of value. We have to face that we are fragile creatures: passing, vulnerable, with no natural right to anything more than that. Any share we have in anything eternal or transcendent is pure gift and purely a sharing in what properly is God’s. And this combination of humility and gratitude is wisdom in itself.

Daniel Meeter is pastor of Old First Reformed Church, Brooklyn, New York.