Legend has it that Ponce de León explored Florida in an effort to discover the Fountain of Youth, hoping to find the secret to immortality. After losing a prolonged court case brought by Diego Columbus—son of Christopher Columbus—over who was the rightful governor of Puerto Rico, Ponce de León mounted the first of several expeditions to explore Florida.
Precisely what de León sought is difficult to say. Often the Spanish conquistadores searched for gold. But the age of discovery seemed a time of almost infinite possibilities—of new worlds populated with fantastic creatures, such as mermaids, and cities constructed of gold. So it’s possible that de León was seeking a spring of water that would enable him to maintain eternal youth.
In a bit of irony, a misunderstanding between the Spaniards and the indigenous inhabitants of the Caribbean islands may have lent credibility to the idea of a fountain of youth, which could have convinced de León that such a spring could be located nearby. To this day, some Bahamians brew tea from a plant that they call a “love vine.” It’s at least possible that the natives spoke of a vióa de la fuente (Spanish for “fountain of the vine”), which was misunderstood to be fuente de la vida (Spanish for “fountain of life”). Whatever the truth may be, a search for the fountain of eternal youth came to be associated with Ponce de León within a short time after his death, and it’s often repeated to this day.
The discovery of a new world gave fresh impetus to this notion of a spring of water that granted immortality, but the idea itself came much earlier. One of the oldest stories in human history, the Gilgamesh Epic, relates Gilgamesh’s quest to find immortality after the death of his friend Enkidu.
As early as the fifth century B.C.,the Greek historian Herodotus wrote of a spring that endowed a certain race called the Macrobians with amazing longevity, many of whom supposedly lived to the age of 120. But the notion of extended life really took off with the death of a Macedonian general. Perhaps it was because he died so young, or perhaps it was because his young life showed so much promise. Whatever the reason, one of the earliest tales of the search for immortality began with the death of Alexander of Macedonia, known to history as Alexander the Great.
The tale, known as the Alexander Romance, describes how Alexander’s cook went on an epic journey, eventually locating a spring whose waters would grant eternal youth. As with Ponce de León, however, there’s no record that Alexander himself sought this mythical spring; but it became associated with him very quickly after his death. This thirst for water granting immortality seems embedded in the human psyche throughout all ages.
By the time of Christ in the first century A.D., the Platonic view of humankind as having a soul or spirit that was separate from the body—a concept known as “dualism”—had become dominant in the Greco-Roman world. While the body would eventually die, people believed that the soul, or spirit, was immortal. The purpose of religion, then, was to ensure that the eternal spirit would enjoy an elevated afterlife rather than one of torture or pain.
Gnosticism and Mithraism, even though quite different in their origins, are two examples of popular religions of the time that shared this idea of dualism.
This Platonic view considered the physical body as base and therefore contaminated, and thus the idea of bodily survival became viewed with disdain. This deprecation of the body led to one of two opposite outcomes. On one extreme, dualism fosters the notion that we should “rise above” all bodily pleasures and drives. This eventually led to asceticism, probably most familiar to us in the monastic life of the Middle Ages, where one could withdraw from the world and perhaps even torture oneself in ways such as striking one’s own flesh with a whip.
At the opposite extreme, dualism led to the belief that what one does in the body doesn’t matter, an idea that led to excessive sensuality and indulgence, including sexual promiscuity.
Both of these dualistic attitudes are commonly held today. For some, the idea that the body is a temple means that all earthly enjoyments should be put aside. The opposite attitude was displayed by the late Anthony Bourdain, who wrote that “your body is not a temple, it’s an amusement park. Enjoy the ride.” Bourdain’s ride ended when he took his own life!
We may smile at the foolish idea of a fountain of youth, when, in fact, many of us pursue the same thing, perhaps not with water—but with vitamins and minerals, super foods, and exercise routines that are designed to keep us youthful and strong. And the media is full of advertisements for amazing ointments to maintain a youthful appearance. Of course, some of these things have scientific evidence in their favor, but they still demonstrate a longing for eternal youth. Instead of a magical fountain, we seek it through the technical wizardry of science.
Science and life
And not without cause. Many of us have experienced medical treatments that, when compared with previous generations, seem little short of miraculous. Several years ago, I discovered that I had cataracts that gave me 20/200 vision. A few weeks later, I had surgery to remove the cataracts, and the surgeon also inserted corrective lenses. For the first time in my life, I no longer needed corrective lenses in order to drive. The surgery on each eye took only 15 minutes, and 10 minutes after that I walked out of the hospital with 20/40 vision. It certainly seemed like a miracle to me—and, yes, I did feel younger.
When X-rays revealed that all the cartilage in my wife’s knees had worn away, leaving her with severe pain, she didn’t want to go through a complete knee replacement, even though that, in itself, would have been a remarkable treatment. But she discovered a promising new therapy that involved using her own stem cells and platelet-rich plasma. Within a few weeks of her first treatment, X-rays revealed that new cartilage had grown in her knees.
Treatments such as these have become routine, and many more are on the horizon. Recently, the American Food and Drug Administration approved an artificial pancreas for those who suffer from Type 1 diabetes. Also, organ transplants are already common, extending life for many people. But the use of so-called “ghost organs,” in which an organ from a cadaver is reduced to its protein scaffold and then repopulated with the organ recipient’s own stem cells, offers the prospect of organ transplants without the need for antirejection drugs.
The number and range of treatments to extend life are almost innumerable, including but not limited to nanobots (tiny robots that can be injected into the bloodstream and programmed to kill cancer cells or repair individual organ cells), gene replacement therapy, viruses targeted to destroy only cancer cells, artificial organs, cloning—almost anything one can imagine is being explored by medical science.
There’s heated debate about just how long life can be extended. A recent study by three researchers at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine suggests that the limit may be about 115 years. This is strikingly close to God’s declaration in Genesis 6:3 that man’s life should be limited to 120 years. Of course, as in most things scientific, other researchers dispute that finding.
One wonders whether the idea of a “fountain of youth”—consuming some life-perpetuating substance—may not be embedded in our human consciousness, for the fact is that this idea reaches clear back to the Garden of Eden story. There, we find not a fountain of youth but a tree of life. Access to this source of food apparently would have guaranteed immortality. Evidence that this is the case is found in the Genesis account of the fall: “And the LORD God said, ‘The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever’ ” (Genesis 3:22).
Unfortunately, Adam and Eve were banished from the garden, which assured that they and all their descendants would die. The serpent had declared that they “[would] not surely die” (Genesis 3:4, NKJV)* if they ate the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; but, to their sorrow, Adam and Eve learned that that was a lie. They did die, as has every generation of human beings since then. And that simple, inescapable truth has confronted human beings since. Poets and philosophers have contemplated mortality, hoping to find meaning. Others, desperate to avoid death, have spent much of their lives seeking immortality.
Fortunately, the Bible offers hope on this subject. To begin with, it affirms that human beings are not immortal, telling us that “the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing” (Ecclesiastes 9:5). It also tells us that “[God] alone is immortal” (1 Timothy 6:16). That may seem daunting; but in fact, it’s good news. Very good news.
It’s good news because God sent us His Son, Jesus, to show us the way to eternal life. Jesus revealed the true fountain of youth. He offered it to a woman He met at a well in the Samaritan town of Sychar. “Everyone who drinks this water,” He said, referring to the water in the well at His feet, “will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:13, 14). And there it is—a fountain of water granting eternal life. For a spring is, after all, a fountain of water.
Only in Jesus can we find that which will satisfy our thirst for eternal life. And He promises something even better than mere immortality. If such a thing as a fountain of youth truly existed on our planet, and if Ponce de León had found it and had been able to live eternally, he would still have been confined to this old earth, where he would have had to live with the sin in all its hideous forms that curses our planet. Endless life in this world with its lust, greed, selfishness, cruelty, anger, disease, disappointment, and grief would be no blessing.
But God offers not only eternal life through Jesus but also a new earth, where “ ‘he will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things [will have] passed away” (Revelation 21:4). And there we will find not merely a fountain—but a river of life (Revelation 22:1). There the search for immortality will be eternally ended.
Ed Dickerson is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to Signs of the Times®. He lives in Garrison, Iowa, USA.