Rebuilding Babel

I’m a Little Frostie is a tale for children that is literally chilling. The story starts with a kitchen refrigerator. The hero, Little Frostie, says that he spent quite awhile in a very special refrigerator much colder than an ordinary fridge. Other frosties were also there. Why did these frosties live in such a cold place? Because some people didn’t have babies to love and asked doctors to make them a baby. So the doctors made embryos in a test tube and stored them in extreme cold. There Little Frostie and friends remained “very quiet, very still and very cold” for a long time. As the story unfolds, the doctors thaw Little Frostie and put him in “mummy’s tummy.” A baby is born, making such a happy family that even their computer smiles.

This book is recommended for children age 3 to 6. It’s not exactly Mother Goose or Dr. Seuss. It’s a new way to answer children’s age-old question, “Where do babies come from?” I’m a Little Frostie was written to help children who were conceived in vitro and frozen for a time to understand their origin.

The story doesn’t mention that many human embryos perish in the freezing process. It doesn’t mention that extra embryos are often thrown away if parents don’t want them, or else the embryos may go through government-supported experiments before being destroyed. It there’s any moral problem with treating human embryos as products that can be manufactured, frozen, implanted, or trashed at will, the story says nothing about it. In the story, the parents want a baby, the doctors give them one, and everybody lives happily ever after. Isn’t that all that matters?

Designer Babies

Little Frostie is just the tip of the iceberg. New reproductive technologies are opening astonishing possibilities and disturbing questions. Molecular biologist Lee Silver of Princeton University thinks that human cloning would be fine. Silver predicts that in the future a woman can carry her own identical twin sister, her clone, in her own womb. He says men will be able to become pregnant and have babies. He says two lesbian women will be able to combine their genes and truly have their own baby. Silver also thinks it may be possible and beneficial to make some humans without a forebrain and dismember them for spare parts.

Silver sees no moral limit on such things. “Whether we like it or not,” he says, “the global marketplace will reign supreme.” The only limit on altering reproduction and human genetics will be whether people want it and are able to afford it. He predicts that within the next 20 years “parents will be able to choose which of their characteristics to pass on to their children (blue eyes, for example) and which to withhold (weak chin, baldness). And by that time we will advance to the next step in reprogenetics—actually adding new, synthetic genes to embryos… Parents would be able to go to a catalog and choose which of these traits to add to their children. I know this sounds like science fiction,” he adds, “but there is nothing to stop it from happening based on the science we already know!”

Silver believes that in the past humans evolved from animals by accident, but he believes that future evolution will be intentional as more people have designer babies. “Today,” he declares, “we can control our own evolution. We can decide what genes we give to our children… Already, that is being done to a limited extent with embryo selection in fertility clinics. Even with selective abortions, you are choosing not to put certain genes in your child… So you are controlling evolution there.”

Silver is not alone in thinking this way. His basic outlook is shared by Nobel prize winning scientists, biotech business leaders, social theorists, and journalists. Some don’t want to carry things as far as Silver suggests, but they share his belief that we are in the process of taking charge of human evolution. Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson says, “Possessing exact knowledge of its genes, collective humanity in a few decades can, if it wishes, select a new direction in evolution and move there quickly… humanity will be positioned godlike to take control of its own ultimate fate.”

Remaking Eden or Rebuilding Babel?

When Lee Silver wrote about the future of human reproduction and genetic engineering, he titled the book Remaking Eden. In the Bible’s account of Eden, God created humans and put them in a lovely paradise. But in Remaking Eden, scientists create a new humanity and make the world more of a paradise. Faith in God is an obstacle to progress; faith in technology will save us. Some see this as remaking Eden, but it’s more like rebuilding Babel.

Babel was a place where people tried to use organization and technology to raise themselves to the level of God. In Genesis 11 the Bible tells what happened. Early in history, “the whole world had one language and a common speech” (11:1). People found a plain that looked like a good place to settle, but there was a problem: the area didn’t have natural building materials, such as stones. How could they build in a place with no stones? Well, they figured out how to make their own stones. “They said to each other, ‘Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.’  They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar.”

That was a technological achievement. Turning mud into bricks isn’t as complex as genetic engineering or computer technology, but the same spirit of innovation is there. People figure out how to reshape raw materials in creative ways. That’s the basis of all technology.

Technology is good. It’s rooted in our God-given intellect and our God-given desire to manage the world around us. Technology is not bad in itself, it can be used with bad attitudes and for bad goals. That’s what happened at Babel. Brick-making technology wasn’t evil in itself, but the people used their brick-making technology as a way of playing God. The people said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth” (11:4) They wanted to centralize power and control their own destiny. They wanted a monument to their own greatness. They thought they could build their own stairway to heaven and reach the level of God himself.

Today, when people want to play God, they don’t try to build a tower to heaven. They don’t want to build Babel; they want to build babies. They claim that “humanity will be positioned godlike to take control of its own ultimate fate.” The technology has changed since Babel, but the attitude is the same: pride. And the aim is the same: putting ourselves on the same level as God.

We’re in dangerous territory when we act as though God doesn’t matter and we are masters of our own destiny. God created humanity to rule certain aspects of creation, but that doesn’t make us gods responsible to no one but ourselves. The idea of making bricks or building a tower was not necessarily wrong in itself, but it was wrong to reject God and try to rise to his level. So too, making computers or pursuing genetic research isn’t necessarily wrong, but it’s wrong to think we can play God and ignore his design and his commands. To use our talents in a way that is good and not evil, helpful and not harmful, we need a vision of life that comes from God.

Writing in Time magazine about technological change, William Henry says:

The underlying drive of all this change is increased human control: over the environment, over other living organisms, over mountains of data, above all over one’s psychology and genetics and destiny. The biggest intellectual battle of the future is likely to occur between those who believe that this drive can be governed by humankind alone and those who contend that it must be subject to the restraints of nature and the divine. The shape of things to come will depend heavily on who prevails in this debate.

Whenever humans try to take complete control of their own future, they are in effect trying to rebuild Babel.

Splendid Sinners

Babel was bad, but there’s no denying that there was something splendid about the builders of Babel, and there’s no denying that there is something splendid about those who are trying to rebuild Babel in our own time.

The driving force behind Babel was a man named Nimrod. Genesis says Nimrod “became the world’s first great conqueror” (10:8 TEV). Nimrod was a man’s man. He was a mighty hunter. In fact, long after Nimrod’s time, whenever people wanted to describe a skilled and fearless hunter, they would say that person was “like Nimrod, a mighty hunter in the Lord’s sight’” (10:9 NLB). Nimrod didn’t shy away from anybody or anything. He dared to take on the fiercest animals and the most dangerous human enemies. He was bold and brilliant, able to conquer any foe and organize any project. His foremost city was Babel, also called Babylon (10:10). Nimrod’s courage, power, and ambition made him feared and admired.

Today, too, there are leaders in politics, technology, and business who have the strengths of the hunter. They aim for great things. The bigger the challenge, the better they like it. They love the thrill of conquering new territory. They relish doing things that have never been done before. Such people leave their mark on the world, for better or for worse. Such people are splendid in many ways. The world would be a poorer place if everyone were timid, careful, afraid to pursue a dream. The visionary who starts a new business from scratch, the scientist who pursues new discoveries, the inventor who creates new technologies, the politician who aims to change people and nations—such people get their talents from God and make vital contributions to humanity.

But they can also harm humanity if they rebel against God and try to play God themselves. If humans ever figured out how to control future generations of humans through genetic engineering or manipulation of brain chemistry, would it be a great triumph of humanity? No, it would destroy what is truly human. C. S. Lewis makes this point in his book The Abolition of Man. If some people ignore God and pretend there are no absolute moral standards for human conduct and no limit on what humans may do to redefine themselves or others, they reduce humans to machines to be controlled and manipulated. The controllers may be smart and strong, but they are also harmful and wrong.

Nimrod was smart and strong. Even in his sin, there was something heroic about him. Scripture says he was mighty before the Lord. God may have liked energy and ability, since these were gifts from God. But God did not like Nimrod’s attitude, because Nimrod dominated other people and was more eager to honor himself than God. One meaning of Nimrod’s name is “we shall rebel.” That’s what he and the people of Babel did: they rebelled against God.

A Doomed Project

What became of their proud rebellion? Nimrod and the people of Babel wanted to build their way to God’s level, make a name for themselves, and centralize their power. “But,” says Genesis, “the Lord came down to see the city and the tower that the men were building” (11:5). Now, God knows all things and is present in all places, so he doesn’t literally have to leave one place in order to check what’s happening somewhere else. But Genesis pokes fun of Babel by saying that God “came down” to see their tower. As the builders of Babel worked on their tower, they may have thought they were getting very high up, but they were still so far below God’s level that it was a long trip down from God’s level to their level. Some of our modern skyscrapers may look impressive from the ground, but if you fly over them in a jet, they look puny. So too, the tower of Babel may have impressed its builders, but they and their tower remained puny in God’s eyes.

When the Lord saw the tower, he wasn’t worried about losing his own supreme position, but he saw trouble brewing. He saw that there would be no limit to their sinful rebellion against God and no limit to the damage done to humanity if the people of Babel kept playing God. If they were allowed to continue with their attitude of “the sky’s the limit” and went ahead with their plans for one world government, one man-made religion, and one centralized system of information and technology, they would be capable of anything, no matter how terrible. “The Lord said, ‘If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing will be impossible for them’” (11:6).

Organization (“one people”) and information (“one language”) are the keys to human power. The Lord knew that in order to limit human power, he simply had to confuse their information and break up their organization. The Lord said,

“Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”

So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city.  That is why it was called Babel—because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world.  From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth (11:7-9).

The tower project ended not with a bang but a whimper. The builders talked but couldn’t understand each other. They couldn’t exchange information. They lost their organization. Even Nimrod himself couldn’t cure the babbling in many languages or stop the scattering all over the world. The tower of Babel remained unfinished, a monument to human folly and God’s rule.

Ever since that time, God has kept people divided into tribes and nations, making it hard for them to organize as a united world empire. He has kept people speaking different languages, making it hard for people to communicate or work together. Even those who talk the same language often have misunderstandings that hamper their work. This difficulty in communication is rooted in God’s decision to confuse human language at Babel.

A Healthy Hindrance

In many ways, this confusion has been a hindrance to human progress and organization, but that’s just the point. God knows the power of the human mind, and he knows the evil of the human soul that separates itself from God. He limits progress in order to limit the damage.  Technological progress is very dangerous when it occurs without progress in obedience to God. Ever since Babel, knowledge and technology has moved ahead in fits and starts. Governments have risen and then fallen. At times we might wish everything would run smoothly, that we could master all the information needed to guarantee our future and develop a single system of government to bring the whole world together. But in our sinful condition, a united world system and unlimited technology would mean disaster, not salvation.

At Babel God frustrated the proud goals of humanity, but the Bible warns us that Babel, or Babylon, is a recurring problem. Babylon represents human culture in its passion to centralize and dominate and control everything, to create our own future independent of God.

According to the book of Revelation, Babylon will reach its final form near the end of history. The Lord frustrated the original Babel and continues to keep human power within certain limits, but near the end, he will allow human power and human evil to run its course. A leader even more ambitious and ruthless than Nimrod will arise, someone the Bible calls “the beast” or “the antichrist.” Revelation describes the final Babylon as a concentration of knowledge and wealth and power in opposition to God, united under one central governing power. In this Babylon, everything is for sale, even human bodies and souls. When the Bible speaks of bodies and souls for sale, I can’t help thinking of experiments on embryos and the scientist who said that in reproductive technology “the global marketplace will reign supreme.” In the final Babylon, anyone who opposes the antichrist agenda will be despised. But this world system, so advanced in technology, economics and political power, will collapse under its own sin and under God’s judgment.

An Enduring City

Only Jesus Christ can save us from this. He can rescue us from ourselves and from the things we’ve made. But we must repent of our pride and self-sufficiency and not get sucked into the Babel mentality. We must submit ourselves to the Word of God. All things were created through Jesus Christ. All things hold together in him. By his coming into this world as a man, he has already begun a new creation, and he will complete it when he comes again. Babylon will collapse, but the kingdom of Jesus Christ will flourish for eternity.

Some scientists may dream of shaping the future by taking control of human evolution. But our origin is not evolution but creation, and our only hope for transformation is faith in Christ, not in genetic engineering or any other human effort. Human efforts, used wisely, can improve a few things for a time, but only God’s grace can save the world or transform a human soul forever.

Some of the moral issues in modern technology are complex and require much study and discussion. But before we try to get the details right, we must first get the big picture right by honoring God as our supreme Ruler and the Bible as our rule for right living. Instead of rebuilding Babel, we need to repent before God. Rather than using immoral methods to design or discard babies, we need to be born again ourselves through faith in Jesus Christ.

The people of Babel wanted to shape their own future and build their own everlasting city. But when we trust the Lord, we are “looking forward to the city … whose architect and builder is God” We are “aliens and strangers on their earth,” rejecting the evils of this world and knowing that even the good things of this world won’t last forever. “Here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come” (Hebrews 11:10,13; 13:13).

That city is not one that will be scattered. It a city and kingdom that draws people together in Christ. After Jesus’ death and resurrection, God sent his Holy Spirit on Pentecost, and a spiritual reversal of Babel began. On that day God gave a miracle of communication where Christ’s apostles preached the gospel to people from many nations, and those people were able to hear God’s wonders in their own language. Since the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, God’s kingdom has continued to advance, uniting people under the rule of Jesus. One day God will completely remove the divisions of language and nation. Every tribe and nation will again be united in speech. God’s people will be perfect humans in a perfect world. But that perfect world will be God’s achievement, not ours, and the glory will be his alone.

Further reading: C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man and That Hideous Strength

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.