The date 1 August 2020 marked the centenary of the birth of Loretta Pleasant, an African American woman, in Virginia, USA.
In a tumultuous and eventful year, where virtually every part of the world has been touched by a global pandemic, this relatively obscure fact will have gone unnoticed by the majority of people.
At some point in her infancy Loretta was nicknamed Hennie, and later became known as Henrietta. After her mother died in childbirth, she grew up in a log cabin with her grandfather; this home was once the slave quarters on the plantation that had been owned by Henrietta’s white great-grandfather and great-uncle. Like most of her family, she worked as a tobacco farmer from a young age. In 1941 she married her cousin, David ‘Day’ Lacks and they had five children together. In the same year the family moved to Maryland so that Day Lacks could work at Bethlehem Steel in Sparrow’s Point.
In 1951 Henrietta attended Johns Hopkins Hospital, the only hospital in the area that treated black patients. Here she was diagnosed with a malignant cervical cancer. During treatment, two samples were taken from Henrietta’s cervix without her permission or knowledge; one sample was of healthy tissue and the other was cancerous. At the time, this permission was not required and it was not usually obtained. These samples were passed on to George Gey, a cancer researcher at Johns Hopkins. The cells from the cancerous sample eventually became known as the HeLa immortal cell line, commonly used in biomedical research. This was because they reproduced at a prolific rate and could be kept alive long enough to allow more detailed examination. Until then, cells cultured for laboratory studies survived for only a few days, which was not long enough to perform a variety of different tests on the same sample. Gey’s method of labelling samples was to use the first two letters of the patient’s first and last names; hence HeLa cells.
Eventually the HeLA cells were used for developing the polio vaccine and also to study the effects of developing an acquired immune response for treatment of cancer patients. HeLa cells were in high demand and put into mass production. They were posted to scientists across the world for research into cancer, AIDS, the effects of radiation and toxic substances, and gene mapping. Some cells were even taken into space. HeLa cells were the first human cells successfully cloned in 1955 and have since been used to test human sensitivity to tape, glue, cosmetics, and many other products. Scientists have grown as much as 50 million metric tons HeLa cells and there are almost 11,000 patents involving them.
In 2010 a book entitled, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, was published and in 2017 a film was released with the same title.
But Henrietta Lacks was not immortal. In fact, she died only a few months after her visit to the hospital 1951, at the relatively young age of 31. Despite the significant use of her cells and the enormous service to modern science, she did not benefit in any way.
Henrietta certainly did not possess immortal life and her cells were not immortal.
How do we know this?
God’s word from the Bible explains that our mortality is a curse that was given by God in the garden of Eden to the first man and woman that he created. Adam and Eve disobeyed God and so God conferred on them and all their descendants the sentence of death. Genesis 3:19, ‘…you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return’. The sad situation recurs as a theme throughout Scripture. See Psalm 49:14, Ecclesiastes 3:19–20, Romans 5:12, 1 Corinthians 15:22. We know that all mankind is subject to death and, as with Henrietta Lacks, we will all eventually die. As we grow older our bodies age and our strength and powers diminish.
But in his mercy God did offer a hope, a hope that is freely available to all who look for it. God sent his only begotten son, Jesus Christ, to be a perfect and willing sacrifice. Everlasting life is a gift from God as described in Romans 6:23. ‘For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.’ But the gift is only for the righteous who repent, as we read in Romans 2:6–8. It is dependent upon a belief in Jesus as explained in John 11:25–26.
So the Bible teaches us that:
- Immortality is conditional, not inherent.
When we are born we do not possess immortality. It is a quality brought within our reach through Christ by the gospel. It will only be attained by believing the gospel and obeying God’s commands. See 2 Timothy 1:10, John 3:16, Revelation 2:7, James 1:12.
- Immortality will be bestowed in the future.
It is a promise for the future when Christ returns to the earth. It is a hope that we can anticipate with reassurance. See Matthew 19:29, Luke 18:18, 30, 1 John 2:25, 2 Timothy 1:1, Titus 1:2, 3:7.
- Immortality will be received.
At the return of Jesus and resurrection of the dead there will be a transformation in the state of the bodies of those who have believed and endeavoured to follow the teaching of Jesus. See 1 Corinthians 15:51–54, 2 Corinthians 5:1–4, Philippians 3:20–21, Luke 20:35–36.
Incredible as this may seem, this is God’s promise to us. And it is a promise of fantastic magnitude compare to the relative wonders of modern science.
Yes, you can be given immortal life!