And they said, “Come, let us build us a city, and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven, and let us make us a name; lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth” (Genesis 11:4).
From the beginning, mankind has feared mortality and oblivion. The idea that we will die one day, rather nameless and unknown, is extremely scary. As human beings, we do not want to die. We know that physical death is unavoidable, but the idea that our existence and the knowledge thereof would be entirely extinguished seems intolerable.
In order to achieve a sort of “immortality,” humans have often sought fame and renown. In the ancient world, this led to the Tower of Babel, an attempt to make a name for mankind, and the many stone monuments built by pharaohs of Egypt, kings of Mesopotamia, rulers in Greece, Roman emperors, and the like. The Egyptians believed that a soul would remain alive as long as its name was on the lips of the living. This idea is quite comforting, but underlies this idea of immortality through fame.
Today this desire manifests itself in many ways. Some build stone monuments to people or events so that they will not be forgotten. But today we have many “new” and “innovative” ways of attempting to achieve lasting fame. Some will engage in stunts in order to get an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records. Others will humiliate themselves or open themselves to public mockery in order to gain their “15 minutes of fame” on a reality or talk show. Some in religious circles will even try to get known as a “big-time preacher” to satisfy this desire for fame. Sadly, some will even resort to heinous crime–murder, burglary, etc.– in order to bask in all the media coverage and achieve notoriety.
As the Preacher demonstrates, this all is vanity: earthly “immortality” is entirely illusory (Ecclesiastes 3:18-22, 8:10). The stone monuments of the ancients were overturned and rediscovered only quite recently. One’s record will be there only until someone breaks it. Over time, stints on television shows are forgotten, and even heinous crimes fade into the past. Ultimately, all physical matter will be entirely destroyed (cf. 2 Peter 3:9-13). At that point, every attempt made to achieve earthly immortality will have entirely failed. Whether we like it or not, in this physical world, we are doomed to death and being forgotten (Ecclesiastes 8:10).
Yet the “immortal impulse” is in man for a reason: God has put eternity into his heart (cf. Ecclesiastes 3:11). After the Fall, that impulse is there to remind us that there is much more to this plane of reality than meets the eye (cf. Romans 1:19-20, 2 Kings 6:15-17). God desires for man to turn toward Him, in whom they live and move and have their being, and participate in immortality (cf. Acts 17:27-28). We can participate in immortality not through building up stone monuments or earthly wealth, but by establishing the spiritual monument of proclaiming the Lord’s death through our life and the building up of spiritual wealth of love, kindness, compassion, and good works (Romans 8:29, Galatians 2:20, Matthew 6:19-21, 1 Timothy 6:17-19). After all matter is destroyed, our spiritual treasure will remain, and we can then enjoy that which truly is life forever with God (cf. Revelation 21:1-22:6).
The recognition that there is more to life than this physical realm and that we should strive for immortality, then, is well and good and given by God. But, as with all idolatrous sin, that good impulse is often perverted and misdirected toward earthly ends, and thus we see the grand desire in our society to achieve immortality through earthly fame. The desire for earthly fame is truly a “god of this world,” and many serve it constantly.
Fame, by itself, is not sinful. One may receive commendation or recognition for doing good. Jesus, after all, remains one of the most “famous” people in the world. The distinction involves our purpose: if we focus our lives on Jesus and, as a result of our obedience to Him, obtain some kind of commendation or honor, well and good. But if our goal is to obtain that commendation or honor, then we fall prey to idolatry (cf. Galatians 5:19-21).
Humans have expended great amounts of effort throughout time in the quest for this illusory earthly immortality. Let us not seek unstable “earthly” fame, but seek the commendation of God for eternal life!