Infinity is God’s business, not ours. Which is why Chris Hemsworth is the perfect subject for the National Geographic series Limitless. Our minds immediately associate Hemsworth with Thor, god of thunder and ruler of Asgard, who is relatively immortal and invincible compared to us regular, transitory humans. To watch Limitless, then, is to watch the thunder god become human and struggle against the limitations of his humanity, physical, mental, and emotional. Throughout the six-episode series, Hemsworth is on a quest to transcend his humanity by completing challenges, which are crafted and shot to look more Marvel than mundane, that push his body and mind beyond his (and our) perceived limitations.

In the beginning, Limitless is equal parts health class documentary, training montage, and excuse to film Chris Hemsworth shirtless. But as the series progresses, something deeper emerges that I was not expecting: meditations on aging and death. Hemsworth’s stated goal is to live a long, healthy life, to be able to play with his grandchildren for as long as possible. But the dark side of a quest for longevity is the reality that a long life still ends.

In one of the series’ more emotional scenes, Hemsworth finds out about his genetic predisposition for Alzheimer’s and we watch him process the possibility of his future decline and death. We don’t often consider it, but even the oldest modern humans still die long before many turtles, trees, houses, and cans of Coca-Cola. Death is the final limit that cannot be breached, the event horizon beyond which we cannot pass and then return. It looms for each of us far in the distance, but never far enough.

This is the paradox of Limitless and of life: we want to celebrate aging and, yes, even death, but we also fear both and try to stave them off as much as possible.

I have thought a lot about my Nana since she died after a downturn through two years of COVID isolation. My kids never knew my Nana the way I knew her, as the forty-year volleyball coach who swam seventy laps in the school pool on her seventieth birthday. They only saw her when we visited her in the nursing home, where at first she walked slowly and sat while we did puzzles in the common room, and then she needed the help of a walker, and then we could only see her through the window of her room or a make-shift wall of plexiglass with floppy armholes for sanitized hugging.

Several months before she died, we visited Nana after the home finally reopened, and she didn’t recognize us at all. Instead, she charged around the room while we tried to convince her to sit and talk with us. Not long after, my mom flew in to say goodbye and she and my aunt sat for hours with Nana, who breathed quietly until she didn’t breathe anymore. It was beautiful, and it was horrible. While I’m happy that my oldest kids will remember their great-grandmother, I wish they could remember her the way I do, teaching me how to serve a volleyball, walking with me on the golf course, and taking me to Dairy Queen.

This is the paradox of Limitless and of life: we want to celebrate aging and, yes, even death, but we also fear both and try to stave them off as much as possible. And so myths about the fountain of youth persist, only now, they’ve mutated into a boom of health documentaries, fringe-science diet books, and, for the right price, strange experiments like blood transfusions with your son. Any science fiction writer can see the folly in trying to avoid death at all costs, in trying to circumvent the natural order of things.

Death is a fact of life. The sooner accepted, the easier it is to make the most of our limited time. As the Psalmist writes, “Teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12). Even so, we must acknowledge that it’s not death or the decay of our bodies that deserves celebration, but rather, our response to them. As with a sonnet or haiku, the restrictions highlight the beauty. So much creativity can fit in so small a poem… and so small a life. Aging becomes beautiful because each year, each new scar or line is evidence of life, and life is beautiful.

In the Limitless finale, Hemsworth lives for three days in an elaborately staged nursing home and practices his own death. His guide for the episode, a palliative care doctor and speaker named BJ Miller, says, “We tend to treat life as this right that we have. And that by virtue of being born, we have a right to life, we have a right to a tomorrow. No. Life is a gift. Another day is a gift. A full life is one that includes death, includes pain.” Miller reframes death as part of the gift of life.

Life is certainly a gift in the Christian story, but death is a curse. Athanasius’ famous treatise On the Incarnation deals with the complexity of this topic. He writes that humans are logically mortal, and since they were created from nothing, they naturally might tend back toward nothingness. All created things, apart from God’s sustaining power, are finite. But it was never the intention of God for humanity to pass away, for we were created in the image of God, and being in relationship with the eternal One, we receive the overflow of his immortality. But sin has now marred that image, broken the flow of eternity, and returned us to corruptibility. We must endure a brief eighty-year slide into non-being and, at the end, Death always rules like a dictator. Dust to dust.

Of course, Athanasius argues, God could not allow this to happen to his creation. Therefore, he sent Jesus, the incorruptible Word, to put on a corruptible human body, severely limited and subject to aging and death, in order to rewrite the story. Athanasius goes on to explain it this way:

For being above all, the Word of God consequently, by offering his own temple and his bodily instrument as a substitute for all, fulfilled in death that which was required; and, being with all through the like body, the incorruptible Son of God consequently clothed all with incorruptibility in the promise concerning the resurrection. And now the very corruption of death no longer holds ground against human beings because of the indwelling Word, in them through the one body.

The incarnation and crucifixion of God are the most shocking doctrines in Christianity. A God with limits; a God who dies. To attempt a detailed explanation of such things is to tiptoe the lines of heresy. Yet, they also contain the beauty and wondrous mystery of the Christian story. God in Jesus entered into even the most disgraceful, awful parts of our humanity and granted the divine dignity to humanness, even to bodies that break down and hearts that stop beating and lungs that stop breathing, to not remain in death, but rather, to defeat it, upend it, and transcend it through resurrection.

My teenage son and I watched Limitless together. He was engaged by the humor, fascinated by the science, and thrilled by the spectacle. He was less interested in accepting his inevitable death. When we are young, we all believe life is eternal. The tower of years before us is so tall that it seems to reach heaven itself. Yet it’s only through acknowledging and appreciating our finitude that Christ’s incarnation becomes meaningful.

An early Christian poem, recorded by Paul, tells us that Jesus emptied himself to become human. Scholars debate the meaning of this term, to empty, but it must be some way in which Jesus allowed himself to become limited, to become like a human and die like a human, and not even a noble death at the end of a long life, but instead, an early, ignominious death. The crucifixion is a reminder that all death is early and ignominious, for God created humanity in view of the tree of life and “put eternity into man’s heart.”

It was only God in Jesus, like us in finite form, who could set us free from the limits of our corruptible bodies. We can now live in the paradox of the incarnation: accepting and receiving the number of our days as a gift and, when the time comes, putting our hope in a resurrected God who tells us that there are more gifts to come beyond the limits of what we can imagine.