The Shelf Life of an Idea

The concept of "shelf life" has always intrigued me. It is an expression that describes exactly what it attempts to define. For instance, Twinkies have a shelf life of twenty-five days, after which, their existence on the shelf as something edible expires. But shelf life is also an expression that is metaphorically full. One might say of the American "Cabbage Patch Kids" that they were once a quite a phenomenon; shoppers were injured as the dolls were pulled off the shelves and seized by anxious crowds. But the craze was relatively short-lived; as far as fads go, the shelf life was fairly brief.

In high school chemistry we took in the ponderous thought that everything has a shelf life. In fact, in many substances this is an incredibly important number to watch. A variety of compounds, particularly those containing certain unstable elements, become more unstable as they approach their shelf life. Chemical explosives grow increasingly dangerous over time and with exposure to certain factors in the environment becoming liable to explode without warning.

There is a tendency to view ideas and thoughts as having a similar aging process. When something is deemed ancient or even slightly "behind the times" it is often accordingly considered obsolete, needing to be removed from the shelf. As if it has become out-dated like a loaf of bread or a gallon of milk, the aging thought or idea, in many minds, grows more unusable with time. And in many cases, history has shown this to be an accurate picture. Certain philosophies might come to mind as movements that rendered themselves useless over time and exposure to the world. Like compounds approaching their shelf life, their collapse was inevitable and they eventually imploded without warning.


Ideas undeniably have consequences and some approach their shelf lives more dangerously than others. While some have not fully burst at the seams, signs of instability appear. Grumbles of discontent from within their own ideological camps may hint at incoherence. Even so, the noticeable shelf life of specific ideas should cause us to question the cause of their expiration, rather than assume it is time alone that moves an idea to expire.

This is no doubt well-studied in science. Factors that increase and decrease the shelf life of a product move well beyond time itself. When certain compounds are stored at decreased temperatures, their shelf life is increased significantly. Likewise, the development of preservatives dramatically set back the expiration dates on food in our pantries. Like compounds and breakfast items, all ideas do not expire equally. We are thus badly mistaken to dismiss a thought solely because it is old.

The Christian story speaks of the promising hope of Father, Son, and Spirit as something that does not expire, but rather, continues to transform generation after generation. "Your promises have been thoroughly tested, and your servant loves them," writes the psalmist. "I have learned from your words and acts that you established them to last forever." Personally I know how often I have lived with quite a different assumption, thinking that surely modern thought has improved this or that idea, only to find myself returning to things generations old with new intrigue. The story of one who takes creation so seriously that he joins us within it is one such idea I cannot seem to remove haphazardly from the shelf because it seems to defy the notion of shelf life. A God who can come that near and be that available, while remaining really God, is a gift that won't be outdated. It is the sort of thing that rearranges everything else on the shelf.

Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.

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