“Moving on.” This is the phrase used of the Oceanic Flight 815 survivors (at least the “important” ones) in LOST’s much-discussed finale.
If you watched the show’s finale, you now know the finale’s biggest shock. The events of the “flash-forwards,” while described as “real,” depict some type of “afterlife.” Yep; that’s right: Jack’s dead (I think I saw that Bruce Willis movie…).
Which raises a whole slew of questions about the exact nature of this afterlife. The church has traditional features, but notably mixed with symbols from a variety of religious faiths. The stained glass window, in particular, features symbols from Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Taoism and a Dharma wheel – ambiguously referring to the Dharma Initiative of the show or Buddhism.
The presence of such symbols allows for perspectivalism to dominate the show’s conclusion, a conclusion that offered a slice of paradise that all faiths supposedly can relate to (at least, as long as you can find a date….sheesh…).
CONCEPTIONS OF PARADISE
For instance, Anthony M. Stevens, writing for The Washington Post, suggests that the show’s depiction of the afterlife strongly resonates with Roman Catholic theology – most notably the concept of purgatory:
“Keeping with the Catholic theme, there is one character, Benjamin Linus, who stays outside the church because he is “not ready” to join the others. Only denominations like Catholicism that believe in purgatory can comprehend this “saved-but-not-quite-yet” category.”
The problem, of course, is not simply that the show makes no explicit mention of purgatory, but that Christian Shepherd tells his son that this timeless “place” was created by the survivors for the purpose of eventual reunion. Nor does that place bear any resemblance to traditional Catholic understandings of purgatory (derived, mind you, not from the Bible itself, but extant Jewish sources and the writings of the early church).
Still, the not-quite-heaven, not-quite-hell locale seems to resonate with what might be called purgatory.
But still others suggest that the afterlife of LOST be interpreted through an altogether different grid. Tracie Egan, writing for Jezebel.com, sees in the finale strongly Buddhist themes:
A component of Tibetan Buddhism, bardos are the different phases the deceased experience between dying and rebirth. It’s a dream-like reality, created by the “awareness” (or a soul) that is freed from the body upon death. Because of the disconnect of the awareness from the physical body, the deceased doesn’t immediately realize that he or she is dead. In the different bardo phases, the “awareness” needs guidance – from different deities, or, you know, guides (hello, Desmond)—to attain enlightenment, i.e., realize that they’re dead. A karmic mirror (remember all those mirrors?) is held up to the deceased so that s/he can reflect and eventually recognize. Once this happens – and it can happen in any of the bardo phases, depending on how much emotional baggage a person has packed for the afterlife – the deceased achieves Nirvana, and can “move on.” Depending on your belief system, this can be heaven, reincarnation, or some kind of simulated reality, like Eloise Hawking for herself and her son.
Mind you, this is a Buddhist interpretation (specifically, the Tibetan variety); Buddhism is actually a highly nuanced collection of different belief systems, some of whose beliefs are markedly different from other forms of Buddhism.
But such an interpretation seems to fit with similar eastern themes throughout the show (Dharma, 108, etc.). And it also seems to make sense of the essentially pluralistic themes that dominated the end of the show.
But how accurate is this? That is, can all religions be satisfied with such a conclusion?
AFTERLIFE AND WORLD RELIGION
The problem is that the religions depicted in the stained glass window have remarkably different perspectives on the life-after-death question. Before I go further, I do want to emphasize that what I’m about to say reflects the traditional teachings of these religions; I am well aware that not everyone who identifies themselves with these systems adheres completely to traditional doctrine.
The Tibetan Buddhist explanation aside, most Eastern religions do not believe in an afterlife in any traditional sense. The cycle of Karma/Samsara (Karma and reincarnation) terminates ultimately in Moksha or Nirvana, a state of peace whose descriptions often vacillate between non-existence and some, non-descript union with “the divine.” A “real” existence after death goes against the fundamental beliefs that reality is an illusion, a central tenet to most forms of eastern pantheism.
But the theistic forms might be a bit closer to the mark, right? Islam, Judaism and Christianity all believe in a god in some form or another.
But Islam’s conception of the afterlife is a bit less flowery. First, no one can really be certain of their place in heaven. And that’s if you’re a man. According to the Hadith, 99% of women go to Hell (Bukhari 2:28, Kanz al-ummal 22:10). Sounds like Kate, Juliet and the rest were among the lucky 1%.
Judaism has historically been varied. All believe in a “world to come” (Olam ha-ba) but differ radically on just how literally they can interpret the concepts of resurrection. Many contemporary Jews think that speculation on the nature of resurrection and the afterlife is far too presumptuous, presumptions that Christians are accused of making.
And of course, Christianity. Protestant Christianity emphasizes the immediacy of the afterlife: “absent from the body…present with the Lord” (2 Cor 5:8). Which stands against Roman Catholic conceptions of purgatory, a concept rejected by protestants because (a) it is absent from traditional Biblical interpretation and (b) because Christ’s atoning sacrifice makes such punishment unnecessary.
Chris Seay also observes:
Despite its strong spiritual themes—many of them quite biblical—Lost ultimately embraces many religions. Without Jesus as Messiah, we are left with a do-it-yourself path to salvation, and no matter how many religions statues, symbols, and icons you pile upon one another— as Lost did at the church in the finale’s closing moments—it lacks true hope and any inkling of radical grace. The joy of heaven will not be the presence of friends and family, it will be the beauty of living in the presence of Jesus the Liberating King.
ALL THE SAME
But what’s it matter, anyway? Aren’t all religions basically the same?
Anthony M. Stevens, whose article we mentioned above, suggests that “the Catholic Church…sees Catholicism as the fulfillment of different religions.” (not quite true, but that’s another post for another day)
Steve Turner writes (satirically, if that’s not obvious) in a poem called “The Modern Thinker’s Creed:”
We believe that all religions are basically the same-at least the one that we read was. They all believe in love and goodness. They only differ on matters of creation, sin, heaven, hell, God, and salvation.
Trivial matters right? And, if you read above, then you must admit that the world’s religions have markedly different views on the afterlife. LOST can assemble these religious symbols only at the cost of the uniqueness of each faith system.
David L. Edwards writes that to claim that “religions ‘teach the same thing’ is to insult them profoundly by claiming that all they really teach is a view of life so vague that practically any interpretation of it by creed, code or cult is equally valid.” (David L. Edwards, The Future of Christianity, p. 277)
“I don’t need no one to tell me about heaven,” intones the lead singer of Live. “I look at my daughter, and I believe.” Such lyrics reflect today’s tendency to find truth through self-discovery rather than revelation.
Which is why such discussions about a TV show actually do matter, as people are surprisingly apt to allow film and media to shape their spiritual beliefs (recall that Cilian Murphy became an atheist after working on the movie Sunshine).
A RAY OF HOPE
Still, we can conclude with a ray of hope. As mentioned in the previous posts, we can at least admit that American’s proclivity for spirituality also demonstrates a desire for something more: Home. “If I have a desire that nothing on earth can satisfy,” writes C.S. Lewis, “it must be that I was made for another world.”
In the end, for many who truly feel “lost,” Christianity offers a unique hope, far more electrifying and beautiful than the glowing lights of a finale, and a hope offered freely to those who would shift their burdens to One who continually welcomes us home.