The TV Show Lost and Eschatology

There are many mysteries in the world, like, Who built the pyramids? How can light be wave and particle at the same time? Why is Paris Hilton a celebrity?

And perhaps the greatest mystery of all: What in the world is going on in the TV show Lost?

Lost is the critically acclaimed and viewer obsessed (of which I am one) ABC drama. It is about a group of passengers from Oceanic Flight 815 who crash on what they believe to be a deserted island, only to discover that the island is not only not deserted (it is inhabited by the “others”) but also that the island itself possesses some magical or supernatural powers. The crash victims then seek to get off the island while confronting both its mysterious power and the “others” who inhabit it. These “others,” we discover, have somehow tapped into the island’s mysteries, and are hell-bent on keeping the island and its powers to themselves.

All the passengers of Oceanic 815 want to do is get off the island, but the island itself seems to be keeping them there as they discover its secrets. As the show unfolds we learn that the island was at one time in the hands of the scientific group called The Dharma Initiative, who built stations all over the island in hopes of harvesting the island’s unique properties. Yet, we also learn that Dharma has lost the island to an insurrection from within its ranks. These rebels are the “others.” Now as season 4 unfolds a struggle erupts for the island between Ben, the leader of the “others,” and Mr. Whitmore, a business tycoon in search of the island and its powers.

If you’ve ever seen the show you know it is much more complicated (and interesting) than my one paragraph synopsis. If you haven’t seen the show you may be chuckling to yourself thinking, “Really? People stuck on a deserted island, this is interesting?” This was my reaction until I watched my first episode. What was so captivating was the way the show dealt with time. In every episode the viewer is taken off the island through flashbacks (or flash forwards) to learn how each person’s own narrative leads them to be on the plane that crashed, and how their struggles have led them to be lost both personally and now on this island. We hauntingly discover through these flashbacks that these supposed strangers crossed each other’s lives before ever boarding the plane, showing their narratives, their existence in time, to be interconnected.

At the end of season 3 we receive our first flash forward. Believing we are watching another flashback, a flashback like all the others (that are not sequential and force the viewer to try to put the timeline together with what they already know), we are shocked to discover that this is not a flashback at all, but a flash-forward. Jack, the hero and leader of the passengers of Oceanic 815, is off the island, and to our astonishment is in contact with Kate, his love interest who herself is off the island. We are now given our points in the past that led the characters to the island, situations in the present on the island, and the future-most point of the story as Jack encounters Kate now back from the island. In season 4 the story not only unfolds in the present on the island, but through flashbacks and flash-forwards the time between our furthermost past point and future point are filled in. It really is brilliant storytelling.

But I must admit, it is such great storytelling that though I’m riveted, I still have no idea what is going on! I mean I’m able to follow the story, but have no idea what is propelling the story. For instance, why does the island have these powers? Why can no one leave it? Why are the “others” so protective of it, and Whitmore so determined to find it? In the midst of my perplexed-ness I did what any perplexed person does in our time, I searched the internet. And as I did I stumbled onto a website (with some help from a student), which I can only assume was from an obsessed viewer like myself that presents a theory of the show explaining what is going on. I must admit, the theory seems pretty right-on to me and very interesting.

The theory is this: Just as the storytelling of the show bends time, time is not linear or congruent within the story either; time on the island and time off the island are different (we do learn this as fact in season 4). The theory argues that the island possesses the power to travel back in time, and the “others” have figured this out and are seeking some kind of immortality beyond the stains of time. So they have placed the island in a perpetual state of being 1996. At the end of season one, a hatch is discovered to an underground bunker, in which sits a person pressing a button every 108 minutes, which our theory argues sets the island back again to some point in 1996. This puts the island on a different timeline than the rest of the world.

This is why John Locke, who boarded the plane in a wheelchair, and Rose, with cancer, are healed when landing on the island. They are living now on the timeline of 1996, a time when both were healthy without handicap or illness. The fact that the island is on a different timeline is why no one can leave it unless they leave through a special coordinate, a kind of hole in the bubble that allows people to enter back into regular time.

The theory is that Ben and a few of his associates discovered this power, and in the year 2007 set the island back to its perpetual state of 1996. Throughout the show a number of people meet their demise, but often these people continue to reappear in “visions” (Jack’s dad, Charlie, Shannon, Libby to name a few). The theory asserts that these people continue to appear because although they are dead on one timeline, they are still alive in another, therefore at certain times they can reappear. The overarching idea of the show then is the blending or episodic penetrations of these two distinct timelines. There is much more that can be said, but I’ll leave that to the Lost nerds and get to my point.

After reading this theory, and seeing it play out as I watched this season, I couldn’t help but think of Jurgen Moltmann’s eschatology, his theology of the culmination of God’s future. Moltmann ultimately asserts that there are two timelines, one of conventional time which moves from past through present to future, and a timeline of the coming of God which moves from the future through the present and back to the resurrection. For Moltmann God’s future time breaks into our own conventional timeline. Where our timeline leads from life (you’re born) to death (you’re gone), God’s timeline moves from death (the crucifixion) to life (resurrection). The resurrection is a future event (an event of God’s future) that penetrates and therefore happens in conventional time. The resurrection is a future event that happens now for Jesus.

Jesus Christ is the one who lives fully in our time, but as Son of God, through resurrection is taken up into God’s time. Jesus Christ stands between the two timelines. He is the new humanity, the new creation, the new Adam, the man of the future. This is the difference between Jesus’ resurrection and Lazarus’ resurrection. Lazarus’ resurrection is borne only in the first timeline; it is a witness to God’s timeline, but only a witness, a sign, a picture, but not an actuality. Lazarus is resurrected in a time where past is beyond the present and the present unfolds into the future. Therefore, his present resurrection must give way to the fate of time, and the future must put him to death again.

But Jesus’ resurrection, as Son of God, is different in kind than Lazarus’. Jesus’ resurrection frees him from the constraints of conventional time and places his resurrected being now fully in God’s in-breaking time. After the resurrection Jesus is on a new timeline, he has a resurrected new body; a body not bound to conventional time, a body that will no longer see death for it lives on the timeline of God’s future. This may be why the men on the road to Emmaus don’t recognize him. Jesus is still the Jesus who they knew in conventional time, but now as resurrected, having his being in God’s time, he is meeting them from the future; he is encountering them from the timeline of the future of God. This may be also why he can appear behind closed doors and to Saul on the road to Damascus (just as Hurley does not recognize Charlie on first encounter after his death). Jesus is no longer constrained by conventional time and space and its rigid sequential order.

The crucifixion, then, is seen as the puncturing of time, it is the point in conventional time where fate wins, where time that moves from life to death, from past through present to future, overcomes even God. In the death of Jesus conventional time is victorious, it becomes the ultimate and complete reality. There is no hope, for time and fate have beaten even God. But even in the midst of conventional time’s triumph God is moving in God’s grief from God’s future. In the crucifixion conventional time shows its fissures and cracks as even dead bodies once pinned by conventional time escape their past death determined by fate and wander Jerusalem. With the empty tomb conventional time has been overcome, for God’s future time has broken in, seen now fully in the body of Jesus Christ.

But it is only in the body of Jesus Christ. Conventional time still moves forward, but God’s timeline has now broken in, in cognito though it may be, into conventional time, asserting that God’s timeline will now determine humanity and creation’s destiny and not the fate of conventional time and the death it promises. We still find ourselves in conventional time moving from the past to present to future, moving from life to death, but we confess that in Jesus Christ there now not one but are two timelines. God’s future has dawned, and one day conventional time will give way to God’s future time. One day it will be the only time we know, a time beyond death, fate, futility, and sin.

Lost may help us then at least conceptualize a theological understanding of God’s future, especially as it relates to healing and death. Just as when Locke and Rose find themselves on the island healed, because they are now living on a different timeline, so those healed in our communities, those prayed for and cured, are not aberrations or the luck of fate or even the possessors of the power of prayer or community. Their healing is the in-breaking of a different time, God’s future timeline, into conventional time. In conventional time you get sick, you die. In God’s time sickness has no say to determine anyone’s existence and therefore is muted into nonexistence.

When someone is healed then the community can give thanks and praise, for they have experienced the in-breaking of God’s time into conventional time, it is a witness and foretaste of what will one day be, living fully in God’s time. Now it is only a gift and one that can’t be assumed to be normative or last forever, (those healed will eventually again get sick, old, and die), for conventional time continues to bear on us. We live in conventional time, but sometimes, in mystery, God’s future breaks in and reveals itself in the fullness of healing. But it must be remembered this is a different timeline and can’t be confused as regular life or able to be possessed or grasped. Our hope is not in learning special prayers or accruing spiritual power, but in the future fulfillment of God’s timeline.

Death is the loss of our being in conventional time, but death has no power in God’s timeline, for God’s timeline breaks in from the future and therefore reverses death. Death only has power because it determines our future by keeping our present from unfolding into something new. But when God breaks in from the future, from the new, death is obliterated because the future is already determined for us in the embrace of God. Therefore death has no power to end anything, for God has become all in all in the future. When our being is taken up into God’s timeline death is no more. Though we are gone from conventional time and our destiny has been determined in the absence of a continual reaching for a future out ahead of our present, through the resurrected humanity of Jesus our humanity finds its place in God’s future, not as ever reaching but as arrived.

The transfiguration in Mark 9 may itself be a witness to God’s future timeline beyond death. For Moses and Elijah are human, and in conventional time are dead, but upon this mountain God has appeared in the fog and God’s timeline is penetrating. Peter, James, and John are men of conventional time but they are witnessing God’s time, a time where the faithful live with God. Just as Charlie on Lost penetrates one timeline because he is alive on another and therefore can communicate with Hurley, so Moses and Elijah penetrate the timeline of conventional time because they are alive and with God on God’s timeline.

While Lost helps me (at least) think about eschatology there is something in the show that reveals the difference between the multiple timelines in the show and conventional time and God’s time in our theological construction. The difference is that on Lost all the timelines begin in past time and move forward (though at different paces) which in the end makes the show about fate, “What will the future be for us?” The show wonders, Can these people manipulate time for their own gain or in the end will fate make sure that life gives way to death and destruction so fate can keep time going? At the core of Lost is the collision between fate and free-will. But this, again, is because time moves only in one direction from past through present to future.

But from the eschatology inspired by Moltmann, we can assert that though conventional time clearly moves from past through present to future, God’s timeline moves in the opposite direction, from future to the past. God meets us from the future; Jesus’ resurrection is a future act that promises that our future is God’s. The great difference then between the timelines of Lost and the timelines of eschatology is that our theological commitments place hope as central. Our hope is not the ability to manipulate time so that we might continue to live safely in this world. Rather we await a world already created in God’s future, where conventional time and fate will give way to God’s embrace, and time will be known not through years and days, but through eternal and never ending love, peace, and worship.

This article, originally published on Next-Wave, [], is republished here by permission.