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Essay

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Stories have happy endings, but in real life — do you believe? The movie screen says "The End," we leave the theater, go home, and our stories go on. Where the on- screen characters real, their lives, too, would go on and their happy ending would dissipate into a million everyday matters.

But what if the end really is the end? Then it isn't happy.

In a movie, the protagonist saves the life of the leading lady. Pauline was in peril, but now she's safe — mission accomplished. . . . And the earth turns . . . day becomes night and night day . . . and no matter how much promise sparkles in the new sun, problems always loom. Death looms. That's the way it is. In real life, Pauline's perils end when one of them finally defeats her.

Even Bible stories with happy endings seem to be altered as time goes on. Lazarus was raised from the dead, a happy ending to be sure. Then he died — I don't know when, but eventually. Was the resurrection of Lazarus a happy time for him and his family? Yes. But it wasn't the end.

How can endings be made happy? How can we make happiness endure?

Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, cannot. Christopher Hitchens, author of God is Not Great, cannot.

Even in the fictional Star Trek universe, happy endings can't last — though many of their writers have tried. In Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, near the end of the movie, after the day has been saved but Mr. Spock lost to death, Dr. McCoy says what the audience longs to hear. "He's really not dead. . . ."

If only he had stopped there we could find comfort. "There's been a mistake. It's not really so."

But he doesn't stop. He says, "He's really not dead, as long as we remember him."

We see this same attempt at eternal life through memory in other parts of the Star Trek franchise, such as Dr. Crusher's grandmother's funeral in "Sub Rosa." In fact, lots of films and television shows say similar things. In an episode of The Simpsons, Marge says. "No one is really gone as long as we remember them."

Merely Remembered

Is that your expectation of life after death, that someone will remember you?

We see the same sort of thinking in Ann Druyan's epilogue to Carl Sagan's final book, Billions and Billions: Thoughts on Life and Death at the Brink of the Millennium, published posthumously in 1997. She wrote of her husband, "Contrary to the fantasies of the fundamentalists, there was no deathbed conversion, no last-minute refuge taken in a comforting vision of a heaven or an afterlife. For Carl, what mattered most was what was true, not merely what would make us feel better."

People wrote to tell her that Carl's example in this inspired them to "work for science and reason, against the forces of superstition and fundamentalism. These thoughts comfort me and lift me up out of my heartache. They allow me to feel, without resorting to the supernatural, that Carl lives."

Does he really? A few months ago, reading internet forums devoted to him, I ran across this thought a lot. He did good things, we remember him, therefore he lives. But surely everyone can agree that being remembered is a paltry substitute for actual life.

Even family members don't remember the dead very long. Do you know the names of your eight great-grandparents? If so, you're probably ahead of most people. How about your sixteen great-great-grandparents? Let's say you're interested in family history and you know every name for generations. Knowing a name isn't the same as remembering a person.

Few human beings are really remembered much beyond their own generations.

Washington Irving wrote, "Man passes away; his name passes from record and recollection; his history is as a tale told, and his very monument becomes a ruin."

Two verses from Ecclesiastes come to mind. 1:11 — There is no remembrance of men of old, and even those who are yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow.

2:16 — For the wise man, like the fool, will not be long remembered; in days to come both will be forgotten. Like the fool, the wise man too must die!

But even if a person is well-remembered, it's not the same as life. Carrying a person's memory is not the same as carrying her consciousness — not even close. Your memory of me after I am gone will not allow me to experience anything, be in any way aware, or have conscious thought in any form.

That's why, when the end comes near, most people would rather live one more year than to be merely remembered for a thousand years.

"Forest of the Dead"

Steven Moffat is a brilliant film and television writer. In the most recent season of Doctor Who, watching an episode called, "Silence in the Library." I recognized the writing style. I said, "This has to have been written by the same person who wrote ‘Blink.'" ("Blink" is a television rarity, more common in film, but rare there, too. It's a program you can watch again and again, and it gets better with every viewing.) I checked the credits of both shows, and that's when I learned the name Steven Moffat.

"Silence in the Library" is the first installment of a two-part episode. The second is called, "Forest of the Dead." During "Forest," Moffat takes an unexpected swipe at evangelical Christians — or, at least that's what I think he does. At a key moment of understanding for the Doctor, he speaks to his companions. "Nobody says ‘saved.' Nutters say ‘saved.' You say ‘safe.'"

By "nutters," he must mean people like John Wesley, men and women who enriched British life in a thousand ways — who helped save it from a bloody, French-style revolution. These people spoke often of being "saved."

"Nutters" isn't so bad. We Christians have been called worse. And, I must say, I love the word "saved." The truth be told, I think Moffat does, too.

Near the end of "Forest of the Dead," when it looks like an important character for the future has died, that character's voice serves as the narrator for the show's unforgettable ending. The music is exquisite, as is the voice of the actress playing the part, Alex Kingston (who played Dr. Elizabeth Corday on E.R.). If you're not familiar with Doctor Who, the character of the Doctor is a time traveling alien, the last of his kind, who looks and sounds quite British. We don't know the scale of his life span, but it's long enough to seem eternal to mere humans. Part of the narration deals with his pain at seeing human companions physically diminish and die.

The words about to be quoted deserve more context, and to be read by Alex Kingston. But even if she's not available at your house right now, looking over your shoulder, waiting to read aloud for you — just seeing the words on your computer screen should give you an idea of Moffat's power.

Everybody knows that everybody dies. And nobody knows it like the Doctor. But I do think that all the skies of all the worlds might just turn dark if he ever, for one moment, accepts it.

Then something wonderful happens, something akin to eternal life. At the risk of sounding like a "nutter," I would call it being "saved."

Everybody knows that everybody dies. But not every day. Not today.

Some days are so special. Some days are so, so blessed. Some days nobody dies at all.

Now and then, every once in a very long while . . . when the wind stands fair and the Doctor comes to call . . . everybody lives.

What happened? The Doctor "saved" the woman. He saved her in the clever, specialized way Moffat used the word throughout the episode, and he "saved" her in a way similar to the way we evangelicals mean it. When her story ends, she's not just "safe," a current, temporary situation, but "saved!" — past tense, already happened, accomplished, a done deal . . . a happy ending.

Without heaven, there are no happy endings. Without heaven, there are only endings.

Jesus said:

I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life. — John 5:24

For my Father's will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. — John 6:40

I am the door: by me if any man enter in, he shall be saved.— John 10:9

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Posted 10-3-2008

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