By Rae Botsford End, GUG Contributor
This article was edited to Geeks Under Grace standards, and the personal opinions of this author are not necessarily that of Geeks Under Grace.
Note: This essay contains major spoilers for the TV shows Star Trek: Picard and The Good Place, and part of the book The Silmarillion by J. R. R. Tolkien, which may also mean spoilers for Amazon’s new show The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.
“What is the meaning of life?” is a big question that leads to another: “What is the meaning of death?” Though we crave meaning, it can be difficult to find, or difficult to believe in even when we think we’ve found it – even for those who believe in Christ and know intellectually where our meaning lies.
I’ve noticed a trend in modern media that tries to solve the meaning of life and death with one another. The philosophy itself is a much older one, but my two examples come from early 2020, right before the COVID-19 pandemic brought death to the forefront of our collective consciousness.
The first place I noticed it was in the final season of the philosophy crash-course slash irreverent NBC comedy, The Good Place. The four (deceased) main characters finally make it to the Good Place itself—yes, heaven, more or less—only to find it’s soul-shatteringly boring. Occupants of the Good Place can have anything they want whenever they want, and they live forever, so the godless heaven inevitably leads to a lack of purpose and eternal ennui. As Hypatia of Alexandria (or Patty), played by Lisa Kudrow, puts it, “You get here and you realize that anything’s possible, and you do everything, and then you’re done. But you still have infinity left. This place kills fun, and passion, and excitement, and love.”1
Eleanor, played by Kristen Bell, observes this less-than-ideal heaven and comes up with an idea: what if people can just cease to exist whenever they choose? Michael, the friendly demon played by Ted Danson, agrees, remembering something Eleanor said earlier in the show: “Every human is a little bit sad all the time because you know you’re gonna die, but that knowledge is what gives life meaning.”2 Sure enough, once she announces this option to the Good Place, the residents instantly discover how to enjoy the afterlife again. After a long enough amount of eternity, three of the four main characters choose to end their existences, thus ending the show.
On the heels of The Good Place’s finale came the first season of Star Trek: Picard, via CBS’s streaming service (now Paramount Plus). It catches up with the famous Captain Jean Luc Picard, played by Patrick Stewart, of Star Trek: The Next Generation and follows him through, among many other things, the last stages of a neurological disease. In the finale, at the end of an epic standoff, there’s nary a moment to celebrate before Picard collapses and then dies.
He, or rather, his digitized consciousness, gets the opportunity to say goodbye to the android called Data (Brent Spiner), who sacrificed his synthetic life for Picard at the end of the movie Star Trek: Nemesis. It turns out Data’s data, or what passes for a consciousness in the Star Trek franchise, has been hanging out in a complex quantum simulation for some time, and he asks a favor of Picard.
“When you leave,” he asks, “I would be profoundly grateful if you terminated my consciousness.” “You want to die,” replies Picard. “Not exactly, sir,” says Data. “I want to live, however briefly, knowing that my life is finite. Mortality gives meaning to human life, Captain. Peace. Love. Friendship. These are precious, because we know they cannot endure.”3 Picard’s digitized self then transfers to a new, synthetic body—which he quickly ensures isn’t immortal, but will last as long as his old body would have without the neurological problem—and he fulfills Data’s wish, unplugging him from the simulation.
About a year after watching both of these finales and observing their similar worldviews, I was working my way through J. R. R. Tolkien’s famously challenging myth, The Silmarillion, and I discovered it also speaks of the gift of death. Its perspective is largely a Christian one, and fills in most of the missing pieces of the atheistic “death equals meaning” worldview. Please bear with me for just one more story summary.
In the “Akallabêth” section of The Silmarillion, we get the story of Númenor, or Westernesse, an island that had been given to those of the race of Men (that is, humans, as opposed to Elves or Dwarves, and including women) who had not collaborated with the evil Melkor in the previous age. If you’ve read or watched The Lord of the Rings (LotR), this place may be familiar to you: Strider/Aragorn is one of the few remaining people in the Third Age with Númenórean heritage, which comes with unusually long life and typically implies great stature and wisdom. The “Akallabêth” story takes place in the Second Age of Middle-Earth—the setting of Amazon’s new show The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power—and explains why so few of Aragorn’s kind remain by the time LotR happens.
The fall of Númenor comes slowly, over many lifetimes of kings who come to increasingly fear death and crave the unending life on Earth they see with the Elves. The Valar—great spiritual beings that seem to be a mix between angels and a mythological pantheon—give the Númenóreans one restriction at the foundation of this island: don’t go west enough to lose sight of the coasts of Númenor. The nearest of the Elves’ Undying Lands is to the west, and the Valar live beyond that. To go west is to seek immortality within this world.
The Valar send messengers to the Númenóreans to combat the grumbling and envy of the mortal humans, and they argue fervently on behalf of the will of Eru Ilúvatar, which is the name of God in Tolkien’s long myth:
“[. . .] you and your people are not of the Firstborn, but are mortal Man as Ilúvatar made you. Yet it seems that you desire now to have the good of both kindreds, to sail to Valinor when you will, and to return when you please to your homes. That cannot be. Nor can the Valar take away the gifts of Ilúvatar. The Eldar, you say, are unpunished, and even those who rebelled do not die. Yet that is to them neither reward nor punishment, but the fulfillment of their being. They cannot escape, and are bound to this world, never to leave it so long as it lasts, for its life is theirs. And you are punished for the rebellion of Men, you say, in which you had small part, and so it is that you die. But that was not at first appointed for a punishment. Thus you escape, and leave the world, and are not bound to it, in hope or in weariness. Which of us therefore should envy the others?”4
The Númenóreans reject this answer, asking, “Why should we not envy the Valar, or even the least of the Deathless?” The messengers explain that for humans to leave the world through death was originally “a gift of Ilúvatar,” and only the evil of Morgoth turned it into something humans fear. They then add, “We who bear the ever-mounting burden of the years do not clearly understand this [. . .].”5
In The Silmarillion, death is Ilúvatar’s gift to humans and not to Elves. The perspective of the immortal Elves and Valar echoes the perspective of Patty in The Good Place and Data in Star Trek: Picard – that to live forever is a burden. However, the goodness of the gift of death in The Silmarillion is not centered on the brevity of life, but on the purpose of the One who is able to give purpose, the Creator.
Moreover, Tolkien, a Roman Catholic, implies throughout the book that there is more for Men beyond the world, though it’s a mystery. It is not oblivion Men fear, but the unknown. It is not brevity death promises, but continued life somewhere different. The burden is life in the world, not life in general – so Ilúvatar removes Men from the world.
What makes this new life, this other place, better? Getting to do everything you ever wanted, or colors you’ve never seen on Earth, or unicorns? As The Good Place unwittingly illustrates, any concept of heaven without God is no heaven at all. Humans living for themselves instead of joining with God’s Spirit is still, ultimately, a slow but certain hell, just as Patty described it. There is no meaning when there is no God. There is no heaven without God. God Himself is the difference that makes heaven, heaven. Without some form of death, we remain separated, at least in some sense, from God.
Dr. Tony Evans’s observation on the nature of death is helpful here: “There is physical death, the separation of the body from the spirit; spiritual death, in which a person is separated from fellowship with God; and eternal death, in which a person is separated from God forever.6 Notice that the key element is always separation.”7
Jesus Christ died on our behalf “that we might die to sin and live to righteousness.”8 If a person dies to sin, that person is no longer a slave to sin. If a person is alive in Christ, that person is no longer separated from God, but is united with Christ. Dying to death is the doorway to life. When we are alive in Christ, we have the abundant life He came to bring us, and when we depart this life and these perishable bodies in God’s good timing, we will be more alive than ever before, face to face with Christ at last.
As Jesus said to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.”9
Tolkien gets closer to the truth than secular media does, but unlike in The Silmarillion, death in real life was not purely “a gift” that “became a grief.” In the Apostle Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth, he described death as an enemy, the last enemy that will be destroyed;10 in his later letter to the church at Philippi, he described his physical death as a desirable occurrence that would allow him to be with Christ.11
The complex, deep truth about death, as found in the Bible, is that death is part of this God-given life, but it is not all of this life, nor is it the meaning of this life. It is not simply an end.
Paul wrote a lot about the resurrection of the dead in 1 Corinthians 15, and this portion clarifies what bodily death is to a Believer in Christ:
I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality.”12
Death is not the only door God can provide to freedom from “the Circles of the World,” for “We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed”—if we are found in Christ. But for the vast majority of humanity, including Christians, death is the way this perishable life will end. So if we are found in Christ, death is the doorway to the next life, the escape from this decaying and sinful world into a better place, an actual Good Place. For that reason, we may see it as a gift, to be given to us in God’s timing, not ours.
It is not our brevity that makes things worthwhile. It is not even our eternity, in and of itself. It is God who has made life, and it is God who makes life worth living, whether we last a year or beyond count of years, beyond time as we know it now. If God made us for Himself, then life has purpose in His purposes, which include relationship with Him and the varied humans He puts into our lives. Death cannot give life meaning. Nothing “under the sun,” as the author of the Book of Ecclesiastes put it, can give life meaning. God alone gives us purpose, for He made us.
Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life,13 the only doorway to God the Father and eternal life. Not death masquerading as life as seen in The Good Place, nor incorruptible earthly bodies and digital consciousness as in Star Trek: Picard, but eternal and abundant life.
Tolkien’s Silmarillion and the entire body of Middle-Earth works are intended as a myth, a sort of lost history of the real world, and Tolkien believed there was indeed an Eden, even if he believed its details may have been lost to time.14 In The Silmarillion, Númenor is another, later Eden, but the people are only banned from immortality on Earth because of the first, real Eden and the fall that really happened there. All other death as we know it comes from the first one, when Man was broken from face-to-face fellowship with God on this Earth.15 That separation necessitated all the rest: Christ’s death on our behalf, our death to sin upon surrendering to and believing in Jesus Christ, our deaths at the end of this life, and even the second death at the end of everything for the people who refuse God and His gift of Jesus Christ.
The Gift of Ilúvatar to Men in Tolkien’s legendarium, the gift of death, is only a gift because we are already separated from God, and the separation from this sinful flesh is necessary to fully connect us with God. It is not a gift if it is separation and nothing else. It is separation from the lesser for unity to the Greatest.
As we seek legitimate meaning in our lives and deaths, it’s vital to look at the Source of all meaning. It’s not in our accomplishments or our happiness or even in the brevity of the physical body. We have meaning because God made us, and He did that for His good purpose.
About the Author
Rae Botsford End is a freelance writer and editor who has covered hyperlocal news and aerospace and has written technical whitepapers. She is now working on a novel and editing a client’s sci-fi book. She lives joyfully with her husband, loves Star Trek and Tolkien, is learning Korean, and serves in arts ministry at her local church. You can find her at facebook.com/raebotsford.writer.
This article was edited to Geeks Under Grace standards, and the personal opinions of this author are not necessarily that of Geeks Under Grace.
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1 The Good Place, season 4, episode 12, “Patty,” directed by Morgan Sackett, written by Michael Schur and Megan Amram, featuring Kristen Bell, William Jackson Harper, and Jameela Jamil, aired January 23, 2020, on NBC, https://www.netflix.com/watch/81162516.
3 Star Trek: Picard, season 1, episode 10, “Et in Arcadia Ego, Part 2,” directed by Akiva Goldsman, written by Michael Chabon and Akiva Goldsman, featuring Patrick Stewart, Alison Pill, and Isa Briones, aired March 26, 2020, on CBS All Access, https://www.paramountplus.com/shows/star-trekpicard/video/OByehBzRg7bOQxNbekLFzyoBLQ0Fwbv5/star-trek-picard-et-in-arcadia-ego-part-2/.
4 J. R. R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion, edited by Christopher Tolkien, illustrated ed. (Great Britain: George Allen & Unwin, 1977; New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004), 273. Page references are to the 2004 illustrated edition.
5 Ibid., 273-4
6 There are those who debate whether this eternal separation is the absence of God Himself or of God’s grace, or presence, goodness, etc.; I don’t think that detail is vital to the discussion in this essay. There is a form of everlasting separation from God for those who go on to the second death, according to God’s Word, and that is enough for this piece.
7 Tony Evans, Theology You Can Count On (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2008), 233.
8 1 Pet. 2:24 ESV
9 John 11:25-26 ESV
10 1 Cor. 15:20-26
11 Phil. 1:21-24
12 1 Cor. 15:50-53 ESV
13 John 14:6
14 J. R. R. Tolkien to Christopher Tolkien, Oxford, January 30, 1945, in The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, ed. Humphrey Carpenter and Christopher Tolkien (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1981), 124, https://time.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/the_letters_of_j.rrtolkien.pdf.
15 Rom. 5:12