Saturday, November 1, 2008

Reflections on the End of the World

Recently, Ellie and I saw a movie that really got the circuits in my brain firing.

A futuristic drama called "City of Ember," this is the story of two children's struggle to reach the earth's surface from a city thousands of feet underground. As the story goes, years earlier, a natural disaster ravaged the earth. Fearing that the human race would be destroyed, the builders of the city made provision for 50 men, 50 women and 100 children to go below the surface, where all their needs would be provided for the next 200 years, until the earth, they hoped, would again be habitable.

Contained in a small metal box were the instructions for leaving the city and returning to earth. The box, programmed to open 200 years from the city's founding day, was given to the first mayor, with instructions to hand it down to each successive mayor who ruled the city.

Unfortunately, the box was lost during the seventh mayor's term, and now, at 200 years and counting, the generator which powers and lights the city is failing. The frightened citizens find various ways of coping with the threat of impending darkness, from denying that the generator is faltering, to staunchly trusting the builders of the city to come back and save them. Some, including the mayor, escape from reality by binging on the limited food supply.

The hero of our tale tries repeatedly to fix the generator, and when he realizes it is a lost cause, starts trying to find a way out of the cave. He and a girl about his age find the box and set out for the surface, using the torn and faded instructions they find in the box to guide them.

Although this movie was probably produced for Ellie's age group rather than mine, I found it visually compelling, attention-grabbing, and thought-provoking.

Watching the scenes in the dim city as the lights repeatedly flicker and go out, I could not help but think of the world in which I live. I always feel a twinge of anxiety when I see footage of the polar ice caps melting, or maps showing projections of the vast stretches of coastline which would be under water if the earth's temperature were to increase by even a few degrees.

I have friends who deny that this is really happening. They write global warming off as a figment of Al Gore's imagination. Others check off each calamity against Bible prophecy, proclaiming the end of the world and waiting expectantly for Jesus to come back to take the faithful to a new world. And still others work to unite mankind in pursuing technology and behavior change which would fix the problem.

A common truth which is not terribly encouraging, is that none of us really knows how this will end. Will the human race come together to solve the problems, feed the hungry, build sustainable energy sources and ways of living, and achieve a better quality of life for everyone? Or will we continue to fight with each other, kill each other, fail to cooperate, and keep making choices which will wear out our fragile earth? Will Jesus come back before the end and save those who follow him? And even if we do everything in our power, will it make a difference?

Something else that caught my attention was the image of all those people who had never seen the blue sky, sun, or the light of day. For them, these things we take for granted were only legends, and some had even ceased to believe that a world existed beyond the reach of the generator's flickering lights. Early in the story, we see the girl coloring a picture of a landscape with hills, a sun, clouds and a blue sky. She runs her hands over the picture almost reverently, and you can tell she is thinking: do these things really exist?

It reminds me of the place in C.S. Lewis's The Silver Chair, when the children and their companion Puddleglum find themselves in an underworld of huge caverns and dim cities, ruled by a wicked queen. The queen captures them and puts a spell on them to try to convince them that no other world than her own exists, and that the sun and sky are just stories.

Resisting the spell with great difficulty, Puddleglum says, "Suppose we have only dreamed or made up all those things - trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones...that's why I'm going to stand by the play world. I'm on Aslan's side even if there isn't any Aslan to lead it. I'm going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn't any, we're setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for the Overland."

In the end, both sets of children - those from Narnia and those from the City of Ember - do find their way to the surface. "City of Ember" ends as the sun rises and the children see the rosy sky of dawn and the vast expanse of hills, valleys, and waving grass for the first time. In just a few minutes, their view of the universe changes completely and they realize they have been living in the dark, experiencing only a fraction of reality.

It is interesting to me, as I read the New Testament, that here and there we see glimpses of God's country, the heavenly kingdom, shining in the far distance with a mysterious glow. One of the last things Jesus told his disciples was that he was going to prepare a place for them. It is alluded to in Hebrews and Revelation, yet we still have no very clear picture of what it looks like.

Perhaps it is because of my Seventh-day Adventist heritage, or maybe because I am futuristic, but I spend a lot of time wondering about God's country. Will it be as awesome and paradigm-changing as coming out of lifelong darkness and seeing the real world, full of light, for the first time? Will my eyes and other senses be opened in ways I cannot now imagine or comprehend?

Sometimes, doubts creep in and I hear a voice which says, "You have no proof that such a country even exists. What if it's all make-believe? What if humans like yourself just invented heaven to make dying a little easier for us?

But in the end, I side with Puddleglum. Even if the Overland, or Heaven, or God's country, don't exist, I will continue to live as if they do. I will continue to believe, even in the absence of absolute proof.

Because I choose light, beauty, and redemption over doubt, fear and hopelessness. I choose to believe the captivating story of a God who cares enough for me to take me from a world whose lights are going out. I don't know exactly how this will happen - but, like other Christians before me, I believe that it will.

I think Hebrews says it best:

"All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country - a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them."
-- Hebrews 11:13-16

I can't wait to come out of the darkness, out of these three dimensions, out of the limitations of this mind and body, into whatever new world Jesus went to prepare for us. Knowing God, it will be beyond amazing.