Answers ‘Lost’ and questions pondered

Jared Olar

Fans and critics are sharply divided about whether or not last Sunday's series finale of “Lost” was satisfying and successful, and they probably always will be. But I think most probably agree that this strange, complicated and baffling TV show was frequently an effective vehicle for pondering some of the bigger, deeper questions and mysteries of the human condition.

Though I wasn’t exactly an avid fan, I did make a point to try to keep up with it (something I rarely do with television programs anymore). Many fans were caught up in the stories of the characters, the show’s internal mythology and the science fiction, which certainly were captivating, but I was even more fascinated by the way the show’s plot worked in philosophical and religious themes.

“Lost” rarely if ever delivered clear and unambiguous answers to the big questions (or even to the many little questions that a lot of viewers had), however.

On one level, the show presented a classic battle between good and evil, but, in keeping with the modern conceit that disdains clear delineations between right and wrong, usually it wasn’t clear who were the good guys and who were the bad. The heroes (if that’s the right word) were decidedly flawed and broken, often doing some pretty awful things, using a consequentialist or “end-justifies-the-means” approach, and too often resorting to dishonesty or gross brutality.

Of course it doesn’t follow that the writers necessarily were endorsing violence and vengeance just because it featured so prominently in their show. It was first of all a drama intended to entertain rather than enlighten, and we are attracted to conflict and violence in dramas. Also, keeping viewers guessing about who were the good guys was an effective way to get people to stick with the series.

Nevertheless, that ambiguous morality was one of its less desirable and more troubling aspects, though it is in keeping with the spirit of our age of muddled, relativistic thinking about morality.

Similarly, while “Lost” explored metaphysical questions and drew upon religious imagery and motifs — often from Christianity, and from Catholicism in particular — it did so with ambiguity, avoiding questions of the truth or error of any particular creed, and conveying overall a sense of indifferentism and even syncretism.

That was clearly displayed in the series finale, in which Jack Shephard shows himself to be a Christ figure by making the ultimate sacrifice to save the island (and by extension, the world). Not coincidentally, Jack dies of a piercing wound to his side, as Jesus’ side was pierced on the cross. Also, outside the church that hosts the happy reunion in the afterlife is a statue of Jesus Christ with arms outspread in a gesture of welcome.

However, inside the church is a stained glass window and an altar featuring symbols and sacred art from the major religions of the world. Again, the show’s “Dharma Initiative” certainly didn’t have a Christian name. The finale leaves it up to us to decide whether the deceased characters had been experiencing a kind of Catholic purgatory or a Tibetan Buddhist bardo or something else. Also left open was whether the characters were “moving on” to heaven or nirvana or reincarnation.

Had the show depicted one religion’s concept of the afterlife, it would have alienated viewers. “Lost” wasn’t a catechism lesson or even a course in theology. Still, the finale’s afterlife meshes very well with the show’s moral ambiguity: no sign of a personal God, and no clear concept of final judgment, of sin or repentance, of holiness or truth.

This again expresses the spirit of our age. Just as we insist on religious toleration and eschew expressions of disapprobation of moral and doctrinal error, we also object to a heaven that would exclude anyone for being an unrepentant sinner or immoral monster (except for Hitler, of course) or for holding to erroneous theology. But while religious freedom may be necessary to ensure a just society, it’s not grounds for indifferentism or relativism. Logic’s classic law of noncontradiction applies to religion as to all areas of knowledge and opinion.

TV could do a lot worse than getting us to think about those kinds of things.

Jared Olar may be reached at