Every culture has its own mythology about death; every generation of Christians must sort out the truth from the lies in its own culture’s stories. That task is especially tricky when a culture’s stories are influenced by the Bible. Even in a secular age like our own, modern American culture’s official story about death and the life beyond is the “Christian” one. God, Jesus, angels, heaven, hell–they all have their place in our more-or-less culturally accepted stories about death. In the vague recesses of the popular imagination, however, lurk stories that are not really Christian at all. Dante and Oprah have had at least as much impact on our modern mythology as the Bible. For Christians, this is not a trivial issue. The Christian story is all about how life today must be lived in the light of the issues of our eternal destiny. To fall into the trap of accepting an alternative explanation for the central issue of human existence could be deadly.
During this last year I saw three movies which brought these issues to my attention in a powerful way. The movies were City of Angels, What Dreams May Come, and Meet Joe Black. Each of these movies is a fantasy about death; each of them tells a story influenced by the Bible and yet profoundly unbiblical. Together, they offer a fascinating glimpse into our cultural perceptions about death. (Warning: I am going to discuss plot details of these three movies, so if you are still planning to see them, you might want to wait to read this.)
Before I offer my critique, let me be clear about what I am not saying. I have no problem with fantasy as a genre, and I see no problem with telling fantastic stories about death. There is nothing wrong with offering imaginative speculations about the afterlife. C. S. Lewis did this in several of his stories, explicitly warning us that reality may be very different than how he imagined it. Indeed, in the three movies mentioned above, I am not naive enough to think that the details represent the literal religious opinions of their creators. I would not be surprised if the creators of City of Angels do not believe in angels at all. I know they are just telling a story, and that is fine with me.
What is striking to me, however, are the similarities between the imaginative worlds in each of these movies. After stripping away the imaginary details, we are left with three strikingly similar perspectives on life and death. The three perspectives are so similar that I cannot help thinking that these ideas must be pervasive in our culture, or at least in parts of our culture. And these perspectives are about as far from the biblical worldview as they could be.
Where is life to be found?
One of the most striking things about these movies is that each attempts to answer the question “Where is real life to be found?” Each movie shows characters asking themselves what they really want, what is most valuable of all. Each movie essentially answers in the same way: the good stuff is here, now, in this present life. Each of them implies that there is life after death, and life after death is really a secondary matter. It is this present world and its sensual pleasures which can teach the eternal realms what life is all about.
• In City of Angels, an angel abandons eternal life in the heavenly realms to become a human and experience human love.
• In What Dreams May Come, a man and wife, living in heaven after their deaths, decide that they have not had enough of this world and come back to experience more.
• In Meet Joe Black, Death inhabits a human body and falls in love, never wanting to return to his eternal abode.
The eternal realms may know peace, but they do not know pleasure, and that is what this world has to teach them. Sometimes this gets surprisingly crass. It is not unfair to describe City of Angels as a movie about an angel who decides that one sexual encounter with Meg Ryan is better than an eternity serving God in the heavenly realms. Death learns the same thing in Meet Joe Black. Having sex in the golden afternoon light is the pinnacle of existence. Nothing in all eternity compares to that.
Now admittedly, sometimes the issues are more subtle. In Meet Joe Black, Anthony Hopkin’s character goes to his death with composure and dignity. Here, we might think, is a character who understands the relative value of this world versus the next. But no, his resignation to death is that of the diner who pushes himself away from the banquet table, stuffed. This world has given him everything he has wanted. He is satisfied, and so is ready to go on to whatever might follow. He has almost no curiosity about what is to come; his entire preoccupation is with his career and family in this world.
In contrast, the biblical worldview puts its entire emphasis on the issue of our eternal destiny. God is going to make a new heavens and a new earth, where human life will find its fulfillment under the righteous rule of Christ. Will you find a place there, or will you be eternally lost? That is the question every human being must face. The Bible is not against pleasure, but it demands that we put it in perspective. Today, now, as I live my life in this world, I am making the decisions which are determining the eternal outcome of my life. What do I want? Where is my treasure? Is there anything this world has to offer that could compare to an eternal life with God? Jesus’ own answer was clear: “What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his soul?” (Matthew 16:26).
Where is God?
Another surprising aspect of the heavenly realms in these movies is the almost total absence of God. They do not explicitly deny His existence, but at best He is portrayed as a remote figure who has little to do with the issues of life and death with which the characters are wrestling.
• In What Dreams May Come, heaven and hell are just subjective experiences that each person creates for himself or herself. Some people cannot let go of the hurts of the past, and so they condemn themselves to live in a self-created hell. When a character asks where God is in all of this, he is told, “He’s just up there loving you.” God is neither Judge nor King. He is a benign spectator, watching while we make what we will of our own lives.
• Likewise, God is almost totally absent in Meet Joe Black. Only at the end is there a vague hint of an upcoming judgment, when one character is told that a good man like himself need not fear death.
• God makes the biggest appearance in City of Angels, if only in a negative way. The movie implies that God has sovereignly thwarted the plans of the angel turned human. However, since we are meant to sympathize deeply with the angel, this arouses only resentment on our part that God would destroy the beautiful love between two such cute actors.
I think it is fascinating that three movies would go to the trouble of presenting a life after death that does not really involve God. In reality, of course, God is the issue everyone must face, the one person with whom we must do business. This is God’s world; we are God’s creatures; every one of us will stand before the judgment seat of God and answer for the choices we made in our lives. Were it not for the cross of Christ, not one of us would survive such a judgment. This is what the Bible means when it says we must “fear” God. Jesus tells us not to fear our fellow man, but to fear “Him who can destroy both body and soul in Hell” (Matthew 10:28). These three movies, although ostensibly about heaven, have in fact turned our eyes away from the God of heaven and have firmly fixed them on this world.
Why am I making a big deal about these movies? Am I surprised that Hollywood has not got a clue about Christian beliefs? Not at all. It would be foolish to expect unbelievers to think like believers, and I have no such expectations. My concern is that Christians be very clear in their own minds what the differences are between Hollywood’s heaven and the real one. First of all, such clarity is important for our own sake. Christians are by no means immune from being suckered by the lies of the world. Indeed, the main point of our journey of faith in this life is to sort out the true from the false. We may find it all too attractive to join our culture in celebrating a heaven with no Judge, a heaven which tells us that sex with movie stars is better than anything heaven has to offer. Because there are superficial similarities between the Bible’s story and Hollywood’s, it is even easier for us to buy the lie. If we have not thought clearly about our own beliefs, we can easily be dazzled by any story which presents “life after death.” After all, that’s what the Bible teaches, right? Well, yes and no. The Bible’s story is much more specific, and the issues involved are eternal.
Furthermore, we must be clear about biblical truths for the sake of our neighbors. We should make it clear that these movies are not telling the biblical story, even though they talk about heaven and angels and such. The no-cost heaven of these movies has nothing to do with the God of the Bible. If the movies are even close to right, then the Bible is wrong. Likewise, if the Bible is telling the truth, then these movies are telling lies, and people need to know that.
I like movies, and I liked some things about these movies. They were clever, beautiful to look at, and thought-provoking. They were not great movies, but they were interesting. Ultimately, however, my biggest reaction was anger. These movies are selling a beautiful lie, and beautiful lies are the hardest ones to resist.