November 30, 2010 / Theology
This essay is neither for nor against Glenn Beck. The philosopher Michel Foucault warns us …
June 10, 2021
When we think of the so-called afterlife, we cannot help but use our imaginations. As a young child in church, I imagined an unending hymn-sing or an eternity spent floating suspended in the clouds. To me, the thought of ceaseless heaven was terrifying. And since then, I’ve received no help from the idealized projections of near-death-experience literature or from popular renditions like The Good Place. Even in its light-heartedness, the NBC sitcom could find no better ending than a get-out-of-the-afterlife-free option that’s triggered once perpetual self-satisfaction wears into infinite tedium.1
Perhaps it is just such insufficiencies of imagination that lead to what a 2016 Atlantic article called “apeirophobia,” the fear “of an existence that goes on forever.” This apeirophobia might also make sense of modern rock songs like Dawes’s 2009 “God Rest My Soul” or Arcade Fire’s 2013 “Afterlife,” with lyrics like “only thing that’s scarier than dying is not dying at all” and “Afterlife, oh my God, what an awful word.”2
What the Apostle Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 15 is strange enough to boggle both the modern and ancient Corinthian mind. Echoing the disciples’ experience of Christ’s resurrected body, which was somehow recognizable and unrecognizable at once, the epistle relates the resurrected body to the current body in terms of both continuity and discontinuity. Whatever takes place with Christ’s return at the eschaton, it seems not to require natural death but to entail some kind of transformation. In terms of discontinuity, we read that the present human body is as different from its resurrected form (39–44) as a seed is from a plant or as one species is from another. To effect this change ourselves would be like trying to turn ourselves into birds. But Paul also affirms continuity—“to each kind of seed its own body” (38) sounds a lot like Genesis 1:24, which suggests that resurrected bodies will be appropriate to their created “kinds” (NRSV).
Nathan Hitchcock traces these two main trajectories in the theological tradition. The continuity-prioritizing trajectory imagines every last “particle” of the dead body (whether decayed, burned or, for Thomas Aquinas, cannibalized) somehow recollected at the resurrection before receiving an “infusion” of “glorification.” The discontinuity-prioritizing trajectory, what Hitchcock calls the “participation view,” imagines a transition from the “humble, natural state to a lofty participation in the divine life”; this is perhaps best known as deification or theosis. In Hitchcock’s view, in both of these trajectories can be detected an underlying antipathy to time and space, such that the imagined “deification effectively displaces the doctrine of the resurrection of the flesh.”3
Whatever one makes of these interpretations, there is little doubt that popular caricatures of the so-called afterlife muddy the waters. Perhaps it is best to declare a moratorium on the eschatological imagination, to try not to think about it. Or perhaps it can be helpful to reactivate the imagination, unsettling presumptions and recalibrating to the strange new world of the biblical witness again.
That kind of an imaginative reactivation is exactly what I experienced when I watched Denis Villeneuve’s 2016 Arrival and Alex Garland’s 2018 Annihilation. Both films began as pieces of literature. Arrival was adapted from Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life,” which follows a woman whose encounter with aliens enables her to see future reaches of her life’s timeline and who is nonetheless still able to live and act of her own free will. Annihilation is adapted from Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, which elusively describes a mysteriously invasive force that strikes Earth, begins spreading like a cancer, and threatens to change the ecological landscape (for better or for worse).4
Annihilation bears the literary marks of the “weird fiction” of H. P. Lovecraft, a genre that actually provides a fruitful interpretive lens for both films. In that context, Gry Ulstein describes Annihilation as an imaginative “anthropocene discourse” wherein “the insignificance of the human is the most important source of fear” in the story. In an “upgrade of planet Earth, cleansed of human contaminants,” we see that “the monsters are us, not other.”5 This interpretation of the novel has its roots in Donna Haraway’s genre-defining essay “The Promises of Monsters,” which establishes the place of the monster in cultural theory “as a figure through which differences can be productively reexamined.” Science fiction has often imagined the so-called paranormal, but when weird fiction does so, it tends to unsettle the notion that we are the normal ones. While this can be merely disturbing, in Haraway’s words, this can also have the positive effect of opening to a new “community of belief.”6
Viewed as an extension of this anthropocene discourse, these films offer a cinematic exploration of physical and temporal continuities and discontinuities that can benefit the eschatological imagination.
In the Annihilation film, an alien force with an ever-expanding reach known as “the Shimmer” seems to be executing a kind of purification of the ecosystem. Unsuccessful expeditions have been sent into its realm, and only a man named Kane, who is played by Oscar Isaac, seems to have come out alive. His wife, Lena, who is played by Natalie Portman, happens to be an ex-military biology professor and signs up to join the next expedition. Once Lena is inside that shifting ecosystem with Ventress, Anya, Josie, and Sheppard, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, and Tuva Novotny, respectively, it becomes clear that the outcomes for these humans may or may not be deemed favorable, depending on their level of attachment to their current realities. But each has their own reasons for risking the expedition.
“You’d call this a pathology if you saw this in a human,” says Lena.
“We’re all damaged goods,” says Sheppard, as they carry on into the Shimmer.
The physical “refractions” undergone by the explorers are beautiful in some cases and terrifying in others. One turns into moss and lichen, and others turn into an oversized black bear or a person-shaped flowering of vines. The variable nature of their bodily transformations suggests that their final outcomes are matched to their life scenarios or states of mind, but the film does not say whether or not the transformations are fitting or just. In any case, the discontinuities are so uncanny and extreme that one wonders whether they are transformations or effectively replacements.
As expedition leader Ventress approaches what she calls the “last days” of her “annihilation,” she quips that the “person that started this journey won’t be the person that ends it.” Her particular transformation into a blooming panoply of light and color may not appear desirable—she seems to desire it as a form of self-destruction—but on the whole, both the film and the novel leave the interpretation open.7
In the first scene of the film, a character asks whether the Shimmer is a “religious event” or whether the one who comes out of it is“dead.” And from the start the answer is “I don’t know,” to which the character responds by asking, “Then what do you know?” Whoever is to blame for what is happening, it is clear that this apocalyptic detox is not privileging humans but confronting them as part of an entire ecological refraction. The film raises the question: what if, to be made better, humans need to become something else?
Things are more complicated for the estranged couple at the center of Annihilation. For Lena and Kane, whose marriage has been threatened by an act of infidelity, the Shimmer produces eerie doppelgängers rather than physical transformations. For director Garland this raises the “ship of Theseus” problem; as he asks in a 2018 interview, if “you take all the wooden planks out [and] build another ship [until you have] a perfect facsimile . . . which is the ship of Theseus, and which is the copy?”8 If the other refractions pose the question of whether physical discontinuity is all that bad, these doublings lead viewers to wonder whether physical continuityis all that good.
Except for a glazed expression and some illness-related side effects, the doubled Kane certainly looks the same. Once healthy, the only remaining problem appears to be a disconnect from the lived memory of the original Kane. The double is able to access the memories and knowledge of the original Kane, presumably because his brain is indeed an exact double, but those memories do not appear to be loaded with the same personal significance. The problem is not so much that the memories have been redacted but that they have not been personally lived.
Alternatively, Lena manages to destroy her doppelgänger and reunite with her estranged husband’s double. It appears she has been refracted but not redacted. From the ominous final frames, viewers are left with the feeling that, while Lena has issues, at least she is still her.
What is fascinating about this is that Kane, the victim of infidelity, has been survived by his double, whereas Lena, the repentant partner, has destroyed her double in an effort to get back to Kane. This goes against the grain of common tropes about redemption. Rather than focus on the nonremembrance of guilt, here it is the one who was harmed who prefers to forget and the offender who keeps her lived memory intact.
With the reunion of this once-estranged couple, the mood is melancholy, if not macabre. Kane still does not look well. Perhaps they can make something new—but what? The film does not pronounce a verdict, but the eschatological question is raised as to whether or not the sin-stained parts of history are indeed better off erased.
To its credit, at Annihilation’s apocalyptic horizon, the body is not imagined without its social-historical and ecological embeddedness. When brought into conversation with 1 Corinthians 15 and the theology of the resurrection, the story suggests both that a continuity of historical personhood might be preferable to nonremembrance of harm and that a massive change might be preferable to the continuity of modern anthropocentric discord. The eschatological particulars may be speculative, but the resulting ethic may be considerably less monstrous.
Where Annihilation reimagines the physical, Arrival reimagines the temporal. Amy Adams plays Louise, a scientist who is on the front lines of first contact with extraterrestrial “heptapods” who seem to come in peace but face a barrier of miscommunication. Through a combination of linguistic expertise and patient trust, Louise learns their language just in time to prevent military action, and in the meantime, she gains a new experience of time. Hers is no longer a linear advance into an unknown future. Among other things, the film affords the opportunity to reimagine the relationship of time to eternity.
Like Annihilation, Arrival represents the transformation as troubling or uncanny, and therein lies its sense of temporal discontinuity. As Louise begins to know the future the same way she knows the past, in her present memory, as it were, the discontinuity is felt at the level of basic untenability. Could people experience events in a human way if they knew the ending? Could they in any meaningful sense be said to be free? To their credit, both the film and the short story keep these questions open by narrowing in on the problems more precisely.9
Rather than posing the problem of free will and foreknowledge as an abstraction, the film shows the characters interacting with these issues at the level of relationships. Louise’s departure from a linear advance into the unknown is troubling because of its ramifications for how she interacts with loved ones who are still in the dark. It is one thing for her to glimpse tragedy in her future family and still decide to go through with it, but it is another thing to make that decision without her future husband’s foreknowledge. The epistemological discontinuity is unsettling specifically because her new temporality is not shared by all, because it stretches trust between persons to the breaking point. And yet the film’s hopeful tone suggests this new temporality might not be so untenable if these issues of unequal trust and awareness are otherwise resolved.
What is theologically intriguing about this is that the new temporality in Arrival is neither an absence of our present temporality nor an infinite extension of our present temporality. The result is still difficult to imagine, but it might have the benefit of upholding the tension between time and eternity without collapsing one into the other. Does everlasting life mean ceasing to be a temporal creature? If “eternity is uncreated, and therefore is the divine essence itself,”as Darren Sumner explains, then the question arises whether creatures must become eternal in order to participate in eternal life.10 When creaturely time is projected into eternity it is often the case that one cancels the other out, but Arrival’s imaginative resistance to this is eschatologically evocative.
If eternal life entails creaturely participation in the divine life, it need not be the case that creatures are brought across the infinite qualitative distinction between God and creation for an experience that has no resemblance to the historical life they once had. It may be best to imagine our participation in eternal life ascreatures in a new but still creaturely way.
As Arrival unfolds within this imaginative trajectory, the continuities it preserves are rather compelling. It is significant that Louise’s alternative experience of time comes with her patient and trusting communication with others (literally aliens) whose language she learns from scratch. The film clearly recommends the collaborative cosmopolitanism of her transformation. Louise emerges from the experience with much to teach the world about the “universal language” that enabled her to defy the militaristic (and typically masculine) impulses around her. Her remembrance of the end enables her to cooperate across geopolitical boundaries not only with the Chinese General Shang but with extraterrestrial others.
If there is an agreed upon criticism of the film, it is that it is relatively slow for today’s audience. However, it is precisely this patience that offers the meaningful twist in the alien-invasion genre. Louise’s moments of unhurried trust are vital to the breakthrough she gains. In the midst of panic, distrust, enmity, self-interest, and pragmatism, it is a miracle that Louise and the extraterrestrials find the time to communicate at all. But they do find the time, and that is what opens them up to an exchange that is socially constructive not just on a human but a cosmic scale.
In the ecosystemic detox of Annihilation and the heptapod-expanded temporality of Arrival,it has not gone unnoticed by critics that the imaginative expeditions are spearheaded by women.11 Where modern imaginations shaped by patriarchal assumptions have created cinematic universes predominantly headed up by supermen, there is still a place for the feminism of science fiction and for an eschatological reimagination.
For this reason, Arrival and Annihilation make intriguing companions to Beth Felker Jones’s 2007 Marks of His Wounds: Gender Politics and Bodily Resurrection.In Felker Jones’s view, revisiting patriarchal gender roles “serves as a striking test case” for eschatology, exposing the ways that “dreadfully distorted sinful caricatures” have permeated the social and eschatological imagination to a deleterious effect. If tradition has tended to prioritize the soul over the body, it has also tended to uphold autonomy over interdependence, with knock-on effects for the imagined resurrection. As she puts it, the idealization of bodily autonomy engenders “a false peace that, rather than deal with the messiness of the body, destroys it. . . . If God is to redeem us and not annihilate us, difference will be integral to our redemption.”12
What if the final resurrection is not a transformation into self-sufficient superbodies but instead a redemptive entry into properly differentiated interdependence? What if such a communion is the manifest way God’s love is perfected and expressed, not just now but in eternity? Imagining this is difficult, but I have found these filmsto be helpfully unsettling, even to the unsettling of some of my fears. If apeirophobia is fear of an existence that goes on forever, perhaps it is a fear that calls for the continual reimagining of existence and eternal life in light of Christ’s resurrection—not so that the imagination can curve back in on itself but so that failures of imagination can be continually dislodged and reopened to new creation.
Jon Coutts is assistant professor of Christian theology at Ambrose University in Calgary, Canada. Before teaching at Ambrose, he pastored in Canada, completed a PhD under John Webster in Aberdeen, Scotland, and taught ethics in Bristol, England. He has published essays on several Coen brother films, and his books include A Shared Mercy and Church Leadership.