'Lost' in the eternal lite

When describing the mysterious concept called purgatory, the Catechism of the Catholic Church starts with the basics. "All who die in God's grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven," the text states. "The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification. ... The tradition of the Church, by reference to certain texts of Scripture, speaks of a cleansing fire."

Alas, any distressed "Lost" viewers who rushed to the Vatican website after the show's finale found no insights about the smoke monster, the Dharma Initiative, that mysterious "4 8 15 16 23 42" sequence or why the fate of the world depended on a pool of light on one very strange island.

At least one member of the U.S. Catholic hierarchy has owned up to being tuned into the "Lost" phenomenon from the beginning. At the end, all Archbishop John J. Myers of Newark could do was understate the obvious.

"I've enjoyed the series, considering it to be akin to science fiction," he noted, reacting to the raging debates about the religious symbols and language that dominated the final moments. "While the Catholic Church does believe in Purgatory, I'm not sure that the series presents an accurate understanding of our beliefs."

Before the finale, the scribes who had been running "Lost" -- Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse -- said their creation would end by focusing on how the Oceanic Flight 815 survivors answered ultimate questions about the wounds, conflicts and sins in their pasts. The key word, they agreed, was "redemption." All of that pain and suffering had a purpose.

The final episode blended together lots of vague theology, philosophy, pop psychology, religious symbols and references to popular books and movies. Think of it as "Our Town" meets "The Sixth Sense," with dashes of "Ghost," "Field of Dreams," "It's a Wonderful Life" and, at the last minute, a comforting nod to "All Dogs Go to Heaven."

After years of flashing back and forth in time, the final year's action centered on events in two parallel time sequences -- the climactic battle to determine the island's fate and a purgatorial "sideways" timeline in which the characters gained insights into their troubled lives, before and after the fateful crash.

At the end, the castaways gathered in a church sanctuary for one last group hug before entering eternity -- an ocean of bright light outside the exit doors. The big chat explaining these final events -- reuniting the show's Christ figure, Jack Shephard, with his father, Christian Shephard -- was lit by a stained-glass window containing symbols of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism.

But was the show, as some had theorized all along, actually built on the concept of purgatory? Hadn't Lindelof told the New York Times in 2006: "People who believe that they're in purgatory or that they're subjects of an experiment are going to start reassessing those theories. ..." The creator of "Lost," J.J. Abrams, had denied the purgatory theory, too.

The finale's spirituality shocked many critics, including one or two who were so upset that they retroactively (flash backward) dismissed "Lost" as a whole. But veteran Washington Post writer Hank Stuever, drawing on his Catholic school past, said it's time to admit the obvious.

In the final five minutes, "I realized that the purgatory camp had been right all along, that Occam’s razor (the simplest solution is usually the correct one) had worked," he argued. "Oceanic 815 crashed. Some of its souls awoke in a realm that is neither heaven nor hell. It's limbo. ... Jack Shephard and his fellow travelers were brought there to resolve a number of problems between heaven and hell."

But some Catholic viewers struggled to reconcile their church's teachings with the limitations of a product created in Hollywood, a place that has its own definitions of terms such as "sin," "repentance," "redemption" and "savior."

Now, the creators of "Lost" have offered a glimpse of purgatory -- lite.

"From a theological point of view -- well, you can't have 'purgatory' per se without God, without Christ," said Amy Welborn, a popular online Catholic commentator. "But given a vague, non-specific Christ-less spirituality, I really don't see an argument that the sideways realities in the final episode, at least, weren't meant to be purgatory."

Island of 'Lost' souls

It's getting harder to visit office water coolers without hearing the whispers of the "Lost" disciples who are bracing for the end of the world as they know it. The same thing is happening during coffee hours in religious congregations of every shape and size, which is a testimony to the complexity of the religious themes and symbols embedded deep in the show's mythology. Tough theological questions have circled the island of the castaways ever since the fateful crash of Oceanic Flight 815.

Do absolute moral truths exist? Do good intentions ever justify evil acts? Does real love always lead to self-sacrifice? Can faith and reason coexist or even mesh? Can people change or are they doomed to commit the same sins over and over? What does it mean to be saved? To be delivered?

Some questions are more plot specific. Biblically speaking, what would happen if a patriarch named Jacob was killed by a brother who may or may not be named Esau? Why do some of the island's inhabitants occasionally speak Latin? What is the significance of the fact that most of the characters had horrible fathers? Where do the female survivors get all those tight-fitting tank tops?

" 'Lost' is a religious parable with obvious biblical references trying desperately not to be a religious parable," according to Catholic writer Roberto Rivera y Carlo, who is best known for his work with the evangelical apologist Charles Colson.

"The religion that has been most straightforwardly stated on the show has been straight-no-chaser Christianity. People pray like evangelical Christians or faithful Catholics. There's no kumbaya-style religion. … Ultimately, 'Lost' is an exploration of free will versus determinism or human freedom versus predestination. Take your pick."

Let's see, the plots involve hope, doubt, reason, freedom, sin, virtue, salvation, damnation and seekers striving to find empirical evidence to back their often agonizing leaps of faith. No wonder there is a central character named John Locke, along with others named Milton, Hume, Rousseau and C.S. Lewis (a Charlotte Staples Lewis, this time around).

The men who have been running the program for most of its life -- Damon Lindelof, who is Jewish, and Carlton Cuse, a Catholic -- have called themselves "men of faith," while confessing that "Lost" has become a "mash-up" of their favorite Bible stories, college philosophy textbooks, fantasy novels and movies. Thus, it will be impossible to understand Sunday's finale without wrestling with its final, indeed ultimate, spiritual questions.

"If there’s one word that we keep coming back to, it's redemption," said Lindelof, in a New York Times interview that has caused waves of online fan discussions.

"It is that idea of everybody has something to be redeemed for and the idea that that redemption doesn't necessarily come from anywhere else other than internally. But in order to redeem yourself, you can only do it through a community."

In the end, it's almost impossible to say that "Lost" has one overarching theme, said the Rev. Chris Seay of Ecclesia Church in Houston, author of "The Gospel According to 'Lost.' " However, if forced to choose, he said it's clear that the central characters have been forced to realize that they cannot survive as selfish, isolated individuals -- they must "live together" or they are doomed to "die alone."

However, this also means they have had to confront the reality of their own flaws, he said. Over time, he said, the survivors learned that if they were going to be saved they would have to "fear the evils they find inside themselves more than they fear what is out there in that jungle." That's the kind of message that works in a pulpit, as well as on a large-screen television.

While "Lost" does contain its share of references to Eastern religions and direct references to Christian classics, Seay said recent episodes have reminded him of a defining event in the Hebrew Bible -- the Exodus of the people of Israel out of captivity in Egypt.

"In a way, these years on the island have been their time of wandering in the wilderness," he said. "They've had to learn how to live in forgiveness with one another, to face their own sins and find some kind of healing and some hope for the future. ... You have to ask, what would a promised land look like for this set of characters?"