Being morbid, troubled, and intermittently teetering on the brink of insanity/suicide is an occupational hazard for many professional Existentialists. Another burr in their saddle is a dearth of entertainment choices congruent with their bleak outlook—is a novel still a “good book” if you enjoyed it, or is it only a worthy read if it upset you? Naturally, the movement embraced playwrights with a penchant for cynical subtleties that they recognized as a palatable substitute for humor.
This is the context in which French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre’s play “No Exit” made a splash in the tepid pond of Existential academia. For a man who occasionally believed he was being chased by a giant lobster (I kid you not), in his more lucid moments Sartre possessed an ability to articulate cynicism in a winsome way. Allow me to present the synopsis of the play in a way that the writer and his friends would cringe at—that is, briefly.
“No Exit” is about three characters, in a room, who start to chat. That is the entire play.
What you discover from the dialogue—if you stay awake— is that they are dead people and the shared room represents Hell. They start off relieved that there is none of the anticipated torture. As the play progresses, they begin to get snippy with one another, bored of each other’s company, and eventually so totally frustrated, exasperated, and desperately unhappy with each other that the stage is set for Sartre’s infamous punch line:
L’enfer c’est les autres…Hell is other people.”
Though this depiction of Hell is grossly underestimating the actual torment of the place as revealed in Scripture, Sartre’s point should not be missed. The problem with the world is not what happens to us, as much as what happens because of us.
James 4:1 What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? 2 You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask.
Recently, a conversation with my six-year-old son brought a rueful smile to my face. He insisted that we South Africans live in the safest country on earth. He listed the many perils that buffet the planet, but from which our remote nook of real estate is exempt: earthquakes, hurricanes, volcanoes, avalanches, blizzards, tsunamis, and famine. (Gotta love National Geographic documentaries).
Our nation has also serendipitously been spared many fearful atrocities such as genocide, invasion, nuclear fallout, civil war, and even coups d’états (quite an accomplishment considering the fates of many in our volatile continental neighborhood).
We could easily boast in this safety if it weren’t for one minor factor that negates all the others: us. Our problems are almost entirely generated by our own population.
The stratospheric rate of violent crime (especially murder, rape, and armed robbery/hijacking) is not some unstoppable incursion from a malicious invader; it’s a product manufactured locally. The tragic AIDS epidemic is proliferated with gusto by our own populace. The silent genocide of abortion is entirely a matter of choice, aided by legislation. Economy-crippling corruption is a disease our voters voluntarily injected into the government’s bloodstream. And sadly, the same can be said about any country to one degree or another.
Recall the biblical diagnosis of mankind before the deluge: “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Gen 6:5). A cynic could be excused for suggesting that the best way for God to make our world safe, is another a ctl-alt-del reboot on society and get rid of all the sinners. But God has a better strategy, and again it is… us.
Christians are to be the salt of the earth and light in the darkness. As a Premillennialist I am sometimes tempted to disengage from the chaos of this world and binge on escapist rapture fiction novels (not really). Since I believe that this world cannot be “fixed” until the return of Christ, who will reverse the Curse, make all things new, and make the world into what it should be, I could fall into the error of fatalism–the very trait I deplore in Existentialists.
My species of “optimistic fatalism” is not disheartening. I believe that that things will one day be perfect; just not on my watch. This begets a biblical emphasis on the gospel mandate and an eternal perspective, but should not have the unnecessary side-effect of displacing my responsibility to engage (within reason) in the amelioration of society. Some are gifted in, and drawn to politics, environmentalism, or social welfare. Christians should be good stewards of this type of calling, just as Nehemiah’s passion to rebuild a wall to the glory of God fueled his worship.
Activists who focus on an ongoing face-lift for Mother Nature are falling off one side of the horse–meaning in life is not derived from this world. But the inactivity of those who are so heavenly minded that they see earth as good-for-nothing, are falling off the opposite side of the same error.
Much of the world’s problems stem from its inhabitants. But much of the solution grows out of the same soil. Please don’t think I’m humming the tune to “We are the World” or approving Avatar, I’m just saying that disengaging from the world may accelerate its spiritual deterioration, proving the Existentialists right.
Premilennial theology is not about focussing on an escape from earth to live in the Kingdom. It should also be about tending the garden we now live in. In a sense I’m saying we should live with hope that Jesus will fix our world, we should look forward to our departure to be with Him forever, but we should live and work in this life, on this earth, as if there were…well…no exit.