John Locke is Dead.
John stands on the edge of the table and threads a red extension cord around a beam in the ceiling. He ties a noose at one end and slowly places it around his neck. Exhausted and emotionally broken, he steps to the edge of the table and takes one final breath. The door bursts open. “John, what are you doing?” Ben inches his way closer to him, arms outstretched. “I’m a failure,” John whimpers. Ben lowers himself to his knees and looks up at him. “John, you can’t die. You’ve got too much work to do. We’ve got to get you back to that island so that you can do it.” Ben slowly reaches for the extension cord and unties it from the wall. John sits at the edge of the table, buries his face in his hands, and quietly sobs. “I know we can do this, John,” Ben says. He takes his arm and helps him to a wheelchair. John turns and slumps into it. In a flash Ben jerks the extension cord around John’s neck and pulls it tight. The last thought that enters John’s mind is: “I don’t understand.”
This is how John Locke dies. Betrayed and murdered at the end of a fruitless mission sparked by a mysterious figure he mistook to be someone else. But why did this happen to Locke? What events led him to the hotel room where he would meet his tragic end? And how does the story of one of LOST’s most tragic characters relate to the Christian faith?
ABC’s LOST is a tale of broken people finding personal redemption and hope after surviving a plane crash on a mysterious island. As the castaways struggle to survive they are also confronted by demons from their past. In the aftermath of the crash, we are introduced to a character named John Locke: a lonely paraplegic working at a box company. Shortly after he was born he was abandoned by his mother, raised in foster care, and later betrayed by his biological father. Through flashbacks we witness Locke’s struggles to find a sense of belonging and self-worth. Repeatedly throughout his life people tell him that he is not capable of doing certain things. His high school teacher tells him, “That’s who you are, John. You can’t be the prom king. You can’t be the quarterback.” An Australian travel agent prohibits Locke from participating in a walkabout tour, telling him that, because he’s in a wheelchair, he can’t do it.
In the face of serious challenges, Locke develops the oft-used retort, “Don’t tell me what I can’t do!” His moxie in the face of adversity endears him to us. We want him to participate in the walkabout. We want him to find his place and succeed. And when we discover that he has regained the ability to walk on the island we cry and cheer for him all at once.
After the plane crash Locke wakes up on the beach to discover his paralysis is gone. But this is only the beginning of the island’s mysteries. Dead relatives suddenly appear to some of the castaways. A polar bear crashes through the jungle seemingly out of nowhere. And a black pillar of smoke emerges from the forest threatening to kill them all. As a self-professed “man of faith” Locke believes the island is causing unexplainable things to happen. But what is exactly taking place?
As the show progresses, we discover that two figures possessing mysterious power are struggling for control of the island. The pillar of smoke is actually one of the figures, otherwise known as the Man in Black (MiB), who has the ability to change his appearance to suit his purposes. MiB’s adversary, his twin brother Jacob, is the island’s protector. As MiB plans to destroy the island, Jacob looks to ensure its protection by orchestrating certain events to bring potential successors to the island. The crash of Locke’s plane is one of those events. The audience discovers later that Locke (and several of the other castaways) is a potential candidate for Jacob’s replacement.
Initially, Locke appears to have a spiritual connection with the island. He seems to know exactly when (and how long) it will rain. He has vivid dreams that lead him to particular places and people that slowly help to unravel the island’s mysteries. Some of the castaways begin to look to him as an authority figure. But something goes horribly wrong for Locke; that is, his faith ultimately leads him down a path of destruction.
The Wrong Jacob
As was previously mentioned, Jacob and the MiB are locked in a struggle for control of the island. In order to accomplish his goal to escape, the MiB must kill Jacob and every last one of his potential successors. Clearly, he is the villain of this story. Locke meets the MiB as he’s hunting boar early on in the show. In the form of smoke he has already killed some of the castaways, but abruptly stops short of killing Locke. Locke turns and stares directly into the smoke, later describing his experience this way: “I’ve looked into the eye of this island and what I saw was beautiful.” This experience (and others) leads him to conclude that the island is orchestrating the events that are occurring. He even begins to refer to the island as if it were a person, saying, “The island will tell us,” “The island brought us here,” and, “The island will send us a sign.” Locke’s faith in the island ultimately leads him to a cabin in the woods where he meets a mysterious figure he believes to be Jacob. But there’s a problem. The person he expects to be Jacob is actually the MiB in disguise; and he’s not interested in answering Locke’s questions other than to send him on a journey that gets Locke thrown off the island (and eventually killed).
Now, Locke is very spiritual; of that there is no doubt. But his beliefs are more akin to eastern spirituality rather than Christian faith. His first mistake is to attribute intentionality to an island when minds are the only things that possess intentionality; and, as it turns out, Jacob and the MiB are the ones intending to orchestrate events, not the island. So while this truth bears out as the show progresses, Locke entirely misses the point as he pursues his own spiritual connection. Instead of drawing the conclusion that the MiB (in the form of smoke) is dangerous in light of the fact that he is killing castaway members left and right, Locke believes him to be friendly putting himself in harm’s way twice and nearly escaping with his life.
This brand of experience-led or feelings-based spirituality has little use for rationality or logic. This is why Locke tells Jack, “You’re a man of science. Me, I’m a man of faith.” This particular characterization unnecessarily divides rational thinking (i.e. science) and belief as if they can only exist at two separate extremes from each other. Much like the eastern spiritualist who typically discards rationality in order to achieve enlightenment, so Locke shuns the idea that one can be rational (and, therefore, questioning) and have faith at the same time. This egregious mistake in worldview proves fatal as Locke is finally killed in a hotel room as the ultimate consequence of his beliefs.
Noting these elements of Locke’s story helps us to consider an important Christian value that undergirds our faith: We must come to the right conclusions about God.
Worship in Truth
In John 4:22 Jesus draws an important distinction between worshiping “what [we] do not know” and “what we know”. This is because God seeks those people who worship Him in truth (v. 23). Therefore, “those who worship God must worship in spirit and truth” (v. 24). But why would Jesus say this? Remember, there is another who disguises himself as an “angel of light” (2 Corinthians 11:14) and whose servants disguise themselves as “servants of righteousness” (v. 15). He is the “god of this world” (2 Corinthians 4:4), the deceiver (Revelation 12:9) who actively seeks to “steal and kill and destroy” (John 10:10). So the first reason Jesus says we must worship in truth is that it is possible to be worshiping the wrong person if we’re not careful. The same God who encourages His people to love Him with all of their minds (Mark 12:30) teaches that this entails identifying and engaging with false ideas (2 Corinthians 10:5). So exercising the mind and using it to get at the truth is an important Christian value.
The second reason we must worship in truth is because if we are not worshiping what is true (i.e. the one true God) then we are not worshiping Jesus. Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). He also said, “Unless you believe that I AM [i.e. Yahweh of the Old Testament], you shall die in your sins” (8:24). One of the most important aspects of this passage is often overlooked; that is, Jesus is speaking to an audience that already believes in Him in some form or another. But belief in some kind of vague or generic capacity is not enough. We have to know which person we believe in and worship or else our efforts are misdirected. Jesus doesn’t ask His apostles in Matthew 16:15 who they say He is for no reason; it is of the utmost importance that they (and we) figure it out, or else all is lost (pardon the pun).
Now, consider how the show plays this out: Jacob wants to save the island but the MiB wants to destroy it. So the MiB disguises himself and convinces others to do what he wants. When the MiB enlists Locke to help him in his plan, he disguises himself as a messenger of Jacob and allows Locke to believe that he is doing what Jacob wants. But this lie is designed to get Locke and all the rest of Jacob’s potential successors killed.
John Locke is ultimately a television parable; a figure whose tragic death arises out of putting his faith in the wrong Jacob. His story reminds us of why it is important to draw good conclusions in our faith and worship. In other words we must “Be alert and of sober mind” (1 Peter 5:8) to ensure that we are worshiping the one true God in spirit and truth.