The Spoon isn’t Real
Movie night at a friend’s house twenty years on finally filled in those gaps. It’s great, isn’t it? Looks a little dated now, but it hasn’t aged badly, all told.
If you have somehow managed to miss even a vague grasp of the premise, look it up, but essentially our hero, Neo, discovers he’s been living in an artificial world all his life and he is the only person that can save humanity. Adventures ensue.
The resolution of these adventures relies on Neo being able to grasp the fact that the world of the matrix is just an illusion. He can bend a spoon with his thoughts not by compelling the spoon to bend, but by recognising that the spoon isn’t real. He can see the spoon; he can feel its weight and texture, he can even use it to eat with, but all these properties are just sensory impulses created by a computer (as is the food). Once he manages to get his mind around that, he can bend the spoon however he wants. He could presumably turn it into a fork, or a kangaroo or an aspidistra for that matter. It isn’t real, so it doesn’t have any obligation to obey the laws of physics.
Hold that thought.
To be or not to be
I seem to have been spending a lot of time in Philippians recently, and it’s rapidly becoming my favourite book of the Bible (when it isn’t Nehemiah, which it always is…). I love Paul’s soliloquy on death in chapter 1, which is such a fascinating contrast with Hamlet’s:
To be, or not to be- that is the question:
Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them. …
To die- to sleep.
To sleep- perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub!
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. There’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
Th’ oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of despis’d love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of th’ unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? Who would these fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death-
The undiscover’d country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns- puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
For Hamlet life, no matter how miserable, is preferable to death, purely because he fears death might be worse. Why would anyone wish to stay alive – enduring oppression, insult, rejection, injustice and more – if it wasn’t because death held a greater threat?
Here’s Paul’s reasoning:
I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labour for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, so that through my being with you again your boasting in Christ Jesus will abound on account of me. (Phil 1:20-24)
To be clear: I don’t believe Paul was considering ending his own life here. He had fully surrendered his life - its circumstances and its days - to God. God alone had the authority to take his life or to preserve it, no matter how desperate things got. And things were objectively desperate here - he genuinely was experiencing all the things Hamlet was fretting about: oppression, insult, rejection (though perhaps not unrequited love) and injustice. What’s more, he had been beaten by actual whips, not just the whips of time. Multiple times. It wouldn’t be surprising if he sometimes thought of ending it all. But that isn’t the point of this passage. It’s not about wishing he no longer had to endure this life, but longing to be with the Lord he loved.
Death held no fear for him, because he knew what awaited on the other side – Jesus. Jesus was on this side, too (for me to live is Christ…), but on the other side was an even closer relationship with him, the chance to see him and worship him in all his glory, not the ‘glass darkly’ version Paul knew we are seeing here.
Paul was absolutely convinced that death was better than life – not because life was so awful, but because no matter how good it got, being with his saviour would be better by far.
So why would he stay? If Hamlet thinks the only thing keeping us here is fear, why would you stay when you have no fear? Because second only to his passionate love for Christ was his passionate love for others. “It is more necessary for you that I remain in the body,” he says, so that’s what he’ll do.
It is clear throughout Philippians that Paul’s primary goal is God’s glory, with the health, joy, love and maturity of the church running it a close second. Paul’s chains, his discomfort, his lack of freedom, the insults, abuse, beatings, mockery, snake bites, shipwrecks…etc, etc, etc… they barely registered with him.
That’s partly because he was willing to endure anything if it meant Christ was glorified, but I think too it is because he knew this world isn’t really the real thing. The chains aren’t real.
The perishable becomes imperishable
For Hamlet, the world was awful, but the nightmare of death could be worse. For Paul, the world was temporary, fading away, perishable. His troubles were ‘light and momentary’. He had experienced for himself that God could make seeing eyes blind and blind eyes see, that he could make prisons shake and chains disintegrate, that he could make poisonous snake bites no worse than a pin-prick.
He knew from eye witnesses that Jesus had turned water into wine, had made five loaves and two fish feed over 5,000 people (with more left over than he started with), had walked on water and through locked doors, had calmed seas and produced miraculous catches of fish. And of course he knew from the scriptures that God created the world, set its physical laws in place, then broke them at will, parting the Red Sea, turning the Nile to blood, raining down sulphur on Sodom and Gomorrah, sending rains, withholding rains, multiplying oil, stopping the sun in the sky…
This world we see is not an illusion – it’s not just a matrix of electrical stimuli tricking our brains into thinking they can see, hear, taste and touch – but neither is it the full reality. It has laws, but they are not immutable. Many martyrs have been consumed by fire, but Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were able to walk through it unharmed. Most believers sink in water, but Peter walked on its surface. Jesus told us that faith the size of a mustard seed could move mountains – how little would it take to bend a simple soup spoon? He said we would do greater things than him, because he has given us dominion over all the earth – including its physical laws. They are subservient to us now, in accordance with his will.
I’m not saying that physicality is irrelevant. Far from it. Our bodies, our biology and our interaction with the world we perceive through our senses tell us truths, but the truths they tell are of a deeper reality – the physical world is true, but it also points us to what is more true. In the same way that marriage is both real and a picture of Christ and the church, so this world is both real and but a shadow of that which is to come.
When we understand that, neither life nor death can hold any fear for us.
For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:
“Death is swallowed up in victory.” “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?”
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labour is not in vain. (1 Cor 15:53-58)
The sting isn’t real.