Posted by: Ken Brown | March 10, 2010

LOST: Is the Island Purgatory?

Ben digs his own grave.

Ben digs his own grave.

Judging by the comments on this recent post, the afterlife has been a hot topic lately (no pun intended). I’ve been busy on my thesis and haven’t found much time to join in, but a lot of the conversation has centered around whether God (if God exists) would ever give up trying to save the lost, even after death. The argument has mainly been about universalism, but as Jeremy Thompson noted on Twitter, the issue is closely related to the concept of purgatory. After all, if you can ever get out of hell, then what it was you called hell would really be more like purgatory anyway. Thus, C.S. Lewis explicitly equates hell and purgatory in The Great Divorce. The difference, he suggests, is simply one of perspective: if you see it as the end, then it may become so, but if you trust in God to get you out of it, you just might (by the way, I once explored a similar possibility in a short story, here).

All of which brings me to LOST. One of the earliest theories about the show was that the Island is purgatory, that the passengers aboard Oceanic Flight 815 actually died in the crash, and now must be redeemed from their sins before they can move on to the next life. There were a variety of details in the early seasons that seemed to confirm this. For instance, Jack told Kate in the second episode, Tabula Rasa, “It doesn’t matter what we did before this, before the plane crashed. Three days ago, we all died. We all deserve a second chance.” Other characters made similar comments at various points, and there was even a tie-in book called Bad Twin, written under the pen-name “Gary Troup” (an anagram for purgatory), which discussed purgatory, second chances and redemption extensively. Characters known to have died off the Island (like Jack’s father) were sometimes seen, apparently alive, on the Island, and many of those who died on the Island (i.e. passed on to heaven?) seemed to experience some kind of redemption just prior to doing so.

The trouble is, show-creator Damon Lindelof himself has rejected this theory on several occasions, and subsequent seasons have seemingly ruled it out. The Oceanic 6 were rescued and returned to LA, which clearly was not heaven, then went back to the Island again. The dead characters we have seen were, apparently, not themselves at all, but manifestations of the Smoke Monster, and it is far from clear that everyone who dies on the Island was in any sense virtuous or redeemed. Thus, it seems clear that comments such as Jack’s need to be understood metaphorically rather than literally.

But metaphorical does not necessarily mean incorrect. After all, the show is practically dripping with symbolism, from Locke’s game of Backgammon in the Pilot (“two players, two sides; one is light, and one is dark…”) to the magic mirrors in the Lighthouse, we hardly need to think that the Island is literally purgatory to view it as a metaphor for purgatory, and the trajectory of the final season might well support such a theory (spoiler warning through last night’s episode, Dr. Linus).

So far we have seen “flash sideways” for Kate, Locke, Jack, Sayid and Ben, and with the possible exception of Sayid, all of these “sideways world” story-lines have been redemptive. Kate escapes from custody and helps Claire decide to keep her baby (even the creepy Other Ethan Goodspeed gets some redemption as Claire’s doctor). Locke learns to put his disability behind him and is about to marry the love of his life, Helen. Jack finally overcomes his daddy-issues through a son he never had before. And in last night’s brilliant and touching Dr. Linus, even Ben finally learns to put others ahead of himself.

Significantly, then, there have been a number of hints in these episodes that the sideways world is not just an alternative to the one we have so far followed, but is actually subsequent to it (Jeff Jensen has done a great job noting these connections in his recaps). Jack in particular has scars that he does not recall getting, but that we know he acquired on the Island. There is also the constant phenomenon of our characters running into one another in LA, highly coincidental in any world, but especially in light of how widely scattered their original homes were (Claire in Australia, Rousseau in France, Ben on the Island–yes, this episode confirmed that he really was on the Island, but left–and so on). Something more than coincidence seems to have drawn these people together, which suggests that their time on the Island was not simply erased by Jughead after all.

I suspect that the characters we are seeing in the sideways world are our characters, as they become through their ordeal on the Island. No, they do not remember their time there, but they were there, and are (for the most part?) better people because of it. In other words, we are seeing the show’s epilogue in advance: this is their “afterlife.” So no, the Island was not literally purgatory, and LA (the City of Angels!) is not literally heaven, but within the framework of a fantasy/sci-fi story, they fit the roles well enough for an allegory.

Thus, in last night’s episode we followed Ben, the arch-manipulator, as he finally reaches the end of his line. Ilana asks Miles “I Talk to Dead People” Straume how Jacob died, and when she learns it was Ben who killed him, she forces him to dig his own grave. Ben does so, though not without some final attempts at manipulation, trying to discredit and then bribe Miles. But Miles will not be bullied, and finally reveals Jacob’s last thought: “Right up until the second the knife went into his heart, he was hoping he was wrong about you.” Then Miles adds, “I guess he wasn’t.”

Yet this revelation has an unexpected impact on Ben, so when Pseudo-Locke later sets him loose and tells him to kill Ilana and join him at the Hydra, Ben doesn’t. Instead, he finally recognizes his guilt, admitting that he chose the Island over his own “daughter,” Alex, and that he killed Jacob because he was terrified that he was about the lose “the only thing that ever mattered to me, my power… because the only thing that really mattered was already gone.” So he does not kill Ilana, but asks to be allowed to go to Locke, “because he’s the only one who will have me.” And in one my my new favorite moments in the series, Ilana responds, “I’ll have you,” and leads him back to camp a new man. Thus, when sideways Ben is once again faced with the same choice between his own power and Alex’s future, this time he chooses her.

Last night’s episode also gave us another angle from which to understand this redemption. Ben tells Ilana that he sacrificed Alex for nothing (which might be true, but it was his own fault, not Jacob’s), and in this episode we learned that Richard Alpert has been entertaining similar doubts about his service to Jacob and the Island. Richard devoted his entire life to serving Jacob, who told him that he had a purpose and a plan, but now Jacob is dead, “so why do I want to die? Because I just found out my entire life had no purpose.” Richard, not unlike certain commenters around here who shall remain nameless, only sees the pain and death and despair in this world, and has lost hope in Jacob’s concern.

But then Richard meets Jack, and Jack has seen something else. He has looked into Jacob’s mirror and seen what he–a “man of science”–had been unwilling to see: proof that Jacob really has been watching and guiding all along. Jack still has “no idea why” Jacob has brought them here, but he can no longer believe that this has all been for nothing. Jacob does have a plan, and Jack is willing to bet his life on his new-found faith in that plan, even without knowing the outcome. I’m betting too, that in the end it will be precisely that plan–not Jughead–that brings all of these characters to their sideways “afterlife,” in which all of them have finally become the people they were meant to be. No, the world around them hasn’t been transformed into paradise–Kate is still on the run, Jack is divorced and his father is dead, Locke is still in a wheelchair–but they are different. They have found themselves, and most of all, they have learned to love and be loved.

As I said, however, there is a possible exception in Sayid, whose “sideways” fate is quite a bit more ambiguous than the others we have seen. Even this need not rule out the theory, however, as Sayid’s on-Island fate is equally ambiguous. After all, he is the only one of the five we have followed so far who has willingly joined Smokey in his murderous ways (the real John Locke doesn’t count, I think, as he is still dead on the Island). This leaves the possibility that sideways Sayid is not in “heaven” at all, but in hell: Unable to find redemption, Sayid is wracked by guilt and unable to escape his violent past, stuck watching his own brother raise a family with the love of Sayid’s life. Though he does have Nadia as his (in Jensen’s words) “moral compass,” or (in Edward’s words) “self-reflective mirror,” and so may not be beyond hope of redemption, his fate is far from certain as he coolly guns down sideways Keamy. Perhaps, as in Lewis’ parable, it is not yet clear whether the Island is hell or purgatory for Sayid. Thus, once again, I remain uncertain whether everyone can be saved, but like Jacob was about Ben, I hope I’m wrong about Sayid, for his sake, as for the rest of ours as well.



  1. Has any mixed up crazy plotline of a movie or series ever ended in a way that matches the feeling you get when you first start to sense just how crazy and dizzying things were growing? There’s always building expectation, followed by disappointment.

    I remember when George Lucas revealled the source of “the Force,” it was simply something you’re born with, that you inheret, tiny little “metachlorians” in the blood. Like ancient tales of “blue blooded” descendants of kings.
    I was disappointed. He turned a mystery into biology.

    I’ll make a prediction about LOST, since it’s Abram’s work, it will probably involve a red ball of energy of some sort like the last season of ALIAS or his movie STAR TREK.

    I’ll make a second prediction, if the mysteries are resolved in some fashion, say, “psychic powered beings,” or “aliens with advanced technologies,” or “holochambers,” and all the knots are tied up, or the earth is destroyed, or the cosmos sucked into a red ball, all such endings will disappoint.

    He’ll probably go for some ending in which a character or characters “THINK” they finally have discovered what’s been happening to them, and nearly all of the other islanders will agree, but one guy who says something like, “Yeah, but what about THIS thing that happened HERE, and doesn’t fit with your explanation!” But he’ll say it out of earshot or think it to himself, maybe they all will, just hoping that they have finally discovered the real reason for everything, but we the viewers will be privy to their inner doubts and questions. And that’s how it will probably end, with the mystery remaining, just like it began.

  2. I don’t know how much faith I have in JJ Abrams, but I’m fairly confident that Lindelof and Cuse will avoid such things. At the least, they have made it pretty clear that they are more interested in character arcs than in answering all our mythological questions. I hope that means they will refuse to resort to any MacGuffins, red or otherwise. 😉

  3. Great post, Ken.

    This theory – sideways world as second life – with your observations about Sayid – puts a new spin on his words to Nadia, that he was trying to make up for all the horrible things he’d done.

    I noted at the replay of Sundown that this wasn’t at all like Sayid’s flashbacks from seasons 1-3. It made no sense that Sayid would feel *more* guilt simply because Jacob wasn’t around to manipulate his life. But the reincarnation (Canton-Rainier) theory makes this comment more intriguing.

    On the other hand, we’ve got Dharma houses underwater and Roger Linus says he & Ben were there and left there. So Jughead may still be part of it. (But how’d Ben get from the Temple to the sub before Jughead went off?)

    In all, I’m just curious. Does your theory need to assume something other than Jughead is what sank the island?

    Thanks for the fun…

  4. My theory on Jughead is that it did what they wanted it to do: it neutralized the energy, therefore eliminating the need for the Swan station and preventing their plane from ever crashing. The unanticipated side effect, perhaps, would be that it was that very pocket of energy that was holding the Island above water (constantly moving, according to Eloise Hawking, which means it wasn’t a normal Island rooted to the bottom of the ocean… how that makes sense, I don’t know). Thus, energy eliminated=the Island sinks, but not necessarily instantaneously.

    As for my theory about the sideways being the afterlife (though I’m not sure I would even call it a theory, so much as an interesting analogy), that’s an interesting suggestion about reincarnation. I think the concept is variously understood, especially with regards to whether the identity of the person persists through reincarnation–some forms of Buddhism deny that the identity persists from moment to moment even within a lifetime–but there has certainly been as much Eastern religious symbolism as Western, and that could be another way of looking at what is going on here, if the “flash sideways” really are a kind of subsequent reality. Frankly, I doubt the show will ever make explicit how exactly we get from one to the other, but Juliet’s final words in the season premier still seem like the strongest evidence that the sideways world was somehow created by the events on the Island, and is not simply parallel to it. How that will actually play out is anyone’s guess.

  5. A slow sinking! I should have thought of that.

    You do know the van Ben drove around in during season 5 had an anagram for reincarnation on the side of it. I think in one of those same episodes, they pointed out that Claire gave birth the same night Boon died.

    But I was just thinking it was all about the blonde boy Sawyer saw… until this post. But I’m not thinking the sideways is “reincarnation” any more than you’re thinking the island is “purgatory”.

    My guess is they time travel again, further back to before Jughead, and they replace Jacob *then*.

  6. I appreciate those ideas. Theologically, since I began to see the meaning of eons, vs. eternity in the Greek, the idea of God continuing his reconciliation of the universe beyond the grave.

  7. You were right!

  8. Sure glad I didn’t check my mail 2 hours ago, James; You know some of us live on the West Coast!

    You should see the flood of people googling this post tonight, but was I right, or not? I’m still processing.

  9. […] Oh, and I was right?! […]

  10. Do Muslim believe in the purgatory? I mean Sayid Jarrah is muslim right… a… wait, what? Eh, I still liked it!

  11. I think it was purgatory, despite what the writers say. The whole story has way too many ties to Dante’s “Purgatorio”. From The island, to the escape back to the real world, to the redemption of sins and being able to go to heaven. Im really surprised no one has suggested this yet.

    • I suspect they always intended the Island to be purgatory, but didn’t expect viewers to figure it out as quickly as they did in the first season, so they backed off of it a bit and then brought it back at the end in a different form.

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