Photo from The Twilight Zone episode “Time Enough at Last.” (Bureau of Industrial Service, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)
In this life and the next, sin has consequences. We do no favors by telling anyone otherwise.
In one classic episode of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone, the viewer is introduced to Anthony Fremont, a little boy with an amazing power: whatever Anthony wishes to happen, happens. Sadly, the young protagonist’s exceptional power is used only for terrible evil. His goal seems to be maximizing the unhappiness of others. He tortures, murders, and sends poor souls to the mysterious “cornfield,” a miserable wasteland of death. He also manipulates nature, creating strange and frightening animals, but when the animals turn on him, he kills them. To some, Anthony’s malignance may seem inexplicable, at least at first. But as the story unfolds, the reasons become all too clear.
The people around Anthony universally assure him after every heinous act: “It’s good that you’ve done that! It’s real good!” There was presumably a time when Anthony’s parents could have taught him right from wrong. There might have been a time when Anthony heard the whispers of conscience, but that inner voice was shouted down by a cacophonous chorus of approval. Parents, friends, and neighbors compete to be the first to tell Anthony that he has “done good.”
And then they wonder why he has done bad.
Watching the Twilight Zone—a show that displayed Serling’s great insights into human nature and of Western society in the mid-twentieth century—I sometimes wonder what he would think about today’s culture, insofar as it largely refuses to accept the concepts of right and wrong in any meaningful sense. Yes, we all feel confident criticizing our political foes for wrongdoing, but even those criticisms are subjective rather than objective. That is, you might hear someone criticizing a politician for cheating on his wife, but that same critic may be unable to say why adultery itself is wrong.
Why is the modern world so unwilling to address the concepts of right and wrong? The answer might be that if one admits to the reality of right and wrong, he might logically proceed to ask questions that he’d prefer not to answer. Questions like, Why is good, good and evil, evil? Is there a true moral order, independent of time and place? Is it wrong, for example, to rob someone; and if it is wrong today, will it still be wrong tomorrow? If robbery is declared legal by a court, does it go from bad to good?
Regarding The Twilight Zone’s miscreant: Is it wrong to send people to the “cornfield” or not? If there is an immutable morality—if dispatching innocent souls to oblivion is wrong today, tomorrow and always—where does that morality come from? And if that answer does not lie in the Book of Genesis, what is the genesis of morality?
Such questions usually lead to the talk of a Divine Being, but that discussion is often quickly dispelled. While it might be an overstatement to say that we are not allowed to talk about God in the public square, it would be an understatement to say that there are only slight repercussions for doing so. To invoke the name of God on the national stage is tantamount to inviting criticism and accusations of mental illness. In recent days, for instance, members of the Philadelphia Eagles were criticized for mentioning God; and many were criticized for praising the Super Bowl victors for mentioning God. A few days later, a disgruntled former member of the Trump administration said that Vice President Mike Pence says that Jesus talks to him, leading talk show host Joy Behar to respond, “It’s one thing to talk to Jesus. It’s another thing when Jesus talks to you. That’s called mental illness if I’m not correct.” (Presumably, Behar made a Freudian slip, meaning instead “if I’m not mistaken.”)
Why are those who talk about God dismissed and mocked? For that matter, why are the notions of immutable right and wrong scoffed at? On some level, it is easy to guess why. If immutable morality does not exist, we and our actions are ultimately answerable to no one because there is no ultimate judgment, and some people like that idea. If you claim that God does not exist, the reasons to avoid many Anthony-esque actions are tenuous at best, and the concept of “good” would not only be largely unattractive, but would also be nearly impossible to define. There’s no point having a talk with Anthony because you have no idea what to tell him.
But if God does exist—if there is an unchangeable Source of moral truth—then we must ultimately answer to Him. That thought of meeting God might be frightening to a world clutching to an insistent expectation of final nothingness, but to the Christian, that means hope and an expectation of everything-ness. It means the embrace of God, Who loves us, desires union with us, and wills perfect happiness for us.
And on that score, we might make another observation. Anthony Fremont believed that his little games were fun—that his manipulations of nature and his vicious actions would make him happy. But as it turned out, he was making himself miserable. With every sin, he was just sinking deeper into an abyss of unhappiness. That’s a universal observation. While it might be presumptive to claim that every single virtuous action always and immediately makes us happier, we can certainly conclude that vice makes us, and everyone around us, increasingly unhappy and unfulfilled. Even leaving aside the thought of an afterlife, the performance of vice in this life is often its own punishment. And we do no favors by telling anyone otherwise. As Mr. Serling might put it, that’s a lesson for children, parents and societies—in and out of The Twilight Zone.