If you like children’s literature, you’ll know Lemony Snicket’s (Daniel Handler’s) A Series of Unfortunate Events. Handler’s series tells the story of the Baudelaire orphans: Violet, Klaus, and Sunny. In each book, these siblings encounter a dire situation, are rescued from it, and then have another even more dire, more unfortunate situation thrust upon them. Handler’s use of humor and historical allusions is entertaining, but his children’s books are strange because the sense of injustice and hopelessness never seems to let up.
Nowhere is this truer than in the fifth book when the three orphans visit Prufrock Preparatory School. Everything about Prufrock Prep reeks of death. The strict, yet wickedly unfair, vice-principal is a man named Nero (who plays the fiddle!). The school’s mascot is a dead horse. The campus was designed to look like a graveyard. And the school motto is Memento Mori, a Latin phrase that translates as, “Remember you will die.”
Prufrock Prep reminds me of the middle section of Ecclesiastes 3. Here the Teacher sees injustice all around him, and he makes a statement that reads like hopeful faith… at first, declaring that God will judge all people, both the righteous and the wicked (Ecclesiastes 3:16–17). He then undermines any hope for justice he may have kindled: “People have no advantage over animals,” he observes; both end in the grave, so “everything is futile” (v.19). “Who knows,” the Teacher asks, “if the spirits of the children of Adam go upward and the spirits of animals go downward to the earth?” (v.21). From his merely human perspective, it’s impossible to know what happens after death. In the end, “all come from dust, and all return to dust” (v.20). In essence: Enjoy your life while you can, but don’t bother with hope.
Many Christians wrestle with why such skeptical words would be included in the Bible. Like Lemony Snickett, the Teacher’s hopelessness doesn’t seem to let up. Still, considering the futility of death isn’t just for skeptics and cynics. The Latin expression, memento mori, which Handler appropriated for Prufrock Prep, was first used by early Christians. Believers know it’s important to soberly remember death, to number our days so we gain a heart of wisdom (Psalm 90:12). In one sense, the Teacher is right: Our time is short; we should make the most of every moment.
Yet we don’t do this without hope. When we remember the curse of death (Genesis 3:19,15), we must also remember His promises. God didn’t leave us in the dust; He sent us a Savior who looked death in the face and lives! Because of Jesus, God’s Spirit one day will speak into our graves and give us resurrection life (1Corinthians 15:35–58). One day, we’ll look back at our lives and see they were more than a series of meaningless happenings. One day, our Savior Judge will bring justice, and the last enemy He’ll defeat will be death itself (v.26).
Written by Jared Kennedy