Whenever I watch something geeky my Dad always sarcastically asks: "Is it about real life and real people?" But the thing that science fiction "haters" always ignore about science fiction is that it's never about the aliens. All the cool technology, space dogfights, shields to maximum, giant robots, green creatures, "Make It So" and ice planets are all just spectacle. Enjoyable, to see the heights of human imagination, but ultimately second place to what makes science fiction great.
The same thing that makes War and Peace a great novel makes The City and the Stars by Arthur C. Clarke great. The greatness of The Count of Monte Cristo is the same greatness of the Hyperion space saga. We applaud these books for what they have to tell us about the nature and being of humanity.
All good stories rest on this point. But what makes science fiction so interesting is that it offers us views and thoughts on humanity via displacement. By removing the ordinary and inserting us into the extraordinary we are removed from are usual touchstones of reality and become, without even being aware of it, all the more open to new ideas. As the setting is removed from the norm so our preconceptions are not immediately engaged.
Gattica, for example, is a fascinating essay on GM babies and the consequences for society were it to become normalised. Doctor Who is humanist propaganda (yet I love it anyway). Battlestar Galactica explored just about every issue under the sun (or indeed beyond it).
The reason I consider Family to be the best Star Trek The Next Generation episode ever is because it is about a man struggling with guilt and another man struggling with his relationship with his adoptive parents. The fact that the guilt comes from being turned into a Borg and turned against Starfleet or that it is a Klingon struggling with his relationship with his human parents is entirely incidental. All that matters is that as a human being I can identify with the humanity of wrestling with guilt and wrestling with relationships. Science fiction is always about real life and real people. Even though it isn't.
All this is a long winded introduction to the Star Trek Voyager episode Repentance. Just reading the episode name got me excited because it's a nice bold topic to explore. In the episode the crew of Voyager rescue a group of alien prisoners condemned to be executed by their government for murder. Voyager has to help transport these prisoners despite the fact that they view the death penalty as repulsive. Queue story arc of the most violent criminal finding redemption and the nice criminal turning out to being a horrible person.
But while this double switchero might be a little cliché, along the way a whole host of interesting questions are raised. And while the episode might be a little too preachy in places those questions are deep ones. In fact, it's those questions which mean that this episode is now easily in my top ten Voyager episodes.
Do medical reasons excuse criminal actions? Can murderers be cured? Is rehabilitation better than capital punishment? Do we have a right to judge another culture? What if one race is put in jail more often and executed more frequently, is this fair? What is repentance? Can a murderer find redemption? Does a change of heart absolve him of punishment?
To answer all these questions as fully as they should is beyond the scope of this blog post. The only thing I want to talk about is the title of the episode: Repentance.
Where I think the episode goes right is that it recognises that true repentance sees the need for punishment. If I say sorry but refuse to accept the consequences of my wrong-doing then I'm not really repentant. It's why the repentant sinner cries out to God: "Have mercy on me." Such a man recognises that his sin deserves death so he must seek mercy. There is no claim of innocence or diminished responsibility in the repentant man.
The criminal who repents, in the episode, is not the one who claims innocence (for the innocent have nothing to repent of) but rather the one who saw that his actions were evil and deserving of death. In the end, he asks for mercy from the family of his murder victim but even as he does so he says that he understands that he deserves to die. It is precisely this recognition which proves both his repentant heart and means he must plead mercy for he has no other option.
When we first come to God, in faith and repentance we come knowing (at least in part) that we deserve hell. Like the condemned criminal, we know that if our plea for mercy is rejected we deserve what we will receive. True repentance has nothing to do with the excuses of biology, upbringing or passion but rather accepts the moral responsibly that goes with being made in the image of God. Guilt and repentance must go hand in hand together.
Spoiler, the family refuse his request. The criminal faces the death he has accepted he deserves. Seeing his goodbye to Voyager is quite a moving scene. I was in two minds about the ending. On the one hand, who doesn't delight to see mercy? On the other, the fact that he was now repentant did not absolve him of having to pay the penalty for his crimes. Just as, if I repent while in prison, I cannot walk out the next day.
But it also made me remember that the comfort and stark contrast of the gospel is that God refuses no cry of mercy from a repentant sinner. Our God is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
The condemned criminal had to make a plea for mercy based on the righteousness of his works. He felt remorse now, he was different man who would not murder again, he asked for mercy on these grounds. His request was refused.
The condemned sinner makes his plea for mercy based on Christ, knowing that he cannot promise never to sin again nor can he point to any change in his heart, instead his only option is to rest on the work and person of Jesus Christ. And when such repentance happens the rest is given. A new heart is created in the sinner and he or she will begin to sin less. What we are unable to promise Christ achieves in us.
There was a condemned criminal who hung next to Jesus on the cross and he showed us the nature of true repentance: “Don’t you fear God,” he [the criminal] said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom." (Luke 23v40-42)
The impossibility of the gospel is that it requires us to see ourselves as condemned criminals, deserving of the wrath of God for our sins. And who wants to think that of themselves? And then we must also see the perfection, glory and love of Christ. A double impossibility, if you like.
Yet the thief saw his guilt and he also saw Christ. The impossible is made possible through the Holy Spirit at work, bringing us to the point where we see our guilt and then bringing us to behold Christ on the cross. The mercy of God is not merely in his granting of mercy to repentant sinners but in his leading them to that position in the first place!
The answer of Jesus is so unlike the answer of the family in the Voyager episode. They said no. Jesus said: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”