You are reading a post in the series “Facing the Raven,” which is itself part of our larger “Science Fiction & Biblical Reality” series. You will absolutely want to read the previous two posts before you read this one (one & two).
What are the pieces of the puzzle the answer to which is “death”? Let’s take some time today to discuss what it means to die, and let’s do that by looking at two of The Doctor’s companions.
Rose Tyler: Death as Separation
In the cold open to “Doomsday,” we see Rose Tyler standing on what will eventually be revealed to be Dårlig Ulv-Stranden (“Bad Wolf Bay,” in case you can’t read a poorly constructed Dutch phrase) in the parallel universe commonly known as “Pete’s World.” While standing stoically on this isolated bit of beach, Rose Tyler’s own voice can be heard giving a bit of exposition about her life, which ends with this line: “This is the story of how I died.” The question we have to ask, though, is did Rose actually die?
We know that The Doctor hates endings, and as far as he is concerned, her part in his story is over. But did she really die? Physically, no. Those who have watched her story play out know that Rose did not physically die but, instead, was pulled into a parallel world, from which there is no return. Spiritually, what does that mean in Doctor Who? She’s still living her life—now with a duplicate of the Tenth Doctor—but she is forever cut off from The Doctor in the “main” universe. There’s a permanent separation, and that, my friends, is a major component of what we call “death.”
Separation of the spirit from the body is the most obvious Christian use-case of “separation as death,” but what about being medically “brain dead”? The body has been separated from its own consciousness, leaving a mostly functioning body that is devoid of any higher thinking.
Separation is a form of death in terms of theology and neurology, but how about relationally? When someone breaks our trust in a deeply personal and painful way, don’t we say that they are “dead to us,” which is just an overly dramatic way of saying that the relationship is over and that you wish to be permanently separated from this person? It’s in the relational sense, then, that Rose Tyler is dead. The Doctor speaks of her as having died, though she is alive, because she might as well be dead since they have been permanently separated.
In fact, regardless of your theological predilection, separation is what makes death so painful. We fear our own death because we fear the unknown and the pain that may or may not (fingers crossed!) lead to our death. However, the deaths of those we care about are painful to us because they involve separation, an end to our relationship on this side of life.
And this is the key to understanding the whole picture of death from the Christian theological perspective: death is, first and foremost, separation. This is partly due to the lethal nature of separation: separation is such a decisive and pervasive cause of death that we view death in terms of separation.
If I can step back to the introduction of this book, it was separation from God’s presence that represents the immediate death experienced by Adam and Eve after they disobeyed God’s command concerning the forbidden fruit. Again, since God is the source life, it stands to reason that death can be the only result of separation from Him. If my lungs are separated from oxygen for a sufficient period of time, I will die. If I am separated from water for over three days, I will die. In the typical philosophical cyclical way, death is a separation and is caused by separation.
Did Rose Tyler die? If we think of The Doctor as her source of life, then we can say that she died* when she was separated from him. Of course, this answers begs a new question: Did The Doctor give her life? Looking at the montage of Rose’s life in her first episode and comparing Rose than to the Rose we last see in Bad Wolf Bay, it is more than obvious that she’s a different person. She’s vibrant; she’s alive in a deeper, truer sense of that word than she ever was working in a shop and hanging out with Mickey. We can trace this vibrance, of course, to her first encounter with The Doctor and the growth and maturation that came from her time traveling with him.
Absent that relationship, death sets in. The maturation wasn’t lost—this where the analogy begins to fail—but the source of it was. A deep grief is observed, but strangely, The Doctor isn’t considered dead by Rose. She moves on, in memory of him, and commits herself to the same type of work she’d experienced with him: defending the Earth. Furthermore, when trouble arises in Pete’s World, she takes it upon herself to try and reach The Doctor. The Doctor sees Rose as having been “lost,” a common euphemism for those lost to death. Rose, however, lives her life in light of The Doctor’s continued existence and seeks to be reunited with him. If only we lived our lives before God with the same commitment and passionate desire.
Did Rose Tyler die? Was there a relational loss, an irreversible separation? Yes Was she separated from her source of life? Yes. Rose Tyler died, and in the same way, we, too, experience spiritual death, having been cut off from God by sin, and fear the death of our loved ones, fearing the loss of relationship that death brings.
This is why the hope we have in Jesus is so profound. Through Him, the death we experience within our spirits can be undone. We are resurrected in our hearts long before our bodies ever experience it. We have life restored within us because, through Jesus, we have a restored relationship with God. In glorious addition to this, we have been adopted into a new family, a family comprised of all those who have been “raised to life in Christ,” which, if we are so, will include those members of our natural family who have found their life in Christ.
Death is a separation; Christ reunites with God, with life, with each other.
Donna Noble: Death as a Loss of Identity
The Doctor-Donna. What a cool concept! A human being, in this case, Donna Noble, the most human being, who has the knowledge, insight, and thinking patterns of a Time Lord downloaded into her mind.
I’m not going to lie: when I first watched this episode, I was a bit jealous of Donna.
And then the episode ended, and so did Donna’s story.
The reason that a Time Lord-Human biological meta-crisis had never happened before Donna Noble is because they can’t. It is a not a survivable experience for a human being; they cannot have the mind of a Time Lord. It’s just too much.
And so, in order to save Donna Noble’s life, The Doctor is forced to erase her mind, to remove any trace of him or their time together. As a consequence, Donna forgot all that she learned and experienced while traveling in the TARDIS, and so, she regressed into the vapid, self-absorbed person she was before she met The Doctor.
In order for Donna Noble to physically survive, The Doctor-Donna had to die.
The selfless, thoughtful Donna who had finally begun to see that she truly was someone special had to die. Like Rose, Donna didn’t truly begin to live until she met The Doctor, and now, the decision faced by The Doctor is whether to let her die like his friend or survive as a stranger. He chooses the latter, presumably hoping that she will find another path to a mature, selfless life.
Returned once again to the care of her mother and grandfather, Donna lives on, but did she really?
Or did Donna Noble die in the TARDIS when The Doctor wiped her mind?
To what extent do we equate a person’s identity with their life? It’s almost a cliché, but there are many instances in literature and film in which a character fakes their death in order to take on a new identity. This identity is not generally reduced solely to a new name but almost always to a new manner of living, either one of a greater moral standing than before or of a darker, more reckless nature (i.e. the ne’er-do-well becomes a hero or the hero becomes a vengeance-seeking monster). Needless to say, there is a massive change from the first identity to the second.
Of course, Donna Noble kept her name, her face—everything about her physical identity remained the same. It was inside that the change occurred, and this time, it occurred without the consent or memory of the subject. Part of Donna died, and she’ll never know.
We are much the same. Part of us has died as well. We were created to be in the presence of God, to walk with Him in the sweet freedom of the unveiled relationship between the Creator and His creatures. Even to call us creatures is to miss the mark, in a sense, and undercut how God has blessed us. We certainly are His creatures, and we cannot bridge that chasm. However, we are also separated from God’s other creatures as well for we were made to bear the image of God, an honor and privilege granted to no other creature. However, because of sin, Adam and Eve’s first and then our own second, the image of God has been marred, nearly beyond recognition.
This, then, is part of the beauty of the Gospel. The Son of God became a man to restore that image. The Image of God Himself became an image bearer in order to make our restoration possible. He bore the image perfectly so that all of us who had lost the perfection of our identity as image-bearers could find it again.
Some of the Eastern religions present man as part of the divine who has lost memory of his divinity. There is some truth here. We were never part of the divine, but we were in a relationship with Him and have forgotten this. We have a sense of the size of the loss, which is why so much of Western society is drowning in flood of modern hedonism. Pleasure has become our anesthesia, silencing our heart’s cry for God’s presence. But our heart will never stop crying.
Donna’s mind didn’t stop. She bought Wilfred a copy of Naismith’s book, and when asked about it her, she looked off into space—or maybe the space-time vortex—and gave a vague answer that basically amounted to premonition.
Or maybe it was a sliver of that Time Lord consciousness clamoring to be released, to be restored. Donna doesn’t know it, but deep inside her head, is a piece of something, of someone greater.
It’s the same for us. Deep inside our hearts, there is an image placed by God, an image that is key to our identity. When sin entered the world, that perfect image was destroyed, and with it, our identity died as well. Small pieces might remain, but when until the image is restored by God Himself through Jesus, we’ll never know our truest selves.
*And she returned to life with the introduction of the Meta-Crisis Doctor, but let’s not go there right now.