There’s a select genre of end-of-the-world novels, and I wanted to put in a word for what may be the best of them. That would be George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides, which is the tale of a survivor.
This is a hauntingly beautiful book, and completely detached from today’s frantic reality. The Earth is decimated by a sudden plague (I’m not giving anything away here; this scenario becomes clear in the opening pages), and one man is mysteriously spared. What he finds and what he does — well, let me just say that reading these pages is like living through the experience, and feeling every pang of triumph and tragedy that a human being can encounter.
The title is taken from the opening lines of Ecclesiastes:
Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity. What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun? One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever.
Ecclesiastes is a fascinating volume, and is in itself worthy of much contemplation. The religious person, if he truly digs in and reads the text, will scratch his head in troubled confusion. This is in the Bible? This? Why it’s blasphemy, pure blasphemy! There must be some mistake here!
For example, from the ninth chapter:
Live joyfully with the wife whom thou lovest all the days of the life of thy vanity, which he hath given thee under the sun, all the days of thy vanity: for that is thy portion in this life, and in thy labour which thou takest under the sun.
Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest.
I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.
For man also knoweth not his time: as the fishes that are taken in an evil net, and as the birds that are caught in the snare; so are the sons of men snared in an evil time, when it falleth suddenly upon them.
My gosh, that sounds grim, does it not? Enjoy your fleeting and pointless moment, because it is all you have, and you shall soon lose it forever.
These words are attributed to Solomon, and the answer that most satisfies me regarding their meaning is the explanation that this text captures Solomon in the role of the learned but foolish man who has been seduced by the material world. This King, standing at the pinnacle of worldly wealth and power and feminine companionship (700 wives and 300 concubines!), learned the same lesson that today’s celebrities discover: that material life cannot satisfy. The key is the recurring phrase “under the sun”; a reference to all that is of Earth, and exclusive of spirit.
Accepting it from that frame of mind, I appreciate Ecclesiastes as squarely addressing the challenge that all humans must face. We possess material bodies and operate in a material world, and are unavoidably subject to material needs and temptations. To ignore this reality is folly. But Ecclesiastes is a reminder that, even at its best, materialism is not enough.
When an atheist quotes the Bible, he will likely be quoting Ecclesiastes. The ideas here will resonate with both the faithful and the faithless. Ecclesiastes without the Bible would indeed be irreligious. But the Bible without Ecclesiastes would be incomplete.
I hasten to add that Earth Abides is neither a religious book nor a political one. I meandered into this Biblical diversion because…well, it beaconed me in. I hope somebody got something out of it.