By Ricky Gervais and Matthew Robinson
What is Heaven? The band The Talking Heads tell us that “Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens.” That sounds all right. Sometimes “things” are “bad things”, so a place with no “things” at all would be a calm and safe one. But sometimes things are “good things” and I’m not sure I could do without those. After all, they’re “good”.
Hmmm… a pickle, this one.
In the movie “The Invention of Lying,” Mark Bellison – a man living in a world where lying doesn’t exist – accidentally stumbles upon the ability to tell a lie. At first he uses the lie to fulfill selfish wishes, such as sleeping with a beautiful woman (in the end he couldn’t go through with it) and stealing from a casino (this one he was fine with). Bored with that he moves on to using the all powerful lie to help others: he lies to a bank teller so she’ll give money to a homeless man, he lies to an arguing couple so that they’ll make up.
With these small “white lies” out of the way, it’s time for Mark to get his hands dirty and start telling some big, hefty lies. So Mark invents fiction. All in a day’s work. Mark uses fiction to make himself very rich and powerful – writing a big blockbuster action film that Jerry Bruckheimer himself would have been proud to produce.
With fiction invented, Mark moves on to his next big lie, but this one he didn’t plan. This one was all instinct. And, as we believed when writing this film, quite possibly one of the oldest instincts hardwired into man’s DNA.
Mark gets a call from the hospital informing him that his mother has taken ill and probably won’t live through the night. Sitting by his mother’s side, waiting for her to die, watching her tremble in fear in the face of death and the great unknown, Mark does what anyone would do in this situation: he cheers his mother up and quells her fears. How does he do it?
He invents Heaven.
Mark tells his mother that when she dies she won’t enter a “world of nothingness” but instead will go to a “really great place where everyone you’ve ever loved and who has ever loved you” will be. In heaven, Mark’s mother will be able to dance like she used to when she was younger… and there will be free ice cream as well! Needless to say, Mark’s mother departs our world peacefully and with a smile on her face.
Good or bad, true or false, who wouldn’t invent heaven for their dying mother?
While admittedly a dumbed-down version, the scene of Mark inventing heaven for his mother is how we (the creators of The Invention of Lying) imagine most religions were started: with people searching for answers to scary, unanswerable questions. Almost every culture throughout that ages have had different answers to the big questions: what is that big moon in the sky? Where does the sun go at night? What is the point of all of this? Where do my loved ones go after they die?
Not having adequate answers to these questions can be very anxiety inducing for adults and children alike. On the other hand, having a wonderful, happy answer to these questions can make life feel meaningful and calm.
When I die I will go to a wonderful place and I will get to see all the people I love who have died.
A belief such as this can make almost any sadness or pain palatable. Add a set of rules to this equation (if I do A, B and C I’m assured to go to this place, or conversely, if I do X,Y and Z I will go to a very, very bad place) and you’ve taken all the scary unknowns out of life and given nearly everything purpose and meaning. In many ways, you’ve abolished chaos. You’ve also taken care of that pesky, nagging existential voice in your head asking, “why are we here and what does it all mean?”
That voice can make it very hard to get any farming done.
And while heaven might have made it possible to get some farming done over the ages, one has to wonder now what it might also be preventing us from accomplishing or learning about our existence?
Luckily, along with our evolution-granted ability to tell a lie, came with it the ability to reason, to question, and to occasionally poke some fun.
Ricky Gervais and Matthew Robinson co-wrote and co-directed the movie “The Invention of Lying”