The ending may strike many readers as deeply ambiguous. Some great transformation has seemingly taken place, but what does it really signify? On the one hand, we might say that John has undergone, and emerged victorious from, a spiritual trial; he is saved. By the same token, he has unquestionably succeeded in his father's field, the holiness game; he has struggled with his father and won. Lastly, he has completed the rite of passage from boyhood into manhood, entering the society of the blessed and earning a new name in God's big book.
But is the ending truly a celebration? If the rebirth and salvation of the soul must be a perpetual struggle, as the saints claim, then what has John really achieved? He may still fall; each day remains a great battle that he might lose. And he certainly hasn't won his father's love; the war with Gabriel continues. John feels elevated for the moment, but his father has not admitted any defeat. Perhaps the real achievement lies simply in an alteration of the struggle; it is now a matter of man against man—no longer of man against boy.
A broader question regards the ultimate value or significance the book places on any religious awakening. Elisha may have bestowed an indelible seal on John's forehead, but this merely places John in the company of men like his father—men who look to heaven and "run from the destruction falling on the earth." Is this a novel that celebrates the redemptive power of a religious experience? Or does it demonstrate the bankruptcy and injustice of a society that offers its young black men a hollow choice between the perdition of the street and a retreat from reality? Is it a condemnation both of the whites who maintain this society and the blacks who try to avoid it through religion? John avows his desire to be unlike his father and his father's fathers, valuing his own intelligence and potential instead. However, we cannot but wonder how long such a person can afford to look forward and ahead, ignoring the earth and its pitfalls. The novel itself provides no definitive conclusion. In the life of James Baldwin himself, this optimism lasted a mere three years.