This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 42, number 3/4 (2019). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.
The imagination is a powerful resource for helping us to make sense of the meaning of our lives. We have God-given creative powers that reflect the creativity of the divine Creator. J. R. R. Tolkien’s work reflects on the need we have to make sense of things, not just in moral terms, but also in imaginative ones. Yet the human imagination often struggles in the midst of great difficulty to see how our own stories can come to a happy ending. Some evils are so damaging to us that we may doubt that our lives could ever be made right again. Theologians like Saint Augustine have offered imaginative pictures of the way that God maintains the goodness and beauty of the universe at every (not all) given moment. However, the excessive suffering that many endure challenges the picture of moment-to-moment cosmic beauty. Like many challenges, this problem comes with an opportunity. The problem of horrendous evils sends us back to the only story that can offer a deeper beauty and hope. The epic story of Scripture, centering on the life, death, resurrection, and return of Jesus Christ provides a true tale that answers our deepest doubts. The work of Marilyn McCord Adams focuses on the way that horrendous evils naturally cause us to question the goodness of our lives. In the aftermath of horrendous evils, simple explanations fall short. However, horrendous evils force us to look to the main character in all of world history. By looking backward to the cross and forward to the hope of heavenly healing we find the face of the person who can restore meaning to our stories and bring them to a good end.
In The Two Towers, midway along their long journey into Mordor, Sam Gamgee becomes surprisingly philosophical. He muses about different kinds of stories: ones that end badly and ones that end well. Old Mr. Bilbo’s story ended well for him, but, Sam notes, “those aren’t always the best tales to hear, though they may be the best tales to get landed in!”1 Others have observed this as well. As one wag quipped, “Happiness writes white.” By contrast, the adventures that really “stay in the mind,” according to Sam, aren’t the kind that the people in them would seek out. The heroes of these difficult-but-memorable adventures land in an unsought story. They have lots of chances to turn back from their difficult tasks. But they don’t. And so we tell their tales now, even though not all come to a “good end.” Sam finishes his thought, wondering aloud, “I wonder what sort of tale we’ve fallen into?”2
A long time ago in a country far, far away, I spent the better part of a few years thinking about this very question: What sort of tale have we fallen into? More specifically, I tried to think about how the arts can help us understand our place in the world, especially in a world shot through with so much suffering. That work eventually appeared as a book, The Poetics of Evil, which provides a longer and more ponderous explanation of many of the ideas briefly sketched out here.3
Comparing our lives to works of art is, of course, nothing new. Don Quixote drove himself, and everyone around him, crazy with his delusion that he was living inside a chivalrous romance. Dante, midway along his own life’s journey, frames his own imaginative journey through hell to heaven as a divine comedy. Athenagoras compared the universe to an instrument and God to a skilled musician. This imaginative comparison is exactly the kind of thing we should expect from humans, whose active imaginations can find order in nearly anything, even when it isn’t there. We see faces in inanimate objects, hidden meanings in innocuous statements, and divine judgment in hurricanes. Though few of us are poets, there’s a poetic sensibility that runs deeply within our humanity. Even our everyday speech is infused with a metaphorical sensibility. We can’t help but make intuitive connections between the moral and the imaginative. We say that an honest man is a “straight shooter,” but a bad politician is “crooked.” Free online quizzes tell us whether we’d be “Ravenclaws” or “Hufflepuffs” if we donned the Sorting Hat. Wondering what sort of tale we’ve fallen into, and who we are in the tale, isn’t just a question for Hobbit gardeners to puzzle over. It’s a question for all of us.
We Are Created in the Image of a Creator
The author behind Sam’s musings, J. R. R. Tolkien, was well aware of the power of the imagination as well as the depths of human suffering. Within the fundamentally hopeful and ultimately happy story of The Lord of the Rings runs a thread of mournfulness that, like the face of Treebeard, is “sad, but not unhappy.”4 Tolkien’s stories are marked by an awareness of the damage that evil has done and will continue to do to those who are still “midway” through the journey, but the author and many of his characters hold on to the deeper truth, buried in their breasts, implanted by their Maker, of God’s creative power to weave sadness into a joyful tapestry. Our imaginations, which give us the power to tell new stories, also enable us to imagine ways that our stories can be redeemed.
An early poem of Tolkien’s, written in response to the questions of a pre-Christian C. S. Lewis, proclaims a basic right that humans have to act as “sub-creator[s].” “The heart of man is not compound of lies,” Tolkien writes, “but draws some wisdom from the only Wise, and still recalls him. Though now long estranged, man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.” Our creative powers, now merely tattered “rags,” are the scraps of a royal robe of lordship bestowed on us by the great Creator. Myth-making, even when focused on the dark and strange, reflects this original “light.” We filled the “crannies of the world…with elves and goblins…’twas our right.”5
This right to imagine comes from God and can even help us to resist the superficial appearance of evil’s upper hand in the world. Tolkien writes, “Yes! ‘wish-fulfilment dreams’ we spin to cheat our timid hearts and ugly Fact defeat! Whence came the wish, and whence the power to dream?” Through his great work, and many of his smaller ones, Tolkien attempts to tell stories that truthfully reflect the reality of evil in the world: “of Evil this alone is dreadly certain: Evil is.”6 Yet Tolkien also imagines tales where evil does not have the last word. Sam and Frodo’s tale is a sad one, but “not unhappy.” They go on, thinking about what kind of tales theirs will be, and whether their part will “end later — or sooner.”7 Tolkien, of course, is not the only thinker to compare our lives to imaginative works, and it is helpful to look back at some other pictures that theologians have painted of the way that evil and good mix together on the canvas of creation.
Painting a Better Picture
Saint Augustine of Hippo, the ancient bishop and theologian, was no stranger to suffering. He survived the death of close friends and of his own son and lived through the fall of Rome. A lover and a fighter for truth, Augustine fought some of the
most pressing theological battles of his day. He peacefully waged war against the schismatic Donatists and mercilessly defended the necessity of grace against Pelagius. One feature of Augustine’s thought that sometimes goes unnoticed is how seriously he tried to integrate all aspects of reality — truth, beauty, and goodness — throughout his many works. Augustine defended not merely the truth of the gospel, but also the beauty of the cosmos.
In both his early and late works, a concern that Augustine returns to is how to make sense of the beauty of God’s creation despite the presence of evil. Augustine, like many other Christian thinkers, wrestled with the problem of evil and offered a response — a theodicy.8 For Augustine, God is the source of everything and the ruler of the universe. When He creates, God will create masterfully. “In this creation, had no one sinned, the world would have been filled and beautified with natures good without exception,” Augustine writes in The City of God.9 However, there is sin in the world. Is the overall beauty of the universe therefore damaged? Not so, Augustine says, the human will, “though it violated the order of its own nature, did not on that account escape the laws of God, who justly orders all things for good.”10 The ordering of the universe, though disrupted superficially, still reflects a more fundamental and inescapable order. There’s a deeper magic (or a deeper beauty) evil can’t overcome. Augustine’s imaginative comparison is to a kind of chiaroscuro picture that has a lovely arrangement of light and dark: “For as the beauty of a picture is increased by well-managed shadows, so, to the eye that has skill to discern it, the universe is beautified even by sinners, though, considered by themselves, their deformity is a sad blemish.”11
If we imagine, with Augustine, the universe as originally being a grand mosaic with greater and lesser shades of light that accent each other, the introduction of evil adds black tiles to the composition that replace the comparative beauty of the gradations with a sharper, but still beautiful, contrast. Evil is bad in itself, but it still serves to highlight goodness and fits within the order of the whole composition. Misery inevitably comes with sin, so our evil still fits within the beautiful moral order of God’s creation. “God made sinful man ugly,” Augustine writes in his work De Musica, “but it was not an ugly act to make him so.”12
The darkness of evil stands in helpful contrast to the lightness of good, and helps us to see the good more clearly. Yet, there is real damage to the beauty of creation that has yet to be repaired. To do true justice to the reality of evil and its redemption, Augustine’s “picture” must be replaced by a “story” that extends into the eschatological future. We still await the final chapter that will resolve the tensions and repair the hurts of evil.
Poetic Injustice and Horrendous Evils
An essential assumption to keep in mind if we find Augustine’s picture wanting is that evil now damages us in ways that go beyond due punishment for sin. Evil does not seem to fit so neatly into Augustine’s idea that sin and misery are continually balanced in a tidy symmetry. The promise of future comfort (Matt. 5:4), the painful lament “How long O Lord?” (Ps. 13), and the expectation of divine wrath (Rom. 12:19) all point to a pattern of promise and fulfillment that extends through time. All is not right yet, but it will be.
The late Marilyn McCord Adams has done more than any other recent theologian to show how horrendous evils challenge the way we explain God’s goodness and justice in the here and now. For Adams, horrendous evils are the worst kind of evils, the kind we hear about on the evening news and hope they never befall us. They are the kind of evils that can crush a person and make them doubt whether their lives can be good to them “on the whole.”13 Imagine a father accidentally backing his car over his infant daughter. Imagine a Jewish family being hustled into the death camps, never to reunite, as Elie Weisel describes in Night. Imagine being conscripted, under threat of death, to be a German guard at that same death camp.14 The misery of these situations seems to go far beyond any bad choice made by those involved, yet the misery is just as real. Adams does not deny that human sin leads to misery but does deny that misery and sin are matched in the way Augustine argues.
Some have used “tragedy” as a way of imaginatively showing the disjuncture between our specific bad choices and the depths of suffering that befall us. Just like a tragic character such as Oedipus, we sometimes blunder into great suffering unawares.15 Marilyn McCord Adams’ use of the term “horrendous evil,” however, evokes a more powerful category of imaginative genre: horror. Though often regarded with suspicion, horror movies present us with situations where evil runs amok, causing destruction that causes fear and revulsion in the audience. We may be interested to watch these spectacles, but we never want to be part of them. Adams recognizes that the category of “horrendous evils” is at least partly an artistic term. We recognize horrors because they display a grotesque disproportion, an excessive nastiness, that defies easy comprehension. Though horror movies often involve supernatural monsters or fantastic premises, we recognize that many of the terrible events they portray are akin to our real-world circumstances. Horrors happen both on and off-screen. What’s more, horrors often challenge our imaginations to comprehend how the survivors of horrors can weave these experiences back into a beautiful story. Where is the Easter Sunday for the survivors of Friday the 13th? How do we celebrate Thanksgiving after Halloween?
The Epic Story of Redemption
Though posing an initial challenge to the neat picture of Augustine, as well as our ability to tell a beautiful story that contains horrendous evils, horror as an imaginative category offers an unexpected benefit to the Christian imagination. Horror shatters our simple pictures of God’s beautiful universe in order to direct us to the only story that can offer hope: the story of the crucifixion, death, resurrection, and return of Jesus. Augustine sought to find the deeper order to God’s beauty by looking at the symmetry of contrast in the present. Horrors direct our attention, not only deeper, but backwards and forwards along the epic timeline of redemption.
Central to Adams’ response to the problem of evil is a resource Augustine rarely considers in his aesthetic theodicy: the person of Jesus. The only perfect human, Jesus nonetheless suffered horrendous evils. Captured, mocked, and tortured to death, the passion is, in a real sense, a horror story. Crucifixions cause fear and revulsion in those who witness someone cursed enough to hang upon the torture device. Yet for those who suffer horrendous evil, the cross offers something else, an image of someone who, like them, suffers extreme and undeserved evils. The worst events of a person’s life — the things that they wish deeply had never happened — become a point of connection with the Godman on the cross. Adams writes, “God in Christ crucified cancels the curse of human vulnerability to horrors. For the very horrors, participation in which threatened to undo the positive value of created personality, now become secure points of identification.”16 The very events that threatened to shatter Augustine’s contrastive symmetry now take on a new symmetry: they now rhyme with a key moment in Jesus’ story.
Looking backward to the cross is only part of the story of redemption. Adams and other theodicists are keen to point out that more needs to be done for those who have horrors as part of their narrative. We must look forward with hope, to a part of the story yet to come. As Paul says in Romans 8:18, there is a future glory that will overwhelm our present suffering. No theodicy is complete without eschatology.17 The epic ending to the Christian story is promised but has not yet arrived. Adams is hopeful that, as terrible as horrors are here and now, the healing redemption of heaven will enable us to see our whole stories as beautiful ones. She writes, “Retrospectively, I believe, from the vantage point of heavenly beatitude, human victims of horrors will recognize those experiences as points of identification with the crucified God, and not wish them away from their life histories.”18 God, the great author of creation, has already put into the story the key character who can make our stories come to a good end.
At the core of all good stories and all good lives is a deep sense of meaning. However, meaning can be hard to find when life deals us its hardest blows. Meaning in stories can also be hard to find until we reach the end. None of us now living have reached the end of our own stories. However, the central figure of the biblical story — the God-man Jesus — promises us that God has the power to weave even the worst horrors into a life that is good and meaningful. The good news written on the pages of Scripture tells us that His story can also be our story as well if we let God co-author (perhaps Ghost-write?) our biographies.
The Return of the King
Like Sam Gamgee in The Two Towers, we’re all eager to figure out what sort of tale we’ve fallen into. In good moments, life might seem like a rollicking adventure that will come to a peaceful conclusion, or a comic anecdote with ups and downs that ends with little more than a bruise and a good story. Some fortunate people may lead lives so blessed we forget their stories altogether. Tolkien’s vast imagination contains many such tales. Bilbo’s father, Bungo, seems to have led such a life. At other moments, reflecting on the ways that bad choices lead to bad feelings, we can see some truth in Augustine’s picture of a balanced universe. The imagination, at times, can give us a sense of comfort and comprehension of the grand ordering of the universe. But other experiences don’t fit so well into an orderly picture. The disordered and disruptive experience of horrendous evils destroys any simple understanding of how our tales could ever be beautiful. However, the imaginative challenge of horrors may send us on a journey to seek out a wider perspective. The story that God is telling is bigger than our mortal timeline. To make sense of real evil we have to look beyond our own place, midway through life’s journey, into the vast story Scripture promises, and which is not yet finished.
Here Tolkien’s work may be of help once again. Journeying to Mordor, Sam maintains a fierce optimism that leads him to try and keep food for the journey home from Mt. Doom. Frodo, perhaps a bit like us, is less hopeful. His mission to destroy the ring and survive seems nearly impossible. And, without the aid of a skillful author behind the scenes, it would have been impossible. Unable to cast the ring away in the end, it is only the unexpected designs of providence, in the sad figure of Gollum, that finishes the mission. Unable to escape Mt. Doom, it is only the surprising-yet-fitting arrival of the eagles that saves his life. In retrospect, we can see how Tolkien has woven these elements in from the start of the book, and even earlier in The Hobbit. The joyful (yet also sad, but not unhappy) conclusion of Frodo’s mission suggests how even the bleakest tales can be redeemed by a brilliant author. Tolkien (and the author of Scripture) tells us a story that helps us imagine hopefully in the darkest moments. We await the return of the crucified King, whose wounds are healed, but who still bears His scars.
Philip Tallon, PhD, is an assistant professor of theology at Houston Baptist University, where he chairs the apologetics department and also teaches in the Honors College. He is the author of The Poetics of Evil: Toward an Aesthetic Theodicy (Oxford, 2012) and The Absolute Basics of the Christian Faith (Seedbed, 2016).
- J R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (London: HarperCollins, 1991), 696–97.
- Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, 697.
- Philip Tallon, The Poetics of Evil: Toward an Aesthetic Theodicy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).
- Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings,
- J. R. R. Tolkien, “Mythopoeia,” home.agh.edu.pl/~evermind/jrrtolkien/mythopoeia.htm.
- Tolkien, “Mythopoeia.”
- Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings,
- Theodicy technically means a “defense of God,” but includes any attempt to show God’s goodness and power in the face of the problem of evil.
- Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, The City of God, 23, newadvent.org/fathers/120111.htm.
- Augustine, The City of God, 23.
- Augustine, The City of God, 23.
- Augustine, De Musica, 30. Quoted in Philosophies of Art and Beauty, trans. Robert Russell, ed. Albert Hofstadter and Richard Kuhns (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976), 194.
- Marilyn McCord Adams, Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999), 26.
- Adams, Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God,
- I’m thinking here of the work of Wendy Farley and Donald MacKinnon.
- Adams, Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God, 166.
- Eschatology is the study of “final things.”
- Adams, Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God, 167.