This article first appeared in the Viewpoint column Christian Research Journal, volume 38, number 1 (2015). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.
My friend Carey is a self-confessed television addict. He enjoys many “reality TV” programs, such as the Survivor series, The Bachelor, and American Idol. At the heart of many such programs lies a basis of conflict, where there is a winner, and there are losers. In some cases, the losers not only lose a contest but also are subjected to public humiliation. Some observers have suggested that what makes these kinds of programs successful is something dark and sinister associated with that humiliation: the experience of an emotion called schadenfreude.
There is no English word corresponding to the German word schadenfreude, but it could be satisfactorily described, in brief, as the pleasure a person might feel when observing someone else’s loss. Could it be that schadenfreude lies at the heart of our enjoyment of such programs as American Idol? And more to the point, for the Christian: is entertaining schadenfreude in our hearts a sin?
Schadenfreude Illustrated. To answer these questions, we should begin with illustrations of schadenfreude. In the introduction to his book, The Joy of Pain: Schadenfreude and the Dark Side of Human Nature (Oxford University Press, 2013), University of Kentucky professor of psychology Richard Smith offers the following examples, which help bring to light the elements of schadenfreude, and what experts believe motivates it.
- In an episode of the popular animated television series The Simpsons, Homer Simpson rejoices at the failure of a business venture by his neighbor, Ned Flanders. Ned is portrayed as a devoted Christian with a beautiful family, and almost always seems to be in a good mood. In contrast, Homer’s family life is chaotic, and his mood is nearly always cynical. Homer explains that he enjoys watching Ned fail because he envies Ned, and feels inferior when Ned succeeds. This illustrates that envy is an element in schadenfreude.
- From the movie Apollo 13, Smith draws the example of astronaut Jim Lovell. Lovell was unhappy because his fellow astronaut, Alan Shepard, and others had been given the opportunity to voyage to the moon, while Lovell was left out. However, when Shepard developed a health problem, his crew was replaced by Lovell’s. Shepard, naturally, was disappointed, but Lovell was overjoyed. When he told others the news, he expressed no regrets, and showed no sympathy for Shepard. Smith thereby illustrates that gain at the expense of another is also an aspect of schadenfreude.
- Smith offers several real-life examples of schadenfreude. Some involve pleasure experienced at the exposure of corrupt figures, especially those caught in the act of scandalous behavior they previously condemned. Smith features the case of George Rekers, a pastor who preached against homosexuality, but was caught in a homosexual liaison. This connects schadenfreude to a sense of justice, but as Smith further explains, also associates it with a desire for revenge (i.e., vengeful spirit), especially against hypocrites.
Finally, we have Smith’s most memorable, yet tragic, real-life example: in a Nazi concentration camp, it was announced that as a punishment for a certain deed by a prisoner, all prisoners would be lined up, and every tenth prisoner in line would be shot. One man, looking down the line of prisoners, did a hasty calculation and realized that he would be one of the prisoners who would die. To save himself, he pushed around a weaker man so that he could change places with him. After the other man was shot, he felt relief at not being selected for execution. By this example, Smith connects schadenfreude to self-interest.
In sum, misfortune or humiliation happening to others, especially for our benefit, can lead to schadenfreude. In these specific contexts, schadenfreude can be described in terms of either relief or satisfaction. It is an emotion many of us experience, even my friend Carey, who admits that he has felt such a sense of satisfaction while watching reality television shows. For example, in Survivor, there are “good guys” and “bad guys” that viewers can get to know over the course of a television season. Inevitably, there will be times when the bad guys in some way abuse or trick the good guys, and after that happens, Carey tells me, he experiences a strong sense of satisfaction when the bad guys later get their comeuppance, such as when they themselves are tricked or abused by another bad guy, or fail in one of the contestant challenges.
Schadenfreude and Sin. This leads to further questions: is it a sin to entertain schadenfreude? If we find ourselves experiencing schadenfreude, should we avoid the things that lead us to experience it? In other words, will we need to refrain from watching programs such as Shark Tank and American Idol where public humiliation is an important component of the narrative?
Certainly, if schadenfreude is motivated by something such as envy that is otherwise biblically identified as sin, we have serious reason to examine ourselves and our motives. In such cases, the viewing of certain television programs can become a sort of emotional pornography. The examples provided by Carey are but two of many ways in which it is possible for a sinful form of schadenfreude to emerge from the viewing of a program such as Survivor or American Idol. One might also envy, and feel inferior to, someone who performs well on American Idol, and then delight in his or her failure to perform at a critical moment. And of course, the experience of schadenfreude is hardly limited to our interactions with the personalities and characters on television. One might also take a perverse satisfaction in the failures of a rival co-worker at our place of employment, or even a fellow member of our church.
However, it is also possible for us to enjoy programs like Survivor for entirely different reasons. As the father of four boys, Carey has found such programs useful as studies in human nature, and a good way to teach his children moral object lessons. The program The Bachelor, for example, features many illustrations of what Christians would consider dysfunctional interpersonal relationships. As some of his boys began dating, Carey used scenarios from The Bachelor as vivid examples of the consequences of dysfunctional relationships. Another object lesson was drawn from Survivor, in which contestants often engage in challenges requiring them to trick opponents. Carey used these scenarios as an opening for discussions of how and when it was moral to use trickery to an advantage: it is perfectly moral, in basketball, to use a “head fake” to goad an opponent into moving in the wrong direction, but in the business world, it is immoral to trick someone into thinking you have signed a contract when you have not.
From these examples, it seems clear that the consumption of popular entertainment has a moral resemblance to controversy engaged by the apostle Paul over whether it was permissible to eat idol meat (1 Cor. 8). For the “strong,” eating idol meat sold in the market was of no consequence, since it offered them no temptation to participate in pagan worship practices. The “weak,” however, found it difficult to avoid sinking deeper into idolatry. In response, one of Paul’s chief directives is that the strong not consume idol meat in such a way as to tempt the weak (1 Cor. 8:9–13). In the same way, if we are “strong” and not subject to the temptations of schadenfreude, there is no barrier, in that regard at least, to our consumption of these popular entertainment venues, unless it causes temptation for a “weaker” brother.
The Other Side of Schadenfreude. There is, however, a further complexity to this issue. As noted earlier, schadenfreude can also be connected to the satisfaction felt when justice is served. Smith refers to the evaluation of philosopher John Portmann, who argues that schadenfreude “is an emotional corollary of justice” (Joy of Pain, Chapter 5). Certainly, for example, nearly all of us felt a sense of satisfaction when the American military caught up with Osama bin Laden, and that perception of satisfaction may seem uncomfortably similar to the feelings we experience when we witness the failures of someone whom we envy, such as a contestant on American Idol. Could it be, to use the parlance of Star Wars, that schadenfreude has both a light and a dark side?
Smith quotes the Catholic theologian Bernard Haring as saying, “Schadenfreude is evil, it is a terrible sin—unless you feel it when the lawful enemies of God are brought low, and then it’s a virtue. Why? Because you can then go to the lawful enemies of God and you can say ‘see, God is making you suffer because you’re on a bad path.’” The Bible arguably alludes to the “light” form of schadenfreude in Proverbs 21:15, when it says that justice will be a “joy to the just” (NASB). It may also be alluded to in Proverbs 24:24–25, which tells us that those who rebuke the wicked will have “delight.” In contrast, the “dark” sort of schadenfreude might be alluded to in 1 Corinthians 13:6, which warns us not to “rejoice in unrighteousness” (NASB).
Smith makes no comment on the morality of the “light” sort of schadenfreude. However, he cautions us that it can be difficult for us not to cross the line from wishing for justice to wishing for revenge. In Christian terms, the first is biblical and implicitly encouraged, whereas the second is sinful and specifically condemned. Schadenfreude itself is not a sin, but it can be a sign that some other sin is being entertained.
The apostles never dreamed that, at some future date, believers would be using their words to debate the morality of viewing moving-picture narratives. Their concerns were for a more mundane sort of justice, in which oppressive rulers, rather than celebrities, were the bad guys. Nevertheless, the fact that we can have such a discussion today is a testimony to the timeless applications that can be found in the Scriptures. —James Patrick Holding
James Patrick Holding is president of Tekton Apologetics Ministries and author of The Inside Guide to Becoming a Christian Apologist (Amazon Kindle).