Analysis Of ‘Hell Is The Absence Of God’ By Ted Chiang, Part 3

Today we’ll finish our analysis of Ted Chiang’s award-winning short story “Hell is the Absence of God.”
on Sep 29, 2006 · 1 comment

Today we’ll finish our analysis of Ted Chiang’s award-winning short story “Hell is the Absence of God.” (Be sure to read part 1 and part 2 of this three-part series.)

So, who wrote the biblical book of Job?

No one knows. Theories are out there, but nothing is definite. Obviously, if we’re to take Job’s story as literal (ie, it really happened and isn’t just an instructional sort of bit of storytelling), and most every Christian I know does, then we say “God wrote it through someone.” No ordinary human would know what goes on in the Lord’s presence. Clearly, that had to be revealed prophetically.

In “Hell is the Absence of God,” the narrator is omniscient. He/she/it knows what Neil’s mother thought (but never said), knows Janice’s internal struggle, and knows very specifically what Neil is experiencing in Hell. In that sense, it continues the parallel with the Book of Job.

Neil Fisk is Job, if Job had gone spiritually wrong from the start. He suffered the physical ailment that caused Neil to wonder “occasionally” as a child if “he was being punished by God.” (And we all know how much dialogue went on with Job and his buddies about punishment from God, injustice, etc.) Neil suffers the loss of a loved one as Job did. But where Job, being devout, wrestled WITH God, asked God for relief, and begged God to be allowed to plead his case; Neil simply ignored God, figuring there was no way he’d ever love the Creator, and went around looking for loopholes. “Nothing in his upbringing or his personality led him to pray to God for strength or for relief.”

This is where Neil did not learn from Job. He never really tries, despite upbringing and personality, to engage the God Who Is Really, Quite Obviously, There. He’s only concerned with Heaven, and not the God of Heaven. Big mistake.

What makes one person seek God and another turn away from or be apathetic to God or …antipathetic? The general answer from many a denominational perspective would be: God’s grace is the deciding factor.

Others would say a combination of grace and human will. If you seek with your whole heart, He will make sure you find.

Well, if it’s God’s grace that moves us to love God, then does God not give grace to those who end up not loving God? Are thy not devout because God has decided not to touch them with that particular blessing?

It’s a problematic situation. If we do not save ourselves, and if it is all God’s doing, then how can the ones not granted the grace to respond to God be to blame?

I’ll leave it to theologians to debate that. I’ll simply say that in Chiang’s story world, where faith is moot, God’s light—but not God—are seen, and it has diverging effects in the finale. It shouldn’t be wholly unexpected, given that in this world, angelic apparitions and their results seem terribly unpredictable and capricious.

An interesting discussion on this story unfolded at John C. Wright’s blog. I recommend you read it for a much more critical view than mine. (Though Mr. Wright acknowledges, as do I, that the story is well-crafted.)

I take the view that the story world is not representative of the Christianity that really is (as opposed to a straw man Christianity). I’ve mentioned that it feels more Old Testament than New Testament, a time when angels dispersed the Lord’s plagues and destruction and were seen in fiery chariots. (This sets aside Revelation, which is N.T., but so metaphoric and varying in interpretation, that it might as well sit next to Ezekiel and Zechariah.) It’s some fantasy variation of elements of Judeo-Christianity. It’s not the real thing.

One thing central to the faith I hold is that God is just. God’s sentence may be harsh, but it is just. Every person who is sent to Hell merits it. No one who goes to Heaven merits it. Obtaining Hell is justice. Obtaining Heaven is grace.

If Neil Fisk’s going to hell is unjust, then God, as the story’s prophet (Ethan) claims, is unjust. This is what Ethan preaches:

He tells people that they can no more expect justice in the afterlife than in the mortal plane, but he doesn’t do this to dissuade them from worshiping God; on the contrary, he encourages them to do so. What he insists on is that they not love God under a misapprehension, that if they wish to love God, they be prepared to do so no matter what His intentions. God is not just, God is not kind, God is not merciful, and understanding that is essential to true devotion.

This flies in the face of Church teaching that God is just, kind, merciful, and that understanding this aids in devotion, for it is easy to love a being that is just, kind, and merciful. However, we would say, yes, be prepared to love God no matter what His intentions. If God is going to appoint us to suffering, then love Him. If He appoints us to ease and wealth, love Him. If He appoints us to deprivation, love Him. Ethan got that right, but he got the rest wrong.

Was it unjust for Neil Fisk to go to Hell?

Well, didn’t Neil himself say he didn’t deserve Heaven. He expected to go to Hell as a non-devout. He even saw how unjust it would be for him to get to Heaven on a loophole.

The odd thing is that, ultimately,l his going to Hell was just, even if it was a surprise to the observer. Neil received the expected benefit of Heaven’s Light (ie, all-encompassing love of God), but he was sent to Hell, where he actually belonged given the course of his life of non-devotion. The rules were kept, if not in the way the story sets it strictly up.

But, ah, the capricious results of angelic appearances. Why not some of that unexpectedness in Heaven’s Light. To expect that it will go A + B= C is because we haven’t paid close attention to the other equations. Yes, we should expect Heaven for Neil. But the story itself leads us to expect surprises. The unexpected. Such as Janice’s triple Heavenly touch.

It’s an ending sure to cause a measure of distress to believing readers. How can we not hurt when we read the accusations against God. But then, it’s supposed tobe very uncomfortable. I accept that. I read a Bible that has much that leaves me uneasy—genocides in Canaan, for instance. Do not these lines from Job cause some distress to read:

“Have pity on me, my friends, have pity, for the hand of God has struck me.” (Job 19:21)

“As surely as God lives, who has denied me justice, the Almighty, who has made me taste bitterness of soul.” (Job 27:2)

“He does whatever He pleases.” (Job 23:13)

And God’s response to the suffering man is not one of comfort, but of scolding: “Would you discredit my justice?”

How easy it would be for God to say, “Job, there are things at work in the universe of which you do not know, things angels are looking into, things of eternal consequence beyond your comprehension. You were tested to show that your love for me and devotion to me are not dependent on blessings. I chose you because of your righteous character. You are my beloved child.”

But God’s response is to say, in long and poetic terms, ‘I am God and I am Almighty and who are you to question me?”

He is God. He is mighty. And I trust, as Julian of Norwich prophesied, that “all shall be well, all manner of things shall be well.” But I still cannot help wanting answers to perplexing questions, such as that of suffering. I commiserate with Job. And I fear the God who can crush my life to serve a higher purpose, even as I know that it is His right to act as He thinks best.

I believe in Him and I bless His name.

And that response from my heart is a mystery of devotion (of faith) that bypassed Neil Fisk, until it was too late.

Job said He knew his Redeemer lived and “yet in my flesh will I see God.” (19:26). And he did hear God. And it changed him. He repented in “dust and ashes,” and his latter days were fuller than his former.

Neil sees, while in his flesh, a vision from Heaven. But without repentance, without devotion, without the love of God (prior to the miraculous intervention, ie., without it springing from his being in a genuine fashion)—-he is justly damned.

I can’t help but think on reading the story for the fourth or so time, that Mr. Chiang (who has several stories with Biblical or religious subject matter) has a more curious soul than he himself realizes. And if he really intended to pronounce the Judeo-Christian God as unjust and cruel, then these lines spoken by Job apply to the author, who may yet one day utter them should grace abound to him:

“Surely, I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know.”

  1. Terence Reyes says:

    There’s just one thing about Heaven’s light that you didn’t tackle. How it can save even a murderer’s soul. Surely, a murderer’s soul is as deserving of hell(even more I belive) as Neil. Yet, because of Heaven’s light his soul went to heaven. But the same couldnt be said for Neil

What do you think?