Review of Hell Is the Absence of God by Ted Chiang

In the past decade or so, the so-called problem of divine hiddenness has received increased attention from Christian apologists and philosophers of religion. Roughly speaking, the argument goes that if God were truly loving and all-powerful, and wanted people to believe in him, then he would reveal himself more clearly than he in fact does.

I do not want to discuss the challenge of divine hiddenness in detail right now, but I do want to say that my favorite counter-challenge is to ask, just what do we think would constitute a clear self-revelation of God anyway? My feeling is that if we were to take the time and effort to give a detailed description of a universe in which God would be allegedly less hidden, and take seriously what it would be like to live in that universe, then we would find that God would remain mysterious, and many questions about God would remain puzzling.

Hell Is the Absence of God is a short story by the remarkable science-fiction writer Ted Chiang. Chiang is a highly original and versatile writer who has a talent for taking deep scientific and philosophical ideas that may be well known to specialists but that are not so well known to the general public, and drawing out their hidden ramifications for everyday life in an engagingly written and mind-expanding short story. Of his stories that I have read, Hell Is the Absence of God may not be the best example of Chiang’s technical skill in writing, but it is the one whose premise I find most fascinating and powerful.

Chiang invites us to imagine a universe in which visitations by angels are commonplace. Like natural disasters, visitations are not entirely predictable, but nobody doubts that they occur and that they are caused by angels, because the angels are plainly visible, and the effects of the visitations are undeniable—some people are instantaneously and miraculously healed of debilitating illnesses or physical handicaps, while others are injured and even killed as a result of the physical upheaval that always accompanies a visitation. Souls can be seen ascending to Heaven and descending to Hell. The title of the story comes from the somewhat unusual character of Hell in this universe (somewhat reminiscent of C. S. Lewis’s portrait of Hell in The Great Divorce, but even less unpleasant).

Hell, after all, was not physically worse than the mortal plane. It meant permanent exile from God, no more and no less; the truth of this was plain for anyone to see on those occasions when Hell manifested itself. These happened on a regular basis; the ground seemed to become transparent, and you could see Hell as if you were looking through a hole in the floor. The lost souls looked no different than the living, their eternal bodies resembling mortal ones. You couldn’t communicate with them—their exile from God meant that they couldn’t apprehend the mortal plane where His actions were still felt—but as long as the manifestation lasted you could hear them talk, laugh, or cry, just as they had when they were alive.

In this world, atheism, in its usual sense of absence of belief in God, does not seem to exist. However, there is a humanist movement which resists devotion to God and which takes its cue from fallen angels.

Visitations of fallen angels were infrequent, and caused neither good fortune nor bad; they weren’t acting under God’s direction, but just passing through the mortal plane as they went about their unimaginable business. On the occasions they appeared, people would ask them questions: Did they know God’s intentions? Why had they rebelled? The fallen angels’ reply was always the same: Decide for yourselves. That is what we did. We advise you to do the same.

As we learn more about this world, we find that although God unmistakably acts in various ways, he does not explain his actions. People are left on their own to interpret the significance of good and bad fortune, and to decide how they want to spend their lives. Despite the apparent clarity of the facts about God, Heaven, Hell, and what you need to do to get to Heaven, it is by no means easy to navigate your way through life, as the main character of the story, Neil Fisk, is acutely aware.

But while Neil avoided the pitfall of blaming God, he never made the jump to loving Him; nothing in his upbringing or his personality led him to pray to God for strength or for relief. The assorted trials he faced growing up were accidental or human in origin, and he relied on strictly human resources to counter them.

Evidently, the unmistakable agency of God in visitations and other miraculous events has a flip side: Most events seem to happen on their own and seem to have nothing to do with God. Furthermore, we learn that “mere” belief in God’s existence appears to be insufficient to gain entrance to Heaven upon death; love and devotion to God seem to be prerequisites. For a long time this does not bother Neil, because he does not mind the prospect of going to Hell; but everything changes when Neil’s wife Sarah dies and goes to Heaven. Neil is then faced with the problem of desperately wanting to go to Heaven to be reunited with Sarah, but unable to do what it takes to get there.

He could have seen Sarah’s death as a wake-up call, telling him to love God while he still had the chance. Instead Neil became actively resentful of God. Sarah had been the greatest blessing of his life, and God had taken her away. Now he was expected to love Him for it? For Neil, it was like having a kidnapper demand love as ransom for his wife’s return. Obedience he might have managed, but sincere, heartfelt love? That was a ransom he couldn’t pay.

To learn Neil’s surprising fate, you will have to read the story yourself. What I find most interesting about Hell Is the Absence of God, however, is not the plot, but the way in which Chiang explores the consequences of the hypothetical universe that he has cooked up, and the way that people in this universe react to what they see and experience.

I expect that many Christians will be able to relate to the various characters’ struggle to interpret the meaning of things that they experience and to discern God’s will for their lives, but will find the basic premise of Chiang’s universe too far-fetched to be interesting. But if you are able to swallow the premise, then I think that it provides a fresh perspective on some very basic questions about the Christian faith that many people do not think about too closely. Just how do we want God to act anyway? Are we sure that if publicly verifiable miracles were to happen regularly, then everyone would believe in God? In any case, is that kind of “belief” sufficient for entry to Heaven, or does “saving faith” involve something more (recall that James 2:19 says that even the demons believe, and shudder)? Do we want God to be predictable? Do we want a world in which we can control our destiny because we are assured that certain actions are guaranteed to lead to known consequences?

There are certainly many things about the world we live in that are unsatisfying. On the other hand, I think we should not be too quick to assume that our instinctive feelings about what would improve the world are accurate. Chiang’s thought experiment shows us that fundamental changes in how God interacts with the world could have unexpected and even unpleasant consequences. The next time you are tempted to complain about how God seems to be behaving, just remember to be careful what you wish for.

Posted May 2018

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