Review: Hell Is The Absence of God

Atheism, Book Review, Critique of Apologetics, Humanism, Thought Experiments

Permit me to geek out a bit.

This past year, the movie Arrival hit theaters. I am an admitted geek with a particular weakness for time travel, linguistics and alien science fiction. So this movie was like crack cocaine for me. After watching the movie, I wanted more. I discovered the source material is a short story called “The Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang. It can be found in his book titled “Stories of Your Life and Others” which is a collection of short stories.

The short story did not disappoint. Like all great science fiction, the subject is not actually aliens or technology but humanity and what it means to be human. In fact, this is a poignant story about a mother and her daughter. Because of the mother’s exposure to the alien language, she is able to “remember” the future. She knows the toddler bumps on the head and the teenage temper tantrums that will occur *before* her daughter is born. Ultimately the mother decides to have her daughter even after gaining foreknowledge of her daughter’s death at age 25. In the same way that many of us, given the chance to do life all over again, would say “I would do it the same way because it led to my significant other and my children” the mother chooses to do it the “same” way for the first time.

There is a humanist message here. Human relationships are what give us meaning in life even though human lifetimes are finite. The joy and love are worth any pain and heartache we may experience.

Hell on Earth

As good as “Story of Your Life” is, another of Chiang’s short stories stood out as more significant for an atheist humanist such as myself. In his short story, “Hell Is The Absence of God,” the excellent​ premise is that a (generic) theistic god exists. One which, crucially, actually intervenes in the lives of modern humans in the form of angelic visitations that have both miraculous and disastrous effects. In short, no one in this world doubts the existence of god because there is physical evidence of his interventions.

There are still decisions to be made about this god. During the visitations, for example, one person may receive miraculous healing while another may be severely injured by the debris from a building destroyed by the divine presence. The devout in this world see the miraculous after effects of the visitations as proof of this god’s goodness and downplay the destructive elements, while others see the negative consequences as either negating the benefit of the miraculous or down right outweighing it. Sound familiar?

When this short story first came out, this was the main theme that caused controversy. Christians felt it was a direct attack on Christianity and a rehashing of the problem of suffering. Though the story never identifies a specific religion as its target, there are vague Jewish and Catholic overtones. Chiang did an excellent job of making it as generic as possible and not, in fact, specific to any extant religion.

For a critique from a theist along these lines see John C Wright. For a critique of that critique see this. Also check out a recent episode of Very Bad Wizards where David and Tamler take on the purposefulness/purposelessness of suffering in the short story which according to Ted Chiang’s notes on the story is much closer to Ted Chiang’s intention than what you find here.

Although there is much to unpack regarding the problem of suffering, that is not the most damning point of the story. I want to focus on the more obvious point: that this God actively intervenes in the world of the story. The subtle, or not so subtle, subversiveness of this story is an attack on divine hiddeness in the real world. In particular, this god continued to intervene in the world even in the modern scientific age. In the story, the visitations were studied scientifically, statistics were gathered and evaluations were made about those who benefited and those who suffered. In our world, where are the emperor’s new clothes?

Any straight forward reading of the bible (insert the usual apologies for focusing on Christianity) suggests a god who interacts with his creation, and yet that is not the world we find ourselves in. This highlights, as I have pointed out before, not that theists take religion too seriously but that they don’t take it seriously enough. If they really believed what the bible describes, they would be in sack cloth and ashes every day crying out for god to *DO* something … anything.

In the notes on the story Chiang quotes Anne Dillard as saying:

If people had more belief they would wear crash helmets when attending church and lash themselves to the pews.

For more see critique of apologetics from an honest seeker or check out the podcast

Thought Experiment

Like the premise of this story we can run the thought experiment:

If God is real what would we expect to observe in the universe?

We would expect to see evidence that god created the universe. Instead we see a universe that behaves according to the laws of physics. And we can model the evolution of the universe from near the Big Bang until now. There is also a common theory among liberal theists that god guided evolution of life on Earth. Yet we see no evidence of tampering in the DNA record. Asserting that a god created the universe is not the same as evidence.

We would expect to see that believers experience statistically significant better quality of life from non-believers. But we see that believers and non-believers experience about the same positive and negative life experiences. The divorce rate is not significantly different. Cancer rates are the same.

We would expect to see miracles. Really, this is the big one that this story highlights. The god of most theistic religions is an interventionist yet miracles mysteriously disappeared in the modern scientific age. I have always, even as a Christian, felt the explanations from believers for why miracles ceased were very weak tea. Their explanations would seem to be describing a change in character in their unchanging god. Double blind tests researching the effects of intercessory prayer on healing diagnosed sick people showed no effect beyond the placebo effect.

We would expect to see prophets accurately speaking for god. Today if a person says they are speaking for God we quietly call the authorities to have the person institutionalized. Where are the prophets who predict a god’s intervention before a natural disaster occurs rather than pontificating after the fact?

We would expect to see justice. Returning to the topic of the problem of suffering, we would expect to see the righteous victorious and the unrighteous punished.

This list of reasonable expectations is not even approaching exhaustive. One could go on and on about the expected results of an interventionist god participating in the world vs the deafening silence that we actually experience.

Angelic advise for the real world

In the story we learn that the fallen angels are rather rational creatures who tell the humans to “Make up their own minds.” Hell turns out to be … well … not much different than the world we find ourselves in minus the visitations of angels. This highlights that Reality is the absence of god. In short, this fictional story allows one to viscerally feel the disparity between what a reasonable person would expect and what actually happens in our world.

Does the character, Neil, experience god’s grace?

Another theme of the story to explore is the very human reaction when others experience miracles but you do not.

Both in the story’s world and in ours there is a tendency to equate success in life with god’s favor. How easy is it for those who are born comfortably ensconced in the middle class to avoid questioning whence their success came from? With a simple answer close at hand, “god loves me,” it takes a very self reflective person to recognize the privileges that are the more likely reasons.

Neil is born with a birth defect that affects his leg. He is ambivalent about his condition but resents that others take it as sign of god’s disfavor. The story highlights our tendency to see those less fortunate than ourselves as “deserving” it somehow.

Even worse, when his wife dies as a result of a visitation, those who experienced miracles push him to become devout. This is a painful reminder of the well intentioned but ultimately destructive pat answers believers give to those suffering (whether those suffering are believers themselves or not).

Neil’s reaction to such attempts at persuasion depended on who was making it. When it was an ordinary witness, he found it merely irritating. When someone who’d received a miracle cure told him to love God, he had to restrain an impulse to strangle the person. But what he found most disquieting of all was hearing the same suggestion from a man named Tony Crane; Tony’s wife had died in the visitation too, and he now projected an air of groveling with his every movement. In hushed, tearful tones he explained how he had accepted his role as one of God’s subjects, and he advised Neil to do likewise.

While Chiang’s one weakness is a tendency toward dues ex machina, in this story it is fitting: a literal shinning of the divine light on his main character, which sets up the last stinging critique. Neil, the main character, has been “blinded by the light” (his goal all along so he could join his devout wife in Heaven) which allows him to “love” God despite his bitterness. And yet when he dies shortly after, God chooses to send him to hell instead. Such that Neil is the one person in hell who actually experiences it as a hell. He loves God (he can’t help it) but will never experience his nearness. This is a stinging critique of the devout in our world who most yearn to experience the closeness of an absent god.

Unconditional love asks nothing, not even that it be returned.

— Neil

Neil still loves Sarah, and misses her as much as he ever did, and the knowledge that he came so close to rejoining her only makes it worse. He knows his being sent to Hell was not a result of anything he did; he knows there was no reason for it, no higher purpose being served. None of this diminishes his love for God. If there were a possibility that he could be admitted to Heaven and his suffering would end, he would not hope for it; such desires no longer occur to him.

Neil even knows that by being beyond God’s awareness, he is not loved by God in return. This doesn’t affect his feelings either, because unconditional love asks nothing, not even that it be returned.

And though it’s been many years that he has been in Hell, beyond the awareness of God, he loves Him still. That is the nature of true devotion.

The point is that Neil having experienced the blinding of the light and finding himself sitting in hell loving a god who neither sees him nor loves him back represents believers in our world on Earth. They are dedicated to a god who, at best, is indifferent and more likely is non-existent.

Is this grace?

My opinion: no. This is the opposite of grace. This is the cruelty of religious claims. The strong implication that if one does not experience god’s graces in one’s life it is somehow the fault of the believer.

When one wakes up and accepts reality on its own terms, one can experience awe, mystery and most important, the powerful loving connection between human beings. This is what actual grace can look like: Secular Grace.

This post is in the series Thought Experiments for Believers.