Evil exists. Or, put more accurately (since a strong case can be made that evil is really the privation of “the good”), evil is experienced by people. Or, put even more precisely yet, people suffer because of whatever evil happens to be, even if evil is some abstract concept to be debated over by the philosophers and theologians among us.
So, where does that leave us, if we are to believe in a God that is any semblance of good?
Well, that’s been the million-dollar question for a very long time, and not one that will be fully answered any time soon (if ever).
And yet, I’d still like to offer my thoughts (by of course using The Lord of the Rings as an example).
In my forthcoming book, The Wisdom of Hobbits: Unearthing Our Humanity at 3 Bagshot Row, I put forth the following thought experiment:
The answer I’m inclined to provide, while simple, seems the most accurate: without evil, we never get The Lord of the Rings. As it pertains to Hobbits, perhaps we get some gardening tips, a recipe for roasted conies, and a how-to guide for blowing smoke rings. A very fine read, but not an adventure that continues to stand the test of time (p. 125).
What I mean by this is clear: without evil, we simply don’t have adventurous literature. We have no hero’s journey. We have no need for pity, forgiveness, or mercy. We have no struggle, no toiling, no overcoming inner demons for the sake of “the good.” Or, at minimum, if we have these things, they are not written or appreciated by us, as we haven’t experienced them in order to tell the story in the first place.
Of course, in the face of suffering, an answer like this hardly suffices. But be honest! Does any answer suffice? Of course not. The best we can do—Tolkien included—is to dare to hope that in spite of evil and suffering, a good tale can be spun on our way to redemption (pp. 125-26).
This is why I call this a humble theodicy. In the face of suffering, it should be acknowledged that no answer suffices. In fact, the only true answer—if we can even call it one—is to suffer together. That’s why friendship and fellowship are so crucial (as testified to by Tolkien throughout his tales). In the face of suffering, all that can be done is to suffer alongside others. That, and hope for something different in the future.
And perhaps that’s the key—we approach the suffering experienced in Middle-earth from the end looking back. The end of The Lord of the Rings is a happy one. All fairy tales are. But even more than that, and as we discussed earlier, there is strong evidence throughout Tolkien’s Legendarium of a fully restored and redeemed Arda (represented by a Second Music of the Ainur) that comes prior to the end of time. And so, any current suffering, no matter how small or how horrific, eventually gets redeemed by Ilúvatar, and that should at least bring us some comfort (p. 126).
Again, I can’t stress this enough: this humble answer hardly suffices in the face of suffering. Suffering is the absurd reality we are all faced with, and some will experience it more than others. But two things can remain true in the face of it: 1) we can hope that there is a finality to suffering (that’s why I’m a universalist) and 2) that without it, we would have no great literature, for all great literature has complex characters that must overcome something.
We are those complex characters.
So, let me leave you with something from the Postscript to The Wisdom of Hobbits. May it bring you comfort in the face of your own personal suffering:
So, have hope that like our Hobbit friends, though your life may be wrought with peril, though it may be imbued with suffering, though it may seem like it’s too often well out of your control, there may come a day where, like Sam, you can come home to your comfy chair and say, “Well, I’m back.”
That’s my hope anyway; may it also be yours.
Until next time.
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