Ted Chiang’s Hell is the Absence of God: A Tale of Twisted Salvation And Mockery
I first came across the work of Ted Chiang during an online poetry workshop hosted by my University’s Writer’s club. I was speaking to my former Theatre professor, asking him some recommendations for authors writing in the Fantasy and Science-Fiction genres specifically. He gave me the names of two particular Asian authors: Ken Liu and Ted Chiang. Ken Liu is famous for his Dandelion Dynasty series and for coining the term “Silk-punk”, which is a genre of Fantasy fiction filled with Asian-influenced bamboo-like technology and silk aesthetics.
For Science-Fiction, Ted Chiang is a rather recent author whose work recently became popular thanks to an adaptation based on his novella, Story of Your Life, in the award-winning 2016 film, Arrival. His stories are especially known for their soulful, melancholic tone matched alongside philosophical questions such as free will, the human condition, the implications of artificial intelligence, and even the existence of God. I find his approach to the exploration of deep, philosophical ideas in his fiction to be fascinating, most especially thanks to his straightforward writing and the emotional tension I can feel seeping through each of his words.
Although I wasn’t impressed enough with Arrival to bother reading the source material it was based on, I instead went for Chiang’s stories that my professor recommended to me such as the incredible The Life Cycle of Software Objects novella. Although he has his roots more inclined to Science-Fiction, Chiang has also delved into the enchanted worlds of the Fantasy genre in stories such as Tower of Babylon, The Merchant, and the Alchemist’s Gate, and Hell is the Absence of God. The third story, Hell is the Absence of God, will be the work that shall be discussed here critically.
The story revolves around the character of Neil Fisk, an adult man who was born with a genetic disability that caused his left thigh to be shorter than his right by several inches, a condition, which his parents blamed God for. From the beginning of the story, we are told that Neil’s beloved wife, Sarah, perished in an accident involving the visitation of the angel “Nathanael” whose divine fire caused the glass of the cafe she was dining in to shatter which caused her to bleed to death. On the other hand, the same angelic visitation miraculously cured four ill people of their sicknesses and blinded a Truck Driver. And though blinded, the Driver’s reaction was not of anger or sadness but of an instant, permanent devotion to God
The rest of the story involves Neil’s attempt to cope with the loss of his wife, as he joins various support groups consisting of different people who were negatively affected by the “miracles” sent down from Heaven. For much of the story, he is resentful of God for having taken his wife away and the disastrous miracles that God keeps on raining down from Heaven.
In his journey to come to terms with his wife’s death, Neil comes across two other characters: the Evangelist, Janice Reilley, and a devotee named Ethan Mead. Janice Reilley was an evangelist who had been born without any legs and despite this, she remained faithful to God and became a public speaker to convince others similar to her to do the same. That was until a random miracle from Heaven restored both her missing legs, allowing her to stand on her own for the very first time but ruined her credibility as an evangelist. Ethan Mead, who experienced a visitation by the angel Rashiel was bereft of any blessings and sought to find existential answers in the support group where he would first meet Neil.
These two characters would be unsuccessful in convincing Neil to start loving and believing in God, later causing him to become desperate in longing for his wife and proceeded to do everything to be reunited with her in Heaven, even if it meant for him to bitterly start loving God, which he equated to using “brainwashing to cure depression”. After hearing about a brief and awfully vague account of a serial rapist and murderer named Barry Larsen “unfairly” being redeemed and his soul brought to Heaven during his public execution, Neil realized that there is a “loophole” that could get him into Heaven that required him to be selfish by loving Sarah more than he did God.
Ultimately, Neil would embark on this journey chasing visiting Angels for an opportunity to speak to God and would perish painfully for doing so, as he slowly bled to death after his truck collided with a boulder. As he died, Janice and Ethan would arrive to comfort him, only for God to use the opportunity to permanently blind Janice with a miracle and spitefully damning Neil into Hell for all eternity. Despite this, Neil grew to love God unconditionally even though he may never be able to reunite with his beloved wife for the rest of Eternity.
Objectively speaking, Chiang did a somewhat good job writing this pessimistic short story. The plot was cohesive, the characters were relatable and realistic and I must applaud Chaing’s straightforward writing style that made it easy for anyone to read and comprehend his text without much difficulty. The story’s structure follows the standard format from start to finish alongside the author is apt in his ability to make the reader empathize with his characters. He also appears to have either intentionally or unintentionally overlooked several factors within his story’s narrative which I shall be discussing later. The author is skilled in making the reader empathize with his characters and the problems that they undergo and is excellent in providing suitable conclusions to their plotlines.
Another fascinating detail of his story is how he subjects or “materializes” supernatural events such as the visitations of angels through the usage of meteorology and weather reporting, giving us some scientific inquiry about how they manifest into the physical world. As much as I enjoyed the author’s creative approach to his story and religious subject matter, the story’s brilliant qualities end right there.
Hell is the Absence of God is a story that is written underneath a great deal of creative license and re-interpretation of concepts originally found in Christianity. According to the author’s notes, Chiang states that this story is a response, of sorts, to the Book of Job and the lessons espoused by it and concluded that it lacks “conviction”. The story itself is a great departure from the essence of Job and is re-written and told in the author’s own perspectives and beliefs.
On page 189 of the story, Chiang has his character, Ethan Mead, in a fashion akin to Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, proclaim to everyone he preaches to that God is not just, not kind, and certainly not merciful as seen by his careless miracles and the salvation of criminals like Barry Larsen. Such a statement can already give us a clear hint of how the author would like us to see God, and perhaps is a testament to his personal belief & interpretation of God’s actions in the Bible.
It is very clear to me that the “God” present in Chiang’s short story is not the Judeo-Christian God long since worshipped by those two traditions but rather the imperfect “Demiurge” of Gnosticism that possesses a conflated understanding of good and evil, as seen by its careless interventionism through the destructive actions of its subordinate Angels. Such destructive interventions which Chiang atrociously labels as “miracles”, tend to cause more harm than any good which is ridiculous and contradictory in the context of Christianity. I am baffled as to where Chiang might have gained the inspiration to twist and pervert what is otherwise an entirely benevolent gift given by God to the Human race!
If it really was the God of the bible being depicted in his story, then there would be no rampant interventionism, random tragedies, and “miracles” that would simultaneously occur without any proper reason. In fact, God wouldn’t even need to make use of his angels if he were to grace us with his miracles! The story of Moses already perfectly demonstrates to us the reasonableness and mercy that God shows to his creations, as seen by how Moses was completely unharmed when he encountered the burning bush or how he sent the prophet to warn Pharaoh Ramses II multiple times before sending each of his plagues upon the Egyptian people! On my first reading of this story, I had initially believed that the author possesses a very poor understanding of Christianity and its theology, but after much reflection and research, I have a feeling that the author has an adequate understanding of it but is clearly biased against it to such an extent that he makes no effort to mask his contempt for the religion.
Another grave error in this story is Chiang’s approach to the concept of Faith, which he trivializes and disregards throughout the entire narrative of his story. He even metaphorically mocks the whole concept of faith as seen by how he depicts the “blind ones” who are a group of fully devoted people that were robbed of their eyesight after receiving a miracle from Heaven. Indeed, Chiang is so myopically blinded with his dismissal of faith and devotion as “blind”, that he overlooks a crucial detail within the narrative of his own story which cemented the raison d’être of his protagonist: the salvation of the criminal Barry Larsen.
For an author who is thorough in wrapping up the plotlines of each of his characters, Chiang gives us a vague and superficial account of the aforementioned Barry Larsen, whom the author insists was wrongfully brought into Heaven by God regardless of his past crimes. In his attempt to portray “God” as some kind of evil, unjust deity that does whatever he pleases, the author neglects to provide to us the small but very important detail that led to the salvation of this terrible murderer. It was from this observation alone that I have concluded that Chiang does not treat his subject matter seriously and clearly possessed a poor understanding of Christianity.
If you actually think about it, it was not at all wrong for God to have rescued such a terrible criminal, despite Chiang’s desperate insistence that we consider otherwise. Now before you accuse me of anything, let me present to you an analogy from a truly superb work of fiction and poetic mastery. In Dante Alighieri's Purgatorio, the second book of his renowned Divine Comedy trilogy, Dante and Vergil encounter the character of Buonconte Da Montefeltro, who in life was a general for the Ghibelline faction that fought against the Guelphs during the Investiture Controversy in 12th century Europe. Like his father, Buonconte was a man who led a sinful life and he was killed during the Battle of Campaldino in 1289 against the Guelphs, with his body never being recovered.
Dante narrates to us as he meets Buonconte in Purgatory that he was fatally injured at the throat and collapsed in a nearby river. As he lay dying, Buonconte pleaded to the virgin Mary by calling out her name, his soul immediately being rescued by an Angel who would bring him into Heaven. Meanwhile, the Demon that had arrived to drag the sinful man’s soul into the Inferno was angered and destroyed his body by unleashing a storm that swept it into the river. It is important to note that the imagery of Buonconte’s body being swallowed by the river is symbolical of the Christian rite of Baptism, implying to us the character’s ultimate conversion.
Now, why was Buonconte, a sinful man born of an equally sinful father, just suddenly forgiven and saved by God for merely uttering the name of the Virgin Mary in his final moments? People with the same level of understanding of Christian doctrine like Chiang may never understand this, but the answer to this question is very simple. Because, unlike his father, Guido, who was an ex-military strategist that became a Monk later in life, Buonconte was sincere in his conversion and the penance for his sins. He did not adopt the guise of a Monk and advised the Pope of a deceptive scheme in providing his enemies a false amnesty! When Guido proved to God that he was sorry for the sins he committed in his life, he instantly forgave him for all his sins (such is his authority to do so) and brought him into Purgatory, to properly cleanse himself of them to enter Paradise.
Disregarding the fact that Ted Chiang’s execution of literary symbolism is inferior to that of a 13th century Poet, let us now return our attention to the character of Barry Larsen whose sinful soul was “wrongfully” saved by God during his public execution in front of his victims’ families. If you were to follow Chiang’s “rationalistic” yet ignorant logic in the narrative, the supposedly idiotic God ought to have condemned him regardless of whether he was sorry or not. But if you were to follow Dante’s proper understanding of salvation, God would’ve first listened to the heart of Larsen and acknowledged whether or not he is worthy of being saved. And in the occurrence that Larsen does acknowledge the gravity of his sins and begs forgiveness with utmost sincerity, then that is enough for God to rescue the man’s soul from eternal damnation.
Perhaps the reason why Chaing chose to keep this character’s story brief and superficial (in happenstance that he was aware of such a detail) were because any further prying into the character would completely undermine the narrative he was trying to push, which is without any doubt, to portray God as this evil and unjust deity and that we are all better off being bleak Atheists like himself. To give Larsen any hint of sorrow or regret for his sins, much less any means to beg for forgiveness, would quite literally cause Chiang’s misguided narrative to collapse on itself much like a building bereft of its foundations.
Unfortunately, the author’s mire of errors does not end with the conclusion of his contemptuous story. As mentioned earlier, Chiang explains to us his personal thoughts about the story he wrote and the basis for which he wrote it. He tells the reader that the story is a response to the book of Job in the Bible and how he finds a discrepancy in the author’s moral teachings concerning the character of Job and the incredibly unfair punishment that he received from the Devil, a character surprisingly absent from Chiang’s story! Chiang argues that the message of Job’s story is “undercut” and “lacking the courage of its convictions”, pointing out that one of the messages of the story is that “virtue isn’t always rewarded” and that God’s rewarding of Job contradicts the point of this message.
Having read the Book of Job myself and seeing the divine sublimity of its themes and moral teachings, I can say for sure that Chiang’s myopic reading of Job’s story misses the other more crucial themes of the story which are Faith and Gratitude. Job’s Gratitude is displayed perfectly at the beginning of the tale when he, the most blessed man on Earth, remains humble, thankful, and grateful for all the blessings that had been given to him and his family. Like his ancestors before him, he always offered sacrifices to God atop his altar to thank him for the blessings he continues to receive.
The Devil, seeking the ruination of Job and his complete separation from the Lord, challenges the Creator to let him destroy Job’s life to test his Faith. The Lord agrees on the condition that Job’s life will never be harmed. What proceeds next is a series of utterly devastating events ranging from the loss of Job’s business and the death of all his children, who were all adults at the time. Job remained unwavering in his faith in the Lord, prompting the Devil to unleash one final plague upon him in the form of a terrible and painful disease. He would spend several days in the desert, accompanied only by his four close friends, three of which would doubt him and accuse him of some secret wrongdoing in a fashion akin to how the Devil did earlier.
It was only Elihu, the fourth friend, that sided with Job and believed in his spiritual cleanliness and unwavering faith in the Lord. Upon realizing the reason behind God’s supposed silence, Job falls to his knees once more and pronounces his continued Faith to God, who then finally speaks to him directly in what is the longest amount of dialogue ever spoken by God in the entire Bible! He asks Job a multitude of different questions that he can never answer, demonstrating to him the infinite vastness and beauty of the Lord’s power and creation. The story culminates with Job understanding three important virtues that God wishes to impart with him: Faith, Gratitude, and Humility.
Job embraces these virtues and abandons his inward pride and is forgiven by him for doing so. God then scolds Job’s three doubting friends, whose flawed understanding of God led them to disregard both his mercy and authority. Chiang is ignorant to these elementary facts as well and as such he implies that God’s reward for Job is an error and suggests to the reader an alternate ending of pathetic bleakness where Job remains “bereft of everything.” Such a dreadfully depressing tone is characteristic of many of Chiang’s stories and is akin to Schopenhauer's pessimistic philosophy.
Much like Job’s three wrongful friends, I suspect that three things were going through Chiang’s mind in his reading of Job and the writing of his story: Doubt, Skepticism, and Unbelief. Indeed, Chiang is himself a professed Atheist as he said so in a 2002 interview. With this in mind, it is no surprise to anyone apart from Atheists that Ted Chiang possesses a wrongful interpretation and understanding of the Book of Job, and God, for that matter. I could only imagine the surprise on Chaing’s face when he first discovered that God rewarded Job tenfold for his unwavering faith in the struggle that he endured, his dead children even being replaced with new ones! Although Chiang is correct in saying that new children can never replace dead ones (since Human life is irreplaceable), to understand why Job accepted all of God’s gifts unconditionally is to understand the virtue of gratitude.
To conclude, it appears to me that when he first wrote this story, Ted Chiang did not only fail to understand the book of Job, but he also lacks a keen understanding of faith, Christianity, God, and even religion, for that matter. Objectively, the story is well written, easy to read, understand and contains a straightforward plot with mostly relatable characters. If we disregard the point I made about Barry Larsen, the story would be an excellent narrative from start to finish. Thematically, however, the story is absolutely lousy and pathetic. It was clearly written from a very skewed, biased, and ignorant understanding of the Christian religion and I would consider Chiang to be about as versed in this subject matter as Ozzy Osbourne. I would kindly suggest that Chiang steer clear of such nonsensical rambling and stick to doing what he does best: writing science-fiction.