A Good Story: Narrative as Theodicy


“If God, why evil?”

When men first announced the death of God these four, short, stabbing, syllables were thought to be the nails in the Creator’s coffin. This riddle may not have been the instrumental cause of his death, but it was certainly thought that it would prevent any future resurrection on his part. Unfortunately for them, scoffers have a bad track record when it comes to keeping God in his grave. I would suggest that far from being atheism’s invincible weapon, the so-called “Problem of Evil” is just a question in search of the proper context.


This is not to say that the question is not a legitimate one. Indeed, it is a conundrum with which many philosophers and theologians, pastors and missionaries, parents and children have wrestled without rest. Some, having found no satisfactory answer to the question, have left the faith of their fathers. Others, hearing no one bother even to attempt an answer, never come to faith in the first place. In both cases, each deserved more; each deserved better.

To that end, I want to raise the question, turn it over a few times by way of examination, and hopefully set it down again in such a way that it makes some sort of sense. I am under no illusion that my answers will satisfy everyone but I do hope that they will at least start us thinking about how we approach the question.

I suggest that we situate the question of evil within the context of story. We might call this the “narratival solution” to the problem of evil. Of course, this argument rests upon the premise that God is, and that he is as he says he is. But that is as it should be.

(For more from J. Brandon Meeks, check out his book, The Foolishness of God: Reclaiming Preaching in the Anglican Tradition.)

Authors of Evil?

Listen in on the following conversation. Two girls are finishing up their junior year at university and are debating the merits of classic literature. It’s ok to eavesdrop. After all, they are fictitious (though no less feisty for their non-existence).

“Admit it. You know it’s true! Bram Stoker was the real monster. Just flip through the pages. Blood everywhere. Machinations, manipulation, and morbid fascinations abound! People lured, quite unexpectedly, to some God-forsaken castle in a land which time justly forgot, all for the purpose of stealing a bride and enslaving innocent victims to fates worse than death. It’s not just that it’s grim, it’s godless! Stoker wants us to view him as some tragic romantic; a poor soul who pines for a long lost love. Nonsense! He’s just a bloodthirsty maniac. They drink blood for Pete’s sake! It’s amazing to me that we call this ‘classic literature.’ Even more shocking, we call it ‘good.’ Stoker should have been imprisoned but what do we do? We make him immortal. Immortal evil; like the Dark Prince of his novel.”

“I think you have a rather skewed view of things, actually. Stoker isn’t the villain. Dracula is the monster. He hatched the plot. He seduced the bride. He tortured his guests. He preyed upon the innocent. He killed for pleasure as well as for food. Dracula is the evil one. It’s true that there may be others to blame. Who made Dracula the beast that he became? Blame him. Who took his darling wife? Blame them. There is probably plenty of blame to go around but don’t blame Bram Stoker. He just wrote the story. He’s just the author.”

“Oh, so you think that being the author puts real distance between him and the atrocities that seep out of his pen? Honestly?! You think that the monsters wrote themselves? The whole diabolical plot was the product of his demented mind. He thought up the sick twists and vile turns. You say he’s not a monster. Well, at best he’s a sadist.”

“I don’t think that it’s as simple as all that. Stoker had reasons for all of the horrible bits in his book. In order to tell a particular story, he had to include particular details. In order to convey the true horror of loving and losing, he had to make it truly a horror. There were evils in the world to which Stoker wanted to draw our attention. Since we are so desensitized to those evils he had to exaggerate many of them in order for us to see them at all. What is Renfield but a portrait of greed, envy, and selfish ambition? Did you not hear the words of Van Helsing, thought of himself as “ministering God’s own wish,” as an old “knight of the Cross,” in order to “set the world free”? Is it lost on you that a piece of wood in the heart destroys the evil that lurked there? Do you not then see that Van Helsing is a sort of gospel agent bent on driving back the powers of darkness? That you can’t see the meaning past the monstrosities tells me that your problem isn’t that you misunderstand Stoker, your problem is that you don’t understand stories.”

Authors get away with murder. And not only murder. All sorts of mayhem are spattered on the page with pen and ink. Whether it’s Bram Stoker and his Count loosed upon London, or J. K. Rowling and the cruel death of Harry’s parents, or J. R. R. Tolkien unleashing orcs on the quiet villages of Rohan, authors spend their days inflicting harm and loss upon their unsuspecting characters.

Of course, we really don’t think that there is anything criminal about how authors treat their characters, namely because—like our two college students—they are fictitious. But what if they were real? What if they weren’t figments of our imaginations but creatures of flesh and bone and blood? What then?

Are authors guilty of the crimes committed by their literary creations? They certainly govern every fine detail of their stories. None of the characters could possibly have done otherwise, taking the pen in their own hands, as it were. But it would be rather an odd thing to accuse Shakespeare of King Duncan’s murder; especially when there lies the guilt-ridden Lady Macbeth. Ink stained fingers aren’t equal to bloodstained hands. We don’t denounce Tolkien because he set the evil eye of Sauron upon Middle Earth. Saruman’s treachery doesn’t defile his character. He is not touched by the corruption of the Nazgûl. And yet all of these and more exist at his will and by his design.

Here’s my question: What if the relationship between authors and stories is illustrative of something even greater? What if thinking about the existence of evil in Stoker’s London, Tolkien’s Middle Earth, and Lewis’ Narnia can provide for us a new perspective for seeing and making sense of our own storied world? God is the Author and this world is his story and we are his words made flesh. Can this illuminate the context of the question of evil and thus dispel the shadows that surround it?

Telling Time or Telling a Story?

The fundamental problem with the common theodicy advanced in these discussions is that the world is construed as a mechanism that is broken rather than a history that is progressing. But the world is not a machine, it is a story. The world is not the Deist’s intricate clock, wound tight and left to tick away the hours. It is a narrative of the acts of God in and through his people. The world isn’t meant to tell time, it is meant to tell a tale. It is a story of ruin, redemption, and restoration—with none of the grizzly details edited out.

Now, I imagine that one could spin a yarn that goes something like this:

“Once upon a time, there lived a fair maiden. She lived a quiet life. She married the blacksmith’s son, and lived more or less the same ever after. The end.”

That would be a story. But it would be what the erudite critic calls, in his technical jargon, a “snoozefest.” No character development. No inciting incidents. No climactic turns. No second-act dilemmas. No third-act resolutions. Little difference between the commencement, the climax, and the consummation. It would be a bad story not worth the telling.

A good story, on the other hand, requires tension. Problems are necessary inasmuch as happy endings are necessary. That which we call “evil” is what storytellers call narrative tension. It is what makes a story go. A victory requires a villain. Triumph needs a tragedy. Good, in order to be seen truly as good, must be cast side by side with evil.

St. Augustine spent a lot of time teaching us about the metaphysics of evil. Evil as privatio, a privation, the absence of good. Just as darkness, being only the absence of light, has no positive ontological status, so also evil. Likewise, cold is no more than the absence of heat, and so also evil. But we live in a world in which people are afraid of the dark, even though it technically doesn’t exist. And we have our being in a story in which people freeze to death from a non-entity. So, more has to be said than the fact that “evil actually isn’t.” That is, our existential concerns are not satisfied by mere metaphysical definitions.

I dare say that our angst doesn’t stem from what evil actually is, but rather from how it functions in the chapters that make up our lives. We want to know something of its purpose, not its ontological status. This is precisely where this “narratival theodicy” can help us.

Evil and the Service of Good

Luther famously said that the Devil is God’s devil. He is on a short leash and subject to the authority of Heaven. Just so, all of the evil that transpires in history operates ultimately in service to the Good. The Author has written a story in which evil is an obstacle to be overcome, so he sent an Overcomer. It is a power to be vanquished, so he dispatched a Champion. It has death as its aim, so he broke its back on the cross and evacuated the grave of any lasting victory.

This holds true for all of the intricate details of the story. Every character and every chapter provides us with scenes in which evil raises its ugly head. Then those same chapters, taken together and in light of the whole narrative, paint a picture of how the Protagonist decapitates evil before a watching world.

In this story, there are no plot holes. No loose threads. No dead ends. Everything serves the Author’s glorious purpose. This is not to say that every event is good, but it does mean that every act works together for good. At the end, all those who have suffered will be vindicated. Those who have wrought havoc will be punished. Justice will be exacted. Comfort will be administered. Every weeping eye will be dried. And there shall be no more death. All will be glory.

This is the end of the story. There is a temporal end at which point the story reaches its conclusion. At that moment every wrong will be righted and all shall be well. But there is also the teleological end—the aim, the goal, the purpose of it all. Viewed from this vantage point we see that “evil” has worn the chains of servitude to the Author’s plot all along. Thus there is no disparity or internal contradiction between, “It was a dark and stormy night,” and, “they all lived happily ever after.” That is just how good stories are told.

Published on

August 6, 2020


J. Brandon Meeks

Dr. J. Brandon Meeks is a writer, studio musician, and sometime poet. He serves as Theologian-in-Residence at his Anglican parish in Arkansas.

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