Becoming Sin: The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Ontology of Evil

One of the most terrifying works of art ever conceived in the mind of a man and executed by the skill of his hand, is the 7-foot tall painting of Dorian Gray by the 20th-century artist Ivan Albright. This monstrosity hangs in the halls of the Chicago Art Institute, and it may be warranted to say that any observer who can withstand looking at it for longer than a few minutes might rightly be suspected of either having some form of mental disorder or some serious moral defect. For to gaze too long upon Albright’s “masterpiece,” is quite literally to gaze at an image of human corruption and decay that, in its extraordinary arrangement of matter and form, embodies what could be best described in theological terms as “sin.”

And it was for this very purpose that the artist, Albright, was commissioned. Albright, who learned his macabre talent for portraying human flesh sketching battle-inflicted wounds in France during World War I, created the portrait for a 1945 film version of Oscar Wilde’s modern novel about the inner corruption of man, The Picture of Dorian Gray. Taken together, what Wilde captured in word and Albright in paint and canvas, makes for a vivid reminder of a very uncomfortable biblical truth, namely, the reality of human depravity and the corrosive effects of sin. Wilde’s story about Dorian Gray— the handsome youth who makes a devil’s pact to pursue without regret his every lustful and wicked desire— as well as Albright’s depiction of the inner man that Dorian becomes, also act as a type of apologetic for the traditional view of Hell as a place of eternal, conscious torment— a doctrine often neglected due to modern sensitivities, but that still maintains dogmatic status in most church traditions. For it makes little sense to hold to such a harsh doctrine of damnation, unless we truly believe that man not only does evil, but can become it.

The Wild Life of Oscar Wilde

The dandyism of the 19th century author and poet Oscar Wilde is renowned in literary history. But it was not just his flamboyant dress and sharp tongue that made him stand out. Wilde’s sexual escapades were as jarring as his external appearance and as unbound as his creativity. But, those escapades were consistent not just with personal taste but with a particular worldview he held. Wilde’s libertine lifestyle was borne out of both his metaphysical and moral perspective of the universe, one not unlike that of his literary successor, Aldous Huxley, who once, with great transparency, explained his own rejection of God’s authority and design saying:

I had motive for not wanting the world to have a meaning; consequently assumed that it had none, and was able without any difficulty to find satisfying reasons for this assumption. The philosopher who finds no meaning in the world is not concerned exclusively with a problem in pure metaphysics, he is also concerned to prove that there is no valid reason why he personally should not do as he wants to do, or why his friends should not seize political power and govern in the way that they find most advantageous to themselves. … For myself, the philosophy of meaninglessness was essentially an instrument of liberation, sexual and political.

Huxley, Ends and Means

Like Huxley, Wilde too was both sexually and politically offensive in his day and age. Of course, in 19th century Ireland, the domains of sexual morality and politics were still fused together by laws of conduct, a notion increasingly alien to many westerners today. As such, Wilde was eventually tried and convicted for the sin of sodomy, a sin, moreover that he enjoyed with both under-aged boys and egomaniacal relish. Summing up Wilde’s life, fellow Dubliner, George Bernard Shaw, said this:

Oscar seems to have said: ‘I will love nobody; I will be utterly selfish; and I will be not merely a rascal but a monster; and you shall forgive me everything. In other words, I will reduce your standards to absurdity, not by writing them down, though I could do that as well—in fact, have done it—but by actually living them down and dying them down.

Shaw, “My Memories of Oscar Wilde”

But, aside from some particular lack of moral development, it was again a philosophical view of the world that Wilde held which facilitated and justified this debauchery. Wilde, like many at that time, embraced fully, indeed more fully than others in the same intellectual circles, the practical outworking of the philosophy of aestheticism. Late 19th and early 20th century aestheticism was best articulated by the British philosopher, G.E. Moore, in his book Principia Ethica. Alasdair MacIntyre, commenting on Moore’s aestheticism, sums up its core tenets:

It turns out to be the case, in the sixth and final chapter of [Moore’s] Principia Ethica, that ‘personal affections and aesthetic enjoyments include all the greatest, and by far the greatest goods we can imagine… ’ This is ‘the ultimate and fundamental truth of Moral Philosophy’. The achievement of friendship and the contemplation of what is beautiful in nature or in art become certainly almost the sole and perhaps the sole justifiable ends of all human action.

MacIntyre, After Virtue

For the aesthete of Wilde’s day, there was nothing more than, or beyond, the relishing of friendships and the contemplation of art and nature. These are the “sole justifiable ends of all human action.” While not bad things in themselves, and to some extent worthy of pursuit, nevertheless this pursuit of sensible beauty is teleologically a far cry from that say of the Westminster Confession (or the Roman Catholic Catechism), which state that the chief end of man is “to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” Or, as Christ taught in a very particular order, that the two greatest commands are to love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and then to love one’s neighbor as oneself. For the aesthete the first part of this command is meaningless, for God is not a reality that can be loved. The second becomes therefore primary, as the creaturely is elevated in value to that of Creator, an exchange the apostle Paul warns about in the opening salvo of his letter to the Romans (see Romans 1:18ff).

In Wilde’s own writing, which is best understood as the literary embodiment of this Anglo-philosophical aestheticism coupled with the moral philosophy of Nietzsche, he describes this stance in the preface of Dorian Gray:

The artist is the creator of beautiful things….Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope. They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only Beauty. There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.

The last few sentences of this passage evince Wilde’s Nietzschean bent. Here morality no longer means the “slavish” moral values and obligations of the Judeo-Christian revelation, but the aesthetic aspirations of the Homeric mytho-poetic world. Beauty versus ugliness is the “good versus evil” in Nietzsche’s moral universe, and as well as Wilde’s. Wilde’s “wild life” was thus not predicated on the reality of a divine Nature or the essence of a good God who issues divine commands, instead it was predicated on the generative powers of man to create his own heavenly realms, and the hope of becoming his own god (Nietzsche’s Übermensch) over the realms he creates. In attempting to live like his own god, and under his own authority, Wilde produced his most famous work, Dorian, itself as close to an autobiography of the Irish upstart as one can find.

The Picture of Dorian Gray: A Study in The Ontology Of Sin

In Wilde’s story Dorian’s physical beauty acts as a mirror to his purity of soul and moral innocence. That is, until the antagonist, the arch-hedonist Lord Henry Wotton, friend of the portrait’s artist, Basil Hallward, corrupts the young Dorian by inciting in him the innate, yet latent, narcissism common to man. The scene takes place in Hallward’s studio, itself described with saccharine flourish, where everything sensual is enhanced for maximum effect. Here, the artist’s world of words expresses Wilde’s own inner proclivities and orientation, that of the aesthete who is also the moral nihilist. Wotton’s character speaks for Wilde as the civilized version of an ancient evil. He is the Mephistopheles of the late 19th century—the tempter in the garden of earthly paradise.

Through Wotton’s influence, Dorian makes an impulsive wish—that the portrait of himself, Basil’s finest work, be the thing that ages and corrupts over time, while his real-life material body remains forever young. Wotton has tempted Dorian to unleash an infernal wish, one that will make him the center of his own world, a pure sinner, yet who also bears no consequences or punishments for his sinfulness. The painting will bear all the visible marks of Dorian’s inner corruption, while Dorian’s outward appearance stays uncorrupted, the horror of what he has become ever obscured to the outside world.

This transference of the substance of evil from person to painting, is the central idea that makes Wilde’s book a modern day classic, even if the theme is old. Another great Irish author, C.S. Lewis, reflected on this ontology of sin in his most memorable sermon, “The Weight of Glory,” when he said:

It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare.

For Lewis, like Wilde, the outward appearance did not do justice to what might be inside of the person, it did not necessarily reflect the structure or content of one’s soul. As such, what might be revealed at the end of days, may indeed be the most shocking revelation of all, at least after the greater revelation of Christ Himself.

This relation of beauty to goodness is as old as human culture, something Nietzsche rightly recognized, even if he rejected what had become of it through the emergence of Socratic philosophy and ultimately Christianity. The medieval doctrines of the “beatific vision” also attest to this deep understanding of the moral Good and transcendent Beauty being one and the same in God. It is Wilde’s sundering of this relationship that makes Dorian Gray’s story on the one hand so shocking, yet, on the other, so realistic. For how many of us truly know our neighbor just by his looks or outward presentation? In the novel many are fooled by Dorian, just as we are often fooled in the real world. Indeed, some contemporary scandals in the church today1 One cannot help but mention sexual predators like Ravi Zacharias and Jean Vanier, men who used their roles as spiritual authorities and Christian leaders to entrap victims. have revealed to us how the cancer of sin often goes unseen in the outward appearance, or speech, of men. Many apparently solid edifices are only as real as Hollywood stage sets. Only later, sometimes too late, do we recognize sin’s true effects on one’s soul.2 This was definitely the case in both Zacharias’ and Vanier’s stories, as each seems to have died without repentance. An incredible breakdown in moral accountability.

Ultimately, Wilde’s story ends when Dorian, having now descended into every form of narcissistic iniquity, including murder, is confronted with the hideous painting, which, in its grotesqueness, crystalizes each of Dorian’s atrocities. In the last chapter, after a paltry attempt to turn over a new leaf after his life of evil, Dorian rushes to the painting to see if his newfound “desire” for morality has perhaps already altered the painting for the better. But, it has not. For even Dorian’s thought of becoming good was one born out of self-preservation and pride. The desire was not pure, but itself a sin of “cunning hypocrisy.” Now, only because he could no longer endure the endless experiences of pleasure, the Schadenfreude that attended each evil act, he wrongly thinks that trying to be moral will fix his dreadfully boring life. He thinks he can try on virtue, the way a vain teenager tries on a trashy prom dress. Wilde’s Dorian is not Dickens’ Scrooge, who is touched by the divine and transformed. Dorian is a man whose attempt at goodness would be no better than the whitewashed hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees. It is a goodness of his own design conceived for his own benefit.

Finally, Dorian succumbs to his hatred for himself and the painting, which provides the only evidence of the true nature of his soul. He tears into the canvas with the same knife that he used to kill its creator, his old “friend” Basil Hallward. Upon slaying the picture, the picture returns to its original state, a portrait of a handsome, young, and innocent man. Found dead on the floor is a withered, and decayed old man, knife in heart.

Albright’s Imagery, Metaphysics, and The Reality of Hell

Albright’s portrait of Dorian Gray appears only a few times in the movie, however, director Albert Lewin filmed the revealing of Albright’s picture, which comes toward the film’s end, in full color. The only color scene in the otherwise black-and-white movie. The reason is obvious, as it is not enough to say that Albright’s use of color is “vivid,” rather, it is “painful” to the eye. For again, this is no Botticelli figure or Poussin landscape meant to enchant us and woo us into wanting to “be in the painting” as opposed to observing it from without. No, Albright succeeds in his intent to present the repulsive in material form. As mentioned above, to not be repulsed at this “after” image of Dorian is to be either insane or immoral. There is no beauty to be found here, only horror. Photos of visitors to the Chicago Art Institute in the early days of the paintings public release demonstrate what can be called the “right” reaction to Albright’s work.

But, what is it about Albright’s work that makes us convulse and turn away? Like one of his own favorite artists, the 16th century German master, Albrecht Dürer, Albright seems to capture in his art something that is, on the one hand, entirely realistic as all of his objects can be found in the same spacetime reality we occupy. But, on the other hand, this realism is imbued with something quite mystical, or better said, something quite metaphysical. One German art critic referred to Albright’s style as “Magic Realism,” but it might be the philosopher or theologian who can better articulate the “quiddity” that Albright has rendered through his composition, i.e., its Metaphysical Realism.

Although Metaphysical Realism has been the underdog in philosophy departments since Hume’s skepticism and Kant’s critique of metaphysical knowledge, there has nevertheless always been a vibrant strain of Metaphysical Realism in Christian philosophy, especially in the neo-Thomism of 20th-century Roman Catholic and Evangelical theology. In more technical areas, Metaphysical Realism deals with intricate notions about the existence of things like universals and properties, but in a more basic sense it affirms the reality of substances, to include immaterial substances like angels and demons, minds or souls. In philosophy these are considered concrete objects, not abstract ones, since they possess not only existence but also have causal powers and even moral natures.

The genius of both Wilde’s novel and Albright’s portrait inheres in the demonstration of this dynamic between material body and immaterial, yet substantive, soul. The nature of the soul, its moral structure and causal powers, is affected by the conscious choices it makes—choices that are instantiated in the physical world through the body. Dorian’s sordid intentions, his lurid thoughts, and most depraved fantasies, all of which are immaterial, are actualized in the physical world through his embodied acts. For Wilde, these immaterial desires are transmitted to his physical form. He does not just commit sins, he literally becomes sin.

In his own modern classic, The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis presents us with a similar take on the ontology of sin. In that book, ghostly figures who linger in the “Gray Town” are transported in an angelic bus up to heaven to see, if given one more chance at redemption, whether they might choose God’s grace over their sins. In the end, none but one does. In several places Lewis displays this understanding of sin as an ontological substance, as something we are, or become, not just as something we do. In one scene, he portrays a woman who has through her sin of protesting, in the book “grumbling,” become not just one who protests, but one who is a protest! An image perhaps quite relevant in lieu of our current political culture. The grumbling woman has, or, as the plot goes, is on the brink of becoming a grumble. Alternatively, the lustful man of chapter eleven, the only one who receives salvation, is shown being united to that which was once his sin, but now, being redeemed, both are transmogrified into rider and stallion; united in their redemption in Christ. The new man is now one with his virtue as ungodly lust becomes glorious power.

Still, does this idea of sin as an ontological substance make the doctrine of Hell more palatable? After all, are not Wilde’s and Lewis’ novels and Albright’s art mere imaginations from the minds of men? Perhaps.

However, if the metaphysical realist is correct, and if we take the biblical texts seriously, let alone the atrocities of our own times, then the reality of sin and its effects on the very substance of our souls should also be taken most seriously. The doctrine of eternal, conscious torment may indeed be a hard doctrine to deliver to contemporary culture, but, just because it is difficult to convey, does not mean it is invalid or untrue. In fact, as Lewis also points out in “The Weight of Glory,” it is the abrasive and bizarre doctrines we find in Scripture that further evidence its divine origins, “If our religion is something objective, then we must never avert our eyes from those elements in it which seem puzzling or repellent; for it will be precisely the puzzling or the repellent which conceals what we do not yet know and need to know.”

That Hell is both a puzzling and repellent doctrine is certainly the case. However, what would the just person say if one day, standing in Gallery 262 in the Chicago Art Institute, she saw Albright’s Dorian slowly emerge from its canvas and move toward her, and perhaps her toddler standing at her side? Is it so hard to imagine she might scream out “Oh God, please damn that thing!”?

Would she be wrong to do so?

History testifies that Oscar Wilde was accepted into the Roman Catholic Church through a valid baptism just days before his death. Only God knows the status of Wilde’s soul now, but at the end of his physical life he seemed to die within the safe havens of the church. But, if that is not always the case, what else might we conclude about the final destination of the “dead?”

Coda: A Personal Story of Encountering Evil

It could be argued by someone reading the above article that this is all fine and good, but it is abstract and unscientific. After all, we are talking in non-empirical terms about images from literature and art or theorizing in philosophy and theology. The question is begged: How do we know that these “realities” are real? While epistemic certainty is rarely attainable in this life, allow me one personal story that might help make more concrete this theory about sin and hell.

An Encounter in Munich

Of course, no one looks like [Albright’s painting of] Dorian Gray. The evil that resides in human beings usually doesn’t show its full face to us.

Years ago as a much younger, and more wicked man, I lived in Munich, Germany. My roommate at that time was a journalist working in television for one of the major news networks in the country, RTL. My friend was approached one day by a male prostitute who worked the Munich Hauptbahnhof (Central Station) underground. Anyone who knows Europe, knows that some of the most vile acts of humanity, and, if this essay is correct, demonic ones as well, are centered in the major train stations of Europe’s most illustrious cities. Certainly some are better than others, but when I lived in Germany, many of the Hauptbahnhöfe were absolute cesspools.

This male prostitute, call him Carlos, had had enough of seeing minors trafficked in his area of work. His conscience stung him: too many children being raped. He wanted to help. His solution was to start a non-profit and then seek out journalists who would expose this horrid underworld of the otherwise quaint and idyllic Bavarian capital. What lie underneath the famed Marienplatz with its Glockenspiel was foul, and few knew of it, American tourist and Münchener alike. Like in Wilde’s novel, the outward presentation of the famed city covered up the corruption that permeated its soul.

Eventually Carlos found my friend, call him Thomas. They got together and set up a sting operation in Carlos’ apartment, just a few minutes walk from our own. They outfitted the place with secret microphones and hidden cameras. They were going to entrap predators (they were not law enforcement, however, so the only goal was to expose the truth, not convict anyone of crime; that would hopefully follow).

After two weeks of putting ads into an underground newspaper, in which Carlos pretended he was holding captive a 14-year old boy named Stephan, with whom anyone with the right amount of money (old German Marks, or the newly installed Euro, it didn’t matter) could do whatever he wanted, my friend came home one afternoon. I myself was still enrolled at university at that time, and my dissertation topic, which I never finished, was on the concept of evil in post-WWII German literature—not a pleasant or uplifting topic, to be sure. My friend challenged me: “why don’t you come and see what we are doing? We are catching so many people, several every day. It is incredible. You wouldn’t believe the kinds of people who are coming: young, old, couples, men and women.”

I hesitated. Did I really want to see this? After some inner wrestling, I decided that I had to see if my theorizing about evil was actual. I told my friend I would go the next day. The next day came, and I went.

For several hours we sat in the back room, where the mythical “Stephan” was supposed to be chained to the bed rails, ready to be tortured for someone’s pleasure. In reality it was my friend, his cameraman, and sound man who were set up in the bedroom. Carlos waited in the living room receiving calls from potential customers who had seen the fake ad. Carlos also had a dozen or so video cassettes, all of which were blank, but that had provocative titles labeled across the sides. The idea was to offer the tapes first, make a monetary exchange, then ask the customer if they wanted to proceed into the back room to be with the fake “Stephan.” If the customer bought the tapes and agreed to go back to the bedroom to fulfill his carnal desires, Carlos would say a code word, letting us know to come in and spring the trap (the team could not see the video of the camera. Live stream technology was not available to them at that time).

Thomas gave me an extra headset as we heard the doorbell ring. The first, and for that day, only customer had arrived. I could listen in to the conversation (this, of course, was all in German, but my German at that time was near perfect). As the conservation unfolded, my heartbeat quickened. I began to sweat. Carlos managed to get the customer to accept the videos, 500 German Marks, a pretty penny for evil. The next step would be to see if the man (from the audio it was clearly a male voice) wanted to go in and be with Stephan. But first Carlos had to lure out from the customer what kinds of things the man wanted to do with (to!) the boy. We needed to hear his inner most fantasies on tape.

How I wish I had not.

My muscles tensed as I heard this voice in the other room agree to all kinds of lurid tortures. Objects were involved. Beyond this I will say no more. My mind raced and my moral compass split into two distinct directions: fury, and fear. One part of me felt more than justified rushing into the room, and pounding that evil thing, for in my mind it could not have been a mind, into submission with brute force. The other just wanted to run away, and not be near such monsters. Like a child, I did not want to see what was in the closet. Before I could know which impulse was right, as if I have figured it out today, the code word was given. My friend, Thomas, and his team gave a quick “auf geht’s” as they rapidly deployed into the next room, camera light glaring and microphone at the ready. I followed in tow.

Before entering the room that day I had never felt evil before, at least not demonic evil. Of such things I had only read in books. Everything changed that dismal afternoon in Munich. Still, if I thought I would burst into that room and see Beelzebub himself, red horns, hoofs and fangs, I was wrong. What sat before me was nothing of the sort, at least, not externally. There before us sat a pitiful old man, probably in his mid to late 60’s. Someone’s grandfather perhaps. At least, he looked innocent enough to be one. He nervously smoked a cigarette and looked up at the camera now like a deer in the headlights. What an unassuming and non-threatening little thing he was. Had my ears deceived me? Could such a simple looking creature really be a mutilator of children?

No, my ears were not deceived. This was a vile thing before me. A man desirous, intent, on torturing a child today. After a long awkward series of questions, lasting a few minutes but feeling like an hour, the man finally caught on to what was happening. He stated he now felt uncomfortable and wanted to leave. Again, being only journalists, my friend and his team made the way clear for him to go. Carlos returned the money for the tapes, and as he absconded from the scene I was the last one he passed on the way out the door. The scene seemed to be over. Was it real? Had I really just seen evil in the flesh?

But, it was not even over yet. Who knows how much time passed, several minutes at least. Thomas and Carlos and the team were already reviewing the video footage and the audio. They seemed so professional about it. How could one talk about video quality and sound fidelity after something like that? But, then again, they had been doing this for weeks now. Perhaps they were already inured. Of course, Carlos must have been to some degree inoculated, having seen so much in his own life. Even if now there was an awakening in his own soul.

But, in the middle of this “tidying up” and evaluating, it came. A knock at the door. Everyone looked at each other, bewildered. No one else was expected today, who could it be? Perhaps it was the police? Perhaps they heard about the exposé, and wanted to shut it down. Perhaps one of the past “victims” had claimed that there were some journalists conducting an illegal entrapment operation? But, it wasn’t the authorities. It was the same man. The same, rotten, vile, pitiful old man.

“Can I still buy the videos?”

We all stood shocked.

What Kind of Creatures?

I did not convert to Christ that day, although I should have. But, the reality of evil was shown to me, in the mundane, that day. Nothing, not prison, not public exposure, nor any worldly loss was going to stop that horror from getting what it wanted. He did not care about those things, he wanted what he wanted. The lust of the flesh was insatiable.

The exposé eventually aired on RTL, a few weeks later. I didn’t go back to the apartment with Thomas or his team and was satisfied to watch their finish product on TV. How much effect it had on sex trafficking operations in Munich I never really found out. Around the same time as the report aired, however, Carlos called me (he had gotten my number from Thomas), asking if I could help him translate some documents. I was working part-time as a business translator at a local Siemens office in those days. I agreed.

Carlos came to my apartment and told me more about his plan to create a Verien (in German, an “association” or “legal entity”) aimed at increasing awareness of child trafficking. I did what I could to help him and translated some of his work. I think we met once or twice, and then I never saw him again. I sometimes wish I had found out more about him, someone who was selling his body for sex yet whose conscience had been awakened to an evil within an evil. Was this a new beginning for him: a journey out of the dark of the train stations and undergrounds and into the light?

God only knows.

My own conversion would come years later while in the Army. My encounter that day led me only so far as to know that everything is not as it seems, and that the reality of good and evil was substantial. It also raised in me the question “What kind of creatures are we?” My answer now would echo Lewis’ then: truly there are gods and goddesses among us, some light as angels, others dark like nightmares.

What COVID-19 Tells Us About Our Culture

Mad rushes at grocery stores. Toilet paper hysteria. Bottled water!?

That the COVID-19 outbreak is a serious issue is not controversial. However, that our social response to it is controversial, is beyond doubt. Most news right now is concerned as much with our cultural mood in the face of this pandemic, as with the facts about the pandemic itself. In one sense we can be happy that we are creatures capable of this kind of reflexive thinking. In another sense, it is part of the tragedy of our existence to have to reflect on our behavior, and wonder whether we have truly done good, or caused harm, especially in times of duress. In other words, did we display virtue or vice in these times that try men’s souls?

If there is one central part of the inner life of the conscious, moral agent that is man that COVID-19 has helped bring to light, it is our current attitude toward death.

So, what does our present response to COVID-19 tell us about our understanding, attitude and posture toward that final frontier? Well, it seems that it tells us one thing very clearly: that we are very afraid and very clueless about how to navigate the reality of death. Death has, once again, become the greatest evil, the most heinous and terror-inducing foe that we face as a culture. A reality too uncomfortable for us in the West to take head on, and to place in the right context. Of course, part of the problem is thinking there is no context in which we can place death. Death is the cause of hysteria, when it is considered the worst thing.

That might seem obvious to most of us (that death is that which we as humans fear most), especially those who sit every Sunday in church, or Saturday in Synagogue, listening to ancient wisdom from people who saw death daily, and who taught about how to lead “the good life.”

However, for many moderns, death, and dead bodies (to include animal death) have been carefully sequestered from our every day perceptual life. From assisted living homes to intensive care units, to doctor assisted euthanization services for our pets; our technological advances and our social structures have allowed most of us, with the exception of those in the relevant fields (First Responders, Surgeons, Meat Packers, et al.) to live with relatively little contact to blood, decay, and to death. We don’t perceive it often, nor do we take the time to deal with its aftermath. Our chicken breast are all cellophane packed, and most of us won’t go near anything that looks like an internal organ.

Cadavers, for example, used to be displayed in homes for viewing, sometimes for days in a row. Once there were processions through our streets, where pallbearers would carry their loved ones to their final resting places. Now, they are quickly whisked off to funeral homes, and within 24 hours, in the ground, and out of sight. Once, every country church, and many in the city even, had a cemetery attached to it. A graveyard, if you will. But now, most of our mental images of church graveyards have been tainted by a long lineage of Hollywood slasher films, and other gratuitous imagery. The once beloved and respected dead, who we prayed to “Rest in Peace” are now involuntarily conjured up in our minds as blood-thirsty zombies, or ravenous ghouls.

It all seems far from us, nature red in tooth and claw, and we are only shocked when it strikes in the form of things like mass shootings, or pandemics. Perhaps we don’t even know how much we actually fear death, our fear is not before us, it is buried quite deep. Too deep to address. Death is far too unknown to fear. We have done well in avoiding it, except in our movies, which tend to only parody it.

But it is this kind of avoidance of reality, avoidance through creaturely comfort, that has weakened us in one very particular area: in our emotional endurance, or perhaps more classically, in our moral courage. As the famed psychiatrist M. Scott Peck once wrote in his seminal book The Road Less Traveled:

“Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths….[But] most do not fully see this truth that life is difficult. Instead they moan more or less incessantly, noisy or subtly, about the enormity of their problems, their burdens, and their difficulties as if life were generally easy, as if life should be easy.” (16, italics original).

Indeed, this seems to be our lot in the Year of our Lord, 2020.

But, this is just the empirical part of why we fear death so much in our culture. There is a more fundamental fear than just the false images we have created around it, so as to avoid it. That is, that we have come to feel that death simply leads nowhere, and it ultimately has no purpose. Death has not lost its sting when it comes to the “social imaginary” of our times.

When it comes to history, our current social imagination only has room to accommodate individualized stories. Our public sphere and its means of communication: movies, TV shows, talk shows, and sporting events, is almost exclusively focused on the personal narrative. Images or ideas about what makes a people or nation great, or about great institutions or structures, let alone about transcendent things, whether Ideas, Forms, or Being, are hard to find. We dabble in them, but we drown in the simplistic; a culture without any epic poetry, and where the invocation of “prayer” has been emptied of any transcendent belief.

Even our contemporary gods (e.g. think Marvel Comic movies) are weak ones, who while physically indestructible, are exactly like us in every way, just like those Socrates critiqued, and that to the point of death. Thor gets drunk and fat when he loses his hammer, and Iron Man speaks the same dialectic as the 15-year old kid who the public school system has horribly failed. Our cultural ontology is limited in space, big enough only for one kind of thing: an unknown quantity of individual, concrete particulars, reducible to unconscious particles that communicate nothing to us, since that is just what we are: unconscious particles.

This, the sad aftermath of a century and half of Scientism, leaves us an ontologically empty culture. And, here we are, told to construct our own worlds from this, this mindless stuff, and to hope some “human spirit” remains to stand courageously before COVID-19, or whatever else is out there to get us. It is frightening. Without the daily physical engagement with death, and without the conceptual resources to contextualize its inevitability, how do we expect we would react when it suddenly confronts us? With virtue? Certainly some of us will, the better angels of our nature may show up, after all. But, when pain avoidance has become the primary good, not the creation of good itself, but the mere deconstruction of pain, one is left to wonder if those angels will show up with enough force to stay the hysteria. Will we run into the fray and perform the act of bravery, will we wade into the sea of turmoil, unafraid of the harm we might incur? Or, as Lewis said, will have enough “chest” to stay our ground at the third hour of the bombardment?

When pain avoidance is considered the greatest good in a culture, and, when morality is considered a social construct, ungrounded by any transcendent principle, or Person, then a recipe for evil is being mixed. For, the desire to escape pain, coupled with a subjective moral framework and no trust in the providential plan of the God who made us, is the perfect storm for human evil.

And this, unlike death, is the worst thing.

The first 3-year old child we see trampled over at the local Walmart by some adult grasping for toilet paper, or the first fist-fight over a case of bottled water, and then we will know. We will know we have lost the good fight, and death has gotten the best of us, once again.

Epiphanic Redemption And The Problem of Pain

15 From my youth I have suffered and been close to death;
    I have borne your terrors and am in despair.
16 Your wrath has swept over me;
    your terrors have destroyed me.
17 All day long they surround me like a flood;
    they have completely engulfed me.
18 You have taken from me friend and neighbor—
    darkness is my closest friend.

Psalm 88, a song of Heman the Ezrahite

The Problem of Pain

If there is one almost irreconcilable problem for Christianity it is the problem of pain and suffering. This tragic mystery, of how an all-loving, all-powerful, and all-knowing God could allow suffering, pain, and extraordinary human cruelty, in a world where human beings seem either woefully helpless (against things like tsunamis, or bone cancer), or profoundly depraved (as in the rape of Nanking or the Armenian Genocide), presents itself as more than just an intellectual dilemma for Christian apologists. It is the thing which ultimately drives many away from faith in God and the promises found in Jesus Christ.

That said, I am not presenting a specific, theistic argument here, or a theodicy trying to reconcile particular instances of pain and suffering with God’s providential purposes, at least not directly. Rather I am making an appeal– an appeal to something we have reason to believe does occur, and, if it does, may be the kind of thing, perhaps the only kind of thing that would ultimately rectify the human experience of horrible suffering and extraordinary evil. And, if this rectifying kind of thing were actualized, then we might have very good reason to believe that Christianity is indeed true, and maybe believe that with certainty.

Kinds of Pain

But, what could rectify the kinds and degrees of suffering human persons experience in this world? First, let’s define what kinds of suffering there might be. It seems to me there are roughly four kinds of evils in the world that can befall the human person:

  1. Physical pain caused by natural evils
  2. Emotional pain that results from the same physical pain caused by natural evils
  3. Emotional pain caused by either:
    • a) Things other human agents do to other human agents or
    • b) Strong desires or longings left unfulfilled in one’s life
  4. Extraordinary evil, which is a special kind of 3a, in that it manifests itself in some act of unconscionable malice or malevolence at the individual level of human moral interaction (e.g. child sexual abuse), or at the macro-level of societal interaction (genocide).

Some examples of (1) would range from a toothache to bone cancer. The emotional suffering that emerges, and lingers, due to the c-fibers that fire during the instances of physical pain these biological deficiencies cause, would be an example of (2). Examples of this kind of emotional pain might be the kind of self-reflective questions that accompany the persistent enduring of physical pain: e.g. “Why is this happening to me? Why now? Why cancer, when I am so young and have children to raise?” Alternatively, someone punching me without warning is also an instance of physical pain caused by a natural evil, in that it is the force and the mass of the fist striking my nose that causes the pain. But, in the case of the punch, what distinguishes it from the toothache, or the cancer, is the additional emotional pain that arises on account of it being an intentional act by another moral agent (3a).

Hence, regarding type (3a), immoral human action, this would be the emotional pain that someone must endure when another moral agent either physically or emotionally damages them. Although, as I pointed out above, it is hard to see how physical damage, especially physical damage that is known to be intentionally carried out by one agent against another, would fail to cause subsequent emotional damage (barring exceptional circumstances, like the lack of capacity to have emotions). Therefore, someone getting mugged on the street, or a wife being raped by her husband would be examples of (3a). The latter however causing greater degrees of emotional trauma than the former, since other kinds of moral goods: promises, trust, and prior intimacy, have been broken in the case of the rapist husband, but not necessarily in the case of the anonymous mugger.

There is another kind of emotional suffering, however, (3b) is the kind of suffering that would come via a deep sense of unfulfilled longing. Not the kind that arises when we don’t get to have our favorite flavor of ice cream, because Baskin Robbins just ran out of Rocky Road, but the kind of ongoing pain that haunts someone when they realize they will never find someone to marry who really loves them, or when someone learns that the years of hard work and sacrifice they put in to prepare themselves to qualify for a special job or occupation was simply not enough, and they must now let go of that dream in order to move on with life.

I use one of my own examples for (3b), which would be the emotional pain of disappointment I experienced after spending over two years preparing myself physically and mentally for US Army Special Forces; first getting selected, then spending 17 months in the Q-course, but only to realize, perhaps too late, that I simply wasn’t going to make it all the way through. I had two berets at the end of my Army career, neither was green, and I had spent nearly three years killing myself to attain something I didn’t get, and still wonder whether I should have pursued at all (although I do credit the training I experienced in the “Q” with potentially saving my life a year later in Afghanistan).

While character development can certainly take place in many instances of unfulfilled dreams or lost opportunities, and valuable life-lessons are learned in failure, the disappointment of ultimately not making it through to some final consummation or clearly defined end state of a sought after goal is often a bitter pill to swallow. Soldiers who have left a theater of operations before seeing any real success on the ground know this feeling all too well. The sacrifices are deep and manifold, yet the gains seem meager and obscure.

Finally, there is also the kind of suffering that some, like military men, often wind up fighting against, namely type (4) pain and suffering. This suffering takes the form of what one genocide researcher, James Waller, calls “extraordinary evil.” Extraordinary evil is the kind of evil that breaks through the veil of normalcy in human history, causing us to collectively gasp and corporately weep. This is the stuff of genocide, be it Germany in the 1940’s or Rwanda in a few short months in 1994. But, within those seemingly macro-level events, are the actual grotesque, micro-events that make us question both God, and our own humanity. These are the hacking of bodies, the dismembering, the raping, the violating in every way, shape, and form of that which the Bible tells us is sacred and holy, and made in God’s image. It is image bearers torturing other image bearers.

Then, even outside of the context of war, there is the gruesome reality of things like child rape, mutilation, torture, and other things that real human beings somehow find themselves capable of doing: more image bearers desecrating other image bearers. This is the type of suffering that can make belief difficult. Surprisingly though, even this kind of evil does not stop many who have experienced it from believing in Christ, often in a far more profound way than those who have not had such experiences. Which leads us to ask how this might occur?

Is There an Answer?: The Hope of Epiphanic Redemptive Experience

In detailing these kinds of pain, and giving concrete examples, I hopefully have avoided whitewashing or marginalizing the serious challenge they present to the truth and goodness of the Christian message. With all that, and there is quite a lot of that there, what kind of thing could not just counterbalance such horror, but actually transform each instance of extraordinary evil into something one could justifiable call redeemed?

First, there are two distinctions to make if we are going to get a grip on how something like the sadistic torture of an innocent could become redeemed. One, the only kind of thing that can be understood to be redeemed from any person’s privileged, first-person perspective, is their own privileged, first-person experience. I cannot really experience my neighbor’s toothache, even if I can have compassion for her in the midst of it. Thus, a redeemed pain or injury suffered must be my own pain or injury, not of someone else’s, so too theirs cannot be of mine.

Thus we reject the notion that anyone, even Bill Clinton (or counselor Troi), can actually “feel” the pain of another person. First-person experiences are just that– first-person. As such the kinds of experiences that could make horrible, atrocious pains or sufferings redeemed experiences are themselves first-person experiences particular to the individual. They, the redeeming experiences, would be “custom-made” to the individual’s psychology, physiology, and personal history. There are no collective pains. Nor is it the case that individual experiences of pain add to some theoretical tally of overall suffering. Pains endured individually are redeemed individually, even if they may involve others in the process of redemption.

Second, no other person can know what would be the exact experience that would make some other person’s first-person experience of pain and suffering justifiably redeemed. So, if Bob has experienced extraordinary evil X, then only Bob can know what would redeem X. Even Bob’s best and closest friend of 70 years (perhaps his life-long spouse, Sally) cannot know what particular redemptive experience, E, would be the one that would in fact redeem Bob’s experience of X. E is reserved for Bob, and Bob alone. Just as Sally will have some other E, E*, that will redeem her X*.

So, redeemed pains will be redemptive, experiential instances whereby 1) the first-person experience of an individual, S, is the only thing that is in view, and 2) only S will know what can do the redeeming of the pains he or she has suffered, since only he or she has experienced those pains. Again, this safeguards against thinking that their are such things as collective pains, which there clearly are not, and also that I could know what your experience of your own pain is, and, subsequently, what it would take to fix it– something Job’s friends thought they could do, but failed at miserably.

It is not without irony that the character of Job is here invoked. For in Job we have what seems like the kind of irreconcilable suffering we’ve mentioned, i.e. the kind of suffering for which there seems no good counterbalancing reason, and where each of the four categories of suffering mentioned above are present. Since the book of Job maintains Job’s moral innocence throughout, the injustice of all four experiences of human suffering is thereby exacerbated. Job is not being punished, nor getting his just desserts. He suffers physical and emotional pain (boils and the loss of children to a natural disaster) and extraordinary evil (slaughter of faithful servants at the hands of the Sabeans and Chaldeans) without apparent purpose (from his perspective).

With the Book of Job in sight, what I am ultimately suggesting then as a sufficient answer to the apparent irreconcilability of human suffering with the Christian faith, must include one more countervailing experience: the direct manifestation of God to the human agent. This direct manifestation we can call “epiphanic,” for it would be a religious experience of the quality of Job’s direct encounter with God, or of the kinds of direct encounters so many Christian men and women have had throughout the centuries, regardless of time, culture, age or personal context. So, an epiphany of God and a countervailing experience of redemption are what the author of Job seems to tell us is the only answer to the irreconcilable problem. Let’s call this the “epiphanic redemptive experience.”

The Epiphanic Redemptive Experience (R) has two aspects then: 1) a new and deeper knowledge of God’s personal nature, and 2) a countervailing experience of a set of conditions or circumstances that doesn’t just “balance out” S’s experience of X, but that makes the experience of X, the extraordinary evil suffered, fully and completely justified. In short, S would know that X happened for this reason and that that reason was a good enough one to make X entirely acceptable to the sufferer. The Epiphanic Redemptive Experience is an experience of such power and beauty, both in the pleasure it gives, and the explanation it offers, that it truly is a fully justifying experience of any evil, X.

The Book of Job demonstrates this kind of countervailing experience, in that Job receives both a personal epiphany of God, Job sees God face-to-face, and Job, at the end of his life, receives a greater portion of that which he enjoyed at the beginning of his life. Both conditions of R seem satisfied in Job’s case. However, serious criticisms have been offered by skeptics and theologians about whether or not goods like children, i.e. real persons, can so be replaced so easily in what looks to be a rather crude swap. If so, perhaps the second condition is not satisfied, since Job has lost unique children that obviously cannot be so simply replaced.

Leaving aside whether or not the author of Job is recounting an actual historical event, or just making a theological point (on my view, both), we must remember that the idea we have in mind is that God can provide the individual, here Job, with that R which for the individual countervails the suffering he or she has endured. So, for Job, as an ancient patriarch, winding up with more children and grandchildren, a thriving family business, more livestock, and the opportunity to see his children and their inheritance prosper to the fourth generation, very well may be the specific Job-tailored answer that fulfills the second condition of R. HeJob, needed to see, regardless of our modern skepticism, these kinds of rewards in order for him to feel that his prior suffering had indeed been redeemed. For Job, this likely satisfies the second condition of R, even if we moderns find it distasteful.

To reiterate: each R for every S’s X will be specific to S. The R itself has an objective component to it, i.e. the direct revelation of God’s personal nature, and a subjective component, i.e. the particular set of countervailing experiences that God tailors to the individual. Let’s go back to Bob. On this account Bob, subsequent to his suffering, will experience some aspect of God’s personal nature that he did not previously perceive or grasp, and Bob will also experience some reward, which, being tailored specifically to Bob’s prior suffering, makes that prior suffering fully understandable and fully justified. Bob, through the Epiphanic Redemptive Experience is made not only into a wholly renewed person, but is now a person whose experiences of God and the Good outweigh his experience of suffering and evil.

So, while I cannot, being consistent with my own claims, work out this kind of redemptive formula for any particular instance of X for some other subject, S (e.g. I cannot work out concretely what would be the exact R for a woman who was raped by her husband), I can argue for two conditions that would suffice to countervail and redeem my own X and the X* of the woman: a direct revelation of God in all His glory, power, beauty and love, and a first-person experience of those conditions that only God knows perfectly, and that are specifically tailored to the particular set of emotions of the sufferer, and that further grant peace and fulfillment to the individual who has experienced the suffering in question.

Epilogue: Unfulfilled Desires Filled by Christ

In his short story, Araby, the turn-of-the-century Irish author James Joyce has his main character, an adolescent Dublin boy infatuated with an older Irish lass, experience the pain and conflict not only of a desire unfulfilled, but of the irony of realizing that the desires he possesses are themselves deeply flawed and illusory. At the end of the story, after attempting to buy a small love token from the exotic oriental bazaar “Araby” for the object of his affection, the narrator realizes the folly of his desires, having a sort of anti-epiphany:

“Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.”

For the narrator of the story, this experience of unfilled desires (3b), which, in one sense, is more fundamental and prior to the other forms of pain mentioned above, there is no experience of God in the moment of despair. Nor are we told, or is there any hint of, some later experience that might countervail the young boy’s feelings of foolishness, shame, and loss. But, as was recently pointed out to me in a Sunday sermon, this Joycean response to unfulfilled desire is the antithesis of the Gospel’s message. It is not that the Bible doesn’t validate the reality of real, embodied suffering, as Job and Psalm 88 attest, but rather that the biblical writers, unlike Joyce, don’t leave us “gazing into the darkness,” eyes burning “with anguish and anger.”

For, in the moments of greatest despair, in the times when our hearts feel empty, and our desires are left unmet; or worse, when all appears pointless and futile, it is in this time we are called to look up, not up into darkness, but rather to look up to see the hope and light of Christ. For it is in this moment when the Revelation of God, the true Epiphany of the God Who redeems, can meet us in the moment of despair.

For, when God appears to us, and explains to us, it is not our eyes that wind up aflame, but our hearts:

30When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them.  Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him,and he disappeared from their sight. They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” They got up and returned at once to Jerusalem. There they found the Eleven and those with them, assembled together and saying, “It is true! The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon.”Then the two told what had happened on the way, and how Jesus was recognized by them when he broke the bread.

Luke 24: 30-35

Where Joyce leaves our suffering mind gazing into darkness, a hopeless victim of unwanted and unfulfilled passions, St. Luke tells us of an encounter: a concrete presence of the Redeemer, who takes away our guilt and shame, overpowers death, and promises a life of desires fulfilled, and pains redeemed. When we see Him, then our eyes will be opened and filled with light, and the darkness flees.