Eric's Reviews > Hell is the Absence of God

Hell is the Absence of God by Ted Chiang
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it was ok
bookshelves: 2017, reviewed, short-story, weird-fiction

Perhaps, he thought, it would be better to live in a story where the righteous were rewarded and the sinners were punished, even if the criteria for righteousness and sinfulness eluded him, than to live in a reality where there was no justice at all.

An interesting story, to say the least. It's almost entirely allegorical in nature in that it is a presentation of ideas on the motivations for divine devotion, religious pursuit, and the nature of God. It's classified as a science fiction story though a more applicable label would be 'alternate Earth' or even weird fiction. The setting is one of modern earth where God's work is evident and visible as angels present themselves to people in the divine light of heaven. Their presence is so powerful and damaging to the corporeal plain that it causes chaos and havoc even while they are imparting divine blessing. In one such event, the catalyst for this story, the angel Nathanael appears in a heavily populated shopping district, restoring sight to the blind and healing a paraplegic, while eight others are killed in the ensuing destruction, including the protagonist's wife.

In this reality where the actions of spiritual beings are vehemently obvious, it is also possible to see people ascend into heaven or descend into hell upon death, so there is no ambiguity regarding someone's afterlife. In addition, on occasion a manifestation of hell will allow living people to see into that dark eternity allowing a glimpse of an eternal reality which isn't too dissimilar from their earthly one. People are not being tortured, or being burned in hellfire, but are existent in an eternity entirely devoid of God's presence. This presents many with the question as to why hell is a worse choice than heaven, and wonder why you would pursue 'the carrot at the end of the stick' just to get to heaven. Truly, some who see their relatives die and descend into hell choose to commit suicide so as to be reunited with them in hell.

Some thoughtful ideas are put forth as various characters contrast and compare the nature of God, the reason for devotion, the varying viewpoints on what it means to be devout, and why. The protagonist, Neil Fisk, shows us a rather shallow and naive approach to God, one where selfish desires motivate him to either pursue God in the interest of being with his wife again, who he watched ascend into heaven at the point of her death, or to write it all off and find fault with a supposed loving God who would take his 'greatest blessing from him'. He finds himself in a dilemma upon which his eternity rests: Is it possible for him to love a God who 'took his wife' so that he can 'earn his way into Heaven', and be reunited with her?

There are some things that are difficult for me to ignore or look beyond in order to enjoy the story on a pure entertainment level. The entire story displays an extremely juvenile viewpoint on devotion to God, though those roots are strongly planted in the cultural worldview. My primary difficulty is that, in this fictional world, the discussion is not whether or not there IS a God; His presence is known through the visitations of His angels and the revelation of hell; the question that people now discuss is why they should love Him at all. It's a frightening reversal of query and one that shifts everything into the realm of 'how can I earn my way into God's favor'. In other words, it's a works-based devotion that gains you heaven, while those who aren't devout enough are sent to hell. I actually think this shift in questioning, from the existence of God to the 'why choose to love God' is the story's greatest asset in terms of premise and exposition, but by far its most dangerous, and is adolescent in terms of execution. An example would be a quote that comes from late in the story:

God is not just, God is not kind, God is not merciful, and understanding that is essential to true devotion.

It is a false representation of God as a sort of distant and cold being who grants heaven to those who earn it, which is completely hypocritical to the essence of the idea presented here where people are being sent to heaven or hell. If He's not just, or kind, or merciful then He's just acting arbitrarily, which eliminates the very necessity for heaven in hell within the biblical context, and in presenting God in this manner it eliminates the necessity to even pursue God which undermines the entirety of the story from within. The other option regarding this quote is that we have unreliable narrators or imperfect viewpoints from characters who are struggling with their own faith and view of God, which in a story like this is understandable. The problem there is no alternative to this particular statement is ever presented, giving it free rein as some form of parabolic truth extracted from the character's experiences. It presents God as a being who is acting entirely on His own disinterested merit within His own creation, as if He has some alternative plan other than the salvation of mankind. The final option is that it's an attempt at expressing God's unconditional love as an abstract concept that distills any meaning from it and replaces it with arbitrary adjudication. None of these options are theologically, or even logically, sound, and unravel the fabric of the story making any meditations on the nature of devotion and God within this universe superfluous.

With that said, assuming suspension of any belief in the structure of such a world, the fictional alternate world-setting and the various specks of embellishment that Chiang uses to augment his story are interesting enough, particularly the 'Light-Seekers': individuals whose only aim it is is to be caught in a shaft of heaven's light during an angelic visitation so that they will fully be able to love God by experiencing Him. This approach is, of course, a means to force themselves to love God by experience rather than by choice, so it is not at all genuine, and the statistics, as recorded by the story's authorities, show that every 'Light-Seeker' who dies in their attempt to see heaven's light in this way ultimately goes to hell. It's always interesting to me when authors who build a world use background characters, anecdotal incidents, and background actions and events to enliven both the world and the story.

As a short story and a work of fiction, I think it's an interesting enough piece with some powerful moments. It's written very well, and was never boring. It's not Chiang's writing that is my personal sticking point, but the ideas it uses to create an inconsistent view of God that does not allow for such a world to exist, even fictionally. It takes some biblical truths and crafts a fictional setting in which to tell a story, which is the viewpoint that budding readers should approach it with. There is little in the way of theological truth here, and plenty in the way of ambiguous pretenses. It's available to listen on the link provided on the books' page here on Goodreads, and is just over an hour in length. It asks some familiar questions: why do some suffer and others do not; how do we find our identity in God; why does God heal some and not others; why should we choose and/or love God, etc. The questions and their position in the story are fine as a means of narrative progression and character exploration, but as responses to people's real world questions regarding these matters the outcomes and answers here are downright false, and more importantly, dangerous.
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Reading Progress

January 17, 2017 – Started Reading
January 17, 2017 – Shelved
January 17, 2017 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-4 of 4 (4 new)

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message 1: by Laysee (new)

Laysee Hi Eric, I've not read this book but I'd have the very same concerns you put forth so clearly and cogently in this review.


Eric Hi Laysee, and thanks for the comment. I actually became interested in it after seeing your response to someone else's review of it. It's a quick listen, just over an hour, and I didn't think it was a bad story, actually rather engaging, especially the latter half.

The difficulty is that the structure of the story is built on faulty and shallow assumptions of God, which are readily prevalent as is. This story serves to enforce some of those presuppositions. It would be equally applicable to a fiction built on a historical event or a political framework with a superficial understanding of the events involved, or the principles of the polities involved.

Enjoyable fiction, but misleading if assumed as applicable to doctrines.


Angelo Marcos This is a great review. I've just finished reading this short story and I agree with a lot of your points.

It's an interesting story, but seems based on a rather unbiblical and immature take on God and faith itself.


message 4: by KelvinWave (new)

KelvinWave This is a fictional story, a very good one at that. It is also based on fiction, as all gods/religion are invented by man. All gods are made in man's image, not the other way around. That is why they all sound like us, but with superpowers.

Religions are downright dangerous and false, but all present themselves as fact. This story does not try to pass itself off as truth, as religions do with no facts to back up their claims.


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