With my final ever university exam tomorrow and a desperate need to engage in some form of productive procrastination I was trying to think of a suitable topic to write about when Good Omens sprang to mind. It’s a fantasy book written by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, before they were both famous, which I picked up a good five or more years ago. It’s something of a cult classic and they record in the foreword that many of their readers have dropped the book in the bath or some form of liquid. Thinking: “What a bunch of idiots” I then proceeded to do exactly that.
The story is a mix of Just William and the Apocalypse, where the ‘Anti-Christ’ is an eleven year old boy called Adam Young, who was meant to grow up the son of an American diplomat, thus setting him up for a life of pure festering evil but due to swapping the wrong children around he ends up being brought up in a quiet British village by normal parents. At the same time, Crawley, a demon, and Aziraphale, an angel, are both trying to stop the end of the world from occurring having grown fond of humanity and, more importantly, developed their own working friendship.
The first time I read it some years ago it made me uncomfortable as, though it is a fantasy book, it borrows heavily from Christian imagery, striking a little too close to reality. But this second time, I’ve found it easier to view it as pure fiction, no different than reading Harry Potter or any other fantastical work. And like all such works, it has a message, a grand point to make about human nature.
There’s a lot to say about the book but I’m going to concentrate on what’s probably their main point. It comes as Adam Young faces up to the forces of Heaven and Hell and argues for the continued existence of humanity, without any interference. Crawley says about Adam: “He grew up human! He’s not Evil Incarnate or Good Incarnate, he’s just… a human incarnate-” (italics not mine). This sentence is packed with worldview implications and it’s worth exploring them.
The first is an idea that crops up throughout all of Mr Pratchett’s writings – the idea that human beings are not fundamentally good or fundamentally evil but fundamentally human. We’re good sometimes and evil sometimes, good people can do evil things; bad people can do good things. Black and white categories are just plain wrong. This idea is presented as being apparently against that of Christian theology.
Yet, it shows a lack of understanding of the nuances of the Christian diagnosis of the human condition. The message of the Bible is that human beings are fundamentally fallen. That is to say, by nature and choice, we live in rebellion against God and his laws, from birth we are sinners. Yet we are still made in God’s image and thus while our fallen human nature is naturally inclined to sin; by God’s grace we all have the capacity to do good too.
However, our good deeds and desires are corrupted by our sinful nature so that “all our righteous acts are like filthy rags” (Isaiah 64v4) and we would never seek God out for ‘the sinful minds is hostile to God (Romans 8v7). While the Bible presents a black and white view of morality it presents no such view of man. Even the best of men are only ever men at best, goes an old saying, and we see this even in the ‘heroes’ of the Christian faith. Think of David, a godly man, who committed adultery and murder. A contradiction? Yes, in the sense that godliness excludes both those acts. But no, in a greater sense, that David is an example to us of the forgiveness of God. A testament to the fact that David’s standing before God was not based on his own righteousness but the righteousness of Christ. And his repentance, recorded in Psalm 51, shows us the gospel in action. That when a Christian sins he does not run away from God (although he might for a brief time) but runs back to God.
The other interesting idea which comes across in the sentence I quoted above is the idea that Good Incarnate would be somehow a bad thing; on a similar level to Evil Incarnate. A constant theme throughout the novel is how Heaven and Hell are not as different as is assumed. Once again, this is put in contrast to Christian theology. But the Good Incarnate of Good Omens is portrayed the usual way religion is portrayed today: moralistic hypocrisy.
Again, the actual message of the Bible is different. Good Incarnate was God Incarnate was Jesus Christ. He came and lived a life perfect before God and he came preaching against hypocrisy and pride and instead preached that man’s first duty was to love God and his second duty to love his fellow man. Jesus came preaching: “Repent least you too perish,” he came to “seek and save those who are lost,” he came to sinners, to save them from their sin. His was not a moralistic hypocrisy but a grace abounding humility that led him to the cross, to die for our sins.
In the climatic scene where Adam Young argues for humanity’s existence he says: “If you stop telling people it will all be sorted out when their dead they might try and sort things out while they’re alive… if I were in charge I’d start by making people live longer…then they might start thinking about the sort of things they might be doing to the environment.”
And so we see the failure to diagnose the human condition results in a failure to hit upon the solution for the human condition. For starters, as if living longer would make us any less selfish, any less proud, any less unloving, any more considerate to other generations, any less fallen. Sin is not to be cured by increasing age. And as if a rejection of the reality of heaven and hell would lead to a better society. The secularising of Western society has done nothing to stop the corruption of the human heart. At the very least, the prospect of eternal judgement acts as a reminder to us that we will be held accountable for our actions.
Good Omens is an entertaining read and provides a fascinating insight into human nature and the evils we heap on our own backs. I’ve not even mentioned their very accurate reflection that so much of human evil is in the petty things of everyday life. But their central message is wrong; human beings are sinful, deserving of death. Far from being a laughing matter, the reality of the day of judgement, when Christ returns, is a matter of eternal importance. The only solution to the human condition is found in Jesus Christ.