2 Corinthians 4:16-18 So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.
1 Peter 1:3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead,
Romans 5:2-5 Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
Romans 8:24-25 For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
Of all motifs of scripture, “hope” is among the most recurrent, the most central, the most powerful, and the most beautiful. As Christians, God calls us to live in hope, and therefore forbids us to its mirror image, despair. All of us must, at some point or many, become acquainted with grief; a deep sorrow wrought by tragedy, and the longing for things to be made right again. But, for those who believe the promises of God, this longing finds itself accompanied by the comforting certitude that things will be made right again, that justice is on its way to fruition. Despair, on the other hand, is utter hopelessness.
As it happens, hope as the antithesis to despair also deeply motivated J. R. R. Tolkien in his writings; and you find that very theme suffused throughout both the literary and film versions of his great epic, The Lord of the Rings. Indeed, the characters Théoden and Denethor seem included in the story for the express purpose of juxtaposing these two attitudes. The men are parallel in many regards; each rules a great nation of men, feels threatened in some measure by the noble Aragorn, faces annihilation at the hands of a common enemy, and suffers from the death of his son. I believe Tolkien intended these similarities to highlight the contrast between the ultimate fates of both men. Despite grieving the loss of his only son and heir, Théoden successfully leads the Rohirrim to defend the besieged city of Minas Tirith. However, Théoden himself falls in battle, and passes with these final words: “I go to my fathers, in whose mighty company I shall not now feel ashamed.” Denethor also meets his end during the city’s siege. In a lucid demonstration of how completely he has succumbed to abjection, the ruling steward of Gondor scoffs at the notion that the successful defense of Minas Tirith might give cause for optimism in the war against Sauron. Such is the nature of despair, that those who routinely entertain it may become so destitute that they can no longer hope, and no longer desire to. “You may triumph on the field of battle for a day, but against the power that is risen in the East, there is no victory!” Says Denethor as he attempts to murder both himself and his remaining son. He successfully manages only the former.
Often, despair ends up being corollary to catastrophe (as I’m using it, “catastrophe” means “a sudden, unexpected, and disastrous turn of events”). J. R. R. Tolkien, who was as much a philologist as anything else, considered it a pity that our language had such a word as catastrophe, but did not have its opposite. English needed a word which denotes a sudden, unexpected, and dramatic turn for the good. And so, Tolkien invented the term “eucatastrophe” to fill just that role.
In the essay, “On Fairy Stories,” Tolkien attempts to outline what he considers certain essential elements of a fairy-tale. One of these elements is the consolation of the tale, the happy ending. To get to this happy ending, however, you need a very pivotal moment in the story where the tide turns, and the good begins to dispel the bad. A profound and unpredictable event takes place that changes the whole scheme of the story, for the better. Eucatastrophe is Tolkien’s word for this event. His own description of it is as such:
“The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn”… is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”
For further reading, somewhat shorter than Tolkien’s essay itself, you can check out the gospel coalition’s summary, here.
Eucatastrophe in the Lord of the Rings:
Some of you will remember a skit performed for Christian Fellowship by Clay Spencer and Brad Clemmons during Christmas time. Clay and Brad portrayed a couple of angels in Heaven, awaiting the great Incarnation, the moment when the creator God Himself would enter His creation. The story of creation was well underway by this point. God had created a good world in which to abide with His people, but they had rebelled, and God was now about the business of setting the world right again. Something like this, therefore, was not unexpected; but it was wholly unpredictable. Rather than in fire and glory and irresistible power, God the Son emptied Himself, and invaded rebel creation in the form of a babe. When angel Clay and angel Brad heard the (sound-clip) baby cry, they looked down, and in unison and reverence, simply said “Oh.” Tolkien called the Incarnation the eucatastrophy of human history. It was not what we would have expected, and it changed everything.
But, God had yet another scandal to accomplish. As N. T. Wright is fond of pointing out, however “primitive” or “pre-scientific” you imagine the first century Christians to be, they knew perfectly well that dead people stayed dead. There is no precedent whatsoever in Jewish thought for a dying and rising Messiah. Surely, they must have grieved at the death of Jesus, and they may have even despaired. But despair was conquered along with death itself when, three days later, Jesus walked out of the grave. This, Tolkien calls the eucatastrophe of the Incarnation. Once more, in his own words:
“I would venture to say that approaching the Christian Story from this direction, it has long been my feeling (a joyous feeling) that God redeemed the corrupt making-creatures, men, in a way fitting to this aspect, as to others, of their strange nature. The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. They contain many marvels—peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving: “mythical” in their perfect, self-contained significance; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe. But this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation. The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy.”
As Christians, we are “standing on resurrection ground,” to use Wright’s words; we are “co-heirs with Christ” to use the Bible’s. This is why Christians are forbidden to despair. God is writing a grand narrative, and we have cause to hope, for we live in the aftermath of the eucatastrophe.