Hell is the Absence of God by Ted Chiang

★★★★☆ (4/5)

This is the story of a man named Neil Fisk, and how he came to love God. The pivotal event in Neil’s life was an occurrence both terrible and ordinary: the death of his wife Sarah

In another masterpiece, Ted Chiang wonderfully balances religion and science, their amalgamation leading to questions that enshrine everyone’s curiosity. In the universe of “Hell is the Absence of God”, religious elements manifest physically in the world. Heaven’s light, Angel sightings, visions of Hell and Heaven (when Hell manifested itself…these happened on a regular basis; the ground seemed to become transparent, and you could see Hell as if you were looking through a hole in the floor), ascension of dying souls into either realms, are witnessed by people, either moving them profoundly towards a devout life or removing them from concept of faith all together. To some, religious manifestations bless them with miracle cures of cancer, blindness or other physical handicap. To others, these same events wreak havoc on their lives by killing a loved one or leaving them physically crippled.

Scores of people became devout worshipers in the wake of the visitation, either out of gratitude or terror

In the midst of such a universe where religious components are physically tangible for a few moments upon adherents and disbelievers alike, the rigor of notion of religion itself seems shaky. Despite having witnessed an Angel descending from the skies, many steadfastly hold onto their faithlessness, decrying God as an unmerciful being who merely bestows torture upon human beings for his recreation. Others view such Holy proceedings as a reminder of the Eternal Creator, salvaging them from ills of becoming too engrossed in a material world.

Another man was caught in a shaft of Heaven’s light when the angel departed, erasing his eyes but ensuring his devotion

Not only were his eyes and sockets missing, his skull lacked even the space for such features, the cheekbones now abutting the forehead

Here we are introduced to three characters who have been affected by these manifestations, leaving them either angry, grateful or curious. Neil Fisk, a man far removed from religion, loses his righteous wife Sarah during a visitation from an Angel. Her soul is elevated to the Heavens. Neil plans to rejoin his wife in Paradise but to do so would require him loving a God who took her from him in the first place. His anguish (He’d curl up into a ball, his body racked by hiccuping sobs, tears and mucus streaming down his face, the anguish coming in ever-increasing waves until it was more than he could bear, more intense than he’d have believed possible) is mixed with bewilderment and curiosity as to how to make himself become a godly person to please the Creator and earn His favour. By joining different support groups, Neil aimed to bring closure to a personal dilemma which haunts him for a long time.

As a child Neil had occasionally wondered if he was being punished by God, but most of the time he blamed his classmates in school for his unhappiness

All of these strategies have proven successful for different individuals; any one of them, once internalized, can bring a person to devotion. But these are not always easy to adopt, and Neil was one who found them impossible

Throughout Neil’s life, people had attributed moral significance to his leg even though God wasn’t responsible for it. Now that he’d suffered a misfortune for which God was unambiguously responsible, it was inevitable that someone would assume he deserved it

Our second character is Janice who was born without legs after an accident occurred during her mother’s pregnancy. Her parents had associated this physical handicap with punishment for a sin they might have had committed until they were visited upon by souls of devout relatives who had long passed away. From here on, Janice is raised in a fecund environment where her handicap is looked upon as a blessing rather than a curse. From a very early age Janice accepts her role as a healer and preacher, assisting others who were physically disadvantaged. She gathers a spiritual following, pens self-help books and delivers sermons to abet others in understanding their situation in a positive light. Another angelic manifestation restores Janice’s legs leaving her curious about her rapidly changed circumstance and why she was chosen in particular. Unable to react to bitter questions regarding her now altered, fully-functional state, she seeks an answer and rational reasoning to her predicament. In one such sermon, Neil Fisk as an audience member, delivers rancorous remarks upon her much improved and blessed condition and berates her for being ungrateful.

Clearly God had made her task more difficult than it was before; perhaps the restoration of her legs was an obstacle for her to overcome, just as their earlier removal had been

Ethan, our third character, was raised in a middle-class family for whom “their love for God was based in their satisfaction with the status quo”. Ethan however strongly felt that God had ascertained an important role for him to play in this world. He did not actively pursue the challenge of this role, rather left it on time when God would deem it fair to bless him with awareness of the reason for his existence. Having never witnessed a visitation all his life, he looked for signs when he merely missed one from a few yards. He became unsure of the message he was intended to receive but this did not deter Ethan from seeking out those who had been profoundly affected by this manifestation, which in turn introduced him to Janice.

Thus the three characters’ lives are entwined, leading them to a solitary but unified path of spiritual rediscovery and atonement. The thematic concerns of mercy, forgiveness, meaning of faith interspersed with personal tragedies are all abound in this brilliantly written short story. Without giving away much of the ending, the consequences of an inquisitive mind upon all three characters is a wonderful mix of poignancy and humor.

Perhaps, he thought, it’d 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

The meaning of religion as a tremendous force of order in an otherwise chaotic worldly life is apparent in this story. This might not be a takeaway for every reader, but my inference is based on the unpredictability of life in general. How humans equate goodness and piety with ultimate reprieve in eyes of God is a subjective matter (The difficulty of any trial was subjective, and there was no way to compare two individuals’ experiences), but which nonetheless exposes inherent arrogance of humanity. The system of reward and punishment we take for granted has been so infused in our daily routine that we oft forget a love for God for His Sake, for Himself but for some paltry remuneration.

Every phenomenon in the universe was nothing less than an explicit reason to love Him.

To conclude, Ted Chiang’s “Hell is the Absence of God” poses hefty questions upon the readers with a weighty religious tone. Where other stories used religion as more or less an elusive concept, only to provide scientific bearings, this story makes use of fundamentals of religion in an unencumbered fashion. Ted unabashedly uses religion without the tone of mocking which is apparent in many other science-fiction books where writers such as Sagan, Asimov and Krauss have resorted to vilifying believers bitterly, thereby wilfully abandoning half of their readership. Ted Chiang earns my grandest admiration in this respect. He narrates fictional worlds where religion and science are both on an equal footing, contributing to advancements in the world whether for better or for worse. His reliance on religion as a symbolic source goes to show that his stories are not mired with ignorance of one of the most ancient tenets of human society.

The light unmade his eyes, turning him into not a formerly sighted being, but a being never intended to possess vision

To say it was unconditional was inadequate, because even the word “unconditional” required the concept of a condition and such an idea was no longer comprehensible to him

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