“A slow man is telling a fast man how to run a race,” John C. Wright warns readers of his essay on “Hell Is the Absence of God” by the redoubtable Ted Chiang. After issuing this caveat, Wright notes that “even a slow runner can tell when a faster one has gone seriously off the track.”
How did Chiang, whom Wright acknowledges as his literary superior, send what is arguably his most famous short story off the rails? In Wright’s judgment the story, which deals with theological matters, “reads like it was written by someone who never met a Christian, or read anything written by a Christian.”
The story’s faults don’t lie in its craftsmanship. Wright praises its characterization, structure, and pacing. Rather, the work’s main demerit is the crude and dishonest way in which it slanders religion–specifically Christianity.
There is no point to the story if it is not a criticism of Christianity, a topic fascinating to the dominant section of the SF audience, who are skeptics from the West, i.e. from Christendom. Criticism of other religions would be of marginal interest to the expected audience. When is the last time you heard someone blaspheming Thor?
In “Hell Is the Absence of God”, Chiang presents us with an all-powerful God who removes characters’ free will, a cripple deprived of empathy upon gaining beatitude, and a righteous man condemned to hell. Wright points out that “what Chiang proposes is not what the Christians say.” It’s worth noting that Wright took immediate exception to Chiang’s straw men, even though he was a staunch atheist when he first read the story.
The conceit which Wright finds most irksome is the heavenly light that both blinds and destroys the free will of characters who see it. “…[I]n this loopy interpretation, faith is not an act of the will, but an absence of will.”
Wright advises honest atheists to argue against Christian theology with observation and reasoning according to an objective standard of truth; not by invoking fictional effigies. By resorting to the latter method, Chiang actually undermines atheist argument.
Drawing an analogy to The Wizard of Oz, Wright points out that misrepresenting the wizard as an evil tyrant isn’t the proper way to disabuse someone of the delusion that the wizard is real. “You do not uphold a standard of truth by telling a lie.”