I love J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth. I particularly enjoy a term he coined – eucatastrophe (Gk. “eu” being the prefix meaning “good”). Lisa Coultras, in her book Tolkien’s Theology of Beauty writes about this term,
"This event is the reversal of a seemingly inevitable catastrophe; it is, rather, the 'good' catastrophe. On the brink of disaster, deliverance arrives beyond all hope. So moving is this deliverance that it brings 'a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears.' Tolkien describes this inner response as a glimpse of the transcendent, an experience rising above or reaching beyond the present world. It is a joy so strong that it pierces like sorrow, joining the human heart to a reality greater than the story itself. This joy moves the whole being."1
In other words, it’s that moment in the book or the movie where the good guys are surrounded by the bad guys, and there seems to be no way out, no way for them to be saved, where all hope is lost. And then, just at that precise moment, deliverance comes! Deliverance of such a kind that it makes your heart soar with satisfaction, with hopes fulfilled; one that fills your heart with a sense of rightness, of a cup perfectly full, of true and perfect rest. And after that deliverance and making all things right takes place, “they all lived happily ever after.” It is that unexpected deliverance that comes as a ray of light in the darkness, a rousing clarion call to join the throngs of the deliverer into the very gates of the enemy to push the hordes back, when all strength and hope seemed to have been lost, and every ounce of strength spent through the dark night. Every children’s story that ends with that note of hope is the natural longing that lies in the heart of every human being, being more vividly shown and expressed by children, that there must be justice. There must be a reason, a purpose, an end to which all things are moving. That this can’t be all there is. Solomon put it well in Ecclesiastes 3:11,
"He has also set eternity in their heart, yet so that man will not find out the work which God has done from the beginning even to the end."
If there is “no hell below us, above us only sky,” then why do we watch predictable movies where the good guy always wins and the bad guys face justice (there’s a reason people like superhero movies so much)? Because there is a hell below us, and there is a holy God above and everywhere around us. This is why we like a good eucatastrophe. Even the most hardened atheists live in a manner inconsistent with their claim to not be accountable to God. But this is not an article about atheism, but simply to introduce a concept that, I believe, accurately reflects the end of all things, when King Jesus finally destroys all of His enemies, the final one being death. 1 Corinthians 15:20-28 beautifully sums this up,
"Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep. For since by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, after that those who are Christ’s at His coming, then comes the end, when He hands over the kingdom to the God and Father, when He has abolished all rule and all authority and power. For He must reign until He has put all His enemies under His feet. The last enemy that will be abolished is death. For He has put all things in subjection under His feet. But when He says, “All things are put in subjection,” it is evident that He is excepted who put all things in subjection to Him. When all things are subjected to Him, then the Son Himself also will be subjected to the One who subjected all things to Him, so that God may be all in all.
But before we can enjoy the deliverance, we must feel the tension, taste the fear and seemingly insurmountable danger. Examples abound. But read Psalm 46:1-3,
"God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling. Selah
Or Psalm 11:1-3,
"In the Lord I take refuge;
how can you say to my soul,
“Flee like a bird to your mountain,
for behold, the wicked bend the bow;
they have fitted their arrow to the string
to shoot in the dark at the upright in heart;
if the foundations are destroyed,
what can the righteous do?”
When reading Scripture, we must pause and take in the scenery through the author’s words. Pay attention to the imagery painted in the above two passages. Imagine the earth splitting right under your feet, or the giant mountains being ripped up and thrown in the sea (likely causing a tsunami), or standing in front of a roaring ocean; or being pursued by an enemy, and having nowhere to run, you see them laughing and reveling in your coming death, knocking their bows, hearing the twang upon releasing the arrow to pierce through your heart, feeling the cold steel tip of the arrow and the searing pain of it opening a hole in your body. Hear the tone of despair at the end of verse 3, “if the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?” It’s game over.
There is a scene that always grips my heart in Book 3, Chapter 7 of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings where Théoden and his armies, including Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli, are fighting what looks to be a losing battle against the might of Saruman. Listen to the Professor’s account,
"The land had changed. Where before the green dale had lain, its grassy slopes lapping the ever-mounting hills, there now a forest loomed. Great trees, bare and silent, stood, rank on rank, with tangled bough and hoary head; their twisted roots were buried in the long green grass. Darkness was under them. Between the Dike and the eaves of that nameless wood only two open furlongs lay. There now cowered the proud hosts of Saruman, in terror of the king and in terror of the trees. They streamed down from Helm’s Gate until all above the Dike was empty of them, but below it they were packed like swarming flies. Vainly they crawled and clambered about the walls of the coomb, seeking to escape. Upon the east too sheer and stony was the valley’s side; upon the left, from the west, their final doom approached."2
Can you feel the fear, the darkness, the death all around our fearless heroes? Can you taste the blood spilled all around the land in this passage? The lifeless open eyes of thousands of soldiers lying all around? Have you, at times, felt that in your own life or in the historic life of the church when facing her foes? Have you felt that when you look six feet under at your loved one’s coffin, or at losing your battle against a particular sin, or when you are betrayed by someone close to you? Do you feel the sting of death? It is precisely at this moment that the Lord would have us remember Romans 13:11-14,
"You know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires."
Remember that the only reason we are told to put on the Lord Jesus Christ and to walk in holiness is because the Lord Jesus did not have a eucatastrophe in his earthly life. His enemies mockingly called for God to save him in Matthew 27 so that they could believe in Him. And though as Matthew 26:53 says he could have appealed his just cause to His Father and have Him at once send him “more than twelve legions of angels” (between 4,200 to 6,000 per legion, so 12 legions would mean at least 50,400 or more angels!), He instead set his face like a flint, because He believed “I know that I shall not be put to shame. He who vindicates me is near” (Is. 50:8). He did this to uphold the perfection and integrity of the word of God (Matt. 26:54), to save His people from their sins (Matt. 1:21), to be “the mediator of a new covenant,” whose blood would speak “a better word than the blood of Abel” (Heb. 12:24). Why better than Abel’s? Because Abel’s blood cried out “vengeance!” Christ’s blood cries out “grace!”
In light of the above, remember John 15:18-20,
"If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours."
And Hebrews 4:15,
"We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin."
Adam plunged us into sin and misery. Christ, the second Adam, plunged himself into a world of sin and misery, and was made sin “who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). God never promises to give us an eucatastrophe out of every tribulation and suffering. In fact, as we have seen above, He promises that we will suffer. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego understood this (Daniel 3:16-18), as did Queen Esther (Esther 4:16). Even Abraham, as the knife in his hand almost plunged into his son’s chest, believed that if the Lord did not deliver his son at the last moment, that he could bring a greater eucatastrophe by raising him from the dead to fulfill his promise (Heb. 11:19). Christ also, in the agony of Gethsemane, believed the Father could intervene at that very moment of his greatest despair, yet entrusted Himself to His Father’s will (Matt. 26:39). One of the greatest lies spread by many who profess the name of Christ is that adversity is foreign to the believer, that it is a sign of insufficient faith or sin (remember Job’s friends?), that the Lord wants us to enjoy prosperity at every moment. We’ve reviewed enough to show that not to be the case. But let us not lose sight of the fact that the darker the background, the greater a diamond shines. The deeper the sorrow, the greater will be the joy that will come in the morning (Ps. 30:5). It is only when we’ve seen and felt the darkness of sin and death that we can appreciate the ultimate deliverance of God in its fullness. And we will one day, and it’ll be glorious! For now, we are called to be ready, and prepared, as soldiers awaiting orders. Sin and death may win some of the battles, but ultimately, the Lord will bring about one ultimate eucatastrophe to end all catastrophes!
There are many dark nights of the soul, many times in which it is hard for us to push on. Why? Why should we live in righteousness and avoid sin? Why should we believe salvation is nearer? Sometimes all seems lost. But we must not lose complete faith, like Denethor or Saruman did, but remember the Eucatastrophe of all eucatastrophes,
"God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed." – 2 Thessalonians 1:6-10
That’s what every predictable good story is about: The impending and inevitable victory of good over evil. It is not disingenuous or childish. We must not suppose that children’s “fairy tales” are nothing more than stages to grow out of, before we pass into the realm of adulthood where all is grim and dark. Fairy tales were meant to point to a world much more real than our own, to a reality much more global and all-encompassing than our myopic, present one. We were made with eternity in our hearts! Let’s go back to our passage from the war at Helm’s Deep,
"There suddenly upon a ridge appeared a rider, clad in white, shining in the rising sun. Over the low hills the horns were sounding. Behind him, hastening down the long slopes, were a thousand men on foot; their swords were in their hands. Amid them strode a man tall and strong. His shield was red. As he came to the valley’s brink, he set to his lips a great black horn and blew a ringing blast. ‘Erkenbrand!’ the Riders shouted. ‘Erkenbrand!’ ‘Behold the White Rider!’ cried Aragorn. ‘Gandalf is come again!’ ‘Mithrandir, Mithrandir!’ said Legolas. ‘This is wizardry indeed! Come! I would look on this forest, ere the spell changes.’3
As you felt the pang of darkness and death, did you also feel the hairs on your skin standing on edge, and your heart bathing in the light of the sun once again at this very welcome and sudden turn of events? The dark army felt it, too, only now the opposite. Continue reading,
"The hosts of Isengard roared, swaying this way and that, turning from fear to fear. Again the horn sounded from the tower. Down through the breach of the Dike charged the king’s company. Down from the hills leaped Erkenbrand, lord of Westfold. Down leaped Shadowfax, like a deer that runs surefooted in the mountains. The White Rider was upon them, and the terror of his coming filled the enemy with madness. The wild men fell on their faces before him. The Orcs reeled and screamed and cast aside both sword and spear. Like a black smoke driven by a mounting wind they fled. Wailing they passed under the waiting shadow of the trees; and from that shadow none ever came again."4
Read that last phrase again out loud: “and from that shadow none ever came again.” Christian, that is your hope. Unbeliever, that is your worst nightmare. For without Christ, you are the Orc that will pass into shadow forever. The coming of the Lord is not a eucatastrophe for you, but rather your ultimate catastrophe, one from which there is no return,
"It is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment." - Hebrews 9:27
Listen to Psalm 46:6-11,
The nations rage, the kingdoms totter;
he utters his voice, the earth melts.
The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress. Selah
Come, behold the works of the Lord,
how he has brought desolations on the earth.
He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
he breaks the bow and shatters the spear;
he burns the chariots with fire.
“Be still, and know that I am God.
I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth!”
That is terrifying language for those not in Christ! But if you are in Christ, if you have been born again (John 3:7), and believed by faith in the work of Christ on the cross (Acts 16:31), that same passage quoted above in Hebrews 9 says the following for you,
"Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him." - Hebrews 9:28
It is because of this that Paul victoriously and beautifully proclaims,
"When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:
“Death is swallowed up in victory.”
“O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?”
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain." – 1 Cor. 15:54-58
Repeat that last part of verse 58 out loud every time you feel despair creeping in: “in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”
There is so much more that could be said, so many more quotes and bible verses to recall on this topic. But I hope this has been enough to whet your appetite not just to read Tolkien (I wish everyone would read him!), but in particular to read all of life, all of history, and all of the Bible as pointing you to the final Eucatastrophe, to the Day when all the stories we read will come true, when we will “live happily ever after.”
I’ll close with the following quote. Enough has been said to make its meaning and hope very clear,
"‘Now you go to sleep first, Mr. Frodo,’ he said. ‘It’s getting dark again. I reckon this day is nearly over.’ Frodo sighed and was asleep almost before the words were spoken. Sam struggled with his own weariness, and he took Frodo’s hand; and there he sat silent till deep night fell. Then at last, to keep himself awake, he crawled from the hiding-place and looked out. The land seemed full of creaking and cracking and sly noises, but there was no sound of voice or of foot. Far above the Ephel Dúath in the West the night-sky was still dim and pale. There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach. His song in the Tower had been defiance rather than hope; for then he was thinking of himself. Now, for a moment, his own fate, and even his master’s, ceased to trouble him. He crawled back into the brambles and laid himself by Frodo’s side, and putting away all fear he cast himself into a deep untroubled sleep."5
- Coultras, Lisa. Tolkien’s Theology of Beauty: Majesty, Splendor, and Transcendence in Middle-earth
- Tolkien, J.R.R. The Lord of the Rings