The feeling that life is fundamentally tragic seems to be common to the human race. The tendency toward death, frustration and what Carlyle has called “the inane” seems for most men to be the dominant theme of earthly existence. True, in times of expansion, of economic and social improvement, men have usually become optimistic, declaring this to be the best possible world and that every day in every way we are getting better and better. But let there be ever so slight a “recession” and the immediate change of tone in the chorus of optimism becomes very noticeable. The sense of tragedy very soon reasserts its rule over the human heart and mind.

That this is so is seen early in the history of civilization and culture. To the Greeks, for instance, the highest type of dramatic art, that which most truly portrayed life, was tragedy. Aristotle held that such representation performed a catharsis in those who witnessed it, enabling them to project themselves into the situation depicted in the drama. By so doing, they would be able to evaluate and overcome the catastrophic in their own lives. Here, as in much Eastern thinking, the black tragedy of man’s existence is taken for granted.

The Forms Of Tragedy

To the Greek dramatist, whether Sophocles, Euripedes or another, tragedy had one of three principal forms. The hero might find himself in conflict with society and its conventions, the result being virtual outlawry and death. Such an end, however, was not so tragic as that of the man who dared to fight with the gods. If he attempted this, his end was foreordained, for the gods would crush him with the weight of their roaring thunderbolts. In an even worse plight was the man in conflict with himself. There lay the deepest depth of tragedy, for such a one was not only the victim but also his own prosecutor and judge.

Thus, in Greek thought, anyone worthy of the name of man was obliged to enter into one form of conflict or other. As an individual he had to face the demands of society, religion or even his own human nature. One answer he could offer to these demands was submission, but by giving this answer he really ceased to be an individual and a man. This was slavery. On the other hand, he could go his own independent way, a way leading inevitably to a conflict ending only in defeat. But having fought a good fight, he would go down with his flag flying. Here was the gloriously tragic moment of life.

Such an approach to life assumes, of course, a whole philosophy or world-and-life view. It holds that life is fundamentally void, for man is destined to defeat and consequently to hopelessness. The hero is one who does not really overcome but who faces life defiantly and, by maintaining his own individual integrity, transmutes defeat into true victory. This is the tragedy which underlies all of life, for it reveals the ultimate vanity of all human endeavor.

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It is upon this tradition that the great Western dramatists have built. This theme lies at the heart of Milton’s Samson Agonistes, which the author prefaced with a discussion of Aristotle and his views of the tragic. Corneille and Racine both followed the same pattern. Only Shakespeare at first appears to be different, but he too in King Lear, Macbeth or Othello, while perhaps more psychologically profound, follows the same well-worn path. Whether it be man’s fatuous love, his pride or his lust, they all lead to a destruction which he can only resist, daring the gods to strike him down with their searing darts of lightning.

Bleakness In Modern Life

Nor has our thinking changed much in our own day and age. We, who would seem to have good reason for optimism, particularly if we live in the Western Hemisphere, might well be excused for a certain buoyancy of outlook. Yet, on every hand, tragic bleakness seems to dominate. Robert Louis Stevenson commented more than once on this fact, and the parade of great novelists and writers only bears him out too well. Dreiser, Hardy, D. H. Lawrence, Proust, Dylan Thomas and many others continually point up the fact that life is essentially calamitous. Going even further, historian-philosophers, such as Spengler and Toynbee, declare that civilizations, like the individual, can end only in tragic death.

One may, of course, object that this attitude is a product of extreme intellectualism. It is the fate of the university professor, rather than of the man in the street. Yet is this true? Is it not true that it is part and parcel, not merely of Western, but of human thought? How often have we heard it prophesied in the past few years that there will be a third world war, and that this war will bring about the end of all things! Man seems to accept it as axiomatic that he will eventually bring himself to destruction, perhaps because of his very efforts to survive. In a hostile universe he can look forward to nothing but ultimate disaster. Despite all that he does, the universe will ultimately run down, bringing man’s hard-won achievements in art, science, religion and war to nothing. There is the ultimate tragedy.

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And what practical effect does this have upon men? They see no value to life. They make money, they amass power, they build up a reputation. But where does it all lead? There is nothing beyond, for death ends all, and frustration is the common lot of man. Out of this situation come inner tensions, which in turn lead to social conflicts. The individual in his drive, in his search for something beyond his own puny efforts, to make life mean something finds himself opposed by others with the same tensions and acquisitive desires. The result is war in the economic, political or international sphere, and this in turn destroys man and his glory, civilization, and their cultures, nations and their achievements. Man agrees that

The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power,

And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,

Await alike the inevitable hour,

The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

Mirror Of Man’s Need

The Christian church in human society and the individual Christian as a member of society both have seriously to face this common interpretation of life. A mere glib “God’s in His heaven, all’s right with the world” sort of attitude does not solve the problem, nor overcome the difficulty. Does Christianity, therefore, have any real answer to, any effective argument against, the usual “philosophy of tragedy?” Or, does it simply admit that life is vanity of vanities about which man can do absolutely nothing?

In considering this matter, the Christian must of course realize that this belief in ultimate tragedy is a revelation of man’s need. As man becomes more self-conscious, so he becomes more “tragedy-conscious.” His sense of uncertainty and insecurity grows stronger as he more clearly sees his own smallness against the background of the universe. At times he has felt that he could govern all things by his reason, but before long, further knowledge has made him realize that he was dealing with something far beyond his power to control. Thus it has indeed been true that “he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow” (Eccles. 1:18).

To the Christian this is not unexpected. After all, when man frankly and bluntly refuses to acknowledge God as sovereign, he cannot expect anything else. A limited god, or no god at all, leaves the universe as the plaything of chance and the sport of conflicting currents of forces. In the circumstances, all that man can do is fight back at his environment, in the hope that some day in the future he may see victory—or oblivion. Man’s sin is thus at the root of his tragic sense.

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Its Roots Are Deep

One may well ask then if Christianity sees no tragedy in life. Is Christianity a religion of facile optimism that goes its way without considering or caring for the emptiness which obviously lies so close to the surface of all human endeavor and activity? No, Christianity realizes that there is indeed a tragic side to life, but it believes that its roots lie deeper than most men realize.

The Christian bases his understanding of tragedy upon his belief in the doctrine fundamental to all Christian thought—God’s sovereignty. Because God is sovereign, he is the Creator, Sustainer and Ruler of all that is (John 1:3–5; 1 Cor. 8:6; Col. 1:16, 17). Indeed, he is more: the Redeemer of his people, sovereignly saving them by his grace (John 1:12 f.; 3:3, 6, 7, 16; Rom. 8:28 ff.; Eph. 1, 2). God is absolute in all things.

Yet although God’s sovereign goodness is so bountifully manifest in creation and providence, man continues in rebellion. Although God continually displays his kindness to man in providing what he needs in this life, man shows neither gratitude nor thanksgiving. He prefers to declare that all these things are attained by his own hard work, or even by chance. Completely egocentric, he ignores God, refusing the submission that he should offer (Rom. 1:19–20).

Nevertheless, the sovereign God continues by his providence to sustain and govern the rebel, not only providing him with those things which he needs, but even restraining the ravages of sin in his mind and body. Although man laughs in his face, God still keeps him in this life, for the rebel is utterly dependent, though he acknowledge it not, upon him.

As if this evidence of God’s goodness were not enough, he has entered into history speaking to men through the mouths of prophets and apostles, and calling upon them to return to him. Most important of all he entered into man’s world as man, in the person of Jesus Christ. And in the Incarnation, which led to his death on Calvary’s cross, he substituted himself for man, that he alone might bear the penalty of man’s continual and obstinate rebellion. Here was the supreme manifestation of divine sovereign grace.

The Rebellious Creature

Yet in spite of God’s infinite grace, in spite of all his calls to return, man pays little or no attention. Faced with the offer of the Gospel, he turns his back upon it, and we hear the tragic cry of the Savior: “How often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not” (Matt. 23:37). Here is one aspect of the Christian sense of tragedy: the tragedy of the rebellious creature.

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But there is another side to it, for Christ adds the words: “Behold your house is left unto you desolate.” The tragedy of life consists not only in man’s turning away from the call of the sovereign God but also in the fact that God in his just and righteous wrath may, and does, turn away from his rebellious creatures. This is tragedy indeed—the tragedy of Hell, far greater, deeper and more enduring than anything man can imagine: eternal death.

The Initiative Of Grace

Yet no Christian would ever admit that tragedy is the final word. For the Christian, tragedy is never the end, since God’s grace is as ultimate as his justice. Even though the Christian once rebelled and fought against God, in his infinite mercy and loving kindness God has laid hold upon him. He has sweetly wooed him back to himself, and hope has blotted out the feeling of vanity and emptiness.

The Christian, however, must continually emphasize that this has not happened because of his own willingness or desire to turn to God, but because God in Christ and through the Holy Spirit has taken the initiative.

Born again from above, “not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:13), God’s people turn to him in faith and obedience, knowing that they have been saved from black tragedy, by the sovereign grace of God alone.

Swallowed Up In Hope

The Christian cannot and does not seek to escape from the sense of tragedy in the world. But his view of tragedy is not the result of a sense of insecurity forced upon him by a world of chance. He sees tragedy in man’s continual rejection of the sovereign God of grace; but at the same time he also sees tragedy swallowed up in hope. Christ has died; yea, he has risen again and he offers salvation freely to all. Tragedy is not ultimate, for Christ lives and reigns as the Redeemer and Intercessor for all who come unto him by faith.

How does the Christian view affect one’s attitude toward life? For one thing, the Christian realizes that God has called him in this life to serve him. The Apostle Paul never tired of stressing this point when dealing with the individual members of the early Church, because it gave to even the humblest Christian a sense of vocation. God had summoned the Christian to service; therefore the Christian, even though a slave, was God’s freedman.

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And out of this sense of calling comes a further result. The Christian’s work, feeble, sinful and ineffectual though it might be, if it is done honestly, faithfully and conscientiously, will redound to the glory of the sovereign God. Thus, even the humblest ditch digger can glorify God in his work. Moreover, this is not just for a day, or a year, but for all eternity, for “their works do follow them.” This destroys frustration, emptiness, tragedy. We are working for the eternal glory of the King of Kings.

“Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye steadfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord” (1 Cor. 15:58).



Dust … and clay …

and the voice of God.

Here is the Creator’s handiwork;

Here is dust … and clay.

The highest of all organisms,

yet of the earth.

The most complex of God’s creations:


What good can come of dust …

and clay?

Dust of itself is nothing;

Clay—little more.

What then remains?

The voice of God.


W. Stanford Reid teaches in Canada in the city of his birth, at McGill University, Montreal, where he is Associate Professor of History and Warden of Men’s Residences. He holds the Ph.D. degree from the University of Pennsylvania and is author of The Church of Scotland in Lower Canada, Economic History of Great Britain and Problems in Western Intellectual History since 1500.

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