We will never know, this side of heaven, where 9/11 fits in the larger story God is writing. But our literature and our history testify that it does.
Deep in the stream of Western literature runs a current J. R. R. Tolkien called "eucatastrophe"—literally, "good catastrophe." Tolkien served as a lieutenant in WW I and saw action in the offensive of the Somme before succumbing to trench fever. In a famous essay written many years after the armistice, he described how our favorite stories often bring us to the "sudden joyous 'turn'" that in the face of horrific events "denies … universal final defeat," giving "a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief."
Far from functioning as illegitimate escapes from reality, Tolkien argued, these tales of joy snatched from the jaws of tragedy point towards the central True Story of Christ's passion and resurrection—"the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe." All stories that hold out hope in the cataclysmic struggle between Good and Evil—from the first fairy tale to the Lord of the Rings to Star Wars and beyond—echo this greatest eucatastrophe.
For Tolkien, no evil event, however horrible, is outside the story of salvation-history. God bends them all to his purposes. In the creation account found in Silmarillion, Tolkien has the spirits sing Middle-earth into existence. The melody of Illuvatar (God) was "deep and wide and beautiful, but slow and blended with an immeasurable sorrow, from which its beauty chiefly came." Melkor (Satan) interfered with a loud, brash tune, trying to "drown the other music by the violence of its voice." But the "most triumphant notes" of Melkor's discordant song were "taken up by the other and woven into its own solemn pattern." Those things the devil intended for evil, God turned to good—from the very beginning.
All very well for literature. But what about history?
The eucatastrophic song echoes through church history.
It echoes from Joseph, who came out of enslavement and imprisonment to redeem his people, to Jonah, who emerged from the belly of the fish bearing a powerful word from God that saved a city, to Paul, whose imprisonment in Rome opened unparalleled opportunities to spread the gospel.
It echoes from the fall of Jerusalem, which sparked the spreading flame of the gospel throughout the Roman Empire, to the martyrdom of the early Christians, whose blood became the seed of the church, to the fall of Rome, after which the victorious barbarian tribes were in turn vanquished by the gospel, carrying its message across Europe.
And so on through the history of the church, down to the 20th and 21st centuries.
C. S. Lewis, who himself knew the horrors of the front lines, saw echoes of the True Story in World War II. He put them brilliantly into the mouth of the wily demon, Screwtape.
This European war … has certain tendencies inherent in it which are, in themselves, by no means in our favour. We may hope for a good deal of cruelty and unchastity. But, if we are not careful, we shall see thousands turning in this tribulation to the Enemy, while tens of thousands who do not go so far as that will nevertheless have their attention diverted from themselves to values and causes which they believe to be higher than the self.
And how disastrous for us is the continual remembrance of death which war enforces. One of our best weapons, contented worldliness, is rendered useless. In wartime not even a human can believe that he is going to live forever.
In the Ravensbruck Extermination Camp, Germany, 1944, a woman who had harbored Jews as a member of the Dutch Resistance grieved the enormity of the evil she faced. Thousands around her—her sister Betsie among them—were being brutalized and killed. Only fragments of the Bible, shared with her fellow captives, kept her sane and alive. At last, she found in Revelation 3:8 meaning in the midst of horror: "Because you have limited strength, have kept My word, and have not denied My name, look, I have placed before you an open door that no one is able to close."
Miraculously freed after ten months of captivity, Corrie ten Boom went on to buy a former concentration camp and turn it into a place of ministry to those ravaged by war. By age 86, she had spoken to millions around the world her message that "there is no pit so deep that He is not deeper still." The door God opened through Corrie's personal catastrophe has still not shut.
Tolkien once wrote in a letter: "No man can estimate what is really happening at the present. … All we do know, and that to a large extent by direct experience, is that evil labours with vast power and perpetual success—in vain: preparing always only the soil for unexpected good to sprout in."
In 1949, most Christian missionaries were ejected from China. In 1966, the Cultural Revolution broke out, and Christians became the target of massive persecution. Churches were closed, believers jailed—many died as a result. How could the infant Chinese church possibly survive? Indeed, after Mao's death in 1976, it seemed the church had not survived.
Yet by 1992 China contained some 7,000 churches, and over 10 million believers, with many more converting every day. As he had the baby Moses in the basket, God plucked that church out of its vulnerable situation and nurtured it to adulthood in the very camp of the enemy. The brash notes of the Communist Party were taken up in the great eucatastrophic song-story.
Such providences do not make evil any less evil. But as Tolkien put it in the Silmarillion, "Evil may yet be good to have been … and yet remain evil."
It is hard to speak of the positive results of catastrophic events when people we have loved are dead and landmarks we have known are destroyed. We can never see 9/11 as anything but evil. And yet, as our minds are reawakening to the horror of war, the same horror that helped impart deep realism and strength to the writings of Lewis and Tolkien, we may rediscover the bedrock source of that strength—the knowledge of the God who, through and only through an awful death at the hands of sinful men, rose and redeemed humankind.
In literature, history, and our own experience, the echoes of that great True Story are all around us.
Chris Armstrong is managing editor of Christian History magazine.
Copyright © 2002 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
More Christian History, including a list of events that occurred this week in the church's past, is available at ChristianHistory.net. Subscriptions to the quarterly print magazine are also available.
In January's Christianity Today article, "Wisdom in a Time of War," J.I. Packer wrote about what Oswald Chambers and C.S. Lewis teach us about living through the long battle with terrorism.
A Christian History Corner last October also looked to Lewis as an answer to September 11: "Forget 'Normal' | C.S. Lewis's warning against panic during World War II resonates in our new crisis."
Christian History Corner appears every Friday at ChristianityToday.com. Previous editions include:
Evangelicalism's Decades of Fire | New historical survey highlights twentieth-century evangelicalism's impassioned middle decades. (Sept. 6, 2002)
A Protestant Bishop Speaks Out on the Stakes of Public Education | Why concerned parents should read the 17th-century Moravian educational reformer Jan Amos Comenius. (Aug. 30, 2002)
Spurgeon on Jabez | What history's most prolific preacher said, in 1871, about the Prayer of Jabez (Aug. 23, 2002)
History in a Flash | A new CD-ROM offers quick access to the facts of church history, plus interactive quizzes. (Aug. 16, 2002)
How the Early Church Saw Heaven | The first Christians had very specific ideas about who they would meet in the afterlife (Aug. 9, 2002)
Divvying up the Most Sacred Place | Emotions have historically run high as Christians have staked their claims to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (Aug. 2, 2002)
Legacy of an Ancient Pact | Why do Christians still chafe under restrictions in some Muslim nations? It all started with Umar (July 26, 2002)
Big Church Revival | Christian gyms and shopping malls may be new, but full-service megachurches are positively medieval. (July 19, 2002)
Phantom Saints | Juan Diego could soon join a long line of pious, exemplary, and quite possibly imaginary Catholic heroes. (July 12, 2002)
2002 Is Not 1789 | Before trying to figure out what the framers of the Constitution really thought, remember that they were from a wildly different country—the past (July 5, 2002)
Between Extremes | Church leaders didn't like Pelagius's ideas about free will, but they've never been able to avoid them completely (June 28, 2002)
Severe Success | Bernard of Clairvaux was a tough act to follow—yet thousands of Christians walked his path. (June 21, 2002)
Coming to America | Commentators who call proposed INS policies an unprecedented invasion of privacy forget what foreign visitors were asked 80 years ago, and why. (June 14, 2002)