*WARNING: Spoiler alert
Where is God at the end of the world? His name and grace are not entirely absent from The Walking Dead. Often he exists in the faith of the show’s main characters, and they evidence His present love in the post-apocalyptic world. But the ever-increasing death and destruction that takes place raises many questions about what this God is doing. Can anything good come from the kind of suffering the characters in this show endure? Answering “yes” requires real sensitivity to the circumstances in which people find themselves.
If I firmly believe in the content of Romans 8:28; I also think that Christian often quote it at the most insensitive and inappropriate times. It’s even worse when they quote the pop cultural paraphrase of it that suggests, “Everything happens for a reason.” In the aftermath of my father’s death I could think of nothing I wanted to hear less than “all things work together for good.” It was true, and I believed it then as much as I do now. In those initial days of difficulty, however, it often felt like those quoting this passage of Scripture to me were trying to rush the grieving process, like they just wanted me to stop grieving because it made them uncomfortable. So they threw a Bible verse at my problems. For those who affirm the sovereignty of God over all events, there is a way to shift attention to that doctrine that can undermine and dismiss the pain people feel from living in a broken world. There have been moments in The Walking Dead that reminded me of this important truth.
Religion does not negate the pain and difficulty of the broken world. Hershel had to learn to accept that in season two. Though his Christian faith told him that God was still in control, he confessed to Rick not to understand what God was up to. After discovering that the walkers really are just monsters, his faith is shaken. In episode three of season five viewers see the tension between religion and evil in even more pronounced fashion. Father Gabriel shares with the group what exactly it is that he has done. Rick asks him, “What are you gonna burn for, Gabriel,” and the Father tells him:
I locked the doors at night; I always lock the doors at night. They started coming, my congregation…they were scared, they were looking for a safe place…it was so early, and the doors were still locked. You see, it was my choice. There were so many of them. They were trying to pry the shudders, and banging on the doors, and screaming. And so the dead came for them. Women, children, entire families calling my name as they were torn apart, begging me for mercy…damning me to hell. I buried their bones. I buried it all.
For all his faith, Gabriel is not able to open the doors to his congregation. Fear of this world overcomes him. Gabriel clings to some form of his faith despite these failures, but his actions must tempt others to respond differently.
As God’s representative on earth he reflects what many of the characters must think about God: that he has abandoned his people to the hordes of the undead. In one scene Maggie picks up a Bible. She holds it for a moment only to toss it back on the pew next to her. She won’t read it. She won’t open it. After the slaughter of the remaining Termites, when Father Gabriel is aghast that Rick could do such a thing in the “Lord’s house,” Maggie is quick to inform him that it’s just “four walls and a roof.” God doesn’t dwell on earth, not on this earth, not in this world. And Maggie is not alone in her doubts.
Throughout the series many people pray and cry out to God. In season two both Rick and Carol pray in the small rural church they stumble upon looking for Carol’s daughter, Sophia. Later in that same season Glen prays that God would save Carl’s life after he’s shot. In season four Hershel cries out to God from his prison cell. Each time it’s not entirely clear whether God hears and answers their prayers or not. For those religious characters that ambiguity is haunting.
For those less clearly religious the tension between good and evil in this world is still an important issue. Bob and Sasha represent two perspectives. The little game they play of “finding the good in the bad” is symbolic of the kind of responses the characters in this world can have. There are those who believe that there is still good out there: Beth, Bob, Carl, Glen. Then there are those who believe the world has gone to hell and there is no redemption: Sasha, Carol, and most notably Rick. There are some who appear at times on the fence, like Maggie, who still believed against all odds that she would find Glen, but who struggles to accept that God might still care about them. Tyrese too seems to believe that he can forgive, that Sasha should forgive, that he can maintain some level of non-violence, but who is becoming increasingly unsettled with the behaviors of the group. How these various individuals answer the question “can good come from evil” will shape them for the future. Interestingly, however, is the role that the optimists and the religious will play in drawing those who despair into this belief that good can still come from this world. Carl invites his dad to believe in hope. Bob invites Sasha, Beth invites Daryl. But how they invite people to believe in the possibility of good is important.
If the optimists and the religious point to trite examples of the good then the others won’t believe, they won’t be compelled to hope. Bob’s game with Sasha in episode two is just that, a game. When he tries to play it with her from his deathbed in episode three she won’t play. When she later asks him, “So what is it? The good that comes out of this bad” Bob doesn’t answer; he’s already dead. But Bob takes a different approach with Rick. Even from his deathbed, even from this painful traumatic suffering he can say to Rick, “Nightmares end, they shouldn’t end who you are.” The circumstances under which Bob makes this statement – “just one dead man’s opinion,” he says – add weightiness to their effectiveness. They are not the words of a man playing a game, nor the words of a man who has been hiding in his church for the last year. These are the words of a dying man, a man who has experienced and who hates this nightmare. His opinion has more attraction coming at the end. “I’ll take it,” says Rick.
It’s not clear whether good can come out of this world. Even for those of us who actually believe in the sovereignty of God, it doesn’t always feel like Romans 8:28 is true in our own world. But when I watch people suffer with joy, I am more inclined to believe it. When those who suffer don’t lose hope, then I believe afresh. The Walking Dead reminds us time and again that hope is fragile, and how we encourage hope in dark places is important. If we do so with simplicity few will believe it. But when grittiness of this post-apocalyptic world has caught up with Bob and still he communicates hope to Rick it’s more effective. It’s one “dead man’s opinion,” but it holds a lot of weight at the end.