Warning: Noah spoilers throughout.
Walking out of our screening of Noah last week, one of the first things I said to my colleague was, “I think the moral of the story was that God is evil.” While the movie strenuously, almost ridiculously tries to illustrate how much mankind deserved its fate, their sin is theatrically outweighed by the irrational violence of God. Bringing out the extreme, disturbing implications of the Noah myth was one of the movie’s greatest strengths, and what made it such an unexpected provocation. But it was confirmation of something I’ve often said: there’s no better tool for creating atheists than the Old Testament.
But I don’t mean to be flippant, so I’d like to make a more careful case for Noah as an exercise in anti-theodicy. The particular starkness of God’s evil in the film is perhaps rooted in the incoherent moral logic Aronofsky imposed on the story, especially the blanket innocence of the animals and the automatic guilt of mankind for what appears to be little more than obeying God’s commands earlier in Genesis to “fill the earth and subdue it” and to “rule over” every other living creature. The supposedly God-defying humanist speeches of Tubal-Cain, a real biblical character reimagined as Noah’s nemesis, are really just paraphrases of God from Genesis 1. While the movie’s environmental-disaster politics are interesting in other ways, their “man vs. God” perhaps renders even more cartoonish the wickedness of God that pervades the entire Christian logic of the fall.
Here is roughly what happens between Noah and God: God gives Noah a vision of the destruction of the world, for the express purpose of punishing mankind’s sin, and orders him to build an ark to save the innocent. In Genesis, God decides that “every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was all wickedness all the time” (6:8) and that the “earth was corrupt and full of violence” (6:11). Noah, nevertheless, was “blameless among the people of his time, and he walked faithfully with God” (6:9). “I will wipe from the face of the earth the human race I have created … for I regret that I have made them,” God says (6:8).
It’s not very clear here what the sins are, but we know that man is accused of a) multiplying and b) being violent. But as Noah’s family quickly finds out, they’re just as violent as everyone else. After watching the shocking goings-on at a nearby camp of Canaanites, Noah realizes he and his wife would kill them in a heartbeat to protect their children. Near the end of the ark ride, he’s become a raving madman chasing two newborn babies with a knife, and his two oldest sons are prepared to bring him to what would appear to be a very righteous end. (They kill Tubal-Cain instead, and after a dramatic knife-raise, Noah leaves the babies in peace.) Even if most of this isn’t in the Bible, we know that the reboot of humankind produced even greater achievements in multiplication and mass murder. So God killed millions of people because they were violent, and then saved enough of them that they could return to exactly that state? It’s not surprising that Aronofsky’s Noah comes to believe that humans are supposed to die out in the new world. Either he kills those babies, or God is cruel and insane.
Long before Noah finds himself hoisting a butcher knife over a newborn, the storyline about whether humans are supposed to survive proves throughout the movie to be an extended illustration of the absurdity of trying to be on God’s side. God reveals enough about himself that Noah can get an idea of his plans, his orders, and the sort of moral logic he holds humanity to. But he’s apparently silent to everyone else, even those who beg him to speak to them. And the matter of applying God’s commands in concrete situations leads to incoherence right and left, often driving Noah to act like one of the damned in order to follow God’s logic consistently. (The familiar torture of the literal believer: This has to be right. But it can’t be.) It’s a fruitless exercise, because God is never consistent: he destroys things when he decides, and saves random people and starts over with no apparent plan in mind. There is simply nothing Noah could have done to deserve to be spared the flood; the only answer is that God made a sovereign choice. At best he was lucky God let him in the plot far enough in advance to save his skin; tough luck for everyone else.
The only conclusion we can draw from the story is that whatever grand, unknowable plan God may have in mind he, contrary to Christian doctrine, doesn’t rate human life anywhere near as highly as he expects humans to. Tubal-Cain turns out to be right: God is silent, unknowable, capricious; he does what he wants. We can’t beat him, but there’s not a lot of point in trying to follow him, either; there’s no guarantee that he will say anything, or that if he does it won’t lead you to madness and ruin. The fact that God might have an ultimate plan for the world, and even the apparent chaos ultimate leads to his holy ends, is a cold comfort if he’s constantly intervening in the human world, judging it by a logic no one can understand, and sending the unlucky to eternal damnation.
The opposite of Noah’s evil God might be the one in Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, who is not entirely undetectable in the human world, but does not clearly intervene or judge. This God is much more plausible as the divinity who is so far beyond the human mind that only hints and glimpses indicate his presence and grace. His is the mysterious penumbra at the edge of the world that one could feel to be following them through all the inexplicable events of life, good and bad, and is the final oblivion into which we pass at the end. He does not categorically punish mankind because there are no grounds for him to do so; he has left us to struggle toward good in the midst of and even deeply intertwined with evil. We might plausibly claim that whatever plans are in the mind of this sort of God are able to redeem the suffering of human life, because we have no inkling of them.
This is matter that is not given near enough attention by believers who insist that faith must be literal, and must involve clear commands from God, in order to be meaningful. They seem to ignore the eternal paradox of religion: that its power comes from its ability to explain the world, but that its explanations are necessarily false. Thus there’s often an unsatisfying choice between vague religious notions that are plausible and robust ones that are not.
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