Good Omens and Divine Absence

The Amazon Prime comedy series parodies bad Christian eschatological fiction, but it does so by stripping away Christianity and placing the action in an alternative spiritual cosmos where God is out to lunch.

Michael Sheen and David Tennant star in Amazon's "Good Omens". (Image: Amazon.com)

The Antichrist has gone missing, and so has God.

The former is the primary plot device of the new Amazon Prime comedy series Good Omens, adapted from the book by Neil Gaiman and the late Terry Pratchett, in which an angel and a demon team up to stop Armageddon. Divine absence is necessary for this to make even madcap sense.

God offers a bit of narration to the viewer, but she (Frances McDormand—of course they gave God a female voice) is apparently unreachable even to the angels, who are proceeding according to what they think is the great divine plan. But one has his doubts. Aziraphale (Michael Sheen) is prim, proper and worried that the great plan his angelic superiors are following is not quite right. However the heavenly bureaucracy is in the way of his getting any direct divine guidance or reassurance, and so he tries his best to stop the Apocalypse, hoping that what he does is in accord with God’s ineffable plan.

He also hopes that he is not doing anything wrong in dealing with his demonic counterpart. Crowley (David Tennant) explains that “I didn’t mean to fall; I just hung around the wrong people” and “sauntered vaguely downward.” As a demon, he is creative with regard to small wickedness—he invented the selfie and his road designs ensure London is surrounded by a perpetual cycle of low-grade evil—but he shies away from anything too awful, though in memos back to the head office he nonetheless takes credit for anything dreadful that humans think up for themselves. He is, in short, a roguish scofflaw with some charm, and watching David Tennant chew the scenery in slightly creepy makeup is great fun.

In their time on Earth, Aziraphale and Crowley have both gone a bit native and have reached a sort of détente. Thus, although their respective sides are keen to end everything in a final battle, the pair want a way out that will let humanity keep going on this planet. They get their chance when they realize that the Antichrist has been misplaced (partly due to a blunder by Crowley) and was raised as a normal human boy. Hijinks ensue. In the end, they have to decide which side they are on—the hosts of heaven, the armies of hell, or humanity—and they are left wondering if their decisions were part of the ineffable plan all along.

Obviously, this show is a theological mess, which has induced some Christians to condemn it; one group embarrassed itself by directing its ire at Netflix, rather than at Amazon. The outrage might be more persuasive if there were fewer dreadful Christian attempts to dramatize the end times; at least Good Omens is funny and unlikely to be taken seriously as a guide to eschatology. Theologically and artistically it sits somewhere between masterpieces like Dante’s Divine Comedy and Milton’s Paradise Lost and dreck like the Left Behind series.

Precisely how entertaining one finds Good Omens is a matter of taste—opinions among my viewing group ranged from “amusing enough” to “hilarious.” It was generally agreed that some parts are quite funny, some are just amusing, and some, such as a subplot involving witchfinders, fall flat. There are also a couple cringe-inducing “woke” moments, but it is overall entertaining. And it might have the best use of Queen in a soundtrack since Wayne’s World (biopics about the band don’t count).

The theological problems are less irritating than interesting. Good Omens parodies bad Christian eschatological fiction, but it does so by stripping away Christianity (except for some superficial elements) and placing the action in an alternative spiritual cosmos where God is out to lunch, “moving in mysterious ways and not talking to any of us.” Instead of the self-revelation and self-sacrificing God of Christianity, there is silence and mystery, as if the entire cosmos is enduring a dark night of the soul. The Church and the sacraments are also curiously absent throughout the show.

Thus, Good Omens is to Christianity as the Thor movies are to Norse mythology; the show is not close enough to Christianity to be very heretical or blasphemous. The world of Good Omens is not really a Christian one, despite borrowing some Christian imagery. Neither is it a materialistic world. Rather, it is demon-haunted. It is a world in which humanity is about to be annihilated in a war between not-all-that-holy angels and definitely-still-wicked demons, with our only hope coming from a slightly tarnished angel and a demon with some embers of good left. God is unreachable, the angels are not entirely righteous and Jesus is just a deceased moral teacher who told us to be kind to each other, rather than the incarnate Son of God returning to judge the living and the dead.

The show plays this setup for laughs, but it is closer to the reality of the pre-Christian pagan experience than we now remember. Pagan religions were often dark and terrifying, positing a spiritual world whose entities were capricious, indifferent or even hostile to humans. And we may expect some of that to return to our culture, as secularization comes with sided of spiritualism and superstition. The retreat of Christianity will not lead to a total triumph of secularism, for many will instead dabble in darker spiritual realms—witchcraft and the occult are now respectable and being promoted in the New York Times.

Still, the comedy of Good Omens inadvertently illustrates the distinctive truths of Christianity. The absence of God, essential for the plot (e.g. angelic moral uncertainty) also offers a strange sort of via negativa. Removing God from active involvement in the story reveals characteristics of God—the shape of what is missing is seen in the impressions it left. The divine silence and absence in Good Omens emphasizes the divine communication and presence that Christianity proclaims.

The authors and showrunners were presumably more concerned with stories, jokes and getting paid than with illuminating any deep truths about religion. Nonetheless, through what they had to remove to write the book and make the show, they reveal the unique claims of Christianity, which are both comforting and uncomfortable. The revelation of a personal God, after all, means responsibility, not before the bureaucratic angels in Good Omens, but before a holy God.

Viewers can, of course, enjoy the show without reflecting on any of these themes. Fans of Pratchett and Gaiman will like it—it is better than any of the adaptations of Pratchett’s Discworld books, of which only Hogfather was any good, and it need not be taken any more seriously than those efforts. However, Good Omens invites contemplation because of the theological changes it has to make for the story to work. There are angels, demons and even a supernatural Bentley, but the divine is absent from this comedy.


If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.


About Nathanael Blake 6 Articles
Nathanael Blake has a PhD in political theory. He lives in Missouri.

10 Comments

  1. ”Pagan religions were often dark and terrifying, positing a spiritual world whose entities were capricious, indifferent or even hostile to humans. And we may expect some of that to return to our culture, as secularization comes with sided of spiritualism and superstition”

    Yes, as so many in our modern age are moving away from secular materialism to wicca and witchcraft, especially the young.

    May God help them

    Friendly fairy never scary
    Bright smile warm sunshine
    Every friend willing to lend
    Your joke she likes the most
    Bright and breezy life is easy
    The perfect way, but never pray
    Changing coat, that’s her joke
    Fairy ring from cowpat you will sing

    Fourteen years old further Connivance does unfold.
    Jumble sale to make a gain, a treasure trove, myself I goad
    Church hall door I have queued before
    First in the queue, pay at the door, others stall,
    Brick-a-brac stall, ahead of the storm,
    Rolls Royce choice, behind complaining voice
    “First in the queue” Old Croaky, her envy I knew
    To me it was just fun, she could have been anyone

    Next jumble sale
    St Chad’s Hall, standing tall
    First in the queue, nothing new
    Behind gentle voice, words of choice
    ‘Sweet dear’, I could hardly hear
    I ‘am getting old’, gentle her tale she told
    Spinning tale, been old, it’s not the same
    No longer can I play the game
    Without goods for my Market Stall the bailiffs will call
    I need help, will a shilling an item tempt
    Ladies silk is all I ask; leave me to the brick -a- brac
    Old croaky having fun
    I was innocent and young
    Silk mark in each undergarment you will find, ‘bear this in mind’
    First in, ladies undergarments, win, win, win
    But seen as sin, sin, sin
    Holding high the silk mark I did spy
    The Bishops wife, possibly beholding such a sight
    Tut and stare, totally unaware
    Full load, smiling old toad
    White hair, cold blue eyed stare
    Now, ‘let me see’ giving a few bob, with glee
    Then! To seal her fun, pocket found, crystal orb
    To one eye to absorb, taking down, she gave me a frown
    Never to see her again, but her Sisters continuing the game,
    Setting every frame, while encouraging shame
    My own load, is more than enough, to make one blush
    Splinter to a plank, this is far more than a prank
    End game, Blood and Shame.

    Only a humble Priesthood/Church can confront this growing evil, as its dark force, will openly mock, vilify and shout its failings ‘from the house tops’ where it will not be possible to hide reality of itself behind an image of perfection, self-righteousness or holiness. And this can only be done in humility, as a humble heart (Church) will never cover its tracks Or hide its short comings, and in doing so confers authenticity (Holiness), as it walks in its own vulnerability/weakness/brokenness in trust/faith before God and mankind. It is a heart (Church) to be trusted, as it ‘dispels’ darkness within its own ego/self, in serving God (Truth) first, before any other.

    Where are the Shepherds with the courage to lead and Walk His Way in humility?

    kevin your brother
    In Christ

  2. The thing missing from this article is how the human characters of Adam and his friends figure into the story. No spoilers, but they are an important part of how the story ends; it is human friendship that saves the world–for now? And I found the witchfinder sub-sub-plot just silly enough for some laughs.

  3. Omens play an important role in Sacred Scripture. For good or for evil. Essentially a sign from above. Gideon mandated to attack the Midianites who ravaged Israel asked God for a sign. And laid out a fleece. God responded twice to Gideon’s demands. Signs are also cause for rebuke by Christ when Pharisees demanded a sign to prove his authenticity. In times of Darkness Christians too frequently seek signs from God rather than rely on faith. Nonetheless God does provide signs. Lourdes, Fatima and the swirling movement of the sun witnessed by thousands among the prominent. Signs may also indicate God’s favor as was the instance when Therese of Lisieux prior to entering the Discalced Carmelite Order asked Our Lord for a sign to affirm her desired mission to save souls. She prayed for the salvation of a notorious murderer sentenced to the guillotine and asked for a sign. The Man who had adamantly refused any offer of spiritual aid from priests suddenly turned to the priest attendant at the scaffold and kissed his crucifix. And of course there’s the lightening strike on the dome of St Peter’s Basilica the day Benedict XVI resigned from the papacy. He remarked that same day it was an omen. For good or perhaps for evil.

    • Addendum: “The divine silence and absence in Good Omens emphasizes the divine communication and presence that Christianity proclaims” (Nath Blake). Blake makes an salient point that indicates what the non believer in his lampooning Christianity in Good Omens wishes to believe [that is not to believe] and what the Christian does believe. Signs [omens] abound from time immemorial. Does God submit reluctantly to Man’s impositions? “Ask for a sign from the LORD your God, whether from the depths of Sheol or the heights of heaven. But Ahaz replied, I will not ask; I will not test the LORD. Then Isaiah said, Hear now, O house of David! Is it not enough to try the patience of men? Will you try the patience of my God as well?” (Isaiah 7: 11-13). Isaiah would have us believe not, at least not always. A sign was then prophesied the greatest of all called by Simeon A Sign of Contradiction (Lk 2:34). So Men seek signs Prophets and Angels give them.

      • Peter ( Fr Peter Morello), when we pray we often ask for guidance (A sign) to enlighten our understanding and we are often answered in many different ways, as in hearing a Sermon, or in our relationship with others or in a visible or sensory instant, that give enlightenment to the problem, so yes “ Men seek signs” and “Prophets and Angels ‘have’ given them”.

        We all look for guidance when we encounter difficult circumstances and it would be fair to say that many of us may ask for Gods help and look for a sign of encouragement. As in opening the page of a holy book, that contain the Gospels (etc) and then directing one’s eyes to His Word. But often when we do this, His Word does not seem to incorporate our particular need and the tendency then is to jump to another page/section within the book. I have had the tendency to do this myself and I suspect also that many others do so. But in doing so I have sinned (Offended God) as I have acted like a presumptuous child, in displaying lack of trust/faith before our Father in heaven and this self-will infringes upon this teaching.

        “You shall not tempt the Lord your God”

        It must be noted that contact with Gideon had already been initiated by God when he made his ’demands’, possibly due to lack of faith.
        I am sure that you would agree with me that we can only approach God in humility and trust, when we pray and ask for guidance/assistance or His intercession, to teach or encourage another to approach Him in any other way would be sinful.

        kevin your brother
        In Christ

          • Thank you Peter ( Fr Peter Morello) for your comment I was so pleased to receive it, as it is so rare for anyone to agree with me, although you gave me encouragement over a year ago in regards to my claim that the true Divine Mercy Image is an image of Broken Man, the only concrete one that I had received, after over fifteen years of announcing this declaration. Which I will always be grateful for.

            Sincerely
            kevin your brother
            In Christ

  4. It just confirms I am so right to avoid Amazon Prime. Why pay $150 a year to be insulted like this? Why even bother to watch this dreck?

  5. My immediate concern related to Neil Gaiman who has been introduced to our (Catholic) youth as an engaging writer of fiction (The Graveyard Book). While “entertaining,” in the absence of a solid Catholic foundation and knowledgeable family, many youth are subject to derailment of genuine understanding and faith. Gaiman–at best a self described agnostic–is hardly an ally of the Catholic family, and in this day and age, all such caution should be explicitly expressed in any review. After all, the devil knows well how to weaponize “humor” to achieve his goals even subtly.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

All comments posted at Catholic World Report are moderated. While vigorous debate is welcome and encouraged, please note that in the interest of maintaining a civilized and helpful level of discussion, comments containing obscene language or personal attacks—or those that are deemed by the editors to be needlessly combative or inflammatory—will not be published. Thank you.


*