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.
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