Good Omens and the problem of the end of the world

By Charlee New 20 Feb 2020

If there’s one thing most Christians in the UK are longing to talk about with those around them, it’s probably not the end of the world. In fact, discussing the apocalypse feels like the worst (or perhaps the most distasteful) evangelistic strategy.

You want to make honest connections with friends and neighbours about the questions of life, meaning and God. You don’t want to be the person wandering the streets wearing a sandwich board that proclaims: ‘The End is Nigh!’

And yet, the BBC is currently airing Amazon Prime’s Good Omens, an adaptation of the 1990 novel by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. It’s a comedic take on the Christian view of the end of the world: except the antichrist is accidentally swapped at birth and raised by a nice, quiet English couple and the angel and demon sent to supervise him decide to join forces to prevent the coming end times. It plays irreverently with Christianity, and for some Christians that’s enough to finish the conversation; in the US, a petition aptly titled ‘Tell Amazon to Cancel Blasphemous Good Omens Series’ gained over 20,000 signatures. While there is a whole other article that could be written about Christian engagement with contemporary media, I’ll just say this: it makes no sense to loudly insist that the West is built on Christian foundations, while also loudly insisting that nobody except us is allowed to reflect creatively on these shared cultural narratives. There are other ways to respond than shutting down stories. I’d agree with Jaclyn Parrish that Good Omens:

‘…is probably the most interesting and directly theological television show since The Good Place. This is not to say these shows are theologically accurate; just that they are asking theological questions in interesting, often entertaining ways.’

And the most interesting and challenging theological question for Christians posed by the show is this: what do we really believe about the end of the world?

No more old bookstores, no more fine wines?

The angel Aziraphale and demon Crowley have been on earth too long. When they get the call that the antichrist is coming, they can’t help but mourn all that they’re going to lose. Aziraphale loves haute cuisine and fine wines; Crowley loves his vintage Bentley. ‘What about dolphins?’, they ask each other, ‘What about the whales? What happens to them?’ Any bibliophile would be hard-pressed not to feel with Aziraphale (who runs a rare books store) when Crowley tells him, emphatically, that the end of the world means, ‘No more old bookstores.’

While there are quite a lot of Christians dealing with situations like chronic illness, long-term suffering or persecution who are longing for the age to come, Aziraphale and Crowley give voice to a secret whisper that lies in the hearts of many others. It goes something like this: Jesus, I’m sure that my faith means I do want you to return, but I’d also quite like it if I could live here, on the earth, to a ripe old age, enjoy the changing seasons and the company of friends. As much as suffering is a reality, there are occasions (more frequent in some lives than in others) where the beauty of creation or the love of a neighbour causes us to echo in our hearts the words of Anne of Green Gables:

‘Dear old world’, she murmured, ‘You are very lovely, and I am glad to be alive in you.’

Aziraphale, Crowley, Anne and most human beings experience some delight in the things of this current world; we love this diverse material creation, which includes animals and cities and landscapes. We’re all familiar with the caricature (and it is, indeed, a caricature) of the hellfire preacher who shouts about the coming destruction of this hateful and wicked age. This is the extreme end of a particular belief about the end of the world, but in its lesser form it will be recognisable to many—it’s the ‘belief that the aim of a Christian life is to be found in another world, which one enters by the act of dying.’ [1] This is the kind of theology the culture has heard, and is reflecting back to us through a show like Good Omens: a theology where this world doesn’t matter. But, as Lesslie Newbigin wrote in his essays on the kingdom of God, this thinking:

 …. is untrue to the whole idea of Christian salvation. It centres attention upon individual redemption out of the world rather than upon redemption of the world.’ [2]

This means that when we feel the goodness and glory in creation, when ‘the heavens declare the glory of God’ (Ps. 19:1) we can understand that in the end we won’t be taken from this world, but somehow this whole world will be redeemed: for God so loved the world (John 3:16). Until we can really believe that the material variety and goodness of Creation will find its fulfilment at the end of history—that there might possibly be something like bookstores or fine wine or feasting—then we will struggle to articulate the good news of resurrection and new creation.

In all this, we must get serious about affirming goodness. Good Omens challenges an anti-materialist view of the new creation, but it is also weak on its vision of goodness. Or rather, it paints Christian goodness (through its portrayal of angels) as unkind piety and vapid sentimentality. The demon Crowley reminds Aziraphale that hell has all the really first-rate composers; and what does heaven have? The Sound of Music on repeat. Later, when Aziraphale meets the angel Gabriel, he’s reminded to ‘climb every mountain’ and the poor Aziraphale visibly winces. It’s a weak vision of the incredible joy of God’s goodness, turned into the same (lovely, but slightly cheesy) musical on repeat.

Is there a way for us to talk about Christian eschatology that both acknowledges brokenness and affirms goodness? I’ll finish with a story. A child once asked, ‘Will there be ice cream in heaven?’, and the parent replied, ‘There may not be ice cream as you know it, but I think that everything you love about ice cream you’ll find in the age to come.’


[1] Lesslie Newbigin, Signs Amid the Rubble: The purposes of God in human history (2003), p.23.

[2] Ibid., emphasis added.

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