God and fictional worlds

The hopelessness of fictional atheism

Sometimes TV show writers have a habit of torturing their shows’ characters for dramatic effect. Especially at the end of a season, there is a tendency to have something horrible happen to keep the audience interested. I don’t mind it when the cliffhanger is action-adventurey and leaves the protagonists in great danger. When it leaves the protagonists in emotional misery, though, it can really bother me.

Why does a fictional character’s distress cause me distress? I think it’s because a good story is supposed to be telling the truth about life. Even if the character and plot details are made up, they are made up in such a way as to say something about how things really are. To open myself up to a story is to let myself believe in its deeper truth. When writers invent tragedy just to play on my emotions, it angers me, but it also causes a lot of turmoil for me.

One of my children suggests I just invent a new ending, if I don’t like the old one. The reason I have trouble with that is that is seems somehow dishonest. When a writer invents a world, he gets to make the rules for it. To re-make the events of the story is just to pretend something about the characters that isn’t real within that story. It wouldn’t be appropriate to imagine away real-life tragedies; neither is it okay to imagine away fictional ones.

In real life, when I am faced with suffering, I cling to God for comfort. I rest in His unswerving love and sovereign control of everything that was going on. Even when it is people around me who are suffering, and they don’t believe in God, I can still take solace myself in the fact of God’s essential goodness.

In stories, though, it has often seemed wrong to do that, if there is no God in the story. If the writers have described a world without God, it seems as though in order to take the story seriously I should read it with that in mind. Atheist fictional worlds, properly interpreted, are worlds without God. The characters in it are in that sense without hope.

Or so it seemed to me up until recently.

The last time I got really upset about the random tormenting of a favorite character, I went for a walk to mull things over. As I was asking God for insight into my distress and how I should respond, an odd thought from philosophy passed through my head.

God exists in all possible worlds

Time for a quick detour.

First, there are these things that philosophers call possible worlds. In the twentieth century, philosophers struggled to pin down the precise meaning of statements like “X might have happened” or “If Y had happened, then Z would have happened.” They invented a discipline called modal logic, the logic of possibility and necessity.

As part of defining modal logic, they appealed to the concept of a possible world. A possible world is any way in which the world could have been, logically speaking. Possible worlds include those that are very much like ours, differing only in a detail or so, as well as those whose in which the universe operates according to completely different laws.

If something is possible, it means that it is true in some possible world. If something is necessary, it means it is true in every possible world.

Second, there is this strange proof for God’s existence known as the ontological proof. At first glance, it seems to try and prove that God exists from the definition of God, which seems pretty goofy. Even most theists reject the validity of the ontological proof.

In recent decades, however, a new version of the ontological proof based on modal logic has arisen which is a little harder to refute and perhaps more plausible. I won’t go into the details here, but it hinges on the idea that God exists necessarily. That is, God is the kind of being for whom it is impossible not to exist. Which means that God exists in all possible worlds.

So there you have it. God exists in all possible worlds. That means, he exists in any possible fictional world. So God is there after all!

Is this for real?

Well, sort of.

First, I am not sure the ontological proof works. It doesn’t matter, though. I don’t need to start from the mere definition of a necessarily existing God and get to a God who really exists. Rather, I start from the assumption that God already exists, and exists necessarily, and then work out the implications of that.

Second, possible worlds don’t actually exist. They aren’t worlds in the sense of being locations in space-time. A possible world is merely a set of logically consistent statements describing how things could be. Take any statement about how things are: “The sky is blue” or “The sky is green” for example. Add as many other statements as you like. Work out all the logical implications of all the statements, and you get a possible world, but calling it a world doesn’t mean we should think of it as being in any particular place. “World” is being used metaphorically.

Since possible worlds don’t exist anywhere specific, saying that God exists in a possible world doesn’t have anything to do with Him being anywhere in particular. Rather, it means one of the implications of any set of logically consistent statements is that God exists.

Fictional worlds are the same as possible worlds in this respect, though. When we say that a story takes place in a fictional world, we don’t mean that it happens at any particular place in space-time. (Even when the story is set in a certain time and place, as in a historical novel, we only mean that the story’s setting matches the real time and place; we don’t mean that the events in the story actually happened in history.)

In fact, the fictional world of a story, to the degree that it is logically consistent, is a possible world. What does it mean that God exists in it? It means that the implications of the rules of the world include the existence of God. Every story carried to its logical conclusion would end up stating that God exists. Worlds in which atheism is explicitly stated are worlds which are, strictly speaking, logically contradictory, whether or not the author recognizes it.

In other words, I am free to imagine God being a part of every story, without worrying that I am not taking the author seriously.

With that settled, I can return with a clear conscience to picturing things in terms of worlds. Every story describes a world. Within that world, God is there, even if no one else in the story thinks so.

That’s kind of cool. I love the thought that God is so omnipresent that he even shows up in fiction!

Where can I go from Your Spirit?
Or where can I flee from Your presence?

If I ascend to heaven, You are there;
If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, You are there.

If I take the wings of the dawn,
If I dwell in the remotest part of the sea,

Even there Your hand will lead me,
And Your right hand will lay hold of me. — Psalm 139:7-10

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