Last month we talked about Settings, one of the foundation stones of role playing, the worlds in which we play. We could go on and talk about characters, plots, deities, philosophies—but in addressing settings, we opened an important issue that we didn’t address. What do you do about Bad Things, and is it appropriate for Christians to think of these?
At first glance, the answer would seem to be no. “[W]hatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things.” (Phil. 4:8, UNASB) Should we be dwelling on evil that has never happened, perhaps which never would or even could happen?
Yet if we fail to allow that there could be anything bad in our game worlds, then there is no conflict in our stories. We need evil villains so that our characters can be great heroes; or in the absence of such villains, we need catastrophes, disasters, destructive beasts—there has to be something bad in our worlds, or there’s nothing to tell.
(In theory, the world could be entirely good, and the characters bad—but it comes to the same problem. In order to have interest in the game, you need conflict in the story; and to have conflict in the story, you need something bad in the world.)
It seems necessary for us to be able to think about evil and consider bad things happening in order to tell stories. Even to tell Bible stories, we have to speak of the sin of Sodom, the destructive wrath of God poured out in the flood, the famine in Egypt, the evils of the kings of Israel—bad things are necessary for good stories.
But should we ask how bad? Should there be a limit on how evil or destructive any one thing can be, or on how many evil and destructive things can exist together? Should that limit be based perhaps on that which God has allowed in our reality? In this case, it would be wrong to imagine blood-sucking vampires, or destructive fire-breathing dragons, or evil sorcerers throwing lightning from their fingers, or death stars capable of demolishing entire planets—because such evils do not exist in reality. To have invented such things, even to have considered them, is to have thought about evils beyond anything that is.
Yet in some way having such evils only magnifies that which is good. The dragon is ultimately slain by the virtuous knight, the vampire by the holy priest. The sorcerer comes to his bitter end, victim of his own plots, and the arrogance of the captain of the Goliath death star allows it to be destroyed by a David whose small stone finds the critical spot. Greater evils allow for greater victories.
Then perhaps the limit on how much evil we can imagine is only that we must be able to imagine a greater good able to defeat it. The dragon may exist as long as the knight can slay it, the vampire may prey on the weak as long as the priest can destroy it, and the world can face total destruction, but only if there is a messiah to lead it to redemption. Perhaps it doesn’t matter how bad are the things we imagine, so long as the powers of good are greater and the happy ending is assured.
But life is not always like that. The good do not always win, in the short term. Sometimes evil is overwhelming, and sometimes the evil that is overwhelming continues for years, lifetimes, even centuries. To say that we cannot imagine a world in which good ever loses is to say that we cannot imagine the world as it is. Sometimes evil overwhelms for a season, and sometimes that season outlasts the lives of many who look for good.
Is there a limit to the amount of evil men can conceive? Is there a limit to that which Christians can contemplate? To be as wise as serpents yet as innocent as doves is a cryptic calling; but it seems to suggest that those who would be righteous must understand evil in a way that only good can, to see through it and know it for what it is instead of how it appears. To do so, sometimes we must consider how evil the world seems, and sometimes we may have to go beyond that to consider how evil it might have been were it not for the grace of God within it.
The Problem of Evil, that great philosophical debate about the goodness of God, asks how the world can contain so many bad things if God is good. But we fail to ask the Problem of Goodness: how can so evil a world contain so much that is good if God is not good? We lack perspective; we only know what we know. We cannot know if there is some evil that God has forbidden, some line that the world will never cross. But if the world were so constituted that the worst thing that ever happened in it was the occasional hangnail, someone would be asking how a good God can permit hangnails. By considering how evil the world might have been, we understand evil better, and we also understand goodness better.
Still, how much evil any individual can contemplate before it is harmful is a very individual matter. For some it is enough to know that the Lord is above the storms, and almighty, so much so that whatever rages or could be imagined to rage in this or any world falls to insignificance in the light of His goodness. Others cannot go there, easily driven to despair by seeing even a glimpse of the evils of the world. We could say that their concept of God is too small; but perhaps it is that their compassion is greater, and they cannot bear seeing the pain even of imaginary people. Each should weigh that for himself.
And as we contemplate evil, let us do so with the knowledge that good is greater; and let us dwell the more on that which is good.
This article was originally published in August 2001 on the Christian Gamers Guild’s website. The entire series remains available at its original URL.