A couple of years ago I sat at the bedside of a young man dying of cancer in order to record the final weeks of his life for a book about his remarkable journey. A 33-year-old surgeon, there was no one more grounded about dying than Jared, but also no one more “faithful” about the goodness of God in the midst of such a dark time. Jared knew he was going to die – in fact, when we first met he had self-diagnosed how long he had left to live, and he was spot on, almost to the day. And yet, at the same time, Jared prayed daily for healing, right up until the end. He wasn’t afraid of dying, knew that it was certain, but he held out hope for a miracle, for God to step in and do something at the last moment to prevent his short life from ending too soon.
You may be familiar with the term Deus ex machina (pronounced Day-us eks Mack-inuh). It’s a Latin term that describes the idea of a miraculous, against-the-odds intervention of a higher power when all seems lost. It translates to “God from the machine” and originated in Greek tragic theatre, when a god would literally appear on stage via a mechanical device for the dramatic, edge-of-your-seat rescue of the hero from certain death. These days we’re most likely to see the Deus ex machina in superhero movies, and the fact so many of them get made should tell us the theatrical device is as popular now as ever. Why? Probably because the world feels a little chaotic at times, and we love the idea that there’s a higher power that will rescue us in the face of certain harm. How cool would it be if, whenever we faced danger, or even death, a figure like Ironman or Thor would swoop in and save us, just as Superman does for Lois Lane.
Jared didn’t believe in this sort of God, though he acknowledged that many Christians do. Jared also knew that for many Christians, when God fails to be the Deus ex machina they have believed in, their very belief structures come unhinged. People who believe in the God of the Bible have to wrestle with the fact that the Bible doesn’t depict God this way either – plenty of our biblical heroes suffer terrible things without God rescuing them. Even the Apostle Paul had to face up to being told he wouldn’t be healed of his “thorn in the flesh”, but would have to be satisfied with God’s “grace”.
But then again, there are some stories that read very much like the Deus ex machina. Moses at the Red Sea, for example. Even Abraham and Isaac at the moment of sacrifice.
So what’s it to be? Is the God of the Bible a Deus ex machina or not?
One of my favourite moments in the first episode of The Aetherlight: Chronicles of the Resistance, is a Deus ex machina type moment. Without giving away any spoilers, the mysterious Resistance leader, the Scarlet Man, appears from nowhere to save the day, and it’s an awesome thing. The way I feel inside when he shows up reminds me that I too want a Scarlet Man, a guardian angel, a super hero – a Deus ex machina – as much as anyone.
The Aetherlight isn’t saying this is what God is like, of course, but it does leave open the door for such amazing moments to happen, acknowledging that the God of the Bible is free to move in and out of our storylines as God pleases – while also reminding us how awesome it is when it happens.
My friend Jared lived his final days in that place of tension that seems to accompany faith that’s real – holding out hope for healing, for divine intervention, but facing up to the reality of his death with grace. In that place, he never once doubted God’s goodness. Perhaps faith, rather than expecting God to be the Deus ex machina of Greek tragedy, actually calls us to live continually in that middle ground – embracing the reality of our world and all its fragility, even when it’s our own fragility that is under assault, while also rejoicing at God’s intervention in our stories whenever we are privileged enough to witness it.