“They will pass through the land, greatly distressed and hungry. And when they are hungry, they will be enraged and will speak contemptuously against their king and their God, and turn their faces upward.  And they will look to the earth, but behold, distress and darkness, the gloom of anguish. And they will be thrust into thick darkness.”
(Isaiah 8:21-22)

These chilling words from Isaiah were spoken over 2,500 years ago. They describe a group of people who have pushed God out of their world—rejected his authority and banished him from the public square—and who are realising that there are consequences for what they have done. Isaiah describes them as having become like wild animals, roaming through the land, distressed and hungry. In their suffering they turn their faces upward and complain to the God they have rejected. Then, hearing nothing from him, they look around and realise there is no one on earth who can help them either. There is no safety. Utter darkness is just around the corner. Everyone is in the same boat—struggling to exist in a world filled with distress, darkness, gloom and anguish.

Godlessness Now and Then

Now, as I have said, these words are more than 2,500 old. And yet they are strangely relevant in our world today. We too find ourselves in a culture which is furiously pushing God away. We tell ourselves that advances in science and technology mean we don’t need an interventionist God. All the mysteries of the world have been solved. God is irrelevant. More than that—he is unnecessary. As pastor–turned-celebrity-atheist Dan Barker puts it: [1]

Millions—tens of millions—of people on this planet, live happy lives. Productive lives. Moral lives. Purposeful lives. Lives of hope and meaning, without deluding ourselves that there are invisible personalities populating some supernatural realm. We are quite happy, thank you, without that belief.

Many would instinctively nod along with Barker: our neighbours, our work colleagues, our siblings, our best friends, our children. Barker’s argument seems so reasonable. You can be quite happy without believing in God can’t you?

Celebrating Misery

But here’s what I have begun doing when this question comes up in my conversations. I invite the person I’m in conversation with to think about what’s happening in films and television. Because these just don’t line up with the “we’re quite happy, thank you, without that belief” argument

The movies and TV shows that are winning the awards these days have a gloomy bleakness about them that just wasn’t there in the movies and TV shows twenty years ago. Manchester By The Sea, for example, was nominated for six Academy Awards last year and it won two. It is a great movie. One of the best I’ve seen in a long time. And yet it’s the story of a man who has endured the most tragic ordeal. His life has been irreparably scarred by something horrific that he feels he is responsible for. He is wounded. He is haunted by death. And he is incapable of engaging in any sort of relationship, or even with life itself in a healthy way. He is the opposite of happy.

Then there’s Mad Men. My wife and I watched two seasons of it on Netflix a few years ago. But we couldn’t bring ourselves to go any further. It is just so unrelentingly sad. None of the characters is happy. Each of them is, to borrow Isaiah’s language, passing through life, greatly distressed and hungry. They are all desperately trying to fill the emptiness and loneliness of their lives with career, drugs, affairs, alcohol (so much alcohol!), possessions, money and power. None of it works, of course.

And yet the show ran for ninety-seven episodes over nine seasons and has been called the greatest TV show of all time by people who know these things.

An Unchanging Need

I think the popularity of stories like Manchester By The Sea and Mad Men proves that even though a lot has changed since Isaiah wrote his prophecy, humanity’s need for God is just the same.

Even though a lot has changed since Isaiah wrote his prophecy, humanity’s need for God is just the same.

The distress, darkness, gloom, anguish and the hunger which Isaiah foresaw is still with us—and for exactly the same reason: we’ve pushed God away. We’ve banished God from the public square. And as a consequence, just like our ancient forebears, we’ve become unstable and insecure and lonely and afraid. We’ve lost our sense of place and our connection to the transcendent. And we’ve become hungry to get it back – even though we would probably never admit it.

The Canadian Philosopher Charles Taylor speaks of our age as “haunted” by the divine. I like that description. It tells me that even when we think we’ve got rid of God—even when we tell ourselves he’s no longer necessary—there remains, deep down in us all a feeling of need for him. That’s why awards get handed out to Manchester By The Sea and Mad Men. The sad and empty characters in those stories echo a sadness and an emptiness that exists in all of us.

The Light in the Gloom

This is all terribly depressing and not the kind of thing we usually want to read at Christmas time. But there is hope. In chapter 9 Isaiah goes on to speak about a person who will bring light into our world of darkness: some time, off in the future, the God Israel has pushed away will re-enter his broken creation.

“The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.”
(Isaiah 9:2)

Isaiah is looking forward to a day when the darkness and the fear and the distress and the hunger will all disappear. A day is coming when someone from outside our world will enter into our world. And he will bring the light of life with him.

Our attempts to exclude God from the public square will fail. The God we have pushed away will refuse to take no for an answer.

For unto us a child is born. Unto us a son is given.

And the darkness will be pushed back. And light will begin to seep back into the creation.

Images: unsplash.com (top); still from Manchester by the sea (body)

[1] See his address to the Oxfor Union here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=btJazTimH4M