Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and the Problem of Evil

Certain passages haunt. Some books are remembered for first lines or opening paragraphs. You’ve invariably heard many people quote the first line of Melville’s Moby Dick. A perennial quotable is the first paragraph of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. Others often sample soliloquies from some of Shakespeare’s plays. But some novels are filled with certain passages that haunt. One cannot shake them. Why? It’s because they make the universal concrete and particular. They capture the soul’s longings. Faulkner said the best writers write about “the human heart in conflict with itself.” One of my professors from many years ago taught us that the best writers of literature dealt with the “imaginative concretization of universal themes.” Sound too sophisticated? It’s not. The bottom line is that the best writers capture what it is to be human and to wrestle with God, with one another, with death, with love and heartbreak, with friendship and loneliness, with ourselves. For me, McCarthy’s The Road exemplifies many passages that I’d rate alongside certain works of Shakespeare, Milton, and T.S. Eliot. Soth-1 much has been written about McCarthy’s fiction, and about The Road in particular, that I’m almost loath to comment further, but as I wrote above, certain passages haunt. The question that concerns me is this: Have we followed the logic of how we answer the questions the passage raises? It’s a passage dealing with ultimate issues of God, evil, and meaning.

Here is the context: A father and son are laboring to survive. The adjective used so often to describe The Road is “postapocalyptic.” There has been some kind of catastrophe or series of catastrophes. The sky is gray. The normal means of technology are gone. The few survivors are reduced to primitive scavenging and foraging. A father and son speak cryptically about their ominous and precarious state. The son begins the conversation:


Can I ask you something?

Yes. Of course you can.

What would you do if I died?

If you died I would want to die too.

So you could be with me?

Yes. So I could be with you.


He lay listening to the water drip in the woods. Bedrock, this. The cold and the silence. The ashes of the late world carried on the bleak and temporal winds to and fro in the void. Carried forth and scattered and carried forth again. Everything uncoupled from its shoring. Unsupported in the ashen air. Sustained by a breath, trembling and brief. If only my heart were stone.

He woke before dawn and watched the gray day break. Slow and half opaque. He rose while the boy slept and pulled on his shoes and wrapped in his blanket he walked out through the trees. He descended into a gryke in the stone and there he crouched coughing and he coughed for a long time. Then he just knelt in the ashes. He raised his face to the paling day. Are you there? He whispered. Will I see you at the last? Have you a neck by which to throttle you? Have you a heart? Damn you eternally have you a soul? Oh God, he whispered. Oh God. (11-12)


No quotation marks. Just naked emotion in staccato questions and answers between a boy and his father. Do we sense the love, the sacrifice the father has for the son, and vice versa? If there were separation, it’d be better to die.

Then the father is apart from the son in the next narrative paragraph and he (the father) petitions God. I don’t see how the context could read otherwise. Observe the imagery and language. Ashes, cold, silence, opaqueness, a cycle of tragedy (Eccl. 1). Their tragic life is a breath (Job 7:7: Ps 144:4). The father almost curses and yet petitions the God he’s not sure exists. This is sublimity.

Who does this remind us of? Job. He endured unimaginable suffering (deaths of his entire family; loss of his wealth and property; flawed counsel from his friends; boils on his skin; and apparent abandonment by God). And yet.

I have read The Road several times and yet I’m reading it again. Why? Because I think McCarthy puts his finger on the problem of evil, but does not preach the answer. He leaves it to astute readers to follow the logical outflow of their worldview.

Evil is unexplainable in a naturalistic worldview (where all that exists is material). Simply put, there is no answer in a secular/naturalistic worldview to the problem of evil. In fact, evil is not (for the materialist) a real thing.

In the biblical worldview, evil is real but explainable. Suffering is real, but explainable. Man’s tragic state is real, but explainable. The Fall was real, but so is God. The father in McCarthy’s The Road sacrifices himself, as it were, for his son. The son is left on his own to seek whomever else might be “good.”

In the biblical worldview, however, the triune God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) sent the Son for the world. Rather than a father who petitions a (silent?) heaven for answers, history records that God sent forth his Son to seek and save the lost. Tragedy is not the necessary endgame. Tragedy can lead us to look up and see that Jacob’s ladder has been extended (Gen 28:12; Jn 1:51) and trod upon by the Son. And rather than tragedy, redemption. The road ends, in the biblical worldview, in restoration.



Thanksgiving, a Pop Song by the Police, and Your Mind: Worldview in Microcosm

“When the world is running down/You make the best of what’s still around.” That’s the refrain in a pop song from a very popular band, The Police. That line reveals a lot about the theology and worldview expressed in the tune of the same name. This week, many Americans will celebratthe Thanksgiving. What Americans believe about God will be evidenced in what we do/don’t do this week. Will we pray or not? Will we express thankfulness? To whom? To ourselves? To our predecessors? To our nation? Our military? Why? These questions go to the heart of the matter. If we are thankful, does that thankfulness not assume there is someone to whom to be thankful? It personalizes the act of thanksgiving. Ought we to be thankful to someone? How you answer that question reveals much. Ought implies a moral imperative. It is a way of saying, there is a right standard, a way man ought to follow. But we’re in a day when many will gather together and be at a loss as to whom they should thank. In other words, they’re cut off from the author of life (God), the only One to whom we ought to be supremely grateful.

Antithesis. Literally, the term means “against/opposed to another argument/idea.” Does that sound too sophisticated of a term? I hope not. It’s simple. In informal language, it’s the other side of the coin. It’s a way of saying this vs. that. This way, not that way. God or Satan. Good vs. evil. Justice vs. injustice. Truth vs. lies.

Antithesis is a mark of thinking. Thinking conceptually is predicated upon one’s thinking via antithesis. In other words, the person who cannot make distinctions cannot properly be said to be thinking conceptually. Here’s the upshot: either we’re in a theistic world (where God is sovereign Creator and we’re His creatures) or we’re not. It’s one or the other. Either we are to thank the God who is, who has spoken, who upholds all things by His sovereign power, or we are cosmic accidents who cannot even begin to explain why things exist, why we’re here, why morality is not an illusion, or how nothing gave rise to everything, all the while undirected.

What does that have to do with Thanksgiving? A lot. Ever had this experience? A family gathers in the kitchen or dining room, and someone is called on to offer a prayer of thanksgiving. But do we think about that? Whom are we thanking? It does not make sense to thank randomness/chaos/nothingness. Are our talents our own? Is our strength our own? Is our wealth our own? Our health? Are we in control of seedtime and harvest? Did we control the gifts of our children?

This is just where we need to understand antithesis. If we do not come to terms with the concept of giving thanks, we are eschewing intellectual courage and honesty. This morning, I listened to a fine sermon by my pastor from Psalm 16. It was about, among other things, how believers recognize that we have no ultimate good apart from God. David wrote, “Preserve me, O God, for in you I take refuge. I say to the LORD, “Your are my Lord; I have no good apart from you.” (Psalm 16:1-2, ESV). David recognized that he was to thank God. Why? Because God is the author of life; God is the fount of blessing. In short, life without God is unthinkable. This is the perfect example of why it’s crucial for us to think via antithesis. Either God or an idol. God or Baal/idolatry. Theism or atheism. Pushed logically, how can the atheist justify being thankful, if he/she believes he came into being accidentally, cannot explain purpose, meaning, or origins? Why ought the atheist be thankful if there’s no one to thank?

Was Sting right? If the world is running down, should we just try to make the best of what’s still around? That’s pretty sad. What would it take for you to consider that the reason the world is running down is because we live this side of Genesis 3? What if this world is running down because we are moral rebels from God, trying to cover our sin? What if the world is running down because the whole creation is groaning from shaking its fist in the face of the God who loves the creation enough to take on flesh and come for all who will repent and believe upon Jesus?

The antithesis is this: either God is, and we ought to honor Him as such or we’re on our own, and the jig is up. Either God has spoken through creation, through Scripture, through conscience, through design, and through Christ and His resurrection, or He hasn’t.

The apogee of this antithesis finds many illustrations in literature, but perhaps none is more familiar than Macbeth’s lines: “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player/That struts and frets his hour upon the stage/And then is heard no more. It is a tale/Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury/Signifying nothing” (5.5.25-28).

Is life (is your life) a tapestry woven by God or a tale told by an idiot? This is why thinking antithetically is crucial. Let us think with honesty, with logical consistency, with humility, but let us think and then act with conviction. And, yes, Happy Thanksgiving.