Thursday, March 24, 2005

A ‘Eucatastrophe’ of Biblical Proportions

Life is regularly marked by catastrophes; sudden calamities or disasters that are marked by a sudden change of events from good to very bad. An earthquake or hurricane or other natural disaster is an example where peace and tranquility are suddenly interrupted and turned toward chaos and confusion. J.R.R. Tolkien, the author of the popular “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, made the suggestion that the English language was lacking for a word to describe the opposite of ‘catastrophe.’ Like many other antonym word-pairs—friendly and unfriendly, difficult and easy, clean and dirty—Tolkien believed there should be a word for the opposite of ‘catastrophe.’ If catastrophe describes the sudden turn of events from good to evil, then what word describes a sudden turn of events from evil to good? So Tolkien proposed the word ‘eucatastrophe,’ adding the prefix ‘eu’ which means ‘good’ in Greek, to ‘kata’ which means ‘down or against’, and ‘strephein’ which means ‘to turn’. So why did Tolkien think we needed such a word?

In his trilogy the “Lord of the Rings”, the final book contained just such an event—a sudden turn from evil to good. The moment when Frodo stood at Mount Doom, ready to destroy the Ring that had brought so much evil upon the land, things looked to be at their very worst. Great armies of evil marched against the beleaguered band of men and the creature Gollum seemed to have gotten back his ‘Precious’ (the Ring) just at the moment when it was to be destroyed. All hope appeared to be lost. Evil appeared to have taken the upper hand, and soon would overthrow the last remnants of good. Tyranny was just a step away. But in this moment of despair, what Tolkien termed a ‘eucatastrophe’ took place. A sudden and dramatic turning of events from evil to good, as Frodo won out over Gollum and the Ring was finally destroyed, marking the end of Sauron and his evil forces. Victory was snatched from the jaws of defeat, and the good had prevailed! Peace and tranquility would be restored, and life was again free from the threat of imminent evil.

The moviemakers of the recent film tell us that what shaped Tolkien’s whole notion of ‘eucatastrophe’ was what he considered to be the greatest ‘eucatastrophe’ of all human history: the crucifixion of Jesus. There at the cross 2,000 years ago was the epitome of what Tolkien envisioned as a ‘eucatastrophe’. What greater example could be given of a sudden turn of events from evil to good? One might describe it as a ‘eucatastrophe’ of Biblical proportions. Things looked to be at their very worst, as the events unfolded that Good Friday. Jesus, truly a Righteous and Innocent man, was brutally beaten and whipped, with crowds of mockers gathered to scorn Him and cry accusations and clamoring for His death. A fearful Pontius Pilate was unwilling to uphold justice, and the bloodlust of the angry mobs could only be sated by Jesus’ crucifixion. Jesus’ frightened followers despaired to understand the meaning of all this, as the Messiah whom God had promised, and who had shown Himself to be God’s own Son, was now given a death sentence. The torturous death by crucifixion seemed to be the worst turn of events imaginable. All hope appeared to be lost. Evil appeared to have taken the upper hand, and soon would overthrow the last remnants of good. And beneath the visible events lay the deeper horror of the sin that Christ bore. Satan must have been gleefully dancing around, thinking that he had finally made an end of Jesus.

But in this very moment of despair and evil came about the most remarkable and sudden turn of events from evil to good. Though not immediately apparent to the observers of Jesus death, a ‘eucatastrophe’ was taking place. By his death Jesus destroyed the oppressive evil of sin, death, and the devil, and suddenly shock and awe fell upon Satan and his demons. They had been fooled! The death of Jesus was not their victory, but God’s victory! By Christ’s death on the cross He delivered the fatal blow to Satan’s evil empire, by striking at the very heart of Satan’s power. “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8b). And when the Victorious Christ descended into hell to declare His victory, He was untouchable, immune from any harm by the defeated Satan. And this whole remarkable turn of events from evil to good finally began to be apparent to Jesus’ followers when He was Resurrected from the dead on the Third Day! In Jesus Life had truly conquered Death. “The strife is o’er, the battle done; Now is the Victor’s triumph won! Now be the song of praise begun. Alleluia!” (LBW 135). We live our lives in joy at this triumphal Easter News: Christ has arisen!

And through Jesus death and resurrection, that phenomenal ‘eucatastrophe’, we now share in the benefits of His victory. Forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation are ours by faith. And though in Adam we shall all die, so also in Christ we shall all live! (1 Cor. 15:22). As St. Paul says, “But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Cor. 15:23-26). So each in our order, we will one day join Christ in eternal life. But in the mean time, Jesus continues to fight on our behalf, warring against the spiritual powers and authorities until at the Last Day, death will finally be destroyed for good, and we will join Jesus in the eternal Kingdom of Glory.


Andrew said...

Its a long story of how I got to this particular blog, but anyhow..I am also a Confessional Lutheran who will be studying to be a Pastor, starting next year when I begin the Pre-Sem program at CUNE.

Maybe, if we all start using eucatastrophe perhaps we could make it a word--I mean they added "McJob" to the dictionary; if "McJob" is worthy of a place in the dictionay, certainly eucatastrophe is as well!

I throughouly enjoyed the post. As a parishoner I enjoy it when my Pastor uses tangible examples when proclaiming the Word of God.

God's Blessings to you as you continue your education.

God's Peace through Jesus,
simul justus et peccator

wildboar said...


Great post! At Concordia, Irvine, Dr. Rosenbladt would often use the word "Eucatastrophe." We actually studied the essay you alluded to. Good stuff.

Josh Schneider said...

Andrew, I wasn't aware of "McJob" until you pointed it out. I looked it up on and found this definition: "n. Slang
A job, usually in the retail or service sector, that is low paying, often temporary, and offers minimal or no benefits or opportunity for promotion"
Thanks for expanding my vocabulary!

Wildboar: I actually hadn't read any essay, but learned about it from the commentary on the Return of the King DVD set :) and more or less used that as a jumping off point. Could you provide a reference to the essay? I'd like to check it out.

wildboar said...


I don't have the essay any longer, but I believe you can find it here:

J.R.R. Tolkien, "On Fairy Stories," in The Tolkien Reader (New York: Ballantine, 1966).