Have you ever encountered a happy ending which brought you to tears? You reach a point in the story where it seems like there’s no hope: the circumstances are too bleak, or the main character is too far gone. But then an unexpected reversal changes everything. It turns the tide of the battle and restores the protagonist. This turn is not some kind of cheap trick. The conflict and despair were all real. And yet, the redemption is also real. What was wrong is truly made right.
In his essay “On Fairy Stories”, J.R.R. Tolkien coins a new word to describe the power of the surprising happy ending: eucatastrophe. He defines eucatastrophe as the“joy of the happy ending: or more correctly the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale)…it is sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur.” In the eucatastrophic story, disaster is not the final word. Eucatastrophe brings us to the edge of the cliff, but at the last moment, transforms certain defeat into triumph.
This kind of story leaves a deep impression on us. Tolkien writes, “It is the mark of a good fairy-story that…it can give to child or man that hears it, when the ‘turn’ comes a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears.” A well-told happy ending make us cry tears of joy. We cry because we recognize how close the characters were to utter despair. We laugh through the tears because we can’t believe they’ve really been rescued.
Tolkien argues that good fairy stories are more than just effective works of literature. Rather, they feel right and true because they possess a kind of self-authenticating glory. The best fairy stories give us a glimpse into the “inner consistency of reality”; a “fleeting glimpse of Joy; Joy beyond the walls of the world.”
These stories resonate with us because they point us to the Divine Author. Our God is the God of Eucatastrophe, who delights in saving his people through the unexpected joyful turn. Over and over again, we reach points in his Story where all seems lost. There is no promised child, no way to defeat the opposing army, no hope of turning back the wayward hearts of God’s people, and on and on. And then, God intervenes and makes a way.
This pattern of eucatastrophe reaches its pinnacle and climax in the Gospel, the perfect divine happy ending to which all others point. Tolkien writes:
“The Gospels contain a fairy story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. They contain many marvels…and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe. The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy… There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits.”
The Gospel is a happy ending unlike any other, one which encapsulates all of history and invites all people to come; one which offers joy that will last forever and never change. This ending possesses, in Tolkien’s words, the “supremely convincing tone of Primary Art.”
What is it about God’s pattern of eucatastrophe, or the joyful turn, that resonates so deeply with us? What makes it self-authenticating? As I’ve thought about it, two reasons have stood out to me:
The joyful turn provides honest hope. We all long for stories which are both honest and hopeful. Stories that are hopeful but unrealistic offer temporary escape but no real comfort. Those that are honest but nihilistic are crushing. Stories with both qualities makes us cry tears of joy.
Somewhere deep-down, we know that if there were a Perfect Divine Story, it would be filled with honest hope. It would have powerful insight into suffering and sin. It would take our pain seriously so we would feel understood, not patronized or treated cheaply. It would unveil the darkness of our world in all its complexity and ugliness and then fully confront and redeem that darkness.
At their best, the wisest human religions and philosophies can offer only one of honesty or hope. Either they dig small holes and brag about their ability to fill them up, or they dig larger holes as evidence they are realistic and therefore true. Only Christianity hollows out vast caverns and then floods them until every nook and cranny overflows.
The Gospel is painfully honest about the human condition but also unrelentingly hopeful. It tells us that our darkness was so great the Son of God had to be born a man but also that Jesus’ incarnation reveals the Father’s fierce love for sinners. Jesus had to die to pay the penalty our sins deserved, but through his resurrection, death and hell have been defeated forever.
The joyful turn produces humble trust. The moment of eucatastrophe is simultaneously the moment of God’s glory and our good. God receives all the glory because we could never have saved ourselves. We praise him for his faithfulness to fulfill his promises. At the same time, we experience the joy of the reversal and of seeing God’s plan unfold.
Experiencing eucatastrophe humbles us. The proud create their own happy endings, but only the desperate cry out to God for rescue. And so, when God steps in with surprising grace, we recognize that he deserves all the glory. He is meant to be the center of the universe, not us. He is great and glorious. We are small, helpless, and constantly in need of him.
At the same time, eucatastrophe is our greatest good. It produces in us profound trust in God’s character. Why? Because it tells us the way God pursues his glory is by leaving us stunned at his goodness. His glory is not egotistical but generous. He shows us his greatness by winning our hearts through his love.
To me, there is something that rings true about a God who seeks his glory in our good. There is something right about how he has made humble trust, not human strength, the key to true happiness and the root of all real power to change. These truths means there is a special place in Christianity for all who ask God for help: the poor in spirit and the brokenhearted, the irredeemable—and yes, the doubtful.
In part 1 of this series, I highlighted our need for certainty and argued that certainty is possible through beholding Christ’s beauty in the self-authenticating Word. In part 2, I explored why a good God would allow us to experience doubt—namely, he uses tension between faith and sight to teach us that his Word is more sure than what we see.
Where does this final article fit in? Tolkien’s idea of eucatastrophe brings together those two main ideas from our previous articles. It tells us there is self-authenticating glory in the way God resolves the tension between faith and sight—that is, through eucatastrophe or the joyful turn.
Put it all together, and what do you get? There is divine wisdom and beauty both in God’s reason for doubt and in the way he resolves our doubts. That realization might seem small, but it was itself a kind of eucatastrophe for me. For so long, I had thought the Bible had little to say about the experience of doubt. As a result, I felt isolated from God’s Word and unsure if there was a place for me in his kingdom.
I longed for certainty as the answer, but God, in his grace, has given me something even better. He has shown me that the truths I find most beautiful and convincing about Christianity are the very truths which speak most powerfully to my doubts. The honest hope which shines so clearly in the Gospel tells me there is hope for my hardest questions. Jesus’ invitation to the poor, the sick, and the sinners is the same invitation he extends to my often doubting heart: come, lay down your pride, bring your need, and I will give you bread that satisfies and living water to quench your every thirst.
What a privilege it is to worship this God of surprising grace. Would I continue to grow in my trust of his Word and reliance on his grace.
Thank you to everyone who followed along with this series! I hope you enjoyed it and were encouraged by some of my scattered musings. These posts are very personal to me, which is perhaps why it’s taken me forever (literally years…) to write them. They feel like a culmination of what I’ve tried to express on this blog.
During the summer of my senior year of high school, I titled this blog “Joy Inexpressible”, a reference to 1 Peter 1:8: “though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and full of glory.” At the time, I was just looking for a catchy, spiritual-sounding title. I had no idea what a fitting verse it would turn out to be.
These past eight years have been a journey—and often a battle—to find joyful certainty in the invisible God. I’m thankful that God has been with me each step of the way. He has grown me, not just in spite of my doubts, but through them. He has used them to foster a dependence on his Word and on his grace that I would have never otherwise found. I pray for his continued grace in the years to come. More posts to come soon!