Awaiting Eucatastrophic Joy
“The Lord Himself will descend from heaven, with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore, encourage one another with these words.”
– 1 Thessalonians 4:16-18
J.R.R. Tolkien invented the word “Eucatastrophe.” It’s a combination of the prefix “Eu” (generally meaning “good”) and the well known word “catastrophe” (which, in literature, is the final and often abrupt downward turn that leads to final disaster). A “Eucatastrophe,” then, is the sudden and unexpected “upturn” in a story. It is that moment where, beyond all hope, un-sought and un-looked for Good breaks into the scene and turns all things right. It is, in simplest terms, the “happy ending.”
Tolkien said that a “Fairy Story” (what we would call a fantasy story) with a well written Eucatastrophe would “give to child or man that hears it…a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears.” He argues that the sudden joyous turn of the Eucatastrophe flies in the face of all the previous horrors of the story – not as an escape from them, but as an answer to them.
However, what Tolkien loves most about the Eucatastrophe (and Fantasy’s power to communicate it) is that the “happy ending” is not a lie. The joy of “happily ever after,” that tear-filled realization that all the sorrow, all the suffering, all the torments have resolved into beauty unimaginable and that all things have ended well….that is true. That is “a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief,” and beyond all comparison with the sufferings of this present age (Romans 8:18).
The True Eucatastrophe
So why all this talk about Tolkien and happy endings? Because the passage from 1 Thessalonians quoted above gives us a brief snatch of the True Music of which all happy endings are only echoes. Humans write and rejoice in happy endings because we were made for a happy ending. We were made to await and to receive the sudden joyous turn of the True Eucatastrophe – the descent of the Risen Christ to Earth.
Paul is writing to a church mourning the death of some of its dearly loved ones (4:13). And how does he encourage them? Notice that he does not tell them not to grieve. Rather, he calls them to grieve with hope. He calls them to grieve with the recognition that they are in a God-wrought “fairy story.” And this is a Story in which all the machinations of the enemy, and all the soul-rending wounds of this world’s sorrow will only serve the make the Eucatastrophic joy of Christ’s return that much sweeter.
But how do we know? How do we know the happy ending is coming? How do we know that sorrow will give birth to joy? Paul gives the Thessalonians (and us) the foundation in verse 14 of chapter 4:
“Since we believe that Jesus died and rose again…”
We know there is a happily ever after because we believe something. But even deeper than our belief is the thing on which we believe: Jesus died and rose again.
Glory to God, glory to our all-wise God! Blazing like the sun at the center of Hope’s solar system is this reality: Jesus died and rose again. We know the universal Eucatastrophe is coming because it has already come with Christ. We have already seen the Slain King plunder Sheol, sever death’s chains, and rise up from His grave in victory. We have already seen Life slaughter Death. We have already seen hope beyond all hope break like the sun from beneath the clouds of utter defeat….we’ve already seen the Happy Ending, and now we await His return.
Living in Anticipation of Eucatastrophic Joy
Now, all this talk of a “happy ending” does not mean that the Christian lives in some plastic, Hallmark-glazed life…we live in this world. The Christian works and invests themselves fully wherever God has planted them. The Christian loves and gives and fails and learns and forgives and is forgiven. The Christian is not sinless, he wounds and is wounded, the Christian suffers and causes suffering, the Christian does not float with their head in the clouds, they do not glide through the torments of this life unharmed…….
But the Christian lives in anticipation. The Christian always awaits a “cry of command,” their ear is always straining for the sky-splintering blast of “the trumpet of God,” and they cannot look into the blood-stained clouds of a sunset without an aching joy that longs for the King to come again.
And He will come. Yes, the King will return, and in that moment every heart that has waited for Him (whether it is still beating or not) will erupt with joy. And we will see, through a veil of disbelieving tears, the Hope of all our hope descending in glory and power – the source and fulfillment of every Happy Ending. The world is God’s “Fairy Story,” and we await His Eucatastrophe…
But then, it must be remembered that Christ’s return is not an ending at all but, as C.S. Lewis said, only the turning of the cover page on a story in which every chapter is more glorious than the one before.