Hell is the Absence of God is a short story (novellete) written by Ted Chiang. First published in 2001, this story primarily revolves around Neil Fisk, a recent widower, who lost his beloved wife in the aftermath of an Angel’s visitation.
“Obedience, he might have managed, but sincere, heart-felt love (for God)? That was a ransom he couldn’t pay.”
With this short story Hell is the absence of God, Ted Chiang takes us on an exploration, the one where angel visitations, hell and heaven are as real as the physical world around us.
This story is one of the more celebrated stories of Ted Chiang. First published in 2001, this one has Hugo, Locus and Nebula awards to its name.
Hell is the Absence of God: Summary and Plot Analysis
The story primarily revolves around Neil Fisk, a recent widower, who lost his beloved wife in the aftermath of an Angel’s visitation.
Sarah’s soul was seen to be ascending to heaven, leaving her non-devout husband in pure grief and scampering for means to find pure devotion to God. This, he feels, will help him reunite with his wife in heaven.
He starts attending support group meetings with similar people who were affected by that visitation. These are people whose faith has strengthened even further than before, either from gratitude or from terror.
He is not able to relate to either of those emotions and finds himself drawn to another group where people who are feeling quite the opposite, struggling to continue their devotion.
He finds it increasingly impossible for him to be devout or committed to God now.
The story then follows two other characters, Janice Reilly and Ethan Mead, both of whom eventually play an important role in Neil’s final fate.
Janice Reilly is a woman who was born without legs after her mother had an angelic visitation. She is a positive individual and has made a name for herself as a motivational and spiritual speaker.
One day, after an angelic visitation, she finds herself able-bodied. She is now disillusioned, unsure as to whether to take this act of God as a gift or punishment.
This uncertainty spills over in her speaking engagements and the crowd begins thinning. She is yet to find a reason as to why she would get her legs back when she didn’t even wish for it.
As an able-bodied woman, getting used to having legs, she starts getting attention from all kinds of men, which is when she gets to meet Ethan Mead.
She thinks Ethan has a romantic interest until one day he clarifies his purpose.
Ethan has been raised in a devout family, who thinks that God is directly or indirectly responsible for the good fortune bestowed upon them.
His family has never had any visitation and is happy with the status quo.
Ethan, however, has a strong feeling that God has a special purpose for him and longs for an encounter with the divine to provide him with direction. He doesn’t go to the holy sites where angelic visitations are frequent, thinking that that’s the doing of a desperate man, and patiently waits for it to come.
The visitation does happen, and Janice gets her legs as a blessing, but nothing out of the ordinary happens for him, and having got no insights about his calling, he decides to pursue Janice to find it.
Neil, in the meantime, is still struggling to cope with Sarah’s loss and finding devotion to God to reunite him with her in heaven.
He gets to hear of different perspectives of people in the support group and through a woman called Valerie also comes to know of the humanist movement. The followers of the humanist movements were individuals that advocated people acting as per their own moral sense, nothing else.
Neil felt drawn to that ideology but refrained from pursuing it for the fear of being driven further apart from Sarah if he did.
Desperately looking for ways to reunite with Sarah, he chances upon stories of heaven’s light comes to know of people’s encounters with heaven’s light. Heaven’s light appears when angels enter or leave the mortal world.
People witnessing heaven’s light ascend to heaven regardless of the sins in their lives, no matter how grave they are.
This attracts people to many pilgrimage sites in the hope that they will witness the sight and ascend. Some even try to follow the angel around when it appears so that they can witness it.
Upon discovering that Janice will be attending a shrine for a visitation to return her gift, he decides to go on the pilgrimage as well.
In preparation, Neil uses up savings to buy a truck that could handle the harsh ride on the terrain on his hunt to witness heaven’s light. He familiarizes himself with the terrain and one day sees an angel flying over the holy site.
He follows the angel through dangerous terrains, crashes his vehicle and is mortally wounded.
He sees Janice and Ethan approaching to rescue him and heaven’s light striking Janice. The light strikes him as well. Both of them turn blind. Neil dies shortly after.
Ethan witnesses the whole scene, sees Neil’s soul ascending to heaven initially but finally descending to hell.
Armed with this insight that heaven’s light does not guarantee an admission to heaven, he finds his purpose – he becomes a minister and goes on to spread this message to the world.
Neil (who is in hell now), however, finds true devotion to God he was desperately after.
He accepts that he will never be reunited with Sarah but continues to stay devoted because ‘Unconditional love asks nothing, not even that it be returned.’
Hell is the Absence of God: Analysis and My Thoughts
Ted Chiang, in an interview, had said that after watching the movie “The Prophecy”, he wanted to write a book about angels, but could not imagine a scenario where it would work.
In this novellete, he examines, rather brilliantly, the role of faith in religion. He maintains that if God undeniably existed, then faith would no longer be applicable.
Neil, who has now moved on to hell, still finds true devotion to God, which goes on to say that Chiang believes that it’s still possible to be devoted to God, even when you’re in hell.
All in all, this short story presents a rather unique perspective on the role of faith in religion and how people deal with suffering or the loss of a loved one.
2 thoughts on “Hell Is The Absence Of God: Summary, Analysis and Review”
My reading was radically different. Neil does NOT accept that he won’t ever be reunited with Srah. In fact, for him, hell is suffering because once he experienced the presence of God, the absence of God in hell is unbearable to him.
Thank you Dimitri, you point to a very interesting angle in the story. When I read this, “Neil still loves Sarah, and misses her as much as he ever did, and the knowledge that he came so close to rejoining her only makes it worse
…. .If there were a possibility that he could be admitted to Heaven and his suffering would end, he would not hope for it; such desires no longer occur to him” , I was quick to conclude that the pain of absence of god was much more unbearable to him than being united with Sarah, and I equated his indifference to even the desire of being in heaven at some point , to the acceptance that he would never see her. I do see I might have been quick to conclude that. Thanks for pointing it out. Appreciate it.