And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest. But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved)Ephesians 2:1-5
When it comes to books and movies, I’ve never liked sad endings. I was reminded of that recently as my family and I watched Hamilton. The music and production are fantastic, but I knew the history well enough to know that it wasn’t going to end, “and they lived happily ever after.” I sat and wept with Alexander and Eliza over their son’s death and again with Eliza at the end.
It’s not that I don’t appreciate a tragic story. But I’m not likely to go back and watch or read them a second time. I love Dead Poet’s Society, but since my boys were born, I can’t watch all of it. Titanic I can watch until they hit the iceberg. Braveheart, well, I’m sure you can imagine.
Stories need difficult or tragic events to move the plot along and give characters a chance to grow and develop. Where would Luke Skywalker be if Obi-Won had lived? Boromir’s death and Mr. Rochester’s betrayal of Jane were necessary elements in The Lord of the Rings and Jane Eyre. These tragedies add depth to the narrative. But in the end, I want to see Darth Vader defeated. I want to see the ring destroyed and peace in Middle Earth. Dear reader, I want to see a wedding and a hopeful future.
There’s a name for that desire for hope and rescue. J.R.R. Tolkien called it eucatastrophe, “the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears.” He explained:
In its fairy-tale—or otherworld—setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.
This “sudden happy turn” or “joy of deliverance” is part of many great stories. In Tolkien’s books, the eucatastrophe occurs when the eagles or Gandalf arrive to rescue our heroes and save the day. It’s when the townspeople come to save George and his family in It’s a Wonderful Life. It’s that moment when the Death Star explodes or the Millennium Falcon appears right on time. When things seem the darkest, when there is little hope for success, something or someone steps in and acts when everything seems to be going wrong. Sorrow turns into joy.
Eucatastrophes in books or movies resonate with us because we all long for rescue and deliverance. We want the sad and tragic things in life to be made right. We want our sorrow to become joy. For those of us who are Christians, we know why people have such longings.
The world is not what it was created to be. We are not who we were made to be. Our fallen world is marred by sin and death. We live surrounded by pain and destruction, fear and misery. We yearn for redemption. We need a Savior.
The Bible is filled with examples of eucatastrophes. Often the words “but God” signal that something unexpected and important is happening. When the floodwaters covered the earth, we’re told “But God remembered Noah and all … that were with him in the ark” (Gen. 8:1). When Abimelech took Sarah as his wife, it says, “But God came to Abimelech in a dream” to warn him that Sarah was already married (Gen. 20:2-3). When Balaam rode his donkey with the leaders of Moab, it says, “But God was angry … and the angel of the LORD took his stand in the way … against him” (Num. 22:21-22). When Saul sought to kill David, we’re told, “but God did not deliver him into his hand” (1 Sam. 23:14).
Scripture also tells us of the greatest eucatastrophe in all of history. With those two little words, the Bible tells us about the most crucial deliverance ever. When everything seemed lost, when sin and death reigned, Jesus Christ died on the cross. “But God raised Him up again, putting an end to the agony of death, since it was impossible for Him to be held in its power” (Acts 2:24).
In Ephesians 2, Paul explains that we were dead in our sins, that we lived in the lusts of our flesh, and that we were children of wrath. What a hopeless situation! We deserved God’s judgment and wrath, and we couldn’t save ourselves. “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” (Rom. 5:8). When all seemed lost, God acted to save us.
Oh, the joy we should feel when we read those two words, “But God.” With Paul, we can “exult in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation” (Rom. 5:11). The resurrection is the ultimate eucatastrophe. Through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, we have been set free.
Now, that doesn’t mean that our lives will be free from pain, suffering, and tragedy. Life is hard, and if the Lord tarries, we will all die at some point. But our story isn’t over, and death will not have the last word. We look forward to the final and complete redemption of God’s people. We await the day of resurrection. When God “will wipe away every tear from [our] eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain” (Rev. 21:4). God is making all things new.
Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law; but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your toil is not in vain in the Lord.1 Corinthians 15:54-58
 J.R.R. Tolkien, “Letter 89,” The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (1981).
 J.R.R. Tolkien, On Fairy-Stories (1939), 75, italics original.