What’s Going On?

What’s Going On?


Philosophy of Religion in The Seventh Seal and A Serious Man

“And when the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour . . . And the seven angels which had the seven trumpets prepared themselves to sound.”
Revelation, 8:6

Perhaps the most difficult intellectual problem facing those who believe in an omnipotent, benevolent God is reconciling such a belief with the simultaneous existence of suffering and pain. This theistic dilemma is known as the problem of evil. Essentially, the problem of evil calls the existence of God into question by highlighting the incongruency of three tenants of the Judeo-Christian understanding of life: (I) God is benevolent; (II) God is omnipotent; and (III) evil, suffering, and pain exist. If an all-powerful, well-meaning being exists, why does He subject us to hardship and sorrow? Although humans have long philosophized this question by way of many media, my analysis of the question will be restricted to the mode of film. And while many movies depict the problem of evil in some shape or form, few present it with as much care and detail as Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957) and Joel and Ethan Coen’s A Serious Man (2009).

Before delving into the philosophical implications of either of these two films, let me first make clear my intentions. While I understand that there are many different theisms, all with a unique set of core tenants, I shall restrict my analysis of God to His depiction in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Furthermore, although I will be theorizing the existence of God within the aforementioned films, such analyses do not reflect my personal beliefs. I am an agnostic, and while I concede that my personal history with religion will undoubtedly color my exploration of the two films, I do not mean for my agnosticism to be the central defense of this paper. Rather, I intend to prove that, by way of starkly different means, both The Seventh Seal and A Serious Man argue the inexistence of God as defined by the Judeo-Christian tradition.

The problem of evil is unique in its reasoning against the existence of God because rather than providing rational proof arguing the inexistence of a supreme being, it makes clear the positively irrational nature of religious beliefs—i.e., that the main principles of a theologian’s doctrine are inherently inconsistent with one another. J. L. Mackie, the twentieth-century, Australian philosopher, illustrates this point in his essay, “Evil and Omnipotence,” by defining the terms “good,” “evil,” and “omnipotent” so that “good is opposed to evil, in such a way that a good thing always eliminates evil as far as it can, and that there are no limits to what an omnipotent thing can do. From these, it follows that a good omnipotent thing eliminates evil completely, and then the propositions that a good omnipotent thing exists, and that evil exists, are incompatible.”1 Mackie’s qualification of good and evil as antipodes, each absolute, denies that the two can coexist, regardless of context. Consequently, his restriction of such fallacies of context allows for the universal application of his theory, which I shall hereafter restrict to the religious symbolism.

In The Seventh Seal, Ingmar Bergman tells the story of a knight named Antonius Block, who, upon returning to Sweden after ten years of fighting in the Holy Land, meets Death on a rocky and desolate beach. Death confronts Block and tells him his time has come, to which Block, unprepared, responds by challenging Death to a game of chess.2 If Block loses the game, then Death may kill him; however, if Block wins, and so long as the game continues, he may live. And so, Block and his squire, Jöns, travel across Sweden, encountering the plague, other knights, and a company of traveling actors along the way—Block all the while meeting, and playing chess with, Death at every stop. In addition to the spiritual undertone of the film—i.e. the personification of Death and Block’s theistic understanding of mortality—perhaps the greatest signifier of the film’s concern with the problem of evil is its exploration of “first-order” and “second-order” good and evil.

In “Evil and Omnipotence,” Mackie puts forward a tiered understanding of good and evil by way of David Hume’s “rather half-hearted” presentation of the problem of evil. According to Mackie, “first-order evil,” or “evil (1),” can be synonymized with pain and disease. Contrastingly, “first-order good,” or “good (1),” is equal to pleasure and happiness. Good 1 is then distinct from “second-order good”, or “good (2),” [heroism, benevolence, and compassion] in that good 2 relies upon evil 1 in order to make possible “the existence of sympathy, benevolence, heroism, and the gradually successful struggle of doctors and reformers to overcome these evils­ . . .”3 It is also being assumed that second-order good is more important than first-order good or evil, in particular that it more than outweighs the first-order evil it involves.4 Bergman illustrates a similarly tiered understanding of good and evil by way of his complex characters and the morally challenging predicaments they often find themselves in.

Because good (2) cannot exist without evil (1), Bergman sets The Seventh Seal in what is perhaps the most painful and insufferable era in recorded history: The Middle Ages. Throughout the film, Bergman inundates his audience with the wretchedness associated with the medieval—wretchedness as represented by the bubonic plague, physical mutilation, burnings, honor killings, and rape, all of which fall under the category of evil (1). According to a theist, God allows for such pain and suffering in order to promote acts of good (2), thus creating a world in which there exist people who concern themselves with the salvation and betterment of the lives of others. Such instances in the film are exemplified by Jöns’ saving of Girl from being raped by Raval, Plog’s pardoning Jonas for the adultery committed between him and Plog’s wife, and Block’s distracting Death in order to ensure the safe escape of Jof—the traveling actor—and his family.

However, even amongst all of the acts of good (2), Bergman still presents his audience with a bleak and, what appears to be, atheistic depiction of life—as exemplified by the abundance of evil (2) throughout the narrative. Such acts include, but are not limited to, the burning of a young witch, Jöns’ refusal to give Raval water, and Death’s victory over Block at the end of the film. With the inclusion of such acts and fates, Bergman offers up the conclusion that if there is a God, He is not, in Mackie’s sense of the words, benevolent or sympathetic, for he is not so much concerned with suppressing evil (1) as he is with the promotion of good (2). Such a depiction advances what might be a disturbing conclusion for some theists in that it depicts God as only somewhat well-meaning and not completely and undeniably benevolent. 5 And still, The Seventh Seal, although severe in its critique of the Judeo-Christian tradition, ends with Jof and his family walking happily and healthily into the dawn of a new day, teasing humanity’s ability to strive against and conquer the evils of the world. Such an ending differs dramatically from that of the Coen brother’s 2009 dark comedy, A Serious Man, in which a seemingly innocent man is left questioning his fate as his life falls into ruin.

The plot of A Serious Man follows Larry Gopnik, a physics teacher living in the Midwest, as he experiences and witnesses a serious of unfortunate events that begin to tear his quiet, contented, suburban life apart—all, seemingly, without cause. First, Larry’s wife files for a divorce due to her having fallen in love with one of their mutual friends, then his seemingly autistic brother gets arrested for sodomy, and Larry has to pay the legal fees, all followed by his chances of receiving tenure being threatened due to anonymous hate mail. These are but a few of the life-shattering events that prompt Larry to question his belief in God and ask, “What’s going on?”6

The prologue of A Serious Man opens on a man returning home to his wife in what appears to be a Shtetl in the early twentieth century. As the man tends to the fire in the living room, he begins telling his wife about how his cart fell apart on the way home, and that he was saved due to a Good Samaritan by the name of Traitle Groshkover. Upon hearing this name, the woman stares her husband dead in the eyes and mutters, “God has cursed us.”7 When asked to explain, the woman clarifies that the man could not have seen Traitle Groshkover because Traitle Groshkover is dead and has been for three years. Upon the utterance of these words, a knock is heard at their door and in walks Groshkover. Both the man and woman are now faced with a dilemma: do they (I) refute the existence of God and his ability to spread evil in order to welcome Groshkover into their home, all the while assuming that there must have been some mistake regarding the story of his death, or (II) do they adhere to their religious beliefs, consequently concluding that “the thing” posing as Groshkover is, in fact, a dybbuk, or demon, and do they kill it in order to save themselves from the danger it poses? The potential consequences of their decision become all the more extreme once it is made evident that the man and woman are Jews and, according to their beliefs, will be punished for the rest of eternity if they chose wrongly.

In his philosophical essay, “The Wager,” seventeenth-century French mathematician, Blaise Pascal, hypothesizes the correct answer to a similar moral dilemma as the one explored in the prologue scene of A Serious Man by way of simple gambling theory:

Let us examine this point of view and declare: “Either God exists, or He does not.” To which view shall we incline? Reason cannot decide for us one way or the other: we are separated by an infinite gulf. At the extremity of this infinite distance a game is in progress, where either heads or tails may turn up. What will you wager? According to reason you cannot bet either way; according to reason you can defend neither proposition.8

According to Pascal, one should always believe in God and consequently act in accordance with a theistic understanding of morality, for if right, that person stands to gain eternal glory and, if wrong, risks nothing. Inversely if one chooses not to believe in a supreme being, and He does exist, that same person is punished with eternal suffering. Therefore, logically, one should always believe in God. Returning again to the prologue of A Serious Man, it appears as though the woman adopts a similar rationale to that of Pascal regarding the surprise visit of Groshkover, —choosing to believe in the existence of God and evil spirits—for she stabs Groshkover in the heart with an ice pick. Groshkover, while not dead but seriously injured, then leaves the house and walks into the snowy night. Did the woman do the right thing? In stabbing Groshkover, a potentially innocent man, did she damn herself and her husband to eternal suffering? Or, did she better her own being as well as that of her husband by defeating a physical manifestation of evil (1)?

While the film never provides answers to these questions, it does offer up its own analysis regarding the potential for reconciliation between the existence of an omnipotent, benevolent God and evil by depicting the philosophical dilemma as unanswerable. Throughout the entirety of the film, Larry is forced to reckon with and react to seemingly chance events—events which prompt the viewer to question whether there is, in fact, some omnipotent being catalyzing Larry’s downfall. Such an understanding of God would be in line with a common concept known as the First Cause argument, as put forth, and subsequently refuted, by nineteenth-century British philosopher, Bertrand Russell, in his essay, “Why I Am Not a Christian.” According to Russell, the First Cause argument maintains “that everything we see in this world has a cause, and as you go back in the chain of causes further and further you must come to a First Cause, and to that First Cause you give the name of God.”9 The Coen brothers amend the First Cause argument by illustrating that everything has a cause, and that which seemingly does not have a cause can be attributed to God. However, as Russell later points out in his essay, the First Cause argument contains a number of fallacies—namely, that if everything must have a cause, then God must have a cause. And if God must have a cause, what do we then assume caused God?

By not answering this question, the Coen brothers appear to make a case for the inexistence of God, as defined by the Judeo-Christian tradition; the same can be said of The Seventh Seal, in which Death constantly teases his own ignorance and the inexistence of an afterlife or a religious deity. By not offering resolutions to the questions posed throughout the film, Ingmar Bergman and the Coen brothers seem to be arguing for a reimagination of the problem of evil—a reimagination which asks not how an omnipotent, benevolent God and evil can simultaneously exist but how do we, as humans, respond in the face of travesty and suffering.

  1. J. L. Mackie, “Evil and Omnipotence,” in Introducing Philosophy through Film: Key Texts, Discussion, and Film Selections, edited by Richard A. Fumerton and Diane Jeske, (Oxford and Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 595.
  2. The Seventh Seal, directed by Ingmar Bergman, performances by Max von Sydow, Bibi Andersson, and Bengt Ekerot (Stockholm: Svensk Filmindustri, 1957).
  3. Mackie, “Evil and Omnipotence, 598.
  4. Mackie, “Evil and Omnipotence,” 598.
  5. Mackie, “Evil and Omnipotence,” 599.
  6. A Serious Man, directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, performances by Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind, and Sari Lennick (Beverley Hills: Relativity Media, 2009).
  7. A Serious Man.
  8. Blaise Pascal, “The Wager,” in Introducing Philosophy through Film: Key Texts, Discussion, and Film Selections, edited by Richard A. Fumerton and Diane Jeske (Oxford and Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 578.
  9. Bertrand Russell, “Why I Am Not a Christian,” Introducing Philosophy through Film: Key Texts, Discussion, and Film Selections, edited by Richard A. Fumerton and Diane Jeske (Oxford and Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 604.
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