Current Genres of Fate: The Worst Fate Imaginable

by Paul North


The Anti-Christ—we know who he is.

Thessalonians says: “And then the lawless one will be revealed” (2:8).

The end arrives for human beings in the worst imaginable form, a demi-god who tears down the world they have carefully built. Wickedness and destruction overtake goodness and progress. Certainly he doesn't do this openly. He insinuates himself through spectacular deceptions. “He will use all sorts of displays of power through signs and wonders that serve the lie” (2:9). This is the moment that 2 John calls “the last hour,” because this fate, the destruction of everything, is also supposed to be the gateway to a new first hour, to final redemption. The coming of the Anti-Christ is the worst fate imaginable, but it also means that now things can only get better. “And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will overthrow with the breath of his mouth and destroy by the splendor of his coming” (2:8).

Before redemption comes of course, everything truly has to be crushed to smithereens. This bargain—total destruction for total restitution—belongs to the modern fate idea as well. The popular sayings: “things can only get better,” “every cloud has a silver lining,” and most directly “it is always darkest before the dawn” express and reinforce the idea that this is an inevitable trade off. We accept destruction because it leads to restoration. Thinking like this of course, some may be tempted to help hasten the decline. Martin Luther famously advised his colleague Melanchthon in 1521 to “be a sinner and let your sins be strong.” There is an insidious logic here. Without strong sins leading up to it, redemption can only be weak. The very idea of redemption—a strong correction in the course of the world—requires that the world be on a very bad course indeed. If the world just drifts, or remains at a low stage of decrepitude, it is hard to imagine it can be saved. One could thus turn this around and say that redemption thinking often leads to the acceptance of destruction as a necessary evil.

In any case, fateful thinking is a tranquilizer after catastrophic events. These sorts of thoughts bubble up: “it had to happen this way,” “the world is really like this,” or even “if we hadn't ignored the signs, this would not have happened.” But it did happen, our fatal flaw let fate take its course. In the wake of the terrible event, we write it back into the story of how things inevitably were going to go.

And when he is finally here, when the Anti-Christ arrives, the run of the mill believer is helpless. The great battle will be fought between Christ and Anti-Christ, opposed cosmic forces. We may not intervene. So we repeat those stock phrases, every cloud has…, it's always darkest…, and so on. The battle has been forecast from time immemorial and we are only along for the ride.

There is another model of “the worst fate.” That is Freud's old idea of the “return of the repressed.” In this model too, the thing you wanted least and were most afraid of comes. The law of psychoanalysis says: only if it comes back do you have a chance to overcome it. That is, good can only come after bad. The worst is gateway to the best. You can't predict it, you can't stop it; it comes at night and disturbs your sleep. What's more, it comes back in a distorted, you might say monstrous form.

Which model of “the worst fate” is better? Or should we say, which worst is worse? The Anti-Christ who sews destruction or the repressed that returns and makes life unlivable?

“The experiences of a person's first five years exercise a determining effect on his life, which nothing later can withstand” says Freud in Moses and Monotheism. The experiences Freud has in mind are instincts, childhood desires that are overwhelming, frightening, rejected strongly by the society and the parents and by the child itself. So, the monstrous feelings get buried. They go into you, and the mind constructs a whole hidden zone around them that no conscious thought can touch. We lock away the horror. Rather than keeping it contained, though, our semi-willful forgetting makes it stronger; it comes back later in pathological forms that burst through our social masks, as ticks and slips, dreams and nightmares, phobias, violent behaviors, ideologies, all sorts of substitute, monstrous detours for getting satisfaction out of life.

This version of the very worst fate is interesting. It is not only active in the life of an individual person. Freud writes about the return of the repressed most extensively when he is talking about the development of a whole culture. His theory is that a culture is constructed around a repressed horror, which festers in a kind of social unconscious. The force of this horror grows stronger and stronger the more it is pushed back and forcibly forgotten, until it finally erupts in altered form. Something monstrous in the formation of a culture “exercise[s] a determining effect on [its] life, which nothing later can withstand.” The repressed comes back, the culture is imperiled by its very own monsters.

If we have an opportunity to choose between these two fateful stories, the one about the Anti-Christ and the one about the Id, let's choose to believe in the Id. It's a devil's choice for those who believe that goodness can actually come wholly and truly once and for all. But that too is redemptive thinking and would require some pretty thorough destruction in advance to make it possible. It is true that all ideas of fate, these two included, have a single trademark. They all picture the end as an event that comes once and for all and that cannot be reversed. Fate is the one and only end to a person, a culture, or a world. It implies a hope that after the end, everything will be different, for good. This is the hope behind the story of the Anti-Christ as well as the story of the Christ who comes to defeat him. Not so, however, for the repressed that returns.

The repressed horror around which culture and civilization builds itself as a defense, never diminishes. We can give the fiercest fight, put it in its place, confine it with barriers, laws, attitudes—it remains, and indeed it grows. There is no Christ who will put an end to the repressed. Society is made by repressing instinct; so long as we live in one, instinct will be there, festering. It will return again and again. So the better response to this—still fateful—paradigm is never to wish it away once and for all. This is redemptive thinking—a bad kind of fateful thinking where you embrace fate. It is the one that leads to the most destruction.

How do we deal with the repeated return of raw instinct in its most disgusting, violent, disreputable, bigoted, narcissistic form? There must be many ways. More than this, there must be a way to face it as something that cannot be gotten rid of once and for all. When the repressed returns we have a chance to learn how to live with what we are most afraid of, what is most vile and violent toward the things we hold dear. Perhaps this learning to live with should be called therapy. It doesn't exclude change, it just excludes total victory over the dark side. Perhaps confronting the horror as something never totally eradicable diminishes it. I'm not sure. In any case, we must give up the idea that we can rid the world of the horror once and for all. This is exactly what makes it grow stronger.