Doubt can save the world.
At least, I think it can.
The only certainty is this: the world is full of Love, and we are made in Love, for Love, to be Love. But Love opens us to humility and wonder and endless possibilities, not down the rigid road of certainty that can doom us to destruction.
That’s my take-away from a recent late-night conversation with Aziraphale and Crowley, the archangel and demon protagonists from Good Omens, the epic apocalyptic fantasy by Neil Gaiman and Sir Terry Pratchett recently turned into a miniseries on Amazon Prime.
I know, I know… How did I find myself conversing with two delightful, diabolical fictional characters? Here’s how it all went down…
It wasn’t a dark and stormy night, but the looming deadline for my article was reason enough for my nerves to rattle inside my heavily caffeinated, trembling body. My excitement over analyzing one of my favorite novels (timed as a tribute to Sir Terry Pratchett on the 5th anniversary of his death) was turning to apprehension as ideas failed to materialize. The weight of the whole blessed world bore down on my shoulders as I struggled to find my angle.
In the delirium of my desperation, I experienced a hallucination – heavenly vision – what exactly to call it I can’t be entirely sure. But as I stared blankly beyond my computer screen, letters blurring in the artificial light, the air in front of me started to vibrate until two winged men stood before me, one dressed in dazzling white and the other cloaked head to toe in black.
“Aziraphale? Crowley?” I asked in disbelief.
“Clever girl, she recognizes us,” Crowley the demon muttered to Aziraphale, the archangel.
“Yes, dear lady, well, we noticed you were having a bit of trouble and decided to pop over and give you a hand, as it were,” Aziraphale answered, bowing slightly and smiling.
Lulled by their gentle British accents, and perhaps a minor miracle, I found myself strangely at ease. Thus unfolded the curious circumstances by which I took the liberty to interview one of contemporary literature’s most unlikely, adorable couples…
The false heaven is a place of self-righteousness, where everyone thinks they know everything and have nothing to learn.
Me: I guess my first question has to be… how did you get here? Is this real?
Aziraphale: Well, see, we are imaginative manifestations of cultural consciousness brought to you by the power of story and espresso…
Crowley: You’re having a coffee-induced fantasy.
Aziraphale: Your imagination is on overdrive, and it’s bringing us to life. We are characters in a parable of heaven, hell, and humanity, and we are as real as any fictional character. We have descended from the metanarrative of our authors’ genius to come and help you discern the meaning of our story, which is also your story…
Crowley: I’m not much for helping. He promised drinks afterward.
Me: So, how should I understand your story? I mean, I know… you’re an angel and a demon who have spent the course of human history on earth, and you team up to avert the apocalypse and prevent the great war between heaven and hell that will destroy the world. But I mean, if you’re here, does that mean your story is at all… true? I mean, that kind of frightens me. Because the way God is depicted in your story makes God seem like… like…
Crowley: Like a callous, violent, destructive bastard?
Aziraphale: Crowley! Well… I suppose I must concur. But our story is not about how God is. It’s about how humanity has always understood God to be. So many are convinced that God’s “Great Plan” is the ultimate war between good and evil. And they’re willing to destroy God’s creation to prove themselves on God’s side, because they think God has doomed creation anyway!
No, see, the horsemen of the apocalypse – War, Famine, Pollution – the powers that threaten the world, these are creations of a humanity that has found power in violence. A humanity that has been so sure of its righteousness that it has been willing to fight and kill and sacrifice each other in the name of God. And we angels have sort of been thought of as benign miracle-workers for the good guys and super-charged smiters of bad guys. Honestly, even most demons come off looking better than we do in many human imaginations!
Me: Actually, in your story, the forces of heaven and hell seemed remarkably similar. Both intent on the same goal of “winning” even if it would leave nothing left to “win.”
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Crowley: That’s what violence does! It erases the differences between “sides” while burning everything down! I’ve been tempting people to violence in little ways for an eternity, knowing they’ll lose themselves and the things they stand for in the process.
But… I don’t really want humans to lose themselves completely. In spite of it all, I like humans. I like the world. It would be no bloody fun living here if I didn’t care just a little bit.
Me: I mean, what, exactly, is the difference between heaven and hell then, and the forces of good and evil, according to your story?
Aziraphale: Well, in our story, we were so certain we knew the difference that the difference didn’t make any difference at all. Our “heaven” was just another hell, really. Cold, sanitized, immortal but spiritually dead. Unfortunately, you know, our story is much like what many people assume heaven to really be like. But it’s nothing like that at all!
The false heaven is a place of self-righteousness, where everyone thinks they know everything and have nothing to learn. Convinced that everything you do is right, no matter how brutal! Dull, dangerous place! No room for curiosity, wonder, affection…
Crowley: Hell is pretty spot on, actually. I mean, not literally, there’s no such place really. But if despondency were a place, that’s what hell would be. Just like in our story. We’re all equally sure of ourselves in hell, too. Hell is where you know you’re rubbish.
So it’s a place of hopelessness. You do evil things because you think you have no choice; you’re just bad, and will always be bad, so you do bad.
Whether you’re so self-righteous that you can’t even question how you might be hurting others, or so self-defeated that you think you’ll just make things worse no matter what you do, “heaven” and hell are states of mind that make you stagnate. You’re as trapped in the fake heaven of self-righteousness as you are in the hell of hopelessness.
Aziraphale: Now earth! That’s much closer to the real heaven than the “heaven” of our story will ever be. It’s not about sanitized white halls or soporific celestial harmonies. It’s about the openness of possibilities. That’s what Love does, it opens possibilities! The earth is made of Love, you know. When humanity finally figures that out and starts living that way, heaven and earth will be one and the same!
Me: Do you think living on earth is what changed your ideas about God’s “Great Plan?”
Crowley: Well, obviously, that’s what our whole story is about.
Aziraphale: You begin to question how great the “Great Plan” is when it threatens everything you love. And you can’t live here and not fall in love with something.
The music, the art, the beauty of the trees, the majesty of the sunset… the quirky, curious, confounding ways of people…
Me: Each other…
Aziraphale: Well, in a manner of speaking…
Me: I mean, it’s obvious that you care for each other. An archangel and a demon. Mortal enemies. How did you come to recognize each other as friends?
Crowley: I mean, for me, it wasn’t all that hard. We were in heaven together before I –
Crowley: Sauntered vaguely downwards. We’ve been on earth all this time. It’s comforting to see a familiar face as everything around you changes. And, you know, I’m a demon, and for a demon to fraternize with an angel, well, that’s just wrong. So, naturally, I was inclined to do the wrong thing…
And I found something in him that I couldn’t find among the denizens of hell. I found… I could count on him. He was always there… trying to thwart me at every turn. And, I appreciated that. I mean, it wouldn’t be any fun if humans just… gave in to my every temptation. No sport. But Aziraphale, he believed enough in my abilities that he wouldn’t let me go unchecked. He… had faith in me.
Aziraphale: It was a little harder for me to admit that I liked him. I, too, was convinced that fraternizing with a demon was wrong. And, of course, I didn’t want to do the wrong thing. But eventually, you know, after several centuries, you begin to realize that caring for someone is never the “wrong” thing.
I saw the way he watched the humans he messed with. Laughing at them a little, but never trying to hurt them too badly. I saw him start to care in spite of himself. And I couldn’t help but feel endeared…
It’s funny. I was so heaven-bent on maintaining myself as a “good” guy that I tried my damnedest… I mean, my blessedest… to remember that Crowley was evil… to forget that he was once an angel, to believe that he could never be redeemed. But real goodness is about remembering that everyone is redeemable, about not setting yourself against anyone. And it took living here on earth to teach me that. Living among people – messy, funny, imperfect people. Not angels who thought they could never be wrong. Not demons who thought they could never be right.
It took doubting everything I thought I knew to realize I cared for him… and it took time to settle into the doubt, to not be afraid of it. To see my doubts, my questions… as a gift.
Me: A demon learning to trust. An angel learning to question. So you balance each other, like faith and doubt?
Crowley: Exactly! Both of which are infinitely more fun than dead-end certainty.
Aziraphale: And if our story tells any truth about God at all, it’s that God has made a wonderful world where mortal enemies can find their way to friendship.
Me: That’s… that’s beautiful.
Crowley: It is rather beautiful, isn’t it? Right, then. I’m quite ready for that drink you promised.
Aziraphale: I guess we had better be going. Are you feeling better about your article?
Me: Oh yes. You’ve successfully thwarted Crowley’s attempts to entice me toward procrastination. I mean, you did invent social media, didn’t you, Crowley?
Crowley: One of my more diabolical achievements.
Aziraphale: Right, then. Take care, Madam. I’m sure we shall meet again and…
Crowley: Yes, yes, goodnight.
So that’s how it happened. That’s how a fictional angel and demon taught me the beauty of doubt, of making space to question everything, of the joy of having everything you think you know turned upside-down. It’s an encounter I’ll never forget.
If you haven’t yet read or seen their story about how doubt, failure, and the spawn-of-Satan-turned-human end up saving the world, what are you waiting for? It might upend everything you think you know, but we all need that, once in a while.