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Sin and Providence in the Lord of the Rings

The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy will be complete December 17, 2003, with the long-awaited and highly-heralded theatrical release of The Return of the King. No doubt it will experience, and perhaps exceed, the tremendous success of its two predecessors. This final segment promises to present J.R.R. Tolkien's tale of the realities and struggles of absolute good and evil in the same stark and engaging form as the first two installments.

The Lord of the Rings is simply one of the great works of Christian literature. Tolkien used the literary form of myth to communicate the truth about God's providence and our need for a savior. Most people think of myth as referring to a story of something untrue. Tolkien thought exactly the opposite. He saw myth as a way of entering into a story world that would use unreal or imaginary things to describe very real elements such as beauty, honor, and sacrifice.

In his epic trilogy Tolkien gives us Middle-earth, the domain of hobbits, elves, men, and orcs. Yet, the moral universe you and I know is very much a part of their world. Postmodern thinking has given up on the existence of absolute truth. Literature and movies today tend to explore only the ambiguities around the moral edge of issues. Truth is seen as an individual or community view of reality, but the idea of true truth that transcends persons and cultures, even the earth itself, is rejected. I believe hearts are drawn to The Lord of the Rings precisely because in the mythical world of Middle-earth there are moral absolutes that do not change. Indeed, Tolkien has written a powerful Christian myth most appropriate for postmodern times.

A number of biblical themes are developed in the story. I recommend Kurt Brunner and Jim Ware's Finding God in The Lord of the Rings and Mark Eddy Smith's Tolkien's Ordinary Virtues as excellent expositions of some of Tolkien's more prominent themes. Two concern me most here: the doctrine of sin, and the providence of God.

Sin is most soberly illustrated by the effect of a certain magical ring upon all who encounter it. When the evil Lord Sauron crafted this single ring of power to rule Middle-earth, he poured into it all of his malice and will to dominate. Through the ages this ring of power poisoned and corrupted all who attempted to own and use it — instead it owned and used them. No one could withstand its pull. When the ring is discovered after being lost for centuries, it is decided that it must be destroyed by being thrown back into the fires of Mount Doom where it was first crafted. Otherwise, the evil Lord Sauron would reclaim it as his own and achieve absolute dominion over Middle-earth.

Frodo, a simple hobbit of virtue and humility, is assigned the task bearing the ring to Mordor, the land of Mount Doom, for its ultimate and final destruction. However, throughout the journey the ring gradually works its magic on Frodo, too, until he is utterly exhausted by his struggle against the temptation to claim the ring as his own. Finally, he and his faithful sidekick Sam, assisted and guided by the pitiful creature Gollum (who himself once owned and was ruined by the ring) make their way deep into Mordor, all the way to the pinnacle of Mount Doom.

(Spoiler Warning: If you have not read the books and wish to wait for the movie to discover the fate of Frodo, do not read further!)

At last, utterly spent from the journey, Frodo stands at the very edge of the fiery rim of Mount Doom with the ring in his hand, prepared to complete his assigned task and thus save all of Middle-earth from the tyranny of the evil Lord Sauron. However, at that very moment his resolve crumbles and instead he decides to claim the ring for himself — or rather the ring claims him — and he slips it onto his own finger.

Every time I read this part my heart breaks, because in human terms Frodo was as good as it gets. Yet, in the end, his resolve, like mine, is not enough in the face of the overwhelming power and seduction of sin. The heart is deceitful above all things, desperately wicked and beyond our understanding (Jeremiah 17:9). We cannot do what we must do, because apart from Christ we are sold as slaves to sin (Romans 7:14-15; 8:7). This scene makes me weep over my lost and undone condition outside of Christ. I have never in modern literature read such a gripping account of the desperate situation the human race finds itself in. There is nothing good in us. If salvation does not come from outside of us, all is lost.

Right here, when all hope seems lost, something amazing happens. Gollum had been secretly hoping for an opportunity to reclaim the ring for his own. Finally, he sees his chance and attacks Frodo. He violently bites off the finger Frodo had placed the ring on and reclaimed his "precious." However, as he dances in celebration he gets too close to the edge and falls into the fire of Mount Doom, destroying himself and the ring.

My heart leaps for joy whenever I read this part of the story. Tolkien helps me see in a fresh way that sin was defeated for me at Calvary by God's "set purpose and foreknowledge" and that, even "with the help of wicked men" (Acts 2:23). God is sovereign over all so that even evil is ultimately overruled and forced to serve His purposes. Providence teaches that all things work together for good so that God's purposes ultimately prevail (Romans 8:28; Isaiah 46:9-11).

Sauron was searching for the ring he had lost long ago, but Frodo was meant by providence to find it and bear it back to Mount Doom. Even there it was not Frodo but providence that overruled Frodo's weakness and destroyed the ring through Gollum. The name of God does not appear in the trilogy, but the hand of providence runs all through it. God's name does not appear in the Bible book of Esther either, but one of the main themes of Esther is how the unseen hand of providence works to bring deliverance to the Jews in exile when hope seems lost. I take comfort knowing that forces greater than evil are at work in the world, forces great enough to overcome even my own sinful heart.

I recommend The Return of the King, and if you see it I hope you will reflect on what Tolkien tried to do. He used the literary form of myth to forcefully drive into our hearts the biblical view of sin and providence, as well as a number of other scriptural themes. The movie has violence to be sure. The violence is not gratuitous, but it is realistic. Peter Jackson pulled no punches when he showed what evil might look like personified. He does justice to Tolkien's books.

September 11, 2001, shocked us into believing the reality of evil in the world. The Lord of the Rings does the same, but it also reminds us that the evil from which we need deliverance is rooted deep in the heart of every son and daughter of Adam. If God had not sent Christ, all of us would perish in our sins. Yet, when we were still sinners and powerless to save ourselves, Christ died for us (Romans 5:6, 8). Praise God for His mercy that saves us from the penalty and the power of sin when we could not help ourselves.


Andy Chambers is Vice-President for Student Development and Assistant Professor of Bible at Missouri Baptist University in St. Louis.

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December 2003 Edition
Volume 12, Issue 3
December 2003