Can a comedy answer the toughest questions of faith? God Friended Me, a new CBS drama from Greg Berlanti, seems to be attempting that.
In the first episode, we meet Miles (Brandon Michael Hall), who runs a podcast to enlighten the world about the nonexistence of God, to free people from false and problematic belief. He gets a Facebook friend request from God that leads him on a series of unexplainable events with new Facebook friend Cara (Violett Beane) and real-life friend Rakesh (Suraj Sharma). Along the way (small spoilers to follow!) he stops a man about to commit suicide, helps a woman who’s struggling at work and reunites families.
All of this forces Miles to confront his disbelief head on, and the true source of his atheism emerges. No textbook, no professor, nor philosopher changed Miles’ mind. Rather, the senseless death of his mother, despite prayer and faith, caused Miles to give up on the notion of God.
Why do bad things happen to good people? This is quite a question for a show this light-on-its-feet to tackle. The refreshing cast of young, diverse actresses and actors makes a little go a long way. The appeal, though, is universal: Everyone, at some point, asks these questions. For many, it is a defining question that turns them away from religion. For others who remain religious, it can be an ongoing source of doubt. But everyone, at some point, comes face to face with evil, and the pain that it causes, and looks for an explanation.
In theological studies, this is called theodicy, or “the problem of evil.” And it is a problem for religion. Why does God allow evil to happen? Academically, the question presents a logical problem. If God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all good, then the existence of evil should be impossible. Theologians have therefore had to choose one of those three characteristics and minimize their role, or reframe them. Perhaps God’s “all-goodness” is different than what we call “good.” Or maybe God’s power or knowledge is limited because of free will. These conversations have occupied countless books, papers, lectures and theses—with no consensus.
Yet, as a person who tries to “practice” theology, I know that when I’m asked about the problem of evil, those are not the responses people are looking for. I have my own bias about how to answer that conversation intellectually, but this question almost always hits us in our heart before our head. Just as it is for Miles, the source of doubt may occupy a lot of intellectual space, but it begins at a place of pain.
“The problem of evil” causes pain in our world, and religion is so often practiced in a way that dismisses that or attempts to overrule it. Miles’ father, a reverend (played by Joe Morton), tells his son in an honest moment that his wife’s death causes him to doubt as well—even though he preaches from the pulpit about the ways that God “tests us.” It’s no surprise that Miles’ father, and his theology, was little help to Miles in his distress.
So can this show truly offer answers to the problem of evil? Probably not to our heads. (I fear the show is already heading toward “everything happens for a reason,” a classically flawed and circular answer.) But to our hearts, it offers some hope. Even in the first episode, broken relationships are mended, trajectories are altered, and new relationships form. Most people who have stared evil in the face and still choose to believe in God typically do so because of things like that.
God Friended Me may offer a nice TV escape with enjoyable characters, and cathartic moments of reconciliation that remind us what is most important. It may be biting off more than it can chew, and it might be well on its way to digging itself into an intellectual ditch. But while it will likely not warm any new hearts to God, it might warm them to one another; and I can’t help but think God, by anyone’s imagination or understanding, may be all right with that.