I haven’t read George Orwell’s “1984” since high school, but I decided this week would be a good time to re-read it. One gets dozens of new insights re-reading this classic, but one thing that interested me, post-conversion, is Orwell’s relationship with God. Like many atheists or humanists, such as Carl Sagan in the book “Contact,” Orwell unwittingly makes the case for why God exists and why He is necessary.
Let me be clear here: I don’t think there is any reason to believe Orwell was religious or believed in God. He makes fun of Judeo-Christian belief in “Animal Farm” and he is famously quoted as saying that a “totalitarian state is in effect a theocracy.” He is a hero for many atheists and in “1984” he says “God is Power.” What the Big Brother totalitarian state wants in “1984” is to achieve complete and absolute power over everything its Party members feel and think, not just what they do. You can almost imagine Orwell thinking about the “Sermon on the Mount” when writing (although he clearly misunderstands the message of free will inherent in the “Sermon on the Mount,” but smart people have been misunderstanding Jesus’ messages for centuries).
But there are some fascinating exchanges near the end of the book, when Winston is being interrogated by O’Brien, that indicate to me that Orwell left a huge whole in his world and moral view, and readers can fill that whole with God. In fact, many readers may have had the same reaction I had, which was, “the only way Winston can be saved is through believing in God and his absolute morality.”
The totalitarian Big Brother state is, in fact, the kind of government that Satan wanted to achieve. It is a state where people are not allowed to have negative thoughts about the Party and are forced to love Big Brother (which Winston finally does at the very end of the book) through submission to pain and suffering. Orwell sees a Pavlovian response where people are forced through torture to associate any negative thought about the regime with suffering, and therefore they self-censor themselves and become slavish drones. This seems to me a perfect description of how Satan planned on setting up society in the pre-mortal existence. Satan’s secret plan, it seems to me, was to set himself up as the only object of love (HE is Big Brother) and therefore gather absolute power to himself. In O’Brien’s speeches you can almost hear Satan speaking, justifying that the only way to save everybody is through absolute loyalty to the Party (which really means absolute loyalty to him).
What Orwell does not understand is that true Christianity is the opposite of this reality and relies completely on free will. Winston’s yearning for Truth and Freedom are the exact same yearnings that all human beings have because we were born with these desires. Christianity is about achieving and understanding absolute Truth and absolute Freedom.
There is a telling passage near the end of “1984” (p. 270 in my edition) where we read the following exchange between O’Brien and Winston:
“Do you believe in God, Winston?”
“Then what is it, this principle that will defeat us?”
“I don’t know. The spirit of Man.”
“Do you consider yourself a man?”
“If you are a man, Winston, you are the last man. Your kind is extinct; we are the inheritors. Do you understand that you are alone? You are outside history, you are nonexistent.”
What O’Brien is doing here is trying to snuff out the last resistance to Big Brother that Winston carries. It is not enough that Winston act like a loyal Party member — he wants to change his thoughts and feelings so he actually begins to love Big Brother (using torture, of course). The reader is meant to root for Winston to overcome these totalitarian tactics and affirm at the end of the day that his thoughts and feelings cannot be controlled. We are meant to think: “he can kill his body, but he can’t kill his Spirit.”
In fact, Judeo-Christian history and the Book of Mormon are filled with heroes who allow their bodies to be tortured and destroyed but keep on delivering the messages of Truth and Freedom. Jeremiah was imprisoned and tortured repeatedly, Joseph suffered unjustly at the hands of tyrants, as did Stephen, Peter, Paul and Abinadi. And of course the ultimate example of a hero standing up to the destruction of his body but not his Spirit it he Savior himself.
But Orwell misses this opportunity to reaffirm a way of achieving absolute Truth and Freedom. Instead, Winston becomes a total slave, cheering for the regime and losing his ability to love anything except Big Brother. In the end he even completely betrays his one true love, Julia. Again, we have the potential to see here how Heavenly Father’s plan (by loving your spouse perfectly you love Christ and Heavenly Father even more) contrasts completely with Satan’s plan (you can love only Satan).
Orwell’s Spirit of Man is, although he would never describe it this way, a description of God’s absolute morality, what CS Lewis called the “Tao.” Why is killing and torture and lying and stealing universally bad? Because breaking God’s law will inevitably lead to chaos and eventually totalitarianism, imposed by imperfect men. The thing that makes Winston not alone is the fact that God is there for him, and Winston’s appeals to goodness are really an appeal to God. Winston is not nonexistent — he has always existed and he always will exist. No man-made torture can snuff him out, nor can it overcome the rules by which the universe is governed. Good really will win in the end.
To me, Orwell’s vision of the world, relying only on the Spirit of Man, is an incredibly pessimistic one. Man has a long history of continually messing things up. It is only when the Spirit of God enters man that he creates truly good societies. But Orwell had a very imperfect knowledge of the Gospel and therefore would not have been able to even grasp this message. His writings leave a huge gap that should be filled by God.