The Seventh Seal; Asking questions is good, even if you’re asking the Grim Reaper.

Yesterday, I was sitting in a lecture where we were discussing the philosophy of Ingmar Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal”, when I encountered something which made me have to bite my tongue to stop from arguing up a storm with the lecturer. I thought I’d lay it out for your attention, and your opinions on the matter.

For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, “The Seventh Seal” is a film set in the dark ages, centring on Antonius Block (as played by Max von Sydow, one of the coolest names I’ve heard), a knight returning from the Crusades to a country plagued by the Black Death. As he lands, shipwrecked on the shore, he encounters Death himself. In an attempt to prolong his life, he challenges Death to a game of chess. And so it begins…

If you can't guess, Death is the guy on the left.

Over the course of the plot we discover that during the Crusades, he has lost his faith in god, and seeks to use his brief extension of his life to find meaning: either proof of God’s existence or lack thereof, or a cause worth dying for. His quest even takes him so far as to talk to a “witch”* about to be burned at the stake for consorting with the devil, hoping to meet the devil himself, and question him.

While discussing this, the nature of the character of Block was raised, and the lecturer, along with a few of my colleagues, seemed to be of the opinion that his search was a particularly arrogant thing to do. That to search for proof of God’s existence is a particularly smug action, and made the character (otherwise the closest thing in the film to a hero) into a bad person, or at least a flawed one. This, obviously, bothered me greatly; the search for conclusive answers is a fine motivation for a character. The desire to know is precisely what has dragged us out from the very dark ages that the film portrays.

Block himself is even put in a unique position to answer these questions easily and simply. He is talking to Death himself, the embodiment of one the fundamental factors of life. No-one is more likely to know the answer to such questions, beyond God himself and his angelic posse.

Seems like a good enough reason to doubt his existence to me.

So how is Block being arrogant? He attempts to capitalise on his incredibly unique situation to find an answer to a question that millions of people have a (vested) interest in. To put it another way – if you were put in a situation to find out the answer to such a question easily and simply, would you do it? If, in some bizarre set of circumstances, you were given an envelope which contained conclusive evidence one way or the other about the existence of God, would you open it? Or better yet, would you ask someone, such as Death, or the Devil, or someone else nigh on guaranteed to know, if God exists?

Or would you, out of courtesy, decline? I mean, you have the opportunity to know a simple, crucial, fundamental fact about reality. An answer to a binary yes/no question which would change the way you look at the world. Would you, should you, refuse to ask, on the grounds that someone might think you are rude?

In a word:


Of course not!! You might as well refuse to look out of the window to see if it’s raining for fear of stepping on the weatherman’s turf. And to criticise someone for doing so is madness itself.

I am an atheist. I am such because I see no good evidence for God’s existence, and in fact I can think of some pretty good reasons why it is highly unlikely, if not totally 100% certain, that the world hasn’t been ordered by any all powerful, all knowing, kind, loving being. Simon Cowell and Jeremy Clarkson to name a few.

But the chance to have an answer one way or another? I’d leap at it. I’d pay for the opportunity. If you handed me that envelope, or if I met Death on the street, I’d be over the moon. Because knowing is always better, and being proven right or wrong is what science is all about. In the words of Tim Minchin:

“If you show me
That, say, homeopathy works,
Then I will change my mind
I’ll spin on a fucking dime
I’ll be embarrassed as hell,
But I will run through the streets yelling
It’s a miracle! Take physics and bin it!
Water has memory!
And while it’s memory of a long lost drop of onion juice is Infinite
It somehow forgets all the poo it’s had in it!”

Whereas I have the sneaking suspicion that those who wouldn’t ask Death the question, and those who would sneer at the “arrogance” of those who would, do so not because they already know, but because they know that they would rather be ignorant than proven wrong. It’s like an inverse Pascal’s wager:

I would hate to be so afraid of being in one of the red boxes that I couldn’t ask the question or open my eyes. Antonius Block may get no answer, for Death is “unknowing”, and the Devil absent. But at least he dares ask.


If you want a much less kind version of Pascal’s Inverse Wager, as I am calling it now, I am more than happy to oblige.

The bottom right box here totally ignores the positive side, of being able to have sex without feeling guilty, as well as do all of the other fun stuff that having no religion implies. As well as the capacity to laugh at Kent Hovind and his son, Eric, without feeling a little bit guilty.

* Made clear in the film to be not a witch at all, but just a poor young girl with a severe mental illness. Who woulda thunk it?


Posted on October 18, 2011, in Normal Type and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. great post. i just wrote about bergman on my blog also.

    • Cool! I’m just having a look through yours at the moment.

      I don’t know about any of his other films, but I found The Seventh Seal to be funny rather than sober. I’ll probably have to watch some more.

  2. yeah, i also find it funny, but in a dark/ironic way. that is how we have to interpret all of his films in order to not go crazy.

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