In the first book of the series, Jack Cavanaugh showed evil come behind a beautiful face. In Tartarus, it comes with a smile. And a comedy routine!
The book kicks off with the discovery of an ancient manuscript, a false gospel now unleashed on the world. False gospels have been seen before, but nothing like this one. The Gospel of Thomas didn’t provide directions to find the gifts of the Magi, or a description of advanced physics. But even that is quickly overshadowed when Jesus descends on Mount Olive with a heavenly host and declares, “It was a joke, people!”
While the false Messiah throws Christendom into upheaval, Grant Austin’s life is being thrown into upheaval by angelic visitors. This is what comes of being 1/4 angel: Rebel angels show up in your life, smooth-talking or trash-talking, with questionable proposals involving trips to Sheol. Faithful angels show up, too, friendly enough to help you discover your Nephilim powers, not friendly enough to keep you from falling off a “cosmic cliff” (or to repeatedly bash your head against the wall as part of said training). Grant would rather be the poster boy for normal. Most urgently, he’d rather go to heaven.
As one of Cavanaugh’s characters says: His Nephilim blood condemns him. This is the prevalent view among Christian novelists, and Cavanaugh himself goes at least halfway to accepting it. But he mines deeper into the issue than many authors, asking questions of justice and mercy. Cavanaugh doesn’t hesitate to assert that the unholy union of humans and rebel angels had unholy consequences, yet his handling of the Nephilim is neither one-dimensional nor unsympathetic.
One’s theology of the Nephilim is interesting but unimportant. Christians are divided over whether the “sons of God” – and thus their offspring, the Nephilim – really were angelic. And even if they were, the Bible tells us so little about them, and places them so decisively in the ancient past, that it is a moot question. We probably can’t know the answers, and we certainly don’t need to. What is, theologically, of more concern is Cavanaugh’s account of what immediately followed Jesus’ death: He went to Sheol, preached to the souls there, defeated Satan and his forces, and, “The triumphant Son led his captives and the saints of the past … into the courts of heaven and presented them to the Father.”
This invokes a doctrine called the Harrowing of Hell (some of these doctrines really need to be re-named in modern terms). That belief is stated, among other places, in the Apostles’ Creed: “He descended into hades [hell or Sheol].” A few elliptical passages in the Bible are its basis:
For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. 19 After being made alive, he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits— 20 to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. (1 Peter 3:18-20b)
For this is the reason the gospel was preached even to those who are now dead, so that they might be judged according to human standards in regard to the body, but live according to God in regard to the spirit. (1 Peter 4:6)
Cavanaugh’s reference to captives probably comes from Ephesians 4:8-10.
This is another old debate in Christendom, and I bring it up to point out that whether Cavanaugh is correct or not, he is grounded in the opinions of many orthodox Christians.
The false Christ of Tartarus is, if not a unique idea, at least a unique portrayal. The ruse Cavanaugh invents for his villains is clever and original. Its effectiveness is depressingly realistic. That Hideous Beauty expressed the idea that evil can be beautiful. Tartarus expressed the idea that evil can be genial and even funny. Many have tried to discredit Christianity by making it out to be a lie. Making it out to be a joke, and even a funny one – that is a remarkable touch.
I enjoyed the first book – that’s why I picked up the second – but I was surprised at how much I liked Tartarus. The writing seemed smoother and, somehow, deeper. Characters showed new complexity, their dilemmas took on greater urgency. Like the first book, this one shows imagination and humor. The plot is good, the solutions unexpected and satisfying. It has my recommendation.