If you’ve ever taken a road trip through the Pacific Northwest, you’ve probably seen a bumper sticker for a place called Gravity Falls. – Dipper Pines, Gravity Falls S2E20
Those who know me best know I have a small obsession with a two-season Disney cartoon series named Gravity Falls.
Created by the questionably sane Alex Hirsch, the series aired on Disney and Disney XD from June 2012 to February 2016, and while it’s not Disney’s most popular release by any means, it generated what can best be described as a cult following. There is so much to love about this show, and countless videos and blogs have been made exploring its content and secrets, so I don’t want to spend too much time rehashing all that. Suffice it to say if you’ve never heard of it, I recommend it to anyone looking for something relatively lighthearted but with humor and a story line that appeals to younger and older audiences alike. As of this publication, the entire series is currently on Hulu and Disney+.
One of the many things I love about Gravity Falls is how candidly it treats very deep, heady, existential issues at times. I think of S2E15, entitled “The Last Mabelcorn” wherein (SPOILER) one of the main characters, Mabel Pines, must retrieve hair from a unicorn by proving to be pure of heart, but then later realizes, after being shunned by the unicorn as impure, that the unicorns can’t actually measure a person’s goodness and are just passing off that stunt to be jerks.Mabel, who up until this point has been doing every good deed she can think of to prove her goodness and purity of heart, reminiscent of a medieval monk performing self-flagellation trying to earn their way to heaven, flips out with her posse and has an all out brawl with the unicorns (who by this time have multiplied) and gets the hair. She returns to her family, where they tell her that she is a good person for getting this to help protect them. She then turns to the side and says thank you but “today I learned that morality is relative.”
Up until this point, Alex Hirsch by way of this story line has made an almost decent case for relative morality, that what is right or wrong varies from person to person.
Then her con man uncle runs in and steals the treasure they brought back with them and completely dismantles the whole argument without saying anything.
So that kind of humor. Anyway, back to the topic at hand.
As I was going back through and rewatching the show not too long ago, something caught my attention, and I think it actually provides a really good way of looking at a very contentious and hard topic within Christian theology: the problem of evil. For those unfamiliar with the term, the problem of evil is the supposed incompatibility of the existence of God with the existence of evil in the world. It’s a problem that has frustrated believers and unbelievers alike since Old Testament times, even those who communed with God personally.
But what the heck is the problem of evil doing in a kids show like this? Well, it’s subtle, but let me show you.
Rewatching the series, I was nearing the end when I got to S2E19, the second to last episode wherein it’s the challenge of the main heroes of the episode Dipper Pines, Wendy Corduroy, and Soos Ramirez to rescue Dipper’s twin sister Mabel from a prison that the main villain Bill Cypher, a dream demon from another dimension, has trapped her in. This prison, as it turns out, is actually fairly easy to escape from, however the true diabolical nature of it is that it’s a prison that Mabel doesn’t want to escape from, even when she knows what it is. As it turns out, Mabel’s prison is a fantasy land of everything she has ever dreamed of. All her wishes have come true, anything she wants to happen does, and it’s all sunshine and rainbows, literally. This is especially poignant due to the fact that she had just experienced one of the worst days of her life in the real world before being trapped in this prison.
Initially, Dipper’s main argument to try to convince her to leave her prison is that he needs her to come back and save the world (which is in chaos at this point) and try to defeat Bill with him. But to a preteen girl who just had the worst day of her life and is facing the prospect of growing older and losing her close family ties in the real world, staying in this fantasy land is a far more preferable option. Through a series of events far too elaborate and bizarre to get into right now, Dipper ends up having to defend his case of “Fantasy vs. Reality” in court against Mabel.
Mabel, or rather her attorneys Xyler and Craz, present what they describe as a “simple” case for preferring fantasy over reality. And it is here that we start to see how the problem of evil is playing a key role in this plot. Their case is simply that reality has always been ruining Mabel’s hopes and dreams and leaving her devastated and sad, including recent events throughout their summer in Gravity Falls, and even a time as a child in 2nd grade when a school bully stuck gum in her hair right before her school yearbook photo. They even try to win Dipper over to their side by referencing a time a few years after that when he was made fun of for not getting any Valentine’s Day cards at school. The whole point, in broader terms applicable to the problem of evil, is that the world is full of evil and suffering, and a world where that isn’t the case is better, plain and simple.
Now here’s the thing, all of us encounter this type of thinking on a daily basis, especially in arguments about the existence of God. If God exists and is so good and loving, why does He allow evil in this world? Wouldn’t a world where that isn’t even possible be an inherently better world? We humans constantly are trying to escape from reality, be it through social media, video games, television shows, fantasy novels, anything to get us into a world that just might be better than our own. So yes, Mabel’s fantasy world may not be real, but like Mabel says in the episode, “You can’t argue with the results. People are happy.” So is it really so bad?
Dipper at this point musters up everything he has in presenting his side of the case. What could he possibly say against the idea that a world where evil and suffering doesn’t exist is preferable to one that does?
His response is actually more profound than I think most people realize. In essence, he says yes, the world is screwed up. They’ve been through some really difficult times. But looking back, how did they get through them? By leaning on each other. Going back to the 2nd grade photo shoot, while Dipper couldn’t fix Mabel’s problem, he did give the option of shaving off that part of her hair and then shaving that part of his head in return to match her. They laugh and go through with it, and their bond in love strengthens. When Dipper didn’t get any Valentines and went off to a closet to cry, Mabel did the best she could and glued all of hers together and gave them to Dipper. Even throughout all the challenges and hardships they have endured throughout their summer in Gravity Falls, they always had each other to lean on, and in doing so became even closer and realized just how valuable their relationship as brother and sister was.
Now whether viewers realize it or not, this is a transcendent moment in the show. You forget about all the ridiculous and often humorous things these characters have been through that could only happen in a cartoon and find something that reaches beyond the boundary of animation into the world where we are.
So what does this have to do with the problem of evil? Dipper’s response is actually an echo of the theodicy (defense against the problem of evil) presented by the 2nd century Church Father Irenaeus. In essence, his argument is that God’s creation of man takes place in two stages. First is the initial creation, “Let us make man in our image.” Second is the development of man, which takes place only through living life. It is through this process of living and encountering hardships that man grows in his relationship to God and in his essential humanity, and will thus become fully formed in every aspect. The Fall has obviously compounded these issues beyond their original extent, but even in a world affected by sin, we still face troubles and hardships with the same prospective outcome, to grow as humans in the image of God that we were created in. God allows suffering and evil because through it, if we rely on Him even and especially when we don’t understand it, we become all that He has meant for us to be. And this has been the case since even before the Fall.
Now, an objection could be raised at this point. Wasn’t man created perfect? If so, then what would be the point of introducing trials and hardship? To make him somehow more perfect? Philosopher William Lane Craig has argued in a separate context that the answer to the first question is in fact no, man was not created perfect. The fact that man had the ability to choose evil and did is evidence that he was not morally perfect, rather only morally innocent. Man was still tasked with growing in his knowledge and understanding of living out a morally perfect life. Follow the link for a more in depth look at more of the issues raised there.
The implication then is that God’s intention in creating us morally innocent was so that through time and trial, we would, in the power of God, be continually making decisions that would grow us as persons made in the image of God. The flesh was made, but the soul had to be nurtured to maturity. Hence why this theodicy is also often times called the “Soul-Making Theodicy.”
Throughout their summer in Gravity Falls, Dipper and Mabel constantly came up on new challenges and struggles. But throughout all of it, they constantly leaned on each other to get them through it. Neither one of them could have taken on all that Gravity Falls had in store for them alone. And yes, while this is an animated series somewhat removed from the real world (understatement of the year), is this not true in the world we live in too? How many of us really think we can get through all that this life has to throw at us by ourselves? And in facing these challenges, do we not grow as people and as souls? I’m sure all of us can think back to a time when we went through something difficult but came out stronger on the other side. Irenaeus would submit that that is the way God has designed this world, and I am inclined to agree. Is this a perfect, comprehensive explanation for all the evil in the world? Of course not, and I don’t think it’s intended to be. But it’s a good place to start, and it causes us to cast our minds back to the truth that God is sovereign, and that “all things work together for good.”
So bravo Alex Hirsch, not only did you create a masterful television series, but you brought Irenaeus and his theodicy into a readily applicable 21st century context.
Yet another reason this is one of my favorite shows.
Nick Henretty is a music and audio producer, podcaster, and blogger based out of Richmond, Virginia. He has worked with organizations such as Inspiring Philosophy, Deeper Waters with Nick Peters, and Moral Apologetics Press, and currently hosts the 3 Priests Walk in a Bar podcast promoting ecumenism between different Christian denominations. He has a passion for peeling back the surface layers of pop culture issues to expose the deep and abiding questions at the heart of the human experience and showing how the person of Christ is the answer and fulfillment to them.