Where God Builds a Church…

…the devil builds a chapel, or so goes the saying of Luther (Table Talk LXVII). In other words, the devil always goes to work most fiercely at the point where the work of God is being done most faithfully. Where there is apostasy, the devil doesn’t have to do anything other than perhaps give a gentle nudge in the direction in which people are already going. But where God’s Word is being faithfully preached, there the devil is “ever God’s ape.”

Today, of course, it is in only a few unenlightened places that people still believe in either God or the devil. Most of us have thrown off the dark and shadowy weight of superstition for the cold light emanating from the new gods of Science and Self. And yet something fascinates us about the possibility of a realm we cannot observe empirically. Is it really a coincidence that in a time where we are exhorted almost daily to “believe” in and “follow” science (as if it were a Being to whom we owe our undivided allegiance), people seem ever more ready to seek something “spiritual” or “other,” whether it is gods, spirits, aliens, or various unseen forces?

In a world where everything frightens us except perhaps the things that should, shows like HBO’s 30 Coins (30 Monedas) remind us that we are not able to close the borders between the seen and the unseen as completely as we might like. Though it sometimes gets a little silly and it has hints of breathless, Dan-Brown-type religious conspiracies, we should hesitate to let its fantastical and over-the-top setting disguise its more serious themes. It works best not as serious discourse on Christianity or the Roman Catholic Church, but at the deeper level of the reality of evil and what it has to do with God (or what God has to do with evil).

The conceit of the show is built up around an understanding of the gnostic text of the “Gospel of Judas,” in which Judas is the one disciple who receives full knowledge (gnosis) from Jesus. He betrays “Jesus,” but in the text of the gospel, it is apparently Jesus’ empty, physical form. His true, spiritual self is released from his physical self. The opposition of the (evil) material and the (good) spiritual is a common gnostic belief. In 30 Coins, this idea is spun into a whole anti-theology—in fact, a theodicy—that “explains” the problem of evil. That is, the apparent opposition of good and evil in the world is only a pretense. The true “gnosis” is that God contains evil within His own existence, and needs evil (somehow) to show what is good, in the same way that Jesus “needed” Judas. So Judas ends up the “good” guy, because he sacrificed himself for the greatest Good!


In 30 Coins, those who carry on the work of Judas as the inverse of the “official” Church are the Cainites, who take their name from a gnostic sect that apparently held the Gospel of Judas as a sacred text. (Irenaeus has no patience for any of this.) As interesting and ridiculous as all that is (and the many versions of gnostic belief are about as far as one can get from the canonical Gospels and the Jesus to which they bear witness), it would be a mistake to get lost in those trees and miss the forest in 30 Coins. What is far more interesting (to me, at least) is the underlying battle between good and evil, and the ambiguity that produces in this world, because it is difficult to tell good people from evil people.

In the world of 30 Coins, there is a “church” that is the polar opposite of the Church, where the priests wear white suits and cassocks with black collars. It is a reversal of the common older trope that the good guys wear white and the bad guys wear black. Their plan is to collect all 30 silver coins which were paid to Judas to betray Jesus, and this will somehow give them power to destroy the Church, as well as the distinction between good and evil with which the official Church has operated. The anti-church is opposed by the disgraced exorcist, Father Vergara; the mayor of Pedraza, Paco; and the veterinarian, Elena. As usual, the Roman Church makes a good setting for conspiracy narratives because of its international reach and perceived power.

Some suspension of disbelief is called for at this point, since it is not clear how or why these coins or other anti-relics would have any power. (And if Hitler had five of them, why do the Cainites need all 30 to destroy the Church? Seems like 29 would do the trick.) For that matter, how does the blood of St. Ambrose somehow gives Father Vergara supernatural powers of sight? At any rate, the “how” is certainly not the focus of the story.  

The magical use of religious items, though largely foreign to Lutherans, reminds me of the novels of Charles Williams, who emphasized that the barriers between the seen and the unseen are more porous than we tend to believe. (I especially recommend All Hallows’ Eve, War in Heaven, and Descent into Hell.) More than that, Williams often has people using some kind of magic, empowered by things like the four Hebrew letters in the Name of God. These are generally evil people, who appear attractive to others, but whose true intentions are later revealed to be demonic. And in good dramatic fashion, there are often only one or two people who see the danger and fight back, even though victory seems impossible.

So it is in 30 Coins. Running beneath the whole series is the question of the problem of evil, to which many people have tried to give answers by which God may be justified (theodicy comes from the Greek words for “to justify” and “God”). The Cainites believe that God and the Devil, Good and Evil, are all part of the same reality, and therefore are both necessary. This is, in fact, probably the easy answer to why God allows such immense suffering and evil in the world. God allows it because He wants or needs it.

But the alternative—and the Christian—answer is not that God tolerates or excuses or allows evil as a necessary part of His existence, but that He takes all the evil that the devil produces and in which humans engage, and He turns it all to His own good in Jesus Christ. For the time being, this is a less satisfying answer to us, but we have the promise that this is not an everlasting struggle; Good and Evil are not equally powerful, or equally necessary, opponents. What is hidden for now is not the evil conspiracy that will appear and be victorious, but the victory of Jesus in His death and resurrection that will be revealed at the end. As Chesterton put it, commenting on that greatest Biblical conundrum of evil, the Book of Job: the riddles of God are more satisfying than the solutions of man.

And—final spoiler!—the good guys win (at least temporarily) because a dove (emblem of the Holy Spirit) harries Cardinal Santoro and Father Vergara selflessly sacrifices himself to kill Santoro. The final scenes leave open the possibility of a second season based around Paco’s wife Merche’s shameless ambitions, along with Angelo’s/the devil’s escape via another mirror. But the show itself refuses to accept the Cainites’ premise, and in the absence of the charismatic leader, evil destroys and devours itself. Evil continues to appear in the world, continues to provoke wickedness and destruction. People continue to be taken in by the lies that promise power and success to those who accept the empty guarantees of the Evil One. For now, the building of both God’s church and the devil’s chapels goes on. It is a continually new story and, at the same time, the oldest story.