Note: The following contains potential spoilers for the books of the Founders Trilogy.
Villains who justify destroying the world because they hate God or don’t believe in him—those are a dime a dozen.
But villains who justify destroying the world because they believe in God, hate how corrupt the world is, and want to break the world so badly that God is forced to come down and finally fix the problem of evil?
That’s a much more fascinating motivation.
And that’s one of the reasons Robert Jackson Bennett’s Founders Trilogy intrigued me.
“I intend to force that which created the world to repair its work,” the villainous Tevanne proudly declares in the final book of the series, Locklands. “We must get their attention. Whoever they are. We must break it enough to catch their eye.”
Unlike many books, the Founders Trilogy doesn’t gloss over the fundamental brokenness of the world. And just about every main character in the story has their own way they’re trying to fix that problem.
- Tevanne wants to break the world so badly that God has to return and fix everything.
- Crasedes wants to use magic to rewrite human nature so people are forced to act virtuously.
- Sancia wants to connect everyone into a “hive mind,” believing that if we all fully understood each other, we’d finally stop hurting others.
The final character is the protagonist. And the trilogy concludes by suggesting that yes, if we truly understood each other, the power of empathy would finally fix the world.
It’s an enticing promise for those that share the greater Western cultural mindset that prejudice is the root of all evil.
This elevation of empathy can be seen throughout a variety of works of modern pop culture. The characters of Encanto merely need to talk it out and have better empathy for each other in order to fix their household. WandaVision’s Scarlet Witch doesn’t need to be held accountable when we understand the place of pain she came from. Ditto for the doll villain of Toy Story 4.
Such resolutions suggest in subtler ways what the Founders Trilogy spotlights: we hurt each other only because we don’t understand each other.
This view makes sense when viewed through the moral framework of modern culture. Judgment is the new original sin—and the equality of all people has led to a belief in the equality of all (or at least most) lifestyles and religions. As a result, any view that would claim certain lifestyles or religions are better than others is a threat. But at a human level, because people know they can justify their actions, they want to believe that if someone else also understood their motivations, condemnations would evaporate. As a result, empathy becomes the new salvation narrative.
Sometimes this argument can feel shallow. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who would defend a school shooter or puppy torturer with this line of thinking. To Bennett’s credit, however, he doesn’t shy away from the fact that his argument extends to notorious criminals. As a result, Sancia learns to ally with a mass murderer, since that’s what consistently practiced empathy requires under this worldview.
Bennett seeks to explain through Sancia why we ought to practice such radical empathy: “It was difficult to abhor someone else’s behavior when you also instantly understood why they had gone about that behavior to begin with.” For better or worse, Bennett is faithful to this thematic premise over the course of the story.
The problem with such a view isn’t that it’s completely unbiblical … but that it shares so much with a biblical worldview while missing one critical piece.
The modern focus on empathy gets several truths right. For starters, we’re certainly called to see the core of our humanity in others. The entire book of James points to this truth. We’re directed to see ourselves in those we’re most tempted to view as the “other”: the poor, the abandoned, and those we want to curse. A lack of empathy for such people distances ourselves from the one who made himself the “other” for us. The example of Christ therefore calls us to focus on the common image we bear, not the external circumstances that differentiate us.
Such empathy also ought to keep us from standing over others’ sins in contempt. The parables of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, the Prodigal Son, and the Wedding Feast all point to this truth. “There but for the grace of God go I.” Proper humility calls us to look at even the vilest offender and see the common roots of sin that afflict us both. Bennett is right to point out that if we fully understand someone, we’d see a lot more of ourselves in them than we’d care to admit.
The critical missing piece, however, is that sin stems not from a corrupted understanding but from a corrupted will.
Paul reveals this truth when he points out in Romans 1 that the unbeliever falls not because he’s ignorant of God or his moral truths, but because of a lack of gratitude. James also testifies that knowledge alone is insufficient: “Even the demons believe—and shudder!” (James 2:19). Common sense should teach us the same: how many relationships fail not because one person doesn’t understand the other enough—but because they use their intimate knowledge to hurt the other all the more deeply?
If empathy alone could redeem us, we wouldn’t hurt those closest to us as much as we do.
Hand-waving this fact, as Bennett suggests, yields destructive fruit.
For starters, idolizing empathy leads us to trust dangerous individuals. The conclusion of Locklands suggests that if everyone knew each other’s thoughts and emotions, such a society would automatically become a utopia. But certain kinds of behaviors ought to put us on guard—no matter why the perpetrator engaged in them. When empathy and trust are conflated, the vulnerable are left with no real protection against predators.
In a work of fiction, an author can make sure that trusting a mass murderer on the basis of empathy will turn out okay. In the real world, such stories often turn out much differently.
Idolizing empathy also causes us to forget that the root of evil is far more than narrow-mindedness. Bennett posits that understanding other people is enough to cause hard-hearted villains to put away their sinful practices. As a result, joining the communal hive mind functions as a heart transformation. But how often do attempts to get someone to empathize fail, not because the hardened individual doesn’t understand but because he doesn’t care? Certain people refuse to change no matter how much they are informed of the consequences.
As a result, empathy fails as a means of salvation because it presumes that understanding alone is enough to compel virtuous behavior.
Ironically, at the end of the day, the villain of the Founders Trilogy understood the matter better than the heroes. We need more than just understanding—we need redemption.
Only God himself coming down to earth to fix our mess will be able to set the world aright. Ironically, Tevanne believes that—but his plans are thwarted and he never gets to find out if it’s true.
But we do.
While the Founders Trilogy posits a false gospel, that isn’t to imply that the series isn’t worth reading. I much prefer reading a series that grapples with weighty moral questions (even if I disagree with the way it attempts to resolve them) than milquetoast fiction peddling vague, uncontroversial truths. The former at least encourages us to think and wrestle through deep questions. And Bennett earns my respect for defending the logical ends of his worldview, as opposed to only defending “easy cases.”
Plus, when a story explores such important themes amidst an entertaining blend of crazy worldbuilding, thrilling heists, and spectacle-laden action scenes, it’s a captivating read.
But while engaging with depictions of false gospels is important, we should not be fooled by such promises. While it may be tempting to believe that empathy can redeem sinful man, “the task is beyond us,” as Tevanne the villain explains. When “given a broken creation,” it will take the entrance of God himself to fix everything.
Unlike the broken world of the Founders Trilogy, though, we don’t have an absent clockmaker who needs to be forced to return, but one who chose to enter the world.
A God who sympathizes with our weaknesses—but who did more than just empathize by joining our suffering so he could rewrite our natures.
At the end of the day, that’s a far more encouraging hope than believing that the responsibility of fixing the world rests on our shoulders.