Mark Twain’s most disturbing novel tells of three Austrian boys who live in the town of Eseldorf (German for “Donkeytown”). They’re walking through a forest one day when they meet a handsome young man who introduces himself as Satan. The boys back warily away, but the young man explains he’s not the real Satan but a nephew who was named after him. Young Satan is an angel who has come down from heaven to visit earth.
What happens in that forest makes it hard to believe it was written by the author ofTom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. The Mysterious Stranger was written years after those two famous novels, and Twain was obsessed with its topic, writing at least three different versions of the story.
There in the Austrian forest, Nephew Satan fascinates the boys with his ability to do miracles—but with a grotesque twist. During the walk, he pauses beside a puddle of water. Reaching down for a small pinch of mud, he forms it into a tiny human-like figure. He sets it on the ground, and it starts walking around.
The boys are flabbergasted and watch as Satan continues making other tiny humans. Because of his careless haste, some have legs of different lengths and other deformities, but they valiantly hobble along, nevertheless. The boys soon realize that the little people have begun using the mud to build a tiny castle, adding turrets and a moat. Suddenly Satan casually reaches down, snatches one up, kills it, and tosses its body to the ground.
Horrified, the boys ask the angel why he would do such a thing. He shrugs his shoulders.
“I was the one who created them,” he says. “Don’t I have the right to destroy them?”
I don’t own the book and haven’t read it since college, so I’m depending on its Wikipedia entry for Nephew Satan’s final quote. Just before he departs back to heaven, he gives the boys one final message:
“There is no God,” he says, “no universe, no human race, no earthly life, no heaven, no hell. It is all a dream—a grotesque and foolish dream. Nothing exists but you. And you are but a thought—a vagrant thought, a useless thought, a homeless thought, wandering forlorn among the empty eternities!”1
Isn’t that bloodcurdling? You’ll never read Tom Sawyer the same way again, right? Actually, in both Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, the careful reader can spot hints of Twain’s growing agnosticism. And what didn’t help were the deaths of his own 19-month-old son and two of his three daughters.
With his usual fierce honesty, Samuel Clemens (Twain’s real name) faced these agonizing questions for many years, and for all we know, he went to his grave believing the last words of his fictional angel.
avoiding the Twain trap
Samuel Clemens, of course, wasn’t the only one who suffered terrible grief and sought answers. Yet some who’ve gone through what he did have emerged with their faith stronger than ever.
But how? How can someone avoid the Twain trap or the Clemens confusion?
You see, when the real Satan visited the real Garden of Eden (Genesis 3), he presented Eve with a similar pessimism package: God is a liar. God is selfish. God doesn’t want the best for you. Jesus, of course, flatly disagrees. He branded Satan as “the father of lies” (John 8:44) and insisted that He Himself was “the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6; emphasis added).
It’s hard to change long-held “God ideas,” no matter how misguided. But I’d like to suggest one way this can happen. Recently, I’ve done some study in the first chapters of Genesis, and I think if Samuel Clemens could have stepped aside from what he considered Christianity’s hypocrisy and just settled down to read Genesis 1, he might have seen God’s character in a more favorable light.
Why not grab a Bible (paper or online) and read Genesis 1 right now before we go any further? It’ll take you just two or three minutes.
the Genesis solution
A lot of people read the Bible’s first chapter focused on how God created everything and in what order. But hidden in these familiar verses are five powerful “reveals” about how much God really cares. Here’s the first one:
God cares enough to be present. Each member of the Trinity was right there during this planet’s first week. Genesis 1:2 says that “the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” God the Father is present, saying such things a “Let there be light” (verse 3) and “Let the land produce vegetation” (verse 11). And amazingly, Jesus, the Son of God, was there too. John 1:1, 2 insists “He [Jesus] was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made.” And Colossians 1:16 says, “For in him [Jesus] all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible . . . ; all things have been created through him” (Colossians 1:16).
In April, the first SpaceX Starship was launched from near Brownsville, Texas. No one was on board because it was just a test of the rocket. The test failed, and the rocket is still a work in progress. But guess who was literally sitting in the front row in the control room? SpaceX CEO Elon Musk. He didn’t plan to be anywhere else!
God cares enough to be present. What should I do with that news? I can have faith in a God who loves to be near. I can feel secure in talking to Him, taking Him into my confidence.
Here’s the next “reveal”:
God cares enough to build well. Look at the skin on the back of your index finger. Using the thumbnail and a fingernail from your other hand, pinch that skin. It hurts, right?
But glance down at the end of your finger, and you see your fingernail. Since you’ve often trimmed it with a fingernail clipper, you know that fingernails can’t feel pain. And you have pain-sensor-free nails at the ends of all your fingers. A baby grows them within its mom’s uterus. Superb design, right?
God designed the whole universe to be predictable. Everything from subatomic particles all the way out to the billions of galaxies that the James Webb space telescope is systematically squinting at was well built. When we launch Mars rovers into space, we don’t aim the rocket at Mars but at where Mars will be in seven months. We can do that because celestial orbits are so well-designed that they are predictable.
And God wasn’t shy about evaluating the quality of His work. Every once in a while, He would pause and say that it was “good” (Genesis 1:4, 10, 18, 21, 25). And when He was finished, He summed it up this way: “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.” (verse 31) We have a “craftsman” God who takes pride in doing a good job.
Now for something really breathtaking:
God cares enough to share creatorship. God not only speaks grass, vegetables, fruit trees, and other growing things into existence, but He also gives them the ability to re-create themselves. And starting with verse 20, we are told He shares the same ability with all living creatures, the birds, and the sea creatures. He tells them to “be fruitful and increase in number” (verse 22). He later gives the same command—and the same ability—to humanity (verse 28).
If Samuel Clemens, who was an inventor as well as a writer, had discovered this truth, he would have learned that God isn’t concerned with patents or profit making. He’s an inventor-philanthropist who donates His creations freely for the good of His created beings. God cares enough to share.
Want to know something even more amazing?
God cares enough to reproduce Himself in us. That is a truly staggering idea. Mark Twain’s “Nephew Satan” scrabbled together glops of mud to hastily create little people, people he didn’t care for in the least. But watch what God did:
First, He purposely planned: “Then God said, ‘Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness’ ” (verse 26). Then He executed the plan: “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (verse 27).
When was the last time you looked at some really old family photos, such as your mom or dad, when they were young? It’s eerie—you have their ears, or their mouth, or (thank you very much, Dad) their hairline!
And no wonder. Your mom and dad created you in their own image. And they loved that you looked like them because they loved you. They seldom grew weary of looking at the newborn you, pondering the miracle they had created.
Now get ready for one more “reveal” about how much God cares:
God cares enough to nourish humanely. After telling the first humans to be good caretakers of all life forms besides themselves, He gives them some nutrition instruction: “Then God said, ‘I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food’ ” (verses 29, 30).
Wow! God should have called it the Garden of Vegan! Seriously, can you imagine the serenity in those meadows of Paradise? Robins didn’t have to listen for burrowing earthworms. Lions didn’t have to prowl for prey. In fact, the Bible prophetically states that when the Messiah re-creates this world after the destruction of pain, sorrow, suffering, and death,
The wolf will live with the lamb,
the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
and a little child will lead them.
The cow will feed with the bear,
their young will lie down together,
and the lion will eat straw like the ox.
The infant will play near the cobra’s den,
the young child put his hand into the viper’s nest.
They will neither harm nor destroy
on all my holy mountain,
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD
as the waters cover the sea (Isaiah 11:6–9).
My heart aches for Mark Twain. I’ve read many of his books and enjoyed each one (except The Mysterious Stranger). And my heart hopes that as you’ve read this article, you’ll have discovered a God who truly does care.
Maylan Schurch is a pastor in Washington State and a frequent contributor to Signs of the Times®.