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The horror! The horror!

To enable students to reflect on the horrors of our world but at the same to understand that God will be victorious over evil.

by Paul Hess

Suitable for Whole School (Sec)


To enable students to reflect on the horrors of our world but at the same to understand that God will be victorious over evil.

Preparation and materials

  • Sensitivity must be shown to younger students given some of the subject matter.
  • You may wish to use a piece of music, poetry or images that would provide a focus for reflection on some of the darker elements of the human experience. Something like Barber’s Adagio is sombre and evocative and may create the right atmosphere. Very different and much more contemporary is the song referred to in this assembly – Paul Hardcastle’s ‘19’, an arresting song about the experience of young American soldiers in the Vietnam War.
  • You will need the quotation from Joseph Conrad (Heart of Darkness and Other Stories, Wordsworth, p. 97).
  • A Bible.
  • Desmond Tutu’s acceptance speech on receiving the James Madison University’s Mahatma Gandhi Center for Global Nonviolence Award, 21 September 2007, can be found at


  1. Read the excerpt from Heart of Darkness (see above): From ‘Anything approaching the change that came over his features’ and ending ‘The horror! The horror!’
  2. I hope that at some point each of you will have the opportunity to read Joseph Conrad’s searing novel, Heart of Darkness, the story upon which the film Apocalypse Now was based. While the film adapted the setting to Vietnam, the book itself is about a difficult journey up the Congo in colonial Africa. However, on a much deeper level the book is a profound and disturbing journey into the darkness within our very souls.

    At its defining moment, just quoted, Conrad describes the last words of Kurtz, who arrived in Africa as an idealistic young trader, but has long since inhabited a world where he has seen and committed actions too terrible to describe. All he can do – with his dying breath – is cry out: ‘The horror! The horror!’
  3. The last century of human history has seen a catalogue of horrors – most of which, like the things Kurtz has seen, seem too terrible to contemplate. The gas chambers of World War Two, the cold-blooded cruelty of Stalin, the seeming senseless savagery of the Vietnam War (referred to in Paul Hardcastle’s iconic song ‘19’), the massacre of 800,000 people in three months in Rwanda in 1994, the massacres in Darfur, the conflict in the Middle East – sadly we could go on and on.
  4. In recent years for us in the West the defining image of horror remains the 9/11 attacks on New York in 2001. And at an individual level, perhaps no one has encapsulated the evil of which humans are capable, the perverse depths to which they can sink, than Josef Fritzl and the unspeakable deeds of cruelty he committed. (You may need to expand here.)

    ‘The horror! The horror!’
  5. In acts such as these we are confronted with the great mystery of evil – and we ask ‘Why?’ and ‘How?’ But as we reflect on the evil so obviously at work in the lives of those who commit such awful deeds, we must acknowledge that there is evil potentially alive in each one of us as we give way to selfishness, prejudice, bitterness, anger, jealousy or hatred. This is exactly what Conrad means when he talks about the ‘Heart of Darkness’.
  6. In such a world of personal and social evil, it would be easy to become depressed, to lose hope. Yet as we are forced to face the mystery of evil, we are presented with another great mystery – the mystery of God’s love. It is a love that no hatred or darkness can destroy. It is God’s love, which brings us hope and the promise of redemption in the midst of the darkness and violence within our world and within ourselves.
  7. The cross is a symbol of the horror. It was an instrument of cruel torture and death. Yet in the midst of all of that, we see revealed in the cross the triumph of love and forgiveness. Even as they inflict pain upon him, Jesus forgives his wrongdoers – ‘Father forgive for they know not what they do.’

    The cross and the resurrection give expression to a sacred principle that God has woven into the very fabric of the universe: love is stronger than hate, light is stronger then darkness, life is stronger the death.
  8. During the darkest days of apartheid in South Africa, Archbishop Desmond Tutu would remind people that despite the evil and horror they saw around them, they lived in a moral universe. In one of his sermons he said: ‘That there is no way in which evil, wrong, injustice can have the last word. No, it is their glorious counterparts, right, justice, freedom, and goodness, which do indeed ultimately prevail.’

Time for reflection

The great victory which Michael and his angels win over the devil illustrates the truth at the heart of the gospel: that God’s love will vanquish evil and horror.

Read Revelation 12.7–12.


Lord, we bring before you all the suffering and evil within our world –

but we also rejoice in the faith which proclaims the victory of love.

Publication date: July 2009   (Vol.11 No.7)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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