The primary theme addressed by Saramago is theodicy. Saramago’s is a type of protest theodicy, an approach inspired by Elie Wiesel’s work that questions the total goodness of God. The God of The Gospel According to Jesus Christ has little concern for the needy. God predetermines the course of history and is unable to rescind what he has willed, even prior to its realization. Free will is an illusion; all proceeds according to God’s plan.
In this world, there is a strict balance between good and evil. Good cannot exist without evil, nor God without the devil. The harmony of the universe requires that Satan thrive and prosper, “but the Lord will always have the last word.” To adherents of traditional Christianity this might sound like good news. To those familiar with the workings of Saramago’s God, this is small consolation, for “His pleasure is as terrifying as His displeasure.”
The Jesus Christ of The Gospel According to Jesus Christ follows the Chalcedonian definition of fully human and fully divine. Until God speaks to him in the desert, Jesus lives an ordinary life. Once God reveals to Jesus his destiny, Jesus develops his divine power, always using it for good. Yet Jesus always bears a burden of guilt for the Bethlehem innocents.
Those familiar with canonical stories of Jesus will recognize many of the incidents of the novel. A key story is lacking, however; there is no resurrection. Saramago ends with the Crucifixion, leaving one to question whether there is ultimate merit to Jesus’ death.