The concept of forbidden knowledge is fascinating because of its place in both fiction and the real world. For hundreds of years, religious and political organisations have used censorship forbid material they found objectionable. The most obvious example of this has been a list of banned or forbidden books and other material. Today, it is more likely to refer to the cancel culture.
The use of the concept of forbidden knowledge in horror fiction is related but different. Instead of an external authority forbidding knowledge that you want to attain, this refers to your own forbidding of knowledge that you have already attained. In other words, after having learned something, it is so terrible that you wish you could forget it. It isn’t someone else that deems the knowledge too dangerous. That’s a judgement you made for yourself. But why?
Forbidden Knowledge in HP Lovecraft
Forbidden knowledge plays a central role in the stories of HP Lovecraft. Many of his stories have a detective or discovery arc. The central character begins his hero’s journey with curiosity and questions. As he finds answers, their nature is to disturb rather than edify or enlighten. Then, at the end, there is some monstrous revelation that sends him mad, makes him bad, or at the very least puts him to flight, full of nightmares and regret that he now knows what he knows.
This concept of forbidden knowledge is central to Lovecraft’s literary philosophy of Cosmicism. One of its central principles is that knowledge is dangerous and happiness requires ignorance. The nature of reality is horrific and the place of humanity is the universe is insignificant. But it’s not just this knowledge of our external situation that leads to madness. Self-knowledge – for example, of one’s family history, genealogy, or true nature – that is too heavy a weight for our fragile minds to bear.
Forbidden Knowledge in the Bible
What interests me about many of the biblical stories is that it’s not exactly clear which of the two types of forbidden knowledge is under discussion. Clearly, since it is a religious book (or, more accurately, a collection of religious texts with varying genres), there are many religious proscriptions and prohibitions. Don’t do this, don’t eat that.
But there are other instances when it seems like a knowledge of certain things is forbidden for our own good. If we saw the thing or knew the thing, our finite and/or sinful minds would not be able to deal with it. Knowledge of certain things isn’t just unlawful; it is either impossible or harmful. The tree of knowledge was good and its fruit made one wise. But eating from it was forbidden for a time, and the breaking of this command led to the Fall of Man.
Forbidden Knowledge of God’s Appearance
According to the Bible, God alone has immortality, dwelling in unapproachable light, “whom no man has seen or can see” (1 Timothy 6:16). Because of this, it has been forbidden to try and see God. This is why it was forbidden to try and make an image or idol of God for religious purposes (see the Second Commandment – Exodus 20:4-6).
After an initial curiosity, Moses hid his face from the burning bush because “he was afraid to look upon God” (Exodus 3:3, 6). Years later, when God descended on Mount Sini to give the ten commandments, God warned Moses to warn the people “lest they break through to gaze at the Lord, and many of them perish” (19:21). Later on, Moses asked the special favour: to see God’s glory. God replied:
“I will make all My goodness pass before you. But you cannot see My face; for no man shall see Me, and live…So it shall be, while My glory passes by, that I will put you in the cleft of the rock, and will cover you with My hand while I pass by. Then I will take away My hand, and you shall see My back; but My face shall not be seen.”Exodus 33:19-23
The judge Gideon (Judges 6:22-23) and the parents of the mighty judge Samon (13:22) all thought they were going to die because they saw God. Jabob knew he had God’s favour because he saw God face to face and yet his life was spared (Genesis 32:30). The patriarch Job and the prophet Isaiah considered themselves ruined when they saw a vision of God (Job 42:6; Isaiah 6:5). The apostle John fell down like a dead man (Revelation 1:17).
Forbidden Knowledge of God’s Name
On night, Jacob wrestled with what appeared to be man but later turned out to be much more. Thia atranger renamed Jacob as Israel, and Jacob renamed the place Peniel, which means, the Face of God. But when Jacob asked the name of the man, the man said, “Why do you ask my name?”
There is similar wording when Manoah, the father of Samson, asks the name of the angel who told them about the future son. What the angel – otherwise identified as God himself – says in Judges 13:18 depends on your Bible translation.
- “Why do you ask my name, since it is wonderful?”
- “Why do you ask my name, since it is too wonder for you to understand?
- “Why do you ask my name, since it is beyond comprehension?”
- “Why do you ask my name, since it secret?”
- “Why do you ask my name, since it is hidden?”
- “Why do you ask my name, since it is glorious?”
- “Why do you ask my name, since it works miracles?”
- “Why do you ask my name, since it is ‘Wonderful’?
The only other time this Hebrew word is used on the Old Testament is much later, in the Psalms.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; It is high, I cannot attain it.Psalm 139:6
Forbidden Knowledge of God’s Holy Objects
If you’ve ever seen the 1981 film Raiders of the Lost Ark, you know that there are certain holy objects that you don’t mess with, especially if you’re a Nazi. During the time of David, God struck down and slaughtered some people because they peeked into the Ark of the Covenant (1 Samuel 6:19). Later on, when they were moving the Ark, a man called Uzzah touched it who shouldn’t have and again God struck him down. It was said that God “burst forth with an outburst” again Uzzah.
This last phrase suggests strongly to me that we are not just dealing with ethical prohibitions here. There’s a power in these things that makes them dangerous. They are not to be played with, used for entertainment, or handled lightly. If you mess with these forbidden objects, then there will be a divine outbreak or outburst on you, striking you violently, like a bolt of electricity or laser blast.
Forbidden Knowledge of God’s Calendar
The end times are a matter of great speculation both in religious and increasing in secular worldviews. When will the world come to a close and how? Are we at the end of a particular age or era? Many Christians seem obsessed with predicting the time of the second coming of Christ, and he events that will precede this point, such as the rise in individuals and empires.
It might surprise some to learn that God has forbidden a knowledge of these events, at least, according to the teachings to Jesus.
The Father alone has the authority to set those dates and times, and they are not for you to know.Acts 1:9
And not only is a knowledge of world events forbidden but so too in a knowledge of the individual destiny of others. When Jesus told Peter that he would die a martyr’s death, Peter asked what would happen to John. Jesus said:
“If I want him to remain alive until I return, what’s that to you? You must follow me.”John 21:22
Forbidden Knowledge of God’s Secrets
There seems to be two types of knowledge, as far as God is concerned: secret things and revealed things (Deuteronomy 29:29). This seems like a clearcut distinction. The revealed things are there for everyone to wants to read them (Luke 16:29). But what about these secret things?
- There are some secret matters God conceals but certain individuals are permitted to search out (Psalm 25:14; Proverbs 25:2).
- There are secret matters that God reveals to particular individuals, but not to everyone (Daniel 2:22; 2 Corinthians 2:12).
- There are secrets that God will reveal to everyone at the end of time (1 Corinthians 4:5).
Forbidden Knowledge and God’s Wrath
Speaking of the end of time, I’d like to conclude with the point that there is a knowledge people would rather not know. In this sense, Lovecraft is right. Some might say, for example, they’d love to know, really know, if God existed or not. But would you, honestly, if that meant you’d find yourself in his bad books? What if God revealed himself to you but the knowledge of that revelation was too terrible to bear? This is exactly the scenario described in the biblical apocalypse.
Then the kings of the earth, the princes, the generals, the rich, the mighty, and everyone else, both slave and free, hid in caves and among the rocks of the mountains. They called to the mountains and the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can withstand it?”Revelation 6:15-17