Everyone wonders life's meaning, our place in the universe, and just what or who started it all. Sometimes, in fictiondom, a character is introduced that simply MUST know. There's no way to create this character without their knowing the "correct" religion as well as the origin of all things. Answering this question creates a different problem: Alienating the fan base. Alternatively, the creators may just want to tease the audience with a Riddle for the Ages, and that sort of riddle doesn't last long if all the answers are spelled out.
So what do you do? You do the Godly Sidestep, an in-universe Shrug of God, where the Powers That Be refuse to answer The Big Questions, whether it's because You Are Not Ready, The World Is Not Ready, or because they're Things Man Was Not Meant to Know. The meta-reason, however, is often that a specific answer is inconvenient to the creators as it strongly colours the work's worldview and closes off ambiguities that would have allowed for extra potential.
How is this dance done? Evade the question. Get cut off mid-sentence. Lie. Something. The Godly Sidestep is the moment when the story acknowledges that yes, this character does know the answer but no, they won't be telling you.
Subtrope of The Unreveal. See also Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane for one tactic for performing this dance round the truth. Compare Death Amnesia, in which a character who's come Back from the Dead conveniently remembers nothing about the afterlife.
- In the 3rd OVA to Fushigi Yuugi, Taka Tamahome asks Taiitsukun if the misfortune befalling the universe is Mayo's fault. She replies "Perhaps it is, perhaps it is not." It's actually not entirely her fault, but a huuuge Xanatos Gambit makes it look that way. Additionally, she tells him what the Shinzaho is using as a riddle. It's the twelve-week-old fetus that was transferred out of his wife Miaka and into the aforementioned Mayo.
- Haruhi Suzumiya: Kyon asks Nagato, after treating with beings that are effectively ghosts of alien lifeforms, what happens after humans die. Her answer? Information classified.
- When the crew of One Piece meet an old man who was on the one ship in recorded history to make it to the end of the Grand Line. Usopp asks him about One Piece, the treasure allegedly stashed there (and, incidentally, the thing everyone's trying to get, and the title of the series). However, his captain very angrily calls No Spoilers on him, saying he wouldn't like an adventure where he knew the outcome.
- The motivation of the DC Comics cosmic villain Krona is learning the truth behind the creation of the universe. To do this he created a machine that allowed him to observe the past, but all he saw was a hand full of stars before a bolt out of nowhere destroyed the machine. His attempt also harmed the universe (exactly how has varied over the years) and forced his people, the Maltusians, later known as Oans, to become the Guardians of the Universe to make up for it. Krona has since continued trying, regardless of the consequences.
- In JLA/Avengers, he destroyed several universes trying to find the answer. He eventually finds the one being who knows it (Galactus), but he is turned into a "cosmic egg" like the one the Marvel Universe was created from in the process. Technically, he found the answer he wanted- but whether he feels fulfilled (or anything else) as a result is unknown.
- Marv Wolfman has stated that he always hated what Krona saw (but not why—perhaps he disliked the implication that the universe has a creator) and that he specifically wrote a scene in Crisis on Infinite Earths to subvert it by saying that what Krona actually saw was the hand of the Anti-Monitor trying to recreate the universe in his own image.
- In Johnny the Homicidal Maniac, the eponymous character meets God. God is a sleeping fat man who, upon being woken up, refuses to answer any questions and insists he's earned a break after creating the entire universe.
- Played with a lot in The Sandman (1989), especially regarding what happens after death (except for the very obvious fact that some people go to Hell, at least for a while). In an early issue, Dream follows Death around as she makes her rounds, and it is implied by his inner monologue that he witnesses exactly this, but he is too preoccupied with finding the solution to his own inner woe to describe it other than in brief, symbolic terms. Averted on another occasion, when Death assures a recently deceased character that he will now get to find out... but that's the final panel in that sequence. When near the end of the series Hob Gadling considers giving up his immortality, he asks Death directly about it. She just gives him a warm smile, as if not wanting to spoil the surprise. This particular sidestep is sidestepped itself in the final issue. An aging Shakespeare admits to thinking about death in his "every other thought", but when he gets the chance to speak to Dream a final time, he instead asks him about the nature of his literary talent (and he gets a fairly straight answer).
- The most direct answer a mortal gets is that the question itself is as nonsensical as asking "what color is Wednesday?", so no one is asking the right question.
- While not the perfect example, no one in the Watchmen universe is better equipped to answer questions of a supernatural nature than Dr. Manhattan. He generally stays relatively quiet and respectful on the matter. When asked if he was god, he simply replied:
"I don't think there is a God. And if there is, I'm nothing like him."
- In Dogma, God herself does this. After the heroes save God, the day, and the universe, the main character asks to be told the meaning of life. God, played by Alanis Morissette, simply smiles.
Bethany Sloane: Why are we here?
God: [pokes Bethany's nose] Nweep.
- Granted, if She had actually said anything, Bethany's head would have exploded, so...
- IMDB says that God's original answer would have been "Plastics", in reference to a George Carlin routine.
- Averted in Monty Python's The Meaning of Life.
Well, that's the end of the film. Now, here's the meaning of life...Well, it's nothing very special. Uh, try and be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in, and try and live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations.
- In Sherlock Holmes (2009), Holmes claims that experimenting with one of the Hermetic rituals used by the Temple of the Four Orders has allowed him to reconcile nearly 2000 years of theological disparity... unfortunately, there's a madman currently trying to destroy parliament and have himself declared supreme ruler of the British Empire, so it's a story for another time.
- In Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Spock dies. In The Search for Spock, he comes back. In The Voyage Home, Bones asks him about what he experienced, prompting this response.
McCoy: You really have gone where no man's gone before. Can't you tell me what it felt like?
Spock: It would be impossible to discuss the subject without a common frame-of-reference.
McCoy: You mean I have to die to discuss your insights on death?
- Considering that the circumstances of his death and resurrection involved some Vulcan telepathic Applied Phlebotinum not generally available to humans, it's unclear whether he made it to anything resembling the afterlife that humans experience (if there is one) in any case.
- In Time Bandits, when Kevin actually asks what is the reason for evil, God steps behind a wall for a moment, then comes back and says "something to do with free will and all that."
- One lesser running theme in the Urban Fantasy works of Simon R. Green is that humans weren't originally intended to be as small and limited as we are. What we were meant to be is never explicitly clarified by any of the higher entities or enlightened madmen that might know, except that it's not what any human thinks it is, and it might actually be a mercy - whether to us or to the rest of the cosmos isn't clear - that we didn't turn out that way.
- Deryni: In The Quest for Saint Camber, Kelson converses via Mind Speech with a being who appeared and helped him vanquish his treasonous cousin Conall:
"Are you who I think you are? [Kelson] dared to ask.
And who do you think that I am? the being replied.
I believe you are Saint Camber of Culdi, whom I sought on my quest. You—came to my aid.
Did I? the being answered. Or am I but a convenient image for the stronger and better part that is within you and, indeed, within all folk who seek the Light, and which can be called up when darkness threatens?
Kelson blinked. It had to be Saint Camber. Only the irascible Deryni saint would be so evasive and yet speak so primal a truth."
- If he won't even cop to his identity, forget about asking him about God/Heaven/Hell/the Meaning of Life/Whatever.
- The Dresden Files: In Ghost Story, Harry ends up in a rare moment of conversation with Archangel Uriel and is able to ask the Archangel a few questions. When it comes to the big questions, Uriel cannot answer as there are several Laws mandated by God that prevent Uriel from taking about anything that could influence Harry's Free Will, which is a serious thing to Uriel and God. The only thing Harry can get from Uriel is Uriel saying, "No matter where you go, there you are."
- The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
- Deep Thought is a computer programmed to answer the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything. It reveals that the answer is "42", and when its operators complain, points out that obviously the answer isn't going to make sense unless you know the precise wording of the Question. Then an even more advanced computer (The Earth) was built to formulate the Ultimate Question, so that the Ultimate Answer could be understood. That computer was then destroyed five minutes before it would have completed its task. That's some grand sidestepping.
- The second book opens with the supposition that even if anyone did find out the meaning of the universe, this would immediately cause it to disappear and be replaced by something "even more bizarre and inexplicable". The radio series raises the suggestion that this might be bunk made up by one of the Guide's willier editors to increase general uncertainty and raise sales of the book, but in the adaptation of "Life, the Universe and Everything" a man who saw the whole truth of the universe admits this one is right. The Question and the Answer can't exist in the same universe.
- Subverted at the end of So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish. The protagonists travel to the planet where God's final message to his creation is written in 30-feet-high letters of fire. The entire message is revealed to the reader, and it goes like this: We apologise for the inconvenience. The message's divine origin is accepted without question by the characters, although to the reader it comes off as slightly suspect given that it's in English note and uses the British spelling to boot.
- Knucker the Knower, who knows everything when he's drunk, tells Etjole Ehomba the meaning of life in Alan Dean Foster's Into the Thinking Kingdoms. Ehomba is pleased with the answer, but since Knucker whispered the answer, the reader never finds out.
- The Percy Jackson and the Olympians series features Greek gods and demigods. Soon after Percy learns about the gods, he asks the obvious question and is informed that the gods are "the lower-case 'g' kind" and they "don't deal in metaphysics."
- In Zeus Is Dead: A Monstrously Inconvenient Adventure, at the Olympians' press conference on the day of their public return to the mortal world, the pantheon (and by extension the novel itself) does this in response to a reporter who asks, "What about Christ?"
Hermes: He' not really what you'd call a team player. Put it this way: We don't bother Him, He doesn't bother us.
Poseidon: I will allow no further questions on the subject.
- Doctor Who:
- In "The Impossible Planet"/"The Satan Pit", the Doctor battles against the Devil himself. When the Doctor asks him "from which religion?", the Devil answers "All of them" and further states that he existed before time. They have other things to worry about than where exactly it came from and what this means for the universe, so they don't inquire too closely.
- In "Planet of the Dead", the Doctor knows the true story of Easter. Right after he says "What REALLY happened was", he gets cut off and forgets what he was talking about.
- The Good Place: Upon reaching the titular afterlife, Eleanor asks which religion was the "right" one. Michael tells her that, basically, all religions got "about 5% right". There's an even bigger sidestep: The Good Place is actually the Bad Place, and everything Michael has said could be a lie.
- The creators of Joan of Arcadia made this the rule, actually listing things God couldn't say with regards to universal truths and religion. God conversed with Joan on a regular basis and always refused to answer any major questions.
- In Legends of Tomorrow, the life and death of Jesus Christ is unofficially off-limits to all time travellers for fear of Butterfly of Doom-type consequences.
- In the Red Dwarf episode "White Hole", Holly gains an IQ of over 12,000 and professes to know the meaning of the universe. The only being present to ask her is a toast-obsessed kitchen appliance, and any questions it puts forward end up being about bread. Before anyone else can ask, she realises she has three minutes to live and refuses to communicate with anyone.
- Averted in a classic Saturday Night Live skit, where an angel (Dana Carvey) happily rattles off answers to the quickfire questions of a just-deceased fellow (guest host John Larroquette).
- Star Trek: Voyager has an episode where Sufficiently Advanced Alien Q Jr. is told to write an essay about the origins and aspirations of his species. Kathryn Janeway treats the result as if it was an ordinary, though well done, student work. The audience, naturally, doesn't get to hear any of the juicy bits.
- The song (not the album) "God Shuffled His Feet" by the Crash Test Dummies.
- The Buddha refused to answer several basic questions about the nature of life and the universe, essentially saying that they were the wrong questions.
- God's long monologue in the final chapters of the Book of Job can best be described as this. Job spends most of the book demanding an audience with God to ask why he is suffering. Gods response is that unlike Job, He has made all of creation and therefore has the wisdom and power to do whatever He wants and deems best. Job is so thrilled to finally receive a response from God that he is completely satisfied with this answer.
- Dungeons & Dragons:
- In the 3rd Edition, the Aboleth does know what happened in the infinitely distant past before the gods came to be, so they can't be not knowing the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything. They just don't feel like telling anyone, them being Eldritch Abominations and all that.
- The 4th Edition sidestep the question of 'what happens to a person after they die' by stating that the deceased goes to the unknowable afterlife, beyond the reach of gods or devils. Not even the goddess of death know, as she only runs the Afterlife Antechamber. Exceptions to this rule are souls who have done great deeds for the gods (or Hell), in which case they become immortal souls who accompany their patron in the patron's domain.
- Buck Godot: Zap Gun for Hire has the Winslow, an immortal, indestructible (seriously, when the universe ends it will ask "Hey! Who turned out the lights?") creature that looks like a lizard plushie and is annoying. Multiple religions have sprung up declaring it an object of worship or an abomination to be destroyed. The Primes hid it away on Earth to avoid the religious wars, but they refuse to say why it's so important to the fate of the universe.
- In Dinosaur Comics, T-Rex can hear the voice of God, and at one point, God is asked to settle whether intelligent design is right or wrong. God's response is...less than helpful.
- Not a divine example, but Jones from Gunnerkrigg Court has been around as long as the Earth itself and perfectly remembers every moment of her existence. As such, she has in fact born witness to the origins of life on Earth, the evolution/extinction of species (including humans and dinosaurs) and countless other bits of priceless moments in history. When this is revealed, she explains that she decided long ago to just observe and interfere as little as possible with human society (hence her nickname, Wandering Eye). Over the years, she has sometimes taken on the role of a teacher, but only of knowledge which humanity has already discovered for itself.
- In It's Walky!, The Cheese claims to know which religion is the correct one, but refuses to tell anyone, claiming that if you don't figure it out for yourself, you won't understand the answer (and adds that even if he did tell anyone, chances are he wouldn't be taken seriously).
- In Life and Death, when Death asked which religion was right, God whispered in his ear. Death was surprised, meaning it was something unusual.
- Enforced in Shortpacked! when Galasso resurrects the historical Jesus Christ. Mike points out everything they could ask him, but Amber finds the whole concept too bizarre / terrifying. When Mike asks Jesus point-blank about the "virgin birth" thing, Jesus is perfectly willing to answer - but Amber tackles him to stop him.
- Played With on American Dad!—in one Christmas Episode that focuses on Stan always needing to be right, he dies, goes to Heaven and learns that his family are set to die soon too. He confronts God, Who insists that they must die for His divine plan, though He refuses to divulge what it is. When He asks Stan if he really thinks he knows better than God, Stan reluctantly acquiesces and accepts His will on faith. Naturally, this was a Secret Test of Character, and Stan is resurrected to prevent the others' deaths.
- Duckman - Finding himself in Heaven, Duckman gets an Etch-A-Sketch from God. He asks why and God tells him that it has the Meaning of Life written on it, but by then it has been erased from Duckman moving it around.
- After learning that Nibblonians have been around for 17 years longer than the universe, Leela asks them how the universe began. Nibbler gives a long string of Intelligible Unintelligible gibberish.
Leela: So the meaning of existence...?
Leela: So every religion is wrong!
- In "Overclockwise", Bender temporarily achieves omniscience, and obtains printouts with the answers to life's great questions. He casually throws away "the reason we exist", but does show Fry and Leela an account of their future together.
- In "Godfellas", Bender meets an entity which doesn't know if it's God (or, more likely given his other actions, does know but refuses to reveal the answer to Bender). It then sidesteps Bender's implicit questions about whether free will exists with a Mathematician's Answer: it knows what you're going to do before you do it, unless you do something it didn't know you were going to do.
- After learning that Nibblonians have been around for 17 years longer than the universe, Leela asks them how the universe began. Nibbler gives a long string of Intelligible Unintelligible gibberish.
- In God, the Devil and Bob, Bob asks God why he allows evil to exist. God takes a deep breath and explains to Bob, just as a train passes between them and the audience. Bob is impressed and accepting of God's answer, but we never get to hear it.
- The Grim Adventures of Billy & Mandy: Subverted Trope - The Secret of the Universe turns out to be "I was only kidding."
- And the meaning of life is nothing. There is no meaning of life.
- An episode of Hercules: The Animated Series has Zeus about to give the meaning of life on a chat show, however they run out of airtime just before he states it.
- The Simpsons - God is about to tell Homer the meaning of life when the episode ends.
Homer: What's the meaning of life?
God: Oh, Homer, I can't tell you that. You'll find out when you die.
Homer: But I can't wait that long!
God: You can't wait six months?
Homer: No. Tell me now.
God: Oh... all right. The meaning of life is- [closing credits]
- Subverted on South Park—a bunch of dead people show up in Hell, and many complain that they're not supposed to be there, because they were devout followers of (insert religion here) all their lives! Hell's orientation leader explains that sorry, that was wrong, and that the correct religion is actually Mormonism. Later we see Heaven and yeah, those seem to be the only ones up there (other than God, Who's Buddhist).
- A Running Gag on the talk show Jesus and Pals, as Jesus will often refuse to touch any question that's too controversial, such as euthanasia.