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Christian Worldview and Dystopia


The Hunger Games has spawned numerous copycat novels and revived the dystopian genre. But while the YA dystopian bubble is sure to eventually burst, humanity’s nagging belief in societal collapse and impending apocalypse remains alive and well.

Dystopian themes have been a part of our pop cultural landscape for a very long time. Stories about crumbling governments, pandemics, plagues, and looming apocalypses, whether made by man, alien, or artificial intelligence, cycle through or collective psyches with startling regularity. Whether it’s George Orwell’s 1984, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Blade Runner, Soylent Green, Mad Max, Terminator, Children of Men, or The Hunger Games, we seem instinctively drawn to stories about the worst possible End.

Of course, there’s a difference between shambling zombies, nuclear winters, biological fallout, tyranny, and alien invasions. Not all of these fall neatly into the category of dystopia. Nevertheless, all of them are tied to a view of the future that is bleak.

So why do we keep coming back to this particular view of the future? Why are dystopian themes so compelling? You’d think we’d want to focus on futures more rosy. I mean, what happened to our belief in utopia, the one where we’d cure cancer, stop nuclear war, stop fighting, and evolve? Frankly, it got T-boned by reality.

Utopianism is rooted in modernity — the belief that technology and human ingenuity can build a better world. Industrialization bolstered the utopian dream, leading us to believe we could harness the better angels of our nature, conquer disease, aging, poverty, etc. But it wasn’t long before reality sunk in. Several world wars, genocides, natural disasters, governmental collapses and overthrows, overcrowded jails and over-medicated masses, has deflated the notion that we are anywhere able to right the world’s wrongs. Much less, our own personal wrongs. There isn’t enough silicone on earth to keep us from sagging — both physically and morally. No amount of good deeds can stop the decay. And as long as a human walks the earth, dystopia is inevitable.

Sure, it sounds pessimistic. But it’s a fact. Manmade utopia is simply an oxymoron. As such, a dystopian future seems far more realistic than a utopian one.

Interestingly enough, our inclination to envision a dystopian future has roots in a very biblical worldview.

The Bible does not paint a rosy picture about the fate of mankind. Whether it’s Jesus warning about natural and cosmological catastrophes, plagues, and times of great deception, or the apostle John’s hellacious account of the end of the age, Scripture paints a picture of things getting worse before they get better.  Apparently, all our peace accords, technological advances, and therapeutic skills still land us in Armageddon. Far from Shangri la, we end up in an arena, pitted against God, nature and, each other. No amount of firepower or psychobabble can stave of these approaching hoofbeats.

The genre of dystopian books and films reinforces a vital biblical theme Man is broken. No amount of moral or technological “tweaks” can correct the malfunction that is Us.

In a way, our embrace of dystopia is both a rejection of utopia and the notion of inherent human goodness. History and personal experience have shown us, over and over again, that when left to his devices Man fails. No amount of drugs, diplomacy, technology, education, or entertainment can prevent collapse, both internal and external. Dystopia is an admission of depravity. We are the anti-Midas: Everything we touch rots. And the bigger our contribution, the more pervasive the decomposition.

In this sense, the dystopian trend is evidence of a creeping realization that we are broken and things will only get worse. So whether it’s Katniss against the Capitol, Logan running from Termination, 1984’s Thought Police, Blade Runner’s glitching replicants, or Wells’ Morlocks, something rings true about a screwed up future. Why? Just look in the mirror.

In this sense, the dystopian trend is a very good thing. It is an affirmation of a Christian worldview, one which admits that no earthly power can save us from ourselves. In popular culture, dystopia trumps utopia, not because we are inherent pessimists, but because some truths are too obvious to be fiction.

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{ 16 comments… add one }
  • Kerry October 6, 2014, 10:04 AM

    Good post, Mike. You named some of my favorites in that second-to-last paragraph. I gotta admit, there are few stories that suck me in like the “it is the future, and things are bad” stories.

    You are correct that they highlight the realization that things are broken, but I think they also show that we have an inherent, often unspoken, knowledge of what is right and true. That’s what drives those stories, the need for things to be put right again.

  • billgncs October 6, 2014, 10:58 AM

    It’s just in the dsytopian future – the real heroes stand forth.

    it’s the perfect place for conflict to surround one’s fictional character!

  • Mir October 6, 2014, 3:11 PM

    Our ability to visualize UTOPIA is also grounded in Scripture: Eden, Paradise, Heaven, The Kingdom of lamb and wolf resting together and swords beaten into plowshares.

    Man’s fallen and broken state, but eventual resurrection and perfect state. That we realize one and expect the other is part of what we are as believers.

    I think striving for utopia is the hope of something we inherently know: we are not supposed to be like THIS.

    I think reading about dystopia can also reflect on how badly it can get. It can be WORSE (and has been). It can always get worse.

    Utopia: It can get better.

    These are just the extremes.

    When writers write about Utopias of Dystopias, I suspect it’s partly to storify their ideological worries and philosophical ideals. Someone who has seen or lived under a totalitarian rule and knows it’s tenacious, encompassing controlling awfulness (and how it can brainwash) might write a 1984. Someone who has imagined Imperialism and spectator hedonism with runaway capitalism (historically or in the modern age) might extrapolate that system futuristically–Hunger Games.

    The uber feminist might extrapolate a world without men as a sort of utopia. (Russ)
    The free love supporter with nudist tendencies might extrapolate a society where nudity and all sex is fine, even incest and group sex as a kind of happy orgasmic Utopia. (Sturgeon)

    What we fear and what we desire taken to another level…utopias and dystopias.

    • Gary Whittenberger October 7, 2014, 8:33 AM

      Mir, I mostly agree with you on your post. However, I disagree about your first sentence. You said “Our ability to visualize UTOPIA is also grounded in Scripture…”

      Our ability to visualize utopia is not GROUNDED in scripture; it is REFLECTED in scripture. This ability predates scripture, it is reflected in different scriptures than the one you are thinking of, and it is reflected in nonscriptural writings. Human fears and yearnings did not begin with the writing of Christian scripture!

    • Lyn Perry October 10, 2014, 4:45 AM

      Good word, Mir. Without a biblical model to guide us, the world slips into despair (dystopia) or settles for a no-place (the actual meaning of the word utopian – a non place that humanity can never reach on their own). The fear and the yearning are there, just not the means to translate one into the other.

  • Gary Whittenberger October 7, 2014, 8:27 AM

    Mike, I think this is one of the worst essays you have written so far. I’ll comment on some quotes.

    “Stories about crumbling governments, pandemics, plagues, and looming apocalypses, whether made by man, alien, or artificial intelligence, cycle through or collective psyches with startling regularity.”

    Ah, Mike, you left out a very important source in your list – gods. Stories about apocalypses caused by gods have been circulated with startling regularity for over 3000 years!

    “You’d think we’d want to focus on futures more rosy.”

    We do focus on futures more rosy. What about the kingdom of God? What about Heaven? But there is also attention given to earthly utopias. If you had said that we seem to focus on dystopias more than utopias, I think I would agree with you.

    “And as long as a human walks the earth, dystopia is inevitable.”

    Oh, Mike, you are being much too bleak about this. Human life has improved, especially over the last 500 years, and it is likely to continue in that direction.

    “Sure, it sounds pessimistic. But it’s a fact. Manmade utopia is simply an oxymoron. As such, a dystopian future seems far more realistic than a utopian one.”

    No, Mike, the only fact here is your pessimism which isn’t justified by the real facts. Neither a dystopian nor utopian future is likely, but the latter is more likely than the former, at least according to the evidence of history.

    “Interestingly enough, our inclination to envision a dystopian future has roots in a very biblical worldview.”

    Why is that interesting? It certainly is not surprising. The writings of the Bible just reflect the general inclination of humanity to focus a little more on dystopias than on utopias. But there is another reason why the Bible is so gloomy about earthly life. It has an agenda – to get people to behave a different way so that they will be admitted to a heavenly utopia.

    “The genre of dystopian books and films reinforces a vital biblical theme – Man is broken. No amount of moral or technological “tweaks” can correct the malfunction that is Us.”

    That’s just your gloomy interpretation. A good alternative theme is “Man is growing. It takes time to outgrow and correct irrational propensities.”

    “History and personal experience have shown us, over and over again, that when left to his devices Man fails.”

    Who is there who leaves or does not leave Man to his own devices? Nobody! Man only has his own devices, regardless of beliefs to the contrary. And history and personal experience have shown us, over and over again, that Man is improving, that his successes exceed his failures.

    “Dystopia is an admission of depravity.”

    We don’t have dystopia (or utopia for that matter) and so we have nothing to admit. We fear a dystopian future and we hope for a utopian future. So what? These are contrasting propensities which actually point us in the same direction – make things better and do it now!

    “In this sense, the dystopian trend is evidence of a creeping realization that we are broken and things will only get worse.”

    This is just Mike Duran talking in his pessimistic and unrealistic way. We are growing and things will get better. Again, being a Christian, you have an agenda to push – man is broken and can only be fixed by Jesus, so I can see why you’d ignore the evidence of history to push your agenda. Please get off that treadmill!

    “In popular culture, dystopia trumps utopia, not because we are inherent pessimists, but because some truths are too obvious to be fiction.”
    One truth too obvious to be fiction is that you are pessimistic because of and in service of your Christian agenda.

    Mike, wake up! See the light! Refocus! Come into the 21st century.

    • Daniel MacLean October 8, 2014, 12:38 PM

      Glad to see at least someone is enjoying their Utopia…

      Out of curiosity, Gary, why is it that you look like a pastor? Is it more important to look professional and scholarly when disagreeing with opinions of people on the internet?

      • Gary Whittenberger October 8, 2014, 2:24 PM

        Daniel, you failed to pay close attention to one of my statements: “We don’t have dystopia (or utopia for that matter)…”

        In agreeing or disagreeing with opinions of people on the internet, appearance in a photo is irrelevant. Focus on content, not on photos.

        Do you have any opinions about what Mike, I, or any of the other respondents said? If so, present, explain, and defend them.

        • Daniel MacLean October 9, 2014, 8:05 PM

          Apparently, my attempt at sarcasm was tossed aside like trash. But oh well.

          I think my problem with your problem of Mike’s opinion is that all I see is something beyond a disagreement with his worldview in general; trying to label him and those who think like him as insane, agenda-driven, and, dare I say, radical. And you are free to have your opinion about another person’s opinion. It is a free country after all.

          However, your determination to prove every single point that Mike makes as wrong and detrimental seems not so much to show us that he is wrong, but rather that you seem obsessed with proving him wrong and taking him down as though your very life depends on it.

          And this isn’t the first time either.

          This doesn’t look like a simple disagreement…it comes across as a vendetta. As though the words that Mike says are a poison in your veins. Again, you have every freedom to say the things you have said and no one can take that away from you. However, I am curious as to why you put such energy and time into proving him wrong rather then, say, starting your own blog or books. If you already have, then please forgive me…I just don’t understand why someone would painstakingly take so much time and effort to slander a worldview that you don’t agree with when you could be using that effort to bring a better name to your own personal worldview…

          • Gary Whittenberger November 14, 2014, 4:22 PM

            First, I have not labeled Mike and “those who are like him” as “insane, agenda-driven, and, radical.” You’re “seeing” things which aren’t there.

            Secondly, I have no determination “to prove every single point that Mike makes as wrong and detrimental.” That is simply false. I reply to a small percentage of points he makes. And he actually makes a few good points now and then.

            Thirdly, it seems to you that I “seem obsessed with proving him wrong and taking him down as though your very life depends on it.” That is your opinion about my mental state, and you are a very poor mind reader.

            Fourthly, you claim that I am slandering a worldview. No, Daniel, I am questioning, challenging, doubting, and criticizing some beliefs and claims. Is there something wrong with that? Isn’t this an open forum?

            Lastly, why do you focus on me? What’s your agenda? Please stick to discussing the claims made by everyone who participates on this forum. Don’t be afraid to listen to persons who disagree with you.

    • D.M. Dutcher October 12, 2014, 10:30 AM

      I’m not sure how someone can look at history and argue that utopia is likelier than not. Pretty much almost any system of political thought that attempts to achieve a positive form of outcome has failed even on the small scale, and yeah, that includes political expressions of Christianity beyond a monastery level. If you look at the two most successful political systems, they either are a hereditary office with occasional usurpation (monarchy) or literally designed to hobble those in power (representative democracy.) The track record of positive systems like anarchism or communism has been harsh indeed.

      And dystopian books highlight how fragile even these negative systems are. A lot of the sustained progress really only happened due to a relative peace within the USA over the last hundred years. If you look at Europe, where wars were fought directly on their soil, you see a totalitarian ideology splitting the continent in half after two of the most brutal wars humanity has seen. It’s not a given thing that progress would continue its upward path, nor optimism be the default state of mankind.

  • Lyn Perry October 11, 2014, 7:00 AM

    I have a slightly different take on this genre in general and the “last survivors” post-apocalyptic subgenre in particular. It seems to me that, while I agree that a dystopian worldview implicitly acknowledges humanity’s sin nature, the purpose (or theme) behind many such stories is actually a declaration of atheistic independence.

    Some books I’ve read recently hint at or outright express a philosophy that is antithetical to a Christian/biblical worldview. One series I’m thinking of seems to be a blatant parable for atheism: The people living in ignorance – but in relative stability and happiness – choose truth (that is, the realization that they are the last humans in the world and that no one is out there to save them) and so throw off their ‘god’ (evil dictator) in rebellion. God is dead. It’s just us. Deal with it.

    Okay fine, if that’s what you want to write. But this kind of dystopic analogy to our (alleged nontheistic) world breaks down. Yeah, I know…I probably shouldn’t push the novel’s conceit. But the challenge I had with this series and with a lot of atheistic fiction in general is that most posit a straw-god argument. Or a term I heard recently, they’ve created a Stepford God which can easily be dismantled.

    In other words: “I could never believe in this kind of god, therefore let me dethrone that deity since I’m so much more wiser than this god that I could never believe in.” That kind of thing. It all amounts to so much hubris. And ultimately, such stories say nothing, mean nothing, and offer nothing other than nihilism.

  • Mike G October 12, 2014, 6:47 AM

    Very good post, Mike. But a few points:

    “Utopianism” is not purely a product of our modern thinking. All worldviews have a utopia. As soon as any belief system ascribes concepts of “good” and “bad” is also necessarily implies “best” and “worst” case scenarios. In ancient pagan cultures the highest state of being revolved around pleasure and status, and so you get ideas like the Greek Elysian Fields which were thought of like a comfortable retirement home for the successful of this world.

    Even Stoicism (the belief that nothing in the spiritual realm cares about us) has a utopia — nonexistence; which may sound like some sort of contradiction in terms, but when you think about it if nothing outside of this world cares a lick then the best result imaginable is simply not to exist at all. And so every stoic system, from atheist to Buddhist, has an endgame where people move to a state of nonbeing — a loss of personality and sensory experience.

    Likewise “dystopia” is merely a name given to a society that moves away from whatever positive idea the worldview has in mind.

    Now, most of your post is dedicated to the premise that our world is becoming a dystopia. Mr. Whittenberger then responds with a counterpoint of how our world is not only non-dystopian, but actually moving toward a kind of ‘utopia’, and-really-what-the-hell-were-you-thinking.

    This is because the two of you have different worldviews. Mike, your worldview is clearly based on the idea that their is a God who cares for His creation, and so our modern culture is careening toward dystopia as it rejects its created purpose. Gary’s worldview is humanism (the belief that our hope for the future is found in the efforts of a person or persons rather than an omnipotent God). He sees progress.

    Last point: This is not simply a case of two equally balanced ideas from two people who at the end of the day must simply agree to disagree. Christians like to tout the prophecies of the Bible, but the reality is that ALL WORLDVIEWS MAKE PREDICTIONS! Under every belief system the world should look a certain way and should be changing in a certain way. Because they make predictions each worldview can be examined for its truthfulness the same way that any scientific theory can yield to experimentation.

    I will only mention one of these for an example — In the 1800’s, as humanism became the dominant mode of thinking, nations increasingly formed alliances. After all, since mankind was evolving for the better, and since it was replacing the idea of “Gods will” with a system of right and wrong based on a single “human will” that meant that we all wanted essentially the same things and were all moving together toward a state of worldwide unity. After all, weren’t the inventions of everything from better farming techniques, to vaccines and electricity, banishing the old terrors of famine and disease and darkness? Didn’t this new world feel more like a utopia? This doe-eyed optimism came to a brutal, crushing end in 1914 when all those alliances caused a regional spat in the Baltic to turn into World War I.

    Humanism’s first prediction — as man progresses and throws off the old ideas of religion we should see an increase in unity and peace.

    Humanism’s first results — The attempt to unify on a national level led to the two most destructive conflicts the world has ever seen, and has led to a tenuous state of ‘peace’ kept only by modern nuclear arsenals and the hanging cloud of mutually assured destructive.

    Point to Monsieur Duran.

    • Gary Whittenberger November 14, 2014, 4:27 PM

      Mike G, unfortunately you are picking out points in history to try to support your claim (i.e. 1914), and you are failing to look at the long tenure of humans on the Earth.

      For a wider view, please read Stephen Pinker’s book “The Better Angels of Ourselves.”

  • Mike G October 12, 2014, 10:40 AM

    And as a great lover of dystopian (particularly post-apocalyptic) fiction I humbly submit a ten best:

    10) Day of the Triffids, John Wyndham — Forget the awful movie, the book actually makes sense. The man-eating plants were already here — the result of genetic modification gone wrong — when the atmospheric storm that produces worldwide blindness suddenly puts man on the dinner menu. Wonderfully thought out and realized. The book that creates a half-dozen post-apocalyptic tropes (such as waking up in a hospital to find that the world has ended).

    9) Galveston, Sean Stewart — Give it points for originality. Instead of the usual virus/alien/meteor/nuclear war, this offers a slightly different reason for worldwide collapse — death by carnival; When the Galveston Mardi Gras spans so much magic that it physically manifests and fills the world and magic and magical creatures, the survivors get to spend their time surviving without modern conveniences and ducking Minotaurs. Not a perfect book, but one of the more powerfully atmospheric works you will ever read.

    8) The Stand, Stephen King — Like a lot of King’s earlier works it is a bit simplistic in its prose and overall storytelling, but this is still a very book. King takes a cast of characters, puts them in a world wiped out by the Devil spawning a plague, then patiently follows those characters until the story is complete. This was clearly a case where the author was not trying to satisfy a particular word limit, but just told the story till he felt the story was through.

    7) The Drowned World, J.G. Ballard — Ballard was one of the British authors who wrote dark, dystopian fiction after having lived through World War II (there are many). The experiences of living through war and air raids definitely seems to give a certain flavor to his writing and this may be his best. Another wonderfully atmospheric tour through the ruins of our present society.

    6) Alas Babylon, Pat Frank — Read it again without the test at the end of the week and the Cliff notes. It’s a truly good book. Possibly the best of the Cold War, nuclear annihilation novels. This one takes place in South Florida. The Characters are believable, the plot is well-placed, and the story never tried to manipulate the readers emotions with a level of sorrow it hasn’t earned (‘On the Beach’).

    5)Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (AKA: Bladerunner), Phillip K. Dick — Like all of Dick’s books (with the exception of UBIK) it kind of falls apart at the end. And like almost all of his works, the ideas, plotting, and dialogue are so strong that you can forgive its faults. Even if you’ve seen the movie, the book is worth it for the scene inside Android police station alone.

    4) The Passage, Justin Cronin — When highly literary types try to write post-apocalyptics the results can be… um… less than satisfying (reading ‘Ridley Walker’ feels like work, and ‘Zone One’ with its navel-gazing during a zombie apocalypse is laughably bad). Cronin makes it look easy. His tale of a Zombie/Vampire takeover is one of the few apocalyptic books recently published that still manages to create a strong feeling of tension. His characters are as believable and compelling as any you will read in any genre.

    3) The Earth Abides, George R. Stewart — how timeless is this book? I picked up a reprint that had a guy with a mullet and leather jacket on the cover and never once realized I wasn’t reading a book published in the 80’s (try 1949). The best of the ‘rebuilding society from nothing’ books.

    2) A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter M. Miller Jr. — Easily the most beautifully written of any on this list. This book earns every tear (and their will be a few). The story takes place over a long period of time with a series of connected shorts, all of which are unforgettable.

    1) Lucifer’s Hammer, Niven and Pournelle — Still the gold standard of all post-apoc’s. The original, “Hey, look up their. Is that a meteor?” book has it all: tight storytelling, empathetic characters, strong action. These two are one of the rare examples of authors who can write together and the end product is better than anything other one can write alone. Niven writes idea-based sci-fi. Pournelle is the action writer. Put them together and you get some of the best in sci-fi. This is one I could hardly put down.

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