“Dystopia” speaks of a community, society, or world characterized by intolerable suffering, cruelty, and injustice. The undesirability of such an existence requires coercion. Control must be unrelenting; destiny inescapable. Dissent must be unflinchingly crushed; hope impassively extinguished. Consequently, dystopian fiction is typically set in a totalitarian or post-apocalyptic world that is transparently irreversible. Dystopia is, to put the matter theologically, emphatically anti-Eden.
Such a description immediately conjures scenes from Orwell’s enduring classic, 1984. Published in 1949, Orwell’s vision of a tyrannical technological panopticon seems prescient in our own time. Manipulation of information by tech giants fosters suspicions of approaching technocracy. Orwell’s Ministry of Truth seems visible on the horizon. Social media has become a disturbing misnomer. Initially marketed as a community-building technology that would connect us all, mollify loneliness, and organize the better angels of our nature to solve the monumental problems of our age (a utopian vision for sure), social media has morphed into an agent of dystopian preoccupation. Every day, throughout the day, modern mobile portals to paradise unmercifully expose devotees to every conceivable variety of narcissism, deviancy, injustice, hatred, racism, hypocrisy, evil, and human tragedy. These are the ingredients of dystopia to which we are all subjected, most acutely young adults.
That perhaps in part explains why dystopian fiction is so popular today. Dystopian sagas reflect the Zeitgeist. Young adults by definition live in controlled environments, far too many of which are chaotic and threatening. If the results of the July 2019 Pew Research Center report “Trust and Distrust in America” are on target, young people distrust authority at an epidemic level. The dystopian genre dominates contemporary bookstores, especially the young adult shelves. Notable bestsellers that have already been transformed into Hollywood blockbusters include the Hunger Games, Divergent, and Maze Runner trilogies. Adults are also eager consumers of dystopian tales. The Walking Dead franchise is now in its tenth season. Black Mirror, Westworld, and The Man in the High Castle are similar television successes.
It would be shortsighted (and faithless) to presume that the burgeoning availability of dystopian stories will leave the culture in emotional tatters. I’m of the opinion that the trend is a good thing. The best dystopian fiction doesn’t compound the misery and distrust of the reader. Rather, it offers hope in the bleakness, propelled by a hero or heroine with whom the reader can intimately identify, whether in terms of age or circumstance. I would be far more concerned if the forthcoming generation faced a life of carefree ease. Tragedy, hardship, pain, and loss are what mold character and where the gospel does its most powerful work. A culture absorbed with distrust, doubt, and despair is the perfect environment for genuine disciples of Jesus to be contrarian lights in darkness, demonstrating a better way, offering an eternal hope—and some present relief.
Dystopian fiction, whether on page or screen, tells the hard truth of the human condition that prepares good ground for the gospel. Everyone suffers pain and loss. We are all personally broken, either by our own doing or brutalities and injustices from without. Life is a series of obstacles, some of them seemingly insurmountable. We cannot fix ourselves.
Jesus willingly came to earth as a man to suffer degrading indignities and a viciously cruel, undeserved death. Why? God wanted—and will never stop wanting—a human family with him forever. He wasn’t content with the children he already had in the spiritual realm (Job 38:4-7). And so he created an embodied creature like himself (Gen 1:26-27) and a world for them to inhabit. They could not come to him. He would go to them.
Creation sprang from God’s intrinsically good impulse to create beings like himself, fit to occupy the sacred space of his presence, so that they could enjoy him and he them, and then partner with him to grow the family and globalize Eden (Gen 1:28). But instead of seeing his imagers fulfill this desire, God’s blessed world became a chaotic, hostile ruin in the wake of a series of rebellions in both the terrestrial and heavenly realms. Disease and death, evil and estrangement overtook the Edenic dream. From God’s perspective, earth has been a dystopia for a very long time.
The biblical meta-narrative propels a supernatural epic where God never abandons his original desire for human children, repeatedly engages humankind offering forgiveness, redemption, reconciliation, and victory over death and those hostile powers of darkness still bent on human destruction and idolatry. But because he was committed to partnership with those made to bear his image, God insisted on human collaboration in the form of covenants, secured by believing loyalty, essential elements sorely (and invariably) lacking in humankind. The success of reversing the curse rested on those cursed. That is hopelessness—dystopia. And so there was only one way of salvation—God must become man, the one human who would not fail. And to this the Son agreed (Heb 10:4-7; Phil 2:1-9).
Dystopian fiction makes it easy to tell this good news. Its readers and viewers desperately want hope to break through and win the day. This is one reason why the genre maps so readily to the biblical meta-narrative. The hero’s journey is only as memorable and life-changing as the obstacles overcome. Hope arrives when and from whence it is least expected. But there it is, hidden in plain sight, present where it was assumed absent. That is the good news.
We need dystopian stories and storytellers today perhaps as never before. Churches are filled with young people (and older ones, truth be told) who hunger for authentic identity and mission, community, and purpose. It is precisely because the institutionalized Church has failed to provide either or both that waves of young people have grown disenchantment with the faith. The biblical epic of salvation history offers both; dystopian fiction can help us teach that story.
This subject—this truth—is close to my heart, especially right now. My next book, The World Turned Upside Down: Finding the Gospel in Stranger Things (Lexham Press), set to launch in October, takes up the very strategy I’m urging here. The Netflix series, now three seasons in length, has become a phenomenon. Set in the eighties, the show isn’t purely dystopian, but without the heroics of some middle-school kids and a handful of adults, that’s where it would end. The plotline of Stranger Things is propelled by the human condition: tragic loss, neglect, exploitation, deception, manipulation, and, worst of all, a pathogenic otherworldly evil, part of a reality few believe even exists. The characters, all of them broken in ways that strike chords with each viewer, are overwhelmed by the impossibility of their situation when it becomes understood. But salvation emerges from the most unlikely source, one brought to the fore by intentional abuse, whose blood is a sign of healing, protection, and deliverance.
In today’s world, our presentation of the gospel, indeed our apologetic, must transcend a series of propositions and proof-texts. The world wants to hear, see, and read stories. The former method is akin to reciting a synopsis of Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings instead of hearing the tales in full (or watching the movies). You could fit the bullet-points on an index card (and it would be just as stimulating). The latter creates visceral links to the life experience of the reader or viewer. They grasp the story because they have a story, too. We are wired to look for similarities between our stories and those of others—and to seek solutions and hope in that process.
My point is that the way most people are exposed to the gospel today fails to capture the imagination. Utilizing fiction, especially dystopian fiction, allows us to teach people salvation history the way it was written—as epic narrative. A well-told story that illustrates the human predicament and offers hope through unexpected, heroic deliverance mimes the story of what God is now up to. Dystopian fiction lives in that space. The bottom line is that well-told stories will map to the gospel because the gospel is a story told well.
Dr. Michael S. Heiser (PhD, Hebrew Studies, UW-Madison) is the Executive Director for the Awakening School of Theology and Ministry in Jacksonville, FL. He is author of the bestselling book, The Unseen Realm, and hosts the popular Naked Bible Podcast. He also writes fiction (The Façade, The Portent) and ministers to those who have adopted fringe and alternative beliefs via YouTube at FringePop321.
Michael S. Heiser. “The Good News in Dystopia.” An Unexpected Journal 2, no. 3. (Fall 2019): 11-18.