Fundamentalist Christian apocalyptic fiction is hotter than burning brimstone. The leaders of this relatively new genre, the Left Behind books, have sold over 40 million copies. Such books follow the outlines of the modern "end times" biblical interpretation first popularized by Hal Lindsey in The Late Great Planet Earth in 1970. This end times speculation has benefited from the recent anxieties regarding Y2K and 9/11, and many other examples of the genre have sprung up in the shadow of the Left Behind books, including novels by Lindsey and Pat Robertson.
Perhaps you've seen such works called "Christian science fiction" in your bookstores or online. Does Christian apocalyptic fiction belong anywhere near the science fiction shelves, or are there important distinctions between these genres? The Christian apocalyptic genre is generally poorly written, but that doesn't mean much; as Sturgeon's Law tells us, 90% of everything is crap. The authors of Christian apocalyptic fiction have a strong and definite religious viewpoint, but again, so do many science fiction authors. What else distinguishes these genres?
To address this question, it is helpful to draw some distinctions between the more familiar genres of science fiction and the techno-thriller.
I agree with Frederick Kreuziger that science fiction is the self-understood literature of new ideas and things, in particular new scientific ideas and new technologies. Change is a central part of science fiction. When we think of science fiction, we often think of an altered future.
Not so with the contemporary techno-thriller or political thriller. The thriller is ideologically conservative in the literal sense -- no new ideas or changes to society are needed for its events to occur. The thriller's gadgetry is at the cutting edge of technology, but does not require fundamental new discoveries. The techno-thriller is usually set in the proximate future tense -- it could be happening right now.
The thriller is also ideologically conservative in the more general sense -- its politics are old and generally right-wing. Science fiction, however, can be politically argumentative and challenging even when it is nigh-fascist, as old ideas may become new in the novel contexts postulated by science fiction.
The contrast also may be viewed in terms of redemption versus emancipation: the thriller is about saving the world as we know it, in contrast to much of science fiction, which is about liberating a new world.
The protagonists of the techno-thriller are typically intelligence agents, journalists or government workers caught in an unfolding global mystery or plot. These protagonists are seldom truly ordinary, but they would not normally be considered suited to the job of uncovering the plot and saving the world. Although the settings of the thriller have changed somewhat in the post-Cold War world, the favorites are still Russia, the Middle East, and Washington. Science fiction, on the other hand, offers a much wider range of possible protagonists and settings.
These distinctions between science fiction and the techno-thriller provide a framework for analyzing the plot of the Christian apocalyptic novel. It is quite fair for me to generalize about "the" plot. Because this genre follows, within certain parameters, a particular interpretation of biblical prophecy, the plots of the various books are often quite similar.
First, faithful Christians are taken away to Heaven instantaneously in the Rapture, with nonbelievers "left behind" to face the evil days to come. Second, the Antichrist arises, usually connected to the European Community which constitutes a "second Roman Empire." He makes a seven-year treaty with Israel, which initiates the period known as the Tribulation and serves as a countdown clock to the Second Coming. The Antichrist is not recognized by the world as evil; instead, he is hailed for bringing peace. An assassin kills the Antichrist with a head wound, but the he is resurrected, and obtains world hegemony for three and a half years. The Antichrist persecutes believers and requires everyone to bear his mark (the proverbial "666") in order to buy or sell anything. Russia and the Middle East are central to the scenario.
Russia, as the biblical "Gog," attempts the destruction of Israel and the conquest of the Middle East, but its forces are destroyed in a nuclear strike or some similar disaster. The armies of the Antichrist battle against the kings of the East (an East Asian bloc) at Armageddon, and the battle threatens to consume the world until the Second Coming of Jesus Christ cuts it off. Throughout the Tribulation, the judgments described in the biblical Book of Revelation afflict the earth and humankind. Much has been made in apocalyptic circles of the resemblance of the judgments to ecological disasters, asteroid strikes, new diseases, and the latest weaponry, so the novels often modernize the judgments to appear "ripped from the headlines."
Given these plot parameters, it is not surprising that the most common and successful variety of Christian apocalyptic fiction has been in the form of the straight techno-thriller. Most Christian apocalyptic novels owe very little to science fiction; reviewers lump them with Clancy rather than with Clarke. The apocalyptic protagonists are often talented journalists, computer people or military/government/intelligence personnel. The plots focus on political developments in the standard theaters of the techno-thriller: Russia, the Middle East, and the Washington corridors of power. The main protagonists must uncover the underlying biblical conflict to save the world, though unlike the political thriller this means religious salvation, as the world is physically doomed. The technological gadgetry which pervades such books is at the cutting edge of current capability, but does not require fundamental new discoveries.
Almost all of the technology in the Left Behind books, for instance, is available today, except for the subcutaneous computer chip "mark of the beast" (which may well be within current abilities, and which is a staple of the genre) and a miraculous formula which allows the deserts to bloom. This food formula is the linchpin of the Antichrist's rise to global domination, but there is no speculation in the Left Behind series on just what the nature of such a formula might be, giving it more the aspect of fantasy than hard science fiction.
The central element for most Christian apocalyptic fiction is that the apocalypse, like the techno-thriller, could happen today. Although some of these books being nominally set a generation or more in the future, the world feels much the same. The date is often chosen more for reasons of prophecy than reasons of speculation: authors are more often concerned about predicting the end of the world too soon than actually imagining the world more than a decade hence. For example, the Christian apocalyptic Omega Trilogy imagines a world in 2050 that really has changed very little in technological terms (but quite a lot in some religious ways).
Furthermore, Christian apocalyptic fiction often characterizes science fictional tropes, such as the ideas of extraterrestrials and the triumph of science, as part of the apocalyptic other. A frequent Christian apocalyptic plot device is to have the general public erroneously believe that the Rapture was caused by UFOs, thus implicitly condemning the contemporary obsession with the fringe world between reality and science fiction.
In the last few years, however, some authors have made interesting efforts to incorporate more elements of science fiction into their Christian apocalyptic stories, both in their handling of scientific elements in particular and new ideas (if only new religious ideas for fundamentalist Christians) in general. This mixture of Christian apocalyptic fiction and science fiction owes as much to C.S. Lewis and his Perelandra trilogy as to Hal Lindsey. Examples of this mixture are The Omega Trilogy by the Morris family, The Fire of Heaven Trilogy by Bill Myers, The Christ Clone Trilogy by James BeauSeigneur, Seal of Gaia by Marlin Maddoux, Nephilim by L.A. Marzulli, the Rift in Time books by Michael Phillips and, perhaps, the unique We All Fall Down by Brian Caldwell. But even these works retain fundamental differences from science fiction in their treatment of science and technology.
Starting off simply: Christian apocalyptic fiction often gets its science wrong. For example, in the Fire of Heaven Trilogy, changes to blood cell DNA are inexplicably supposed to rapidly change mental behavior. What probably happened is that the author used as his model procedures to treat genetic disorders affecting the blood or immune system. Also, the Fire of Heaven Trilogy consistently misunderstands string theory as allowing for the existence of spiritual dimensions in the style of Flatland. The Rift in Time series contorts beyond recognition the story of human evolution (and the Second Law of Thermodynamics to boot) to suit its anti evolution argument. There is throughout these works a consistent misunderstanding of what the scientific method is, what is involved in scientific observation and experiment, how principles of reason such as Occam's razor are applied, and so forth. There's also a frequent divorce of technology and scientific phenomena from their broader scientific principles and reasoning. For example, these works will obsess over the details of genetic engineering or cloning procedures yet express hostility towards the theory of evolution that our understanding of genetics supports. (There are exceptions. Brian Caldwell's We All Fall Down, although it uses little science, does so with sophistication -- the book has an interesting discussion of chaos theory and makes the effort to account for a four-billion-year-old earth and a six-thousand-year religious history.)
Christian apocalyptic fiction frequently borrows some recognized plot devices of science fiction -- cloning, advanced computers, asteroids and other astronomical cataclysms, biological weapons, advanced conventional weaponry, and so forth. However, even in the more science fiction-like works, these devices are often just props, existing without any scientific explanation, literal deus ex machinae to help move the apocalyptic story along. Though these technological innovations or cosmic phenomena may be instrumental in the apocalyptic destruction of most of humankind, they remain merely God's instruments, interchangeable with more miraculous manifestations of wrath. Sometimes there's a more complete conflation of technology and magic, as if Clarke's Third Law were being turned on its head. In Seal of Gaia, for example, a supercomputer is super because it's possessed by the devil.
Christian apocalyptic fiction also addresses some of the same themes as science fiction, including encounters with aliens, the implications of genetic engineering technology, and the exploration of environmental concerns, but it takes a pessimistic tone and a confrontational attitude both towards these themes and their underlying science, particularly where they appear to threaten the Christian idea of human identity.
In addressing genetic engineering, Christian apocalyptic fiction is concerned with hybridization: scientifically mediated interbreeding or intermingling of the alien or supernatural and the human. That Christian apocalyptic fiction is hostile to such hybrids is not surprising, given the genre's general insistence on purity and rejection of the apocalyptic other. For example, two series, the Fire of Heaven Trilogy and the Christ Clone Trilogy, focus on the evil that results when scientists attempt to place the genetic code of Jesus in a modern human. In the Christ Clone Trilogy, the source for Jesus' DNA is the (re-authenticated) Shroud of Turin; in the Fire of Heaven Trilogy, the source is a wax-encased portion of the Crown of Thorns. In both instances, the Antichrist is the result. As the hero of the Christ Clone Trilogy warns, "it's one thing to do lab research or grow cells in a petri dish, but you just can't go around cloning people, especially if the guy you want to clone might just be the son of God!" (Vol. 1, Ch. 4)
In The Fourth Reich, a clone of Hitler powered by Hitler's reanimated soul and demonic forces becomes the Antichrist. In the book Nephilim, the fallen angels imitate extraterrestrials in order to cross-breed with humans. The results are the Nephilim of the title: Goliath-like monstrosities "fearsome to behold, horrible and commanding. Human and yet not human. From this earth but not entirely of this earth." (411)
There is an exception to this fear of the hybrid: the empathic hero of The Omega Trilogy is an artificially incubated human with some reptilian genes. This hybrid seems to have a powerful spiritual empathy with both animals and humans. But this hero is literally a miraculous exception. In general, when genetic engineering or cloning appear in these books, the resulting hybrid creations mean trouble. However, these same books are quick to point out that we can, with God's help, triumph over our DNA, even when it's been tainted. As the protagonist of first volume of the Fire of Heaven Trilogy says, "I'm more than just some kid's chemistry set . . . I've got to be." (164).
On a related front, Christian apocalyptic authors, like science fiction authors, are interested in aliens. But again, they don't like them. Although C.S. Lewis could fit other worlds with sentient beings into his Christian beliefs, this is not the case for the Christian apocalyptic fiction that I've seen. In such works, extraterrestrials are usually just a hoax -- but if they exist, they are actually fallen angels. In Nephilim, the demons look just like the greys. In We All Fall Down, the demon aliens (called the Celestine Prophets) give a long speech to explain away the Rapture in terms of alien intervention, but the apocalyptically savvy protagonist just laughs at the devil's obviousness: "Nice try, cocksucker. Next time why don't you just try offering me the fucking apple." (92)
Related to this fear of the alien is a general silence regarding the human space program. Because these novels are so heavily grounded in Earth-bound biblical prophecies, their authors have a vested interest in keeping the action on Earth. A future including an altered, expanded humanity on other worlds would mean that the end of this planet would not necessarily correspond to the end of human kind. Novels based on fundamentalist biblical interpretation are not yet ready to concede such a possible future (as even C.S. Lewis would not).
Christian apocalyptic fiction, like science fiction, addresses the implications of ecology and evolution, but with an idiosyncratic, negative critique. Evolution is the obvious bete noire of much of fundamentalist Christianity. Consistently in these novels, the propagation of evolutionary biology in the modern era is the result of a deliberate plot by the forces of evil. The Rift in Time series, with its paleoanthropologist-archeologist hero, states this view of evolution the most strongly. It counters evolutionary theory with its own scenario of God playing jigsaw games with the continents after the Fall of Man.
Science fiction has proved a useful genre for the exploration of environmental concerns. Christian apocalyptic fiction, on the other hand, has surprisingly often expressed an anti-environmentalist point of view. These works typically view environmentalism as one of the ideologies which advance the new world order of the Antichrist, and conflate environmentalism with a kind of nature worship or idolatry. We see this anti-environmentalism most strongly in The Omega Trilogy and Seal of Gaia. In The Omega Trilogy, humans have been herded into overcrowded cities, supposedly in order to allow vast tracts of land to return to nature but actually to make it easier for their evil masters to control them. In Seal of Gaia, the forces of evil are actually designing new plagues to wipe out a large percentage of the human population so nature can recover. The counter-ideology is ironically expressed in The Omega Trilogy by a character viewing a map of the new ecological preserves. "I guess it's a matter of who you think is a waste of time and space. If you think animals and plants and air are more important than people, then I guess you don't think the space is wasted." (56)
Science fiction, of course, also has a profound pessimistic tradition, dating back to Mary Shelley's unmanageable monster, and in Christian apocalyptic fiction we often see the classic sci-fi theme of science out of control. One scenario in particular stands out. Prior to the year 2000, one common plot thread had the apocalypse begin due to the repercussions of the Y2K computer bug. The book Flee the Darkness identifies the Y2K problem as a tool for the Antichrist to control the information age. The more cautious Omega Trilogy, set in 2050 but with its first volume published in 1999, uses an electricity-eating bacillus in the place of the Y2K bug, but the covert use of the Y2K model is obvious.
Christian apocalyptic fiction also directly engages the notion of human transcendence through technological progress. The idea that people can perfect themselves and move beyond the human condition through cutting-edge scientific endeavors has become pervasive, as described by David Noble in The Religion of Technology. Sometimes, Christian works argue against such transcendence by showing the limitations of technological efforts against the divine plan: for example, in the Christ Clone Trilogy, humans cannot stop the asteroids of God's judgment despite their best efforts. Sometimes, the argument is that truly ultimate solutions to human problems are not achievable through technology or any merely human endeavor, as in the Left Behind books, where technology that could feed the world is predestined to become a tool of the Antichrist. And finally, sometimes these works directly confront the most radical efforts to transcend the human condition through technology, such as the efforts to create computer consciousness or genetically engineer better humans, by imagining their ultimate results as abominations.
Fundamentalist Christians are seemingly as fond of modern gadgetry, particularly communications technology, as any other group in our society. But for the Christians in these novels, religious transcendence has already been achieved in the most technologically primitive of conditions (that is, the early Christian church) and may be achieved today merely by being "born again." Within this world, physical transcendence or ultimate spiritual transcendence is not to be achieved prior to the end. The idea of transcendence through technology smacks of the worship of the "god of forces," and it is this religion of technology that is viewed explicitly as a competitor. The fictional Antichrist typically offers a spiritual transcendence inextricably linked to a material transcendence supported by new technologies. The second of the Rift in Time books goes so far as to assert that the technological emergence of Europe was largely a Satanic plot, and the book Nephilim has a similar demonic origin for much of our technology.
It would be interesting if Christian apocalyptic fiction confronted scientific hubris in the world as it is. But instead, Christian apocalyptic fiction is more concerned with creating a world where faith can beat science in a clear-cut fashion. For example, in the Rift in Time series, the discovery of Noah's ark confirms the Genesis account, and puts evolutionary biologists in the position of defending their "irrationally biased" version of natural history. But this confrontation about Noah's Ark, like the confrontations in other like novels, relies on the fictional discovery as its fundamental premise. Little attempt is made to confront science in a way that would even by analogy translate effectively into our (apparently) Ark-less world.
In sum, a fundamental distinction between the Christian apocalyptic fiction and science fiction genres is that Christian apocalyptic fiction isn't scientifically minded, even when using scientific props and themes. As the protagonist of a Rift in Time puts it, the Christian apocalyptic response to the challenge of science is that "Isn't everything a matter of faith in the end? . . . What about the faith we scientists put in our own science? Science takes just as many leaps across the void of unprovability as do Christians." (68-69) Though a Christian apocalyptic work and a science fiction novel may share science-based concerns, they will diverge in their responses to those concerns. Christian apocalyptic fiction consistently responds to scientific problems with biblical authority, prophetic interpretation, and fundamentalist ideas of human identity instead of rational argument, scientific method, and humanistic thought.
As a final note, I would like to recognize one exceptional book in the Christian apocalyptic fiction genre. Brian Caldwell's We All Fall Down is a quality work amidst the hack novels of Pat Robertson and the like. Its protagonist is a man who is very familiar with many apocalyptic scenarios. Caught up in the Christian end times, he tries to use his learning to advantage without submitting to God. This work is much darker and more disturbing than anything one can find in the Left Behind series. We All Fall Down is unflinching in its descriptive and psychological realism, and this has made it a controversial work in the evangelical Christian community. We All Fall Down turns polemic into art, giving both believers and unbelievers something to think about. Perhaps we want a work like this on the science fiction shelves.
Tom Doyle is a full-time writer and a part-time millennial scholar. He has worked at the Center for Millennial Studies at Boston University and has presented papers at the last two International Conferences on Millennialism.
Some Christian Apocalyptic Fiction
BeauSeigneur, James. The Christ Clone Trilogy:
- In His Image. Rockville, MD: SelectiveHouse, 1997.
- Birth of an Age. Rockville, MD: SelectiveHouse, 1997.
- Acts of God. Rockville, MD: SelectiveHouse, 1998.
- Birth of an Age. Rockville, MD: SelectiveHouse, 1997.
Caldwell, Brian. We All Fall Down. Haverford, PA: Infinity Publishing, 2000.
Jeffrey, Grant R. and Hunt, Angela. Flee the Darkness. Nashville: Word Publishing, 1998.
LaHaye, Tim and Jenkins, Jerry B. The Left Behind Series:
- Left Behind. Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, 1995.
- Tribulation Force. Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, 1996.
- Nicolae. Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, 1997.
- Soul Harvest. Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, 1998.
- Apollyon. Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, 1999.
- Assassins. Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, 1999.
- The Indwelling. Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, 2000.
- The Mark. Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, 2000.
- Desecration. Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, 2001.
- Tribulation Force. Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, 1996.
Lindsey, Hal. Blood Moon. Palos Verdes, CA: Western Front Publishing, 1996.
Maddoux, Marlin. Seal of Gaia. Nashville: Word Publishing, 1998.
Marzulli, L.A. Nephilim. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999.
Morris, Gilbert, Lynn, & Alan. The Omega Trilogy:
- The Beginning of Sorrows. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1999.
- Fallen Stars, Bitter Waters. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2000.
Myers, Bill. The Fire of Heaven Trilogy:
- Blood of Heaven. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996.
- Threshold. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997.
- Fire of Heaven. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999.
- Threshold. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997.
Phillips, Michael. The Rift in Time Series:
- Rift in Time. Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, 1997.
- Hidden in Time. Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, 2000.
Robertson, Pat. The End of the Age. Nashville: Word Publishing, 1995.
Van Kampen, Robert. The Fourth Reich. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1997.
Some Related Works
Doyle, Thomas M. "Competing Fictions: The Uses of Christian Apocalyptic Imagery in Contemporary Popular Fictional Works. Part One: Premillennialist Apocalyptic Fictions," Journal for Millennial Studies, Winter 2001.
Kreuziger, Frederick A. Apocalypse and Science Fiction: A Dialectic of Religious and Secular Soteriologies. Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1982.
Lindsey, Hal. The Late Great Planet Earth. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Press, 1970.
Loos, Amanda. "But That's Crazy!": The Apocalyptic Imagination in Recent Western Cinema. Thesis: University of South Florida, 1999.
Noble, David F. The Religion of Technology. New York: Penguin Books, 1997.