The word dystopia refers to an imaginary place where people lead dehumanized and often fearful lives. Hollywood has adapted a number of popular dystopian novels for the big screen, showing spellbinding visions of a future that is downright horrifying.
In a post apocalyptic North America known as Panem, the Hunger Games trilogy introduces us to a world of immense savagery where selected children are forced into an annual gladiator-style fight to the death.
The movie Divergent portrays a futuristic Chicago landscape, dreary and isolated from the rest of the world. People are cruelly divided into cult-like factions based upon uniquely dominant character traits they strangely possess, such as "dauntless" or "erudite."
The popularity of books and movies like these raises interesting questions for followers of Jesus who wish to make Christ known. Why are people drawn to such dark visions of the future? Could it be that a gnawing acknowledgment of the gritty truth about human nature lies behind these fictional stories?
The evils of these dystopian societies are actually more in line with how the Bible describes the real world than many people would care to know.
Most moderns would admit that we face enormous problems in this world but their hope is that, through human effort, we can make things progressively better. Humanists have faith that science will ultimately bring this about. Others put their faith in politics. Progressives insist that government is the means to improve our society while Libertarians believe that will only happen if government leaves us all alone and the free market reigns supreme.
In Jewish parlance, this goal of building a better world is known as Tikkun Olam, the healing or repair of the world. The ancient prayer known as the Aleinu (meaning, it is our duty) acknowledges that this can only occur when God's sovereign rule is established in the earth. Yet today the focus of Tikkun Olam seems to be what we humans can bring about through our own efforts. Many Christians have adopted a similar view.
I recently attended a conference of Christian leaders focused on "taking action to advance the common good." The conference emphasized working to shape culture in order to accomplish transformation. This common worldview is based on a utopian aspiration, the hope that our efforts can bring heaven to earth.
It is right to do the good works that God asks us to do, but it is also right to recognize the truth of the worldview the Bible presents; i.e., things are bad and they will continue to get worse. Rather than expecting to significantly shape our culture, we need to be "counter cultural" in the best sense of the word.
Perhaps stories like Hunger Games and Divergent are popular simply because they seem to comport with the direction we all intuitively know we are heading; dystopian stories vividly depict an awful truth that people just can't look away from. At the same time, these stories portray acts of heroism that are definitely counter cultural ... and offer the hope of good triumphing over evil after all. This can lead to some great discussions. But there's one big challenge.
Most people don't want to acknowledge that the very frightening possibilities suggested by these stories do not stem from some outside disruptive force, but from the tragic tendencies of the human heart.
If we understand certain unspoken fears that people identify with through fiction, we can show they are based on reality, connect them to biblical truth and finally point people to a hope that lies beyond any human ability to achieve.
I see four dark megatrends in society that clearly line up with biblical descriptions about this world's future - characteristics that are easily seen in today's culture. They are:
- cynicism (2 Peter 3:3-4)
- narcissism (2 Timothy 3:1-5)
- relativism (2 Timothy 4:3-4)
- cataclysm (Matthew 24:3-44).
Read these four Scripture passages and see if you don't agree that this view of our planet's future is already here to some extent, and that its total fulfillment is fast coming upon us.
Peter's prediction of scoffing, perhaps better translated "mocking," typifies a cynical attitude towards truth and, in particular, spiritual truth. Scoffing is an outpouring of scorn and derision and is often used to cover up an underlying sense of shame. It is intensified to the extent that people try to distract attention from their own bad behaviors.
Our culture has become toxic with cynicism toward all who hold up a standard of truth, whether for right and wrong, for marriage and morality, honesty and fairness, or a whole host of other ethical claims.
Paul likewise predicts a world disintegrating under the weight of narcissism. All the characteristics Paul talks about in describing "lovers of themselves" flow out of sinful self-absorption as people set standards based on, "How does this affect me?" rather than an external, objective measurement of good or evil.
James Davison Hunter in his book, The Death of Character says, "We say we want a renewal of character in our day, but we don't really know what we ask for. To have a renewal of character is to have a renewal of a credal order that constrains, limits, binds, obligates and compels. This price is too high for us to pay. We want character, but without unyielding conviction. We want strong morality, but without the emotional burden of guilt or shame. We want virtue, but without particular moral justifications that invariably offend. We want good without having to name evil. We want decency without the authority to insist upon it. We want moral community without any limitations to personal freedom. In short, we want what we cannot possibly have on the terms that we want it."
Likewise Paul predicts a diminution of truth in a trend toward relativism; people's desires will decide what they believe rather than allowing what they believe to shape their desires. As in, "whatever appeals to me must be true (for me)." Then comes the quest to collect teachers who say just what people want to hear. How many of us know people, even believers, who have that cafeteria-style approach to truth?
Finally, anyone who thinks things will become progressively better in our world either hasn't heard or hasn't believed what Jesus said in the Olivet discourse. In a word, it is cataclysm, which Webster defines as "a flood, a deluge, any violent change involving sudden and extensive alterations, an upheaval, a social or political one."
Jesus says to expect a geopolitical, religious, economical, ecological, sociological and finally, astronomical cataclysm. So what is a hopeful Christian to do?
Even as we show what the Bible says about our corrupt and corrupting world, we can confidently share the hope the Scriptures also give. The "dystopianesque" future that faces us will ultimately yield to the rule of Messiah Jesus. He will right all wrongs and truly heal the world by His divine power.
Dystopian stories can provide opportunities to discuss the bad news that always precedes the good news. Even as the real world around us disintegrates, if we believe and trust in Jesus, He promises to be with us and strengthen us. He will deliver us and bring us into a bright and beautiful future, where the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. (Habakkuk 2:14).
This content was adapted from an earlier Jews for Jesus article.