By Brett Miller
eapons of Mass Destruction. Ebola. The Living Dead. Few concepts have swept the public imagination as powerfully as the post-apocalyptic world. Whether from nuclear fallout, catastrophic weather change, or an unstoppable virus, the breakdown of society haunts our newspapers, movie theaters, and universities.
For some, the end of the world is inescapable, or at least highly probable in the near future. But for most of us, the concept is more often hypothetical, yet certainly no less detailed. “How would you survive a zombie uprising, or a world without electricity? Would you resort to cannibalism or starve? Would you team up with others or make a go of it alone?” These what-if questions saturate popular culture.
In the fantastic landscape of post-civilization, when domestic constraints have been replaced with the singular goal to survive at any cost, might the popular interest in nuclear wastelands and cities rocked by super-viruses function as laboratories which allow us to examine just how deeply committed we are to our professed beliefs?
Religion has not been exempted from this analysis. Many have been keen to answer the question: “What really becomes of faith in a world without order?” In looking at how our culture imagines Christianity faring in post-apocalyptic scenarios, we catch a glimpse of what many really believe about the credibility of religious faith. What exactly does popular opinion hold concerning the durability of Christianity? What degree of truth does that opinion reflect?
Consider the French philosopher Albert Camus, who evaluated the worldviews of characters in his play, The Plague, who each must decide how to weather a deadly epidemic that is sweeping through their city. Among them, Camus presents two options: join the doctor in fighting against the pestilence, or join the priest in admitting the plague is the will of God. The priest is eventually pressed between siding with his beliefs, or his humanity, and, unable to cope with the seeming absurdity of such reckless fate, dies clinging to a cross. Alternatively, the doctor, who though he is unable to find any intrinsic meaning in all the suffering, still fights the plague to the very end. The priest may have been satisfied knowing he was on God’s side, but when it came to lifting a finger against the plague, either his belief in providence must be discarded or he must fight against God himself. The moral of the story is clear: faith brings nothing to the table when it comes to surviving the end of the world.
While Albert Camus approaches the subject from a more philosophical angle, many popular-level narratives tell a similar tale. Consider one of the most critically acclaimed console games in recent years, titled The Last of Us, which follows Joel, a man who is assigned to escort the young girl Ellie across the United States twenty years after a fungus outbreak that turned its human hosts into cannibalistic monsters. As the pair travels cross-country, they come across a variety of communities that have weathered the epidemic in different ways; finally encountering a man named David who offers them shelter in his small town. He speaks of “the Lord” and his deep confidence that everything happens for a reason. In the town hall, a large banner reads, “WHEN WE ARE IN NEED, HE SHALL PROVIDE!” David supplies Ellie and Joel with much-needed antibiotics, but they quickly discover that the heaven-sent provision that they seek is in fact human flesh. The inhabitants have resorted to cannibalism and eat anyone who won’t adhere to their way of life. David’s religious beliefs function as a veil for an eat-or-be-eaten way of survival, and once again faith is presented as an excuse for immoral self-preservation.
This religion-as-manipulation motif is common fodder across various media. The wildly popular novel on zombie survival, World War Z, documents a timeline in which Russia capitalizes on a religious revival to justify its practice of decimation: where one out of every ten soldiers is killed to maintain strict discipline in the war against the zombies. In the TV series, The Walking Dead, a survivor who demonstrates adherence to Christianity is not depicted as manipulative or abusive, but his worldview offers little comfort to him: After being told to have more faith, he responds, “I can’t profess to understand God’s plan. Christ promised the resurrection of the dead. I just thought he had something a little different in mind.”
The mainstream portrayals of Christianity are not more positive. It’s clear that the general consensus is that when the going gets tough, religious faith becomes blind hope that insulates one from reality, or at worst a tool of control used to ensure one’s personal survival.
But does this skeptical conception of the church have any merit? I would suggest the most reliable answer is to consider how Christianity has functioned in major catastrophes in the past. While society has not previously succumbed to the undead or radioactive waste, there have been times in history where certain civilizations were effectively crippled by unstoppable forces. One in particular is the devastating epidemic that ravaged the central cities of the Roman Empire beginning in the 2nd century, known today as the Plague of Galen. Experts estimate that the mortality rate was at least 25%, and in Rome alone the disease at its peak killed over 5,000 people each day.
Sociologist Rodney Stark, in studying the explosive growth of Christianity in the first few centuries, argues that Christianity actually boomed during this crisis. Citing both Christian and non-Christian reactions to the epidemic, Stark notes that Christians were often the only line of defense for large portions of the population. He quotes Dionysius, Bishop of Alexandria, who wrote:
“Most of our brother Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty… Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending their every need and ministering to them in Christ… Many, in nursing and curing others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead…”
“The heathen behaved in the very opposite way. At the first onset of the disease, they pushed the suffers away and fled from their dearest, throwing them into the roads before they were dead…hoping thereby to avert the spread and contagion of the fatal disease.”
Stark goes on to suggest that while the pagans questioned the true sincerity of such Christian charity, they had difficulty dismissing the effectiveness of their services. As the Roman emperor Julian, who was no friend to Christianity, noted to a pagan priest,
“The impious Galileans [Christians] support not only their poor, but ours as well, everyone can see that our people lack aid from us.”
Stark’s analysis brings attention not merely to the services Christianity rendered to society, but also the underlying beliefs that led to such charity. He concludes: “The contents of Christian and pagan beliefs were different in ways that greatly determined…their relative capacities to mobilize human resources.”
Contrary to modern portrayals of the Christian religion often seen in the media, these historic accounts of the sacrifice of Christian communities demonstrates that their religious values heavily contributed to the general welfare of the larger society, that Christianity was “thoroughly adapted to a time of troubles in which hardship, disease, and violent death commonly prevailed.”
What were those beliefs that prompted so many to face certain death in the place of their very enemies? New Testament scholar N.T. Wright, in looking at the core beliefs of the early church, points out that it is, in fact, a very particular truth that set them apart: the resurrection of Jesus Christ. While larger culture maintains that the appeal of Christianity is centered on a “pie in the sky” paradise after death, the real hope instead lies in bodily resurrection, and with it, palin-genesis: the new creation. As Wright explains:
“Instead of the cultivation of a private spirituality, the resurrection-shaped worldview of the early Christians gave strong impetus to forming communities across traditional barriers… If the Christians had believed that Jesus had merely ‘gone to heaven’, and that their aim should be to join him there in the future, …why should the present world be of any concern to them?
But if Jesus had been raised from the dead, if the new creation had begun, if they were themselves the citizens of the creator god’s new kingdom, then the claims of Jesus to Lordship on earth as well as heaven would ultimately come into conflict with [the claims] of Caesar.”
Therefore, because of the resurrection of Christ, the church can squarely face disasters of apocalyptic proportions, and in the process offer the world both real hope and meaningful, tangible resources, not because God has bypassed this world and asks us to do the same, but because the resurrection is a foretaste of the renewal God will bring to the entire universe. Whether the threat is environmental degradation or a zombie takeover, only the true resurrection community of Christ’s church will ever remain a shelter through world’s end.