The End Is Near? Three Apocalyptic Novels

Detail of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel fresco The Last Judgment, 1536-1541. (via Wikimedia)
What Christian dystopias can and can’t teach us about our present moment.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE W hen will the world end? People have been asking this question . . . since the beginning. Virtually every religious tradition accounts for the end times. Christianity, with the Second Coming, is no exception. During the public ministry of Jesus, his disciples pressed him on this very point. “Tell us,” they say in the Gospel of Matthew, “when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”

Jesus then provides some guidance as to what the end will look like. False messiahs. “Wars and rumors of wars.” Persecution of believers. The sun and moon no longer giving off their light. But he stresses above all the uncertainty. He will return like a “thief” unexpectedly breaking into a house. Indeed, He is coy about the exact moment: “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” So we “also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.”

The lack of specific guidance hasn’t stopped Christians from imagining the end times in the form of dystopias, not all of which turn on the Second Coming. From that literature, three examples stand out: The Lord of the World, by Robert Hugh Benson; A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter Miller Jr.; and The Children of Men, by P. D. James. Each apocalyptic imagining posits a world in which Christianity still lingers, in some form, just as it borrows from Christianity somewhat in imagining what that end might look like. Each also betrays the fears of its own age. Yet only one raises perhaps the most important question about the end for Christians to consider.

The Catholic Church does not survive Robert Hugh Benson’s The Lord of the World, published in 1907. Though this is not because Benson was anti-Catholic. He wasn’t — far from it. Benson’s father was the archbishop of Canterbury when he became a priest of the Church of England; his conversion to Roman Catholicism was one of the greatest controversies of Christianity in England in the early 20th century. His work itself became controversial, something he predicted at its very beginning, when he wrote, “I am aware that this is a terribly sensational book.”

Benson imagines a future in which much of the Western world has come under the sway of a secular, socialist super-state. The Church of England gradually disappears; Protestantism is “dead”; and the Catholic Church stands alone in the West against a sort of New Age spirituality on steroids. Benson describes it as “Positivism of a kind, Catholicism without Christianity, Humanity worship without its inadequacy. It was not that man was worshipped but the Idea of man, deprived of his supernatural principle.”

The Lord of the World shows the gradual turning of a secularizing world against the remnants of Catholicism. No nation ever outright bans the faith, but social pressure weighs against it heavily. As does a mysterious figure, Julian Felsenburgh, who appears seemingly out of nowhere to bring peace to the world and to unite the West as it never before has been. Under Felsenburgh’s direction, the socialist super-state first destroys Rome (in retaliation for a foiled attempt on Julian’s own life), then sets upon the Catholic remnant that has miraculously settled in Nazareth. The book ends with Felsenburgh revealed as the anti-Christ, and his attack on the last Catholics beginning the end of the world.

It is, in some ways, an ultramontane fever dream. But one that bears certain resemblances to our own reality. Aside from the more prosaic but still impressive predictions (from 1907!) about commercial air travel and bombs with the power to wipe out entire cities, Benson nails certain aspects of the age in which we now live. State-sponsored euthanasia to relieve “suffering” is commonplace. Its acceptability proceeds from a culture of autonomy that prevails even as government itself grows ever larger and more oppressive. In Benson’s world, “individualism was at least so far recognised as to secure to those weary of life the right of relinquishing it.”

One of the more striking aspects of Benson’s nightmare is the extent to which the socialist world-state goes about simulating religion for those fallen away from Catholicism. With the help of former priests, it creates a mockery of the Holy Trinity and the Catholic Mass. And Felsenburgh himself somewhat blatantly takes on characteristics of Christ: He is called “Son of Man,” “Saviour of the World,” and “even Incarnate God, because he was the perfect representative of divine man.” All of this is to sate man’s still-extant spiritual hunger; one character, a still-faithful priest, remarks that “man must worship — must worship or sink.”

Benson wrote Lord of the World at a time when many modern pathologies were in their infancy — and at a time when many things modernity takes for granted were still regarded with skepticism by an older guard. Esperanto had just revived the ancient (and perhaps profane, given the example of Babel) dream of a universal tongue. The Labour Party had just been born in England, a few decades after Karl Marx began to write on Communism. Democracy and universal suffrage were, in many places, still mere dreams. The memory of the French Revolution was still raw, in France and elsewhere. And meanwhile, the position of the Vatican was, within living memory, to be opposed to . . . just about all of it. In the Syllabus of Errors, an appendix to a papal encyclical promulgated by Pius IX, the pope enumerates assertions that were widely believed circa 1864 and that he thought in error. The pithiest of the “errors” was the notion that “the Roman Pontiff can, and ought to, reconcile himself, and come to terms with progress, liberalism and modern civilization.”

Though Benson imagines a future that works against the Catholic Church, never does he imagine that the Church might lose any of its spiritual power. Instead, it is, in his work, “the only institution that even claims supernatural authority, with all its merciless logic.” As a result of this, “she has again the allegiance of practically all Christians who have any supernatural belief left.” Catholicism — and Rome itself, now the world’s sole repository of any religious or political connection to the past — derives a kind of strength from modernity’s challenge. Even as the persecution of the Church increases, a new religious order, the Order of Christ Crucified, inspires converts and martyrs the world over. To the very end, Catholicism remains strong enough that the all-powerful world-state feels threatened and seeks its total destruction — accomplished only at the destruction of the world itself. Even in Benson’s darkest nightmare, he never feared for the integrity of the Church, or for the faith of those who would remain committed to it.

The world does not survive A Canticle for Leibowitz, first published in 1959, though the Catholic Church does. (More on that in a moment.) Canticle is a post-apocalyptic novel that takes place over thousands of years. It begins a few centuries after a devastating nuclear war that occurred presumably around our own time. Those still living call it “the Flame Deluge.” The nuclear in this world has taken on a demonic character; the possibility of another “demon” Fallout is feared, and Satan is depicted in holy texts as the inspiration for the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction. Meanwhile, in what was the American desert, Catholic monks of the Order of Saint Leibowitz labor to preserve lost civilization — our present. In this, Miller recalls their predecessors, the European monks whose diligent copying preserved an otherwise distant past for the use of future generations. These monks expect their efforts to continue long after them.

That does happen, as one unlucky brother’s memorabilia help civilization rebuild itself again to a point equal to and even surpassing our own. And in such a time, familiar conflicts resurface. As nuclear war threatens once more, state authorities attempt to euthanize those suffering (or not) war’s effects. The Catholic Church, still a dominant force in this far-future time, resists those efforts.

Miller wrote his Canticle in a nuclear age, as the possibility of mankind’s total destruction by warfare first became a plausible fear. His experiences participating in the Allied bombing of Montecassino, a Benedictine abbey in Italy temporarily used by German forces as a base in World War II, also inspired him to consider the rise and fall of civilizations. (The abbey has been destroyed and rebuilt multiple times, including after its bombing.) In his religiously tinged fear of the awesome power of nuclear weapons, Miller was channeling not so much Strangelove as the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. In its 1983 pastoral letter “The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response,” for example, the conference expressed a concern that “nuclear weaponry has drastically changed the nature of warfare” and that “the arms race poses a threat to human life and human civilization which is without precedent.”

Despite Miller’s atomic pessimism, and a text thick with dark ironies — each of its three parts ends focusing not on a human but on a scavenging animal — he pays a backhanded compliment to his own Catholicism. For though its power wanes and waxes, the Catholic Church is one of the few constants through his work’s centuries-long timeline. The Church, moreover, hardly changes its doctrines. On post-nuclear Earth, she defends the right to life of irradiated mutants; in a restored, futuristic civilization, she resists state-sponsored euthanasia. Indeed, in Miller’s telling, the Church outlasts Earth itself. Near the end, fearing the world’s complete destruction, she sends priests and an archbishop into space. The novel ends with the world’s destruction, and one of these priests shaking its dust from his sandals, punning, “Sic transit mundus,” or “Thus passes the world.” Neither Benson nor Miller, then, for all their pessimism, imagines the world itself triumphing over Christianity. For Benson, they perish together; for Miller, Christianity outlasts the world.

For a dystopia that considers such an eventuality, one must turn to a work written by a non-Catholic, and one in which the world is coming to an end not with a literal bang, but with a whimper. Or perhaps, a lack thereof. In P. D. James’s Children of Men, mankind is suddenly and inexplicably stricken with universal infertility. The 2021 England in which the story takes place is a caretaker tyranny, dominated by a figure who suspends democracy and curtails liberty for the promise of an agreeable senescence for a civilization that no longer cares for its future, because it doesn’t think it will have one. The youngest living humans are in their mid-20s; no children have been born since.

The lack of children has affected society in myriad ways. The youngest humans are a fearsome force, the last source of any real vigor in society, but unrestrained by any social mores. Infertile couples bury childlike dolls (and controversy rages over whether religious involvement is licit); custody battles rage over pets. Sex “divorced from procreation” has “become almost meaninglessly acrobatic”; the state sponsors pornography in a vain attempt to keep the sexual instinct alive should a miracle occur and reproduction become viable again. And most disturbing: The state sponsors “Quietus,” a “mass suicide of the old” in which the elderly are “encouraged” to kill themselves. It is a public ritual whose voluntary status Theo, the novel’s protagonist, discovers is a fiction, forcing him to accept the barbarity of the regime perpetrating this euthanasia.

This enervated world originated before universal infertility, however. Theo believes that he “can trace” both the present societal decline and a persistent concern for personal health “to the early 1990s: the search for alternative medicine, the perfumed oils, the massage, the stroking and anointing, the crystal-holding, the non-penetrative sex.” Around the same time, “the recognized churches, particularly the Church of England, moved from the theology of sin and redemption to a less uncompromising doctrine: corporate social responsibility coupled with sentimental humanism.” This analysis of the “past” in the book is actually a condemnation of the writer’s present, 1992.

Though James was not Catholic, her work is steeped in the anxieties of Catholicism that were addressed, but not resolved, in the 1968 papal encyclical Humanae Vitae. This was Pope Paul VI’s broadside against contemporary sexual mores and in favor of the Church’s ancient teachings, one he delivered against the recommendations of the committee he assembled to assist in its drafting. Catholicism was hardly alone in dealing with these anxieties. At a disputed vote at the Lambeth Conference in 1930, the Anglican Communion ultimately resolved that “in those cases where there is such a clearly felt moral obligation to limit or avoid parenthood, and where there is a morally sound reason for avoiding complete abstinence, the Conference agrees that other methods may be used, provided that this is done in the light of the same Christian principles.” Far down the slippery slope of such attitudes, and in a twisted instance of the need to be careful what one wishes for, James’s world is a spiritually and sexually hollow place, as consequence-free sex becomes an inescapable reality.

The world imagined by James in Children of Men rings truer in certain ways in our time than does either of the bombastic apocalypses of Miller or Benson. Leave aside the more obvious predictions, such as declining fertility rates and increased contraception use, the child-simulating dolls popular in low-fertility Japan, and the growing popularity of New Age spirituality (the latter also a feature of Benson’s dystopia). Only James imagined a world in which institutional, established religion might linger on, but with its doctrinal integrity compromised, and its institutional strength all but vanished. Miller and Benson could imagine only that religious institutions would either be destroyed completely or maintain something of their ancient vitality. But James posited a murkier, middle ground.

And it is this middle ground in which those still committed to institutions such as the Catholic Church find themselves. It is easier, in a sense, to face down a world opposed to you than it is to purge the demons within oneself. And it is more appealing, in a sense, to defend one’s faith against external enemies than it is to defend it against proclaimed believers who wish to weaken it. For all of Benson and Miller’s dystopian pessimism, they pay institutional religion the ultimate backhanded compliment of assuming its continued, meaningful existence, something of greater uncertainty in our day than perhaps ever before.

Until the world does end, faithful the world over will continue to wonder if the end is near. But we will know only once it arrives, though we’re likely to get some portents, as Jesus tells us. We might be better served pondering another question about the end, one Jesus himself asks in the Gospel of Luke: “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

Jack Butler is an associate editor at National Review Online.

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