The Theology of Science-Fiction: IV — End-Times

universe, creation, wonder, scouts, scouting turmoil



“Because science fiction primarily deals with the future, it must inevitably deal with the end of the world, and thus SF overlaps more closely with apocalyptic literature than with any other type of religious writing…[and] focuses on eschatology–ideas about ‘the last days’, the end of the world as we know it and the dawning of a radically new era.” Gabriel McKee, The Gospel According to Science Fiction

In this article — the fourth of the series — I’m going to focus on works for which the religious attitudes of two science fiction (SF) authors range from atheist to true believer. And as the quote above  suggests, we’re talking about end-times — the Apocalypse, Armageddon, the Ball is Over.  For the SF author, this can mean the end of the world — earth — the end of the Universe, or the end of everything (from Creatio ex nihilo to Annihilatio ad nihilum).

There are a host of stories dealing with end-times, ranging from post atomic-war destruction of civilization, destruction of earth by collision with asteroids, alien take-overs of the world, or the final end  of the Universe. Rather than giving a catalog of these, I’m going to discuss two classics that span religious attitudes, from atheist to Catholic faithful: surveys of SF apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic works are given in the References*.


Childhood’s End, the classic by Arthur C. Clarke, is a story about a benevolent take-over of earth by aliens (“the Overlords”) who look like the common image of the devil — horns, wings, tail and all that. The Overlords institute a benevolent dictatorship, eliminating nuclear fission and other explosive missiles, want and crime. “Utopia was here at last: its novelty had not yet been assailed by the supreme enemy of all Utopias—boredom.”

However, it was not to give mankind Utopia that the Overlords came to Earth. Rather, they were acting as nannies for a new humankind, and to prevent mankind from destroying itself until that new man emerged. That new, improved species was to be derived from the children of the generation visited by the Overlords.

They would be endowed with supernatural psychic powers, and after developing these powers during a maturation period on earth, would join with the Supermind that had desired this change. They would leave earth in a pillar of fire and as they left, destroy their birthplace:

There was nothing left of Earth. They had leeched away the last atoms of its substance. It had nourished them, through the fierce moments of their inconceivable metamorphosis, as the food stored in a grain of wheat feeds the infant plant while it climbs towards the Sun. (Childhood’s End).

Now, there is nothing of God in this, unless you equate the Supermind, which is composed of the composite minds of many species, to God. The origin and precise nature of the Supermind is not discussed in the story, but then of course if it is a supermind, what can our poor intelligence make of it?

Clarke’s bias against theism is revealed early on in the book by the remarks of one of his characters:

“Science is the only religion of mankind.”     and

“Science can destroy religion by ignoring it as well as by disproving its tenets. No one ever demonstrated, so far as I am aware, the nonexistence of Zeus or Thor, but they have few followers now.” (Childhood’s End)

Given Clarke’s proposal that psychic powers, supermind and all such stuff, constitute the next step in evolution, one wonders how seriously to take the dicta in the quotes above. Much more faith is required to believe in supernatural psychic powers than to believe in God and His only begotten Son. But, as G.K. Chesterton aptly put it:

“It’s the first effect of not believing in God that you lose your common sense.” (G.K. Chesterton, Fr. Brown in  The Oracle of the Dog)


“You hard-shelled materialists were all balanced on the very edge of belief — of belief in almost anything.” (G.K. Chesterton, Fr. Brown in The Miracle of Moon Crescent)

(Those are the quotes that gave rise to the saying, attributed to Chesterton by mistake:

 When a man stops believing in God he doesn’t then believe in nothing, he believes anything.”  American Chesterton Society.)

Now it seems in the critique above, I have given short shrift to Childhood’s End. That was not my intention. When I first read it 55 years ago, I was moved. Today on re-reading it (after my conversion) I find it unsatisfying and shallow as an aid to appreciate the meaning of end-times.


Beloved of both SF and non-SF fans, is the classic, A Canticle for Leibowitz, a book which has sold over a million copies and is still in print.

Preparing for this article, I reread it; the message of the book is still fresh and moving. Rather than summarize the plot (go to the link above for that), I want to expound on that message. (Better yet, read the free pdf download of the book, or buy it–you’ll want to reread it.)

The story takes places in three historical periods:

Fiat Homo (Let there be Man):  The first period is in the 26th century, several hundred years after the “Flame Deluge”. An atomic war that destroys civilization and engenders a host of monstrous mutant births. The populace, calling themselves “Simpletons”, have risen up against the establishment–killing scientists, academics, government officials — and against the learning that led to this catastrophe. Books are burnt, technological devices destroyed in the rage of the survivors.

An order of monks had been founded some years earlier by a Jewish convert to Catholicism, Leibowitz, who had been an atomic weapons scientist. The special mission of the monks was  to save the remnants of learning; each monk is to be a “booklegger”, carrying books in a bindle-stiff to a place of safety. Leibowitz himself was martyred, burnt with his books.

Fiat Lux  (Let there be Light): The second period is 500 years later. The rebirth of science takes place, partially in the Abbey of St. Leibowitz (he has been canonized by the Pope in New Rome). A monk of the  Leibowitzian order invents a human-powered dynamo to power an arc light, illustrating the new theories of a theoretical genius, a  royal bastard (the kingdom is Texarkana). Tensions between the Church and the state rise again, as in the past.

Fiat Voluntas Tua (Thy Will be Done): The third period is some 600 years later. Science and technology have risen again: atomic weapons, interstellar travel (with a few colonies), computers, automated roads are here, to the consternation of the Abbot of the St. Leibowitz monastery. State and Church have reached an accommodation, much as today — most of the populace are unbelievers or Catholic in name only.

There is tension between the two superpowers, the Asian Coalition and the Atlantic Confederacy. The tension grows into an atomic war; even greater destruction is wrought than in the preceding flame deluge, but a contingent of the Order of St. Leibowitz carries civilization and the Church to the stars, to the new colonies.

All the above is bare bones, dry as dust, and conveys little of the power and beauty of the book.  I’m going to try to do that with some selected quotes and context. (For a fuller exposition of the plot, again, please refer to the linked article.)

Fiat Homo: Brother Francis falls into the uncovered remains of a fallout shelter containing relics of Saint Leibowitz, is terrified and prays a litany for salvation from the Flame Deluge:

“A spiritu fomicationis,
Domine, hibera nos.
From the lightning and the tempest,
O Lord, deliver us.
From the scourge of the earthquake,
O Lord, deliver us.
From plague, famine, and war,
O Lord, deliver us.
“From the place of ground zero,
O Lord, deliver us.
From the rain of the cobalt,
O Lord, deliver us.
From the rain of the strontium,
O Lord, deliver us.
From the fall of the cesium,
O Lord, deliver us.
“From the curse of the Fallout,
O Lord, deliver us.
From the begetting of monsters,
O Lord, deliver us.
From the curse of the Misborn,
O Lord, deliver us.
A morte perpetua,
Domine, libera nos.
te rogamus, audi nos.
That thou wouldst spare us,
we beseech thee, hear us.
That thou wouldst pardon us,
we beseech thee, hear us.
That thou wouldst bring us truly to penance,
te rogamus, audi nos.”  p. 16 (Bantam Edition).

Fiat Lux Brother Kornhoer has invented a dynamo and electric arc lamp, amazing the great scientist Thon Taddeo (repeat of Galileo or Newton?) who has come to investigate the Leibowitz memorabilia. A discourse on scientific achievements of the past and the preservation of knowledge by the Church follows.

Now a Dark Age seemed to be passing. For twelve centuries, a small flameof knowledge had been kept smoldering in the monasteries; only now were there minds ready to be kindled. Long ago, during the last age of reason, certain proud thinkers had claimed that valid knowledge was indestructible–that ideas were deathless and truth immortal. But that was true only in the subtlest sense, the abbot thought, and not superficially true at all. There was objective meaning in the world, to be sure: the nonmoral logos or design of the Creator; but such meanings were God’s and not Man’s, until they found an imperfect incarnation, a dark reflection, within the mind and speech and culture of a given human society, which might ascribe values to the meanings so that they became valid in a human sense within the culture. For Man was a culture-bearer as well as a soul-bearer, but his cultures were not immortal and they could die with a race or an age, and then human reflections of meaning and human portrayals of truth receded, and truth and meaning resided, unseen, only in the objective logos of Nature and the ineffable Logos of God. [emphasis added] Truth could be crucified; but soon, perhaps, a resurrection. (p. 133, ibid)

And so the age of science begins again and again, the Church is the wet-nurse of the new “logos of nature”.

Fiat Voluntas Tua: The Church has had an interstellar vehicle of its own ready for missionary work to the interstellar colonies and, with nuclear annihilation threatening within a short time, decides to send two Bishops and a group from the Leibowitz Abbey — priests, brothers, sisters, civilians and children — to the Centauran colony. (The Bishops are sent to  maintain apostolic succession.)

The Abbot, Fr. Zerchi, speaks to the group:

” ‘You will be years in space. The ship will be your monastery. After the patriarchal see is established at the Centaurus Colony, you will establish there a mother house of the Visitationist Friars of the Order of Saint Leibowitz of Tycho. But the ship will remain in your hands, and the Memorabilia. If civilization, or a vestige of it, can maintain itself on Centaurus, you will send missions to the other colony worlds, and perhaps eventually to the colonies of their colonies. Wherever Man goes, you and your successors will go. And with you, the records and remembrances of four thousand years and more. Some of you, or those to come after you, will be mendicants and wanderers, teaching the chronicles of Earth and the canticles of the Crucified to the peoples and the cultures that may grow out of the colony groups. For some may forget. Some may be lost for a time from the Faith. Teach them, and receive into the Order those among them who are called. Pass on to them the continuity. Be for Man the memory of Earth and Origin. Remember this Earth. Never forget her, but– never come back.’  Zerchi’s voice went hoarse and low. ‘If you ever come back, you might meet the Archangel at the east end of Earth, guarding her passes with a sword of flame. I feel it. Space is your home hereafter. It’s a lonelier desert than ours. God bless you, and pray for us.’ (p. 269, ibid)

Brother Joshua, after much soul-searching, decides to accept the invitation to be the Abbot for the Visitationist Friars and be ordained a priest. He climbs into the spaceship as nuclear bombs are falling to the east, slaps his sandals together, shaking the dust from them [see Matt 10:14] and whispers “sic transit gloria mundi” .

I wish that the sequel, the story of the interstellar mission, had been written…and, were I thirty years younger, I would try to do so myself.


The Gospel according to Science Fiction (Chapter 10, “The Last Days [and After]). Gabriel McKee.

*One very fine apocalyptic SF novel by Nancy Kress, “After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall”, was published after these references;  it deals with destruction of civilization by aliens and the attempted recovery.

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23 thoughts on “The Theology of Science-Fiction: IV — End-Times”

  1. Shannon Marie Federoff

    There is a sequel to Leibowitz, but you need to run away from it very fast. Not only is it poorly written, but Miller’s more “modern” views of Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular come out. Just a warning.

    1. Thanks, Shannon. I knew of the sequel, “Leibowitz and the Wild-Wolf Woman”, and I knew of its heterodox thrust, which is why I didn’t mention it. The sequel I would like to see would concern the space ship and its fate on the colony planet.

  2. Nice article, thanks.

    I would like to address one issue, though, admittedly a pet peeve of mine: Galileo. Too many people think – and your article appears to suggest – that he was punished by the Church for espousing something that was considered heretical at the time: that the earth is not the center of the universe. That is simply untrue. He was chastised by the Church (his research sponsor, BTW) for being unscientific in his claims. He claimed that the sun is the center of our little group of planets. That turned out to be true, but he lacked the evidence to actually prove it. Heliocentrism wasn’t proven until centuries after Galileo’s death by Newton and Halley. No true scientist will claim something to be a scientific fact, no matter how much s/he believes it to be true, without adequate proof. And, if the scientist’s peers review his/her work and find it lacking, the proof will not be accepted. Galileo broke those rules.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Bert. I did not mean to suggest that Galileo was condemned for his views on heliocentricity; rather the thrust was he did not suggest this as a “hypothesis” (i.e. to save the appearances) and he also questioned the inerrancy (sp?) of Holy Scripture. There is another post of mine that goes into more detail about Galileo’s relation with the Church, and his later vindication by St. John Paul II:

    2. Thanks for your reply and link. The article by Johnston is the most in-depth one I have read so far. I know I shouldn’t get hung up on Galileo but it rubs me the wrong way to see him hailed as something he was not.

      In any event, I enjoyed your article and apologize for getting side tracked on an insignificant issue.

    1. Thanks for your comment James–and if we’re to be truly ecumenical, how about a quota of agnostics, atheists, Christian Scientists, etc…? The Church is to propagate THE FAITH, and of course there were colonists on the worlds to which the ship was to travel who were not Catholic.

    2. ” Otherwise, the natural thing to hope would be that whatever truths or insights are present in Buddhism had by then been absorbed into the Catholic Church, as happened, for instance, with Greek philosophy”

      Oh !!! Then it is possible the CC might have incorporated reincarnation and jettisoned purgatory to meld the explicit parts of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John that can be read to support this premise. Thanks Howard, you’re right.

    3. No, that’s not wit. You need to get out more, or at least read more, if you think that is wit.

    4. wit : 3 ACUMEN b: the ability to relate seemingly disparate things so as to illuminate or amuse.

    5. Sort of a strange thing to say, having previously led off with “The only reason I can think of for you to wish…”

    6. I was trying to find out which, if any, framework led him to a conclusion which I would not expect from a Catholic. In fact, I actually started off with, “Why?” I only went back and edited it to add the other stuff to make it clear that I was not suggesting that Buddhist monks should be left to be killed by nuclear bombs, but rather wondering why he hoped there would still be Buddhist monks.

    7. Editing sans attribution, for shame.

      “I was trying to find out which, if any, framework led him to a conclusion which I would not expect from a Catholic”

      Oh, you were looking to dialogue? Even if that’s the case, I’m not sure that going on at length to presume the only possible things james could have meant is the best way to do that. Especially when it includes you suggesting that no “thoughtful Catholics” could possibly agree with any of what you presume could be the only thing(s) he meant. Even more if – in response to what seemed a fairly tongue-in-cheek reply by james – you’re going to then complain about having words put in your mouth…you know, cause that’s what it looks like you just got done doing to james.

    8. Editing, as far as I could see, before anyone had read the comment.

      Did you notice the question marks all throughout my comment?

      Whatever. The answer I got was sufficient.

    9. Editing, as far as I could see, before anyone had read the comment.

      Yes, and as far as I can see, there’s no way for you to be able to know whether or not your comments have been viewed. But I don’t wish to belabor the point further than I (just) have.

      Did you notice the question marks all throughout my comment?

      I did, all three of them! I also noticed that, initial “why?” aside, the other two questions seemed more rhetorical in nature. Even if you were actually curious as to what james thought, and not simply in telling him the only things you thought he could mean, it’s all in the framework of no “thoughtful Catholics” possibly agreeing with him.

      Whatever. The answer I got was sufficient.

      Fair enough, and with this I’ll let the matter drop.

      FWIW, I don’t follow people I feel have nothing useful to say…it’s just that I generally find you to be more thoughtful than this.

    10. I was not aware that you or anyone else was following me. Well, except the NSA, obviously.

      I don’t know, perhaps it’s just that I’m in a grumpy mood, but I’m really sick of the stunt of, “Thanks for agreeing with me that [something I obviously do not agree with].” That does, I suppose, count as wit, but only until puberty. All I was looking for was clarification — not, in fact, dialogue, and I suppose I got some sort of clarification. I never had any expectation that dialogue would be productive, and if I had any suspicion that it would be not, that suspicion has been confirmed.

    11. right, nyah, nyah, nyah, I’m rubber and your glue what you say bounces off me and sticks to you.
      adult conversationalists sought?

    12. OccidentalJihadist

      At the risk of being pedantic: there is no phrase “would of” in English, James. You’re thinking of “would’ve,” short for “would have.”

    13. Actually, I have a Bostonian NE accent and if transliterated would
      sound as ‘woodah’. Whadaya think ?

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