Gary B. Swanson

now retired, recently served as associate director of the 
General Conference Sabbath School and Personal Ministries Department.

Deliverance From Dystopia

A web-exclusive commentary

Last year a lesson in the Adult Sabbath School Bible Study Guide for Teachers proposed this imaginative scenario for the reader’s possible application of a principle under study for that day: “How can God become a stronghold in your life, especially when all external security collapses?” 1

Good question!

But the collapse of “all external security” isn’t a concept that appears only in religious reading. The search for meaning in dystopia, a world that seems to be coming apart, occurs frequently in popular culture as well—literature, film, and even music. And the exploration of this theme in the media is usually anything but religious.

Some films of this genre—many of them based on literature—seem to have become especially enduring in their impact on viewers. From a long list of possible examples that go back as far as 1927, Soylent Green, Blade Runner, the Matrix trilogy, The Hunger Games (plus one sequel and a second to be released in November) , and even Disney-Pixar’s animated Wall-E have depicted worlds gone terribly wrong. This year’s films in this genre would include Divergent and the remake of RoboCop. They depict societies in which the qualities of civilization considered as progressive have been eroded or obliterated by disease, poverty, oppression, natural or human-caused catastrophe, or even alien invasion. And the result is usually some form of totalitarianism—or outright anarchy.

The perennial motif of a dehumanizing dystopian culture—especially one with the qualities of poverty, oppression, and totalitarianism—occurs, as well, in Scripture. Though Daniel and Moses received unexpectedly positive recognition, they lived in times in which God’s people were being exposed to appalling exploitation. And history further attests to the atrocious treatment of Jesus and those in the early Christian church.

The life story of Moses, in fact, provides some insightful observations on living in an alien culture. Born at a time when a perceived threat of national security had resulted in the enslavement and atrocious treatment of God’s people and a royal decree mandating the immediate drowning in the River Nile of all newborn male infants in the Israelite community, Moses’ odds of survival appeared to be nil.

But the divinely ordained and quietly heroic efforts of Moses’ family led to his deliverance on the surface of the very river in which he should have been drowned and, ironically, his ultimate adoption into the royal house of Egypt. There his obvious gifts led to his grooming to occupy in the future the throne of the most powerful civilization in the world of his time.

Meantime Moses’ people were victimized by increasingly absurd demands from the Egyptians. Imagine being required to produce bricks without access to the necessary materials from which to make them! “Pharaoh’s command,” writes Henry L. Ellison, “was a typical example of the irrational and spiteful behavior that has constantly marred the actions of those that have been entrusted with absolute power.” 2

“All that in a sense [Pharaoh] was really doing,” Ellison adds, “was trying to bring this alien group [of Israelites] into line with the vast majority of Egypt’s underprivileged population. The work that Israel was now forced to do had been rendered by the bulk of Egypt’s peasants. . . . This was the ‘system.’” 3 As most heroes of those who overcome dystopic times, however, in the face of these conditions, Moses came to a moment of truth in which two paths opened before him: to accept the conditions in which he lived or to reject them.

Though it is evident that today there is a popular taste for dystopic themes in print and in film, the reasons for it are less clear. One enduring, deeply rooted idea, of course, is the engagement between good and evil that is at the heart of so much literary conflict. But a further element in this mix must surely be the evident atrocities and injustices that already exist today—and that could develop into the more extreme settings portrayed in pop culture.

These conditions—in today’s world—lead inevitably to a search for meaning. Why does it seem that humanity is locked in inescapable conflict with one another? Even those with no apparent interest in spiritual things return to the persistent, existential question: Are we as a species truly meant only for this? In the words of one popular band, “My TV set just keeps it all from being clear. I want a reason for the way things have to be.”

This isn’t a new quest; it is as old as humanity itself, and it appears even in Scripture: “I applied my heart to know, to search and seek out wisdom and the reason of things” (Eccles. 7:25, NKJV). And too often this search for meaning can lead to utter despair. Again and again—more than 30 times—the word “meaningless” recurs in Ecclesiastes (NIV).

Facing such questions, the same band mentioned earlier sings, “I need a hand to help build up some kind of hope inside of me.”

Interestingly, Ecclesiastes is “the one book in the Bible that just does not seem to fit. What place could such a harsh assertion of meaninglessness have in a Scripture that intends to reveal the redeeming work of God in history?” 4 But Ecclesiastes may be a book that is uniquely for this time in human history. Not only does it express some difficult questions that sound as current as today’s headlines; it also provides some answers, some refreshing assurances of hope.

The hope that usually saves the day in most dystopic literature and film is centered on humanity. In popular culture, almost universally it is human integrity, ingenuity, and courage that save humankind from dystopia or—worse—extinction. Some may wish to point out that the robotic hero of Wall-E is not human, but it is his human qualities—represented in unexpectedly moving scenes in which he and Eve, another robot, save humanity—that bring about a possibly hopeful end to his dystopia.

Human will, resourcefulness, or valor, however, aren’t Scripture’s answer. Ecclesiastes—in fully acknowledging the dystopia that is the human experience in a world of sin—offers a more sure, transcendent hope. “Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is man’s all” (Eccles. 12:13, 14, NKJV). And these are the same commandments that Moses brought back from his mountain-climbing experience on Sinai.

Fearing God and keeping His commandments, though, are not a matter of the completion of a checklist. They are neither a recipe, nor a formula. The true meaning of life is that “whoever believes in [God] should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16, NKJV), even “when all external security collapses.”

  1. Seek the Lord and Live: Major Lessons From Minor Prophets, Adult Bible Study Guide for Teachers, second quarter 2013, p. 38.
  2. Henry L. Ellison, Exodus, The Daily Study Bible Series (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1982), p. 32.
  3. Ibid., p. 30.
  4. Bill & Teresa Syrios, Ecclesiastes: Chasing After Meaning (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2002, p. 5.
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