Dystopian stories contextualize the anxieties of Western culture. If so, how might the Bible address concerns of a genre that is relatively young and distinctly Western? Or is it?
In this post, I suggest the Bible itself tells a dystopian narrative. That might sound odd. Isn’t the Bible more utopian by nature? This point is relevant for anyone influenced by Western culture.
Reframing Dystopian Stories
Before I explain, recall a key point from my previous post. Scholars typically interpret dystopias as a commentary warning of the dangers of totalitarian powers that suppress individuality. This is certainly true. Yet, we could easily overlook a subtle dynamic that permeates the genre.
Dystopian authorities exercise control by individualizing people, breaking them from social bonds, especially the family, the most foundational of all relationships. Therefore, we alter the typical depiction of dystopian tales, where the protagonist is the lone individual willing to break away from the conformist crowd (Diagram 1).
We could just as well tell the story from the perspective of Diagram 2, where alienation is the norm.
This latter description best fits the biblical narrative.
From Dystopia to Utopia?
The following narrates the biblical Story from a dystopian perspective.
From Order to Chaos
In the beginning, God made the human family to be conformed to His image. The union of man and women in marriage symbolized the unity between God and his people. Although the He created order from chaos, his children questioned his wisdom. By seeking freedom from their Father, the human family became alienated from one another. Tragically, they gained their freedom as “individuals” when they were expelled from the Garden of Eden
Since that time, humanity has suffered under the reign of Sin (cf. Rom 5–6). Sin enslaves humanity by sowing division and doubt among them. Those under Sin’s rule simply try to make their isolation and shame more tolerable.
The signs of humanity fragmentation (i.e., “individualization”) are many. The first couple passed blame to others. Cain inwardly competed with Abel, whom he eventually murdered. Later, the dissolution of nations was completed at Babel:
Now the whole earth had one language and the same words.… And [the people at Shinar] said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth. (Gen 11:1–4)
The people’s so-called “unity” was in fact an illusion, being based on little more than their being different from others. The Lord judged against them,
Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.” So the LORD dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth. And from there the LORD dispersed them over the face of all the earth. (Gen 11:7–9)
Difference is necessary but not sufficient for unity. Difference is inherent to the meaning of unity. But the basis of their small faction’s unity is only reinforced the entrenched division in the human family.
One Family from Many Nations
Genesis 12 sets the course for the entire biblical story. People would not attain glory by setting themselves apart from one another; instead, it is God’s gift for those who submit to His authority. At first, Abraham appears to be a heroic individual who breaks from his family to make his own way (12:1). But this reading falls short.
In Gen 12:2–3, we see that goal of God’s call is hardly individualistic. God promises, “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.” In contrast to Babel, God will use Abraham to bless “all the families of the earth.”
God eventually gathered Abraham’s seed, making them into a nation. Throughout Israel’s history, the people flourished when they understood their glory was fundamentally rooted in the greatness of their God, not their ancestors, wealth, or Law. “For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the LORD our God is to us, whenever we call upon him?” (Deut 4:7).
The Seed are Scattered
When the Lord was not their basis for unity, “everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 17:6). An “us-versus-them” attitude divided the 12 tribes into two nations (i.e., Israel and Judah). Corresponding with the splintering of Israel was the explosion of idolatry. The altars multiplied with town and house.The Lord condemns Israel’s leaders,
For the shepherds are stupid and do not inquire of the LORD; therefore they have not prospered, and all their flock is scattered. (Jer 10:21)
“Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!” declares the LORD. (Jer 23:1)
We see a similar depiction of the Lord’s judgment against Israel.
So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts. My sheep were scattered; they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. My sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with none to search or seek for them. (Ezek 34:5–6)
From a postmodern perspective, one might say the scattered sheep are finally set free from the autocratic authority of Israel’s king and their God. Yet, Ezekiel shows the folly of confusing isolation and individualism with being an individual.
The Lord does not celebrate the fact each sheep goes his own path. Instead Ezekiel explains,
For thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. And I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land. And I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the ravines, and in all the inhabited places of the country. (Ezek 34:11–13)
In this way, the biblical writers describe humanity’s hope––not salvation from authority or collective identity, but rather salvation is more reversal of diagram 2 (like the picture below…individual parts coming together forming a whole).
Conforming to Christ
In Western culture, conformity is anathema. One’s worth depends on being “unique.” This perhaps is one reason why people reject “organized religion,” which is code for religion that involves belonging to and so conforming to a group.
Contrast this perspective with that found in the Bible.
For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed [σύμμορφος] to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. (Rom 8:29)
… who will transform our lowly body to be like [σύμμορφος; “conformed to”] his glorious body. (Phil 3:21)
Rather than “being your own person,” salvation consists in being conformed to Christ!
Conformity does not mean uniformity. But conforming to Christ is necessary for Christian unity. In contemporary Western culture, such oneness is not possible because people measure their worth relative to each other. This fosters a competitive spirit. Each person seeks his own glory at the expense of others. Being “different” or “unique” is one’s best hope for having worth and being accepted by others.
This vision of the world is far more dystopian than utopian.
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit. For the body does not consist of one member but of many. (1 Cor 12:12–14)
… But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. (1 Cor 12:24b–26)
Diversity that does not culminate in unity is worthless. The unity of the church is based on “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph 4:5–6).
To be clear, unity for unity’s sake is not the point. Jesus’ prayer sheds light on the reason for unity.
…that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. (John 17:21–23)
Christ Saves from Dystopia
The Bible presents this world as a dystopia. In the West, Sin uses individualist thinking to divide the human family. In dystopian stories, salvation is found through individuality. Being saved entails being an individual who breaks away from the community.
The Bible tells a different gospel story than is assumed by many Westerners. Whereas dystopia is the story of the individual in the community, we should think about the story of the community in the individual.
Individualism without understanding true individuality leads to idolatry. We should not be conformed by the individualism of the world but be transformed within the renewed humanity, the church. The church longs for freedom. But this freedom is not found in the glory of being “different.”
According to biblical writers (e.g., Rom 12; 1 Cor 12), individuality only has value as one fulfills our specific roles within the Body of Christ, the church. Only those who are conformed to the image of Christ find lasting honor.
 Cf. Jer 30:11; 31:10; 49:32, 36; Ezek 17:21; 20:23, 41; 22:15; Lam 4:16