Theology & science fiction: A Calvinist dystopia

James McGrath points to Charlie Jane Anders terrifically fun IO9 article “Big Theological Questions That Science Fiction Should Answer.”

“Science fiction can say things about the nature of the universe, and the Divine, that plain old theological texts just can’t,” Anders writes, and then interviews five theologians (including McGrath) about topics they’d “like to see science fiction tackle.”

I am neither a theologian nor a science fiction writer, but these are two of my favorite things. Much of my favorite science fiction, in fact, provides an excellent mechanism for exploring the premises and implications of all sorts of theological ideas.

“Are all people God’s children? No.”

That sort of fiction tends to work like this: Start with our world, this world. Now change one thing. What else would have to change?

When that is done well, I’m hooked.

And that is the approach I would take when addressing theological questions through science fiction.

More specifically, I would like to see science fiction used to explore what it would mean if Calvinism were true. I’m talking predestination. TULIP. The works.

For those unfamiliar with the acronym, TULIP — outlined indelibly by the great George C. Scott here — stands for total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints.

That framework is only sustainable, I think, because our knowledge is incomplete and imperfect. Calvinists know that some few are among the elect, and that Jesus’ atonement is not for all/most. But Calvinists have no way of knowing, with certainty, who the elect might be.

If that knowledge were available — if it were obvious and certain — then Calvinism would not last another generation. It would collapse partly due to ethical incoherence and partly due to ethical horror.

For an example of what I mean by ethical incoherence, here again is a quote we discussed recently from Calvinist pastor and blogger Kevin DeYoung. What he’s describing here is that idea of “limited atonement,” but DeYoung explains that with unvarnished candor:

It’s not true to say that God loves everyone. Certainly not in the same way that He loves His children. And this is perhaps the best way to get at the question and why it’s striking to us. Does God always work for the joy and the happiness and the good of His children? Yes. Does He want to see all of His children come to believe in faith in Him? Yes. Will God in the end see that all of His children believe in Him, rejoice in Him, belong with Him forever? Yes. Are all people God’s children? No.

Some people are God’s children and some people are not. Legal equality, justice, the Golden Rule, universal human rights and human dignity are still necessary in this framework, but only because of our incomplete and imperfect knowledge. Better knowledge, more complete knowledge, would allow us to stop treating all people equally because, in this scheme, people are not equal. There would be no reason to treat everyone the same because, according to this doctrine, everyone is not the same.

Some are loved by God, others are not. Some are God’s children, others are irredeemably damned. If we knew for certain who was who, then our ethics would be transformed — reshaped to align with the character of God that this scheme suggests. Ethics, in other words, would revert to something more like the ethnic cleansing of Jericho and Ai.

By ethical horror I mean parents and children. Limited atonement is quite limited. The gate to salvation is narrow, but the gate is wide that leads to destruction. Most people, in other words, are not among the elect. And thus most children are not among the elect.

Calvinist parents can cope with the implications of that only because our incomplete knowledge allows room for denial. Complete knowledge would make that impossible. Parents — most parents — would know that the children they are raising are preordained for eternal conscious torment. They would know that the children they love are not loved by God as the children of God.

A majority of the population would come to see — to know — that they possess a greater capacity for love than God does. I don’t think any religious system could long survive such horrifying knowledge.

And but so, that is my proposal for theological science fiction. Start with our world, with this world as it is. Now change just two things:

1. Calvinism is true and hegemonic.

2. God’s unconditional elect, those predestined for salvation, are unambiguously and physically marked as such, from birth.

What else would have to change if those two things were true? Everything.

I imagine such a world would be strictly stratified according to soteriological status. Only the elect would be citizens. The unmarked would be slaves or outlaws or barbarians outside the gates. But note that this privileged citizenship would not be hereditary.

What stories could we tell given such a world? More than I can count.

Here, briefly, are just a few possibilities:

1. Calvinist Gattaca: An unmarked person devises an undetectable means of counterfeiting the sign of election in order to “pass” as a citizen, knowing all the while that she remains doomed for eternity.

2. Not Without My Daughter: Through evasion, fraud and bribery, a citizen married couple manages to raise their unmarked daughter as one of the elect. She is their daughter and, despite rigorous social mores and strictly enforced laws, they love her too much to send her away to live among the unmarked. But even if they manage to continue to evade the law, how will they ever manage to trick or bribe God into saving their daughter from her inevitable, irresistible damnation?

3. Your basic Romeo & Juliet scenario.

4. The murder mystery: Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union is a terrific example of how to blend world-building with a hard-boiled detective story. What would it mean to investigate crime in a world where, regardless of their actions, most are assured of eternal punishment when they die, while a minority are assured of eternity in Heaven? If you know that you’re going to Hell no matter what you do, then damnation can no longer give you pause. And if you know that you’re going to Heaven no matter what you do, then why should you fear any earthly punishment? Perhaps the criminal justice system in this world would replace the death penalty with some kind of corporal punishment. (Ultimately, though, I don’t think that certainty of either Hell or Heaven would lead to nihilism any more than disbelief in such otherworldly punishments and rewards does. Murder would still be a matter of money, sex or revenge, not of metaphysics.)

5. The Rebel Alliance: A charismatic leader arises among the unmarked, declaring war on the citizens — and war on God.

6. The bodhisattva: A man marked at birth as one of the elect chooses, instead, to live among the unmarked. He says they are not damned — that salvation is not limited. He starts drawing huge crowds. He teaches nonviolence, but is still perceived as a threat by religious and political leaders. You can probably see where this story is going. …

What other stories do you think could be told in such a world? What other theological ideas or questions would you like to see explored through science fiction?

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  • stly92

    hmm… I could see such a situation where there would be an eternal tug of war between the saved and the unsaved. In some countries, in some times, the saved are the top dogs and everyone is subservient to them.  In others, at other times, the unsaved have taken power, and the saved are killed or subservient. (After all, they got theirs, why make this life comfortable for them too?) And perhaps the real reformer, the real religious movement, is someone comes along with the idea that everyone should be treated equally in this life even if there’s demonstrable inequality in the next.

  • FearlessSon

    Some people are God’s children and some people are not. Legal equality, justice, the Golden Rule, universal human rights and human dignity are still necessary in this framework, but only because of our incomplete and imperfect knowledge. Better knowledge, more complete knowledge, would allow us to stop treating all people equally because, in this scheme, people are not equal.

    I am reminded of Alexis de Tocqueville who wrote “General ideas are no proof of the strength, but rather of the insufficiency of the human intellect.”  General ideas allow humans to make quick judgements, but they are necessarily broad and vague, and can never take every element of any one instance into account.  de Tocqueville believed that the mind of God, a mind that knew everything in absolute detail and could process all that detail at a glance, would have no need for general ideas.  To put it in his own words:

    The Diety does not regard the human race collectively.  He surveys at one glance and severally all the beings of whom mankind is composed; and he discerns in each man the resemblances which assimilate him to all his fellows, and the differences which distinguish him from them.  God, therefore, stands in no need of general ideas; that is to say, he never feels the necessity of collecting a considerable number of analogous objects under the same form for greater convenience in thinking.

    I think where de Tocqueville’s interpretation and Calvin’s interpretation differ, is that rather than dividing people into tiers, de Tocqueville saw that all people were different, and thus all individuals could be judged in God’s mind on their own individual details, and not in general categories of “saved” and “not saved”.  

    Heh, sorry, this is getting a little tangential.  To return to the point, this kind of story is one which is ripe for existential questions like this, which is the kind of thing I find really interesting about science fiction.  

  • Mike Timonin

    Another possible twist – why would the elect have to be a small minority? I understand the human impulse – we all want to be part of an exclusive group – but why assume that the elect in Fred’s universe are a tiny group? What if they were a large minority – just slightly less than half of the population? What if the population fluctuated?

  • Lori


    but why assume that the elect in Fred’s universe are a tiny group? 

    We’re assuming that Calvinism is true and the book it’s based on says that the elect are a minority. Narrow is the gate that leads to salvation, but broad is the way that leads to damnation.

    You could have it fluctuate, with the elect being a minority over the long term, but a larger group or even a majority at some given points in time. That could be interesting.

  • Danel

    Not necessarily in time, but it’s easy enough to see how there might be different numbers of elect in different places.  It’s a big world, after all – you could have all sorts of different societies that react to the saved/unsaved dichotomy in different ways.

    How, in turn, would these societies interact?

    If we go with the idea that the saved are chosen by random chance, then by probability alone you’d have areas with a higher percentage of saved born. People, being people, would likely not believe that this was just by chance, and think there was something special about that place. What could follow from that?

    Of course, if the saved are chosen because an omniscient God knew they’d be worthy before they were born, you could have other interesting repercussions. It wouldn’t necessarily mean that upbringing was useless, just temporally confusing. 

    So you’d have some societies more likely to produce saved than others – wouldn’t expecting parents be clamouring to have their child born there to, as much as possible, ensure Baby’s future salvation? It’d be like middle-class parents struggling to buy a house in the right catchment area. 

    Then I had the idea of the “City on the Hill” – it’s a glorious utopian society of such essential decency that almost everyone raised in it will…have been… saved. Of course, you’ve got unsaved at the gates, desperately trying to get in for one reason or another. The lovely paragons of the city would never keep them out – they have no idea of what’s out there, since the city is secretly ruled by a conspiracy of unsaved willing to do anything for the salvation of their families. 

  • Mike Timonin

    You could have it fluctuate, with the elect being a minority over the long term, but a larger group or even a majority at some given points in time. That could be interesting.

    That’s what I had in mind.

  • Jamoche

    Another possible twist – why would the elect have to be a small minority?

    I vaguely recall a SF story similar to this concept where you can tell whether a person has a soul or not. Ultimate disposition of the soul is as indeterminate as it is in our world, but for the soulless this life is all they get. They’ll also have difficulties with this life too – empathy, for instance, is something they’ll have to learn to fake. Very few people are born soulless; IIRC the story is about parents who discover that their newborn child is one of them.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Gail Carriger, Parasol Protectorate? Or something with a similar premise that I have yet to encounter? My money’s on the latter; Parasol Protectorate is quite emphatically steampunk fantasy, not sci-fi.

  • Jamoche

    No, I’d never heard of that. It was one of those very short ones, just long enough to set up the premise and leave you thinking about all the implications.

  • El Durazno de la Muerte

    Parasol Protectorate is interesting because Alexia seems to have a functioning sense of empathy and imagination (like when she was wondering if cities could have souls), and it really makes me wonder how much of her personality was a result of being told at a young age that she didn’t have a soul.

  • Flyfish

    So how do you interpret Romans 9.

  • Charlie Stross

    Running off on a tangent, I am wondering about *why* Calvinism (in this particularly absolutist form) exists. I mean, from a sociological perspective.

    I can wrap my head around the idea of a theologian, starting from a bunch of very warped axioms, constructing such a monstrous ideology, but the human consequences of believing it seem so cruel to me that I find it hard to appreciate why it didn’t disintegrate within a generation.

    What *attracts* people to such an odious creed? I can see the ultra-privileged using it as a useful post-hoc tool for rationalizing institutional status differentials, but what about the believers at the bottom of the pile?

  • Dave


    What *attracts* people to such an odious creed?

    From my perspective it’s not much more odious than believing in Hell at all.

  • Lori

    I’m not sure.  I am a universalist, so obviously I think eternal conscious torment/eternal separation is an odious idea.  However, I think that a God who could save everybody but chooses not to is more odious than a God who would like to save everybody but is unable to.  Personally, I could worship a God who was all loving but not all powerful, but I wouldn’t worship a God who was all powerful but not all loving.

  • Charity Brighton

    Same. It’s almost like the difference between the firefighter who tries but is only able to save 5 out of 6 trapped civilians in a building, and the arsonist who torched the place in the first place.

  • Dave


    I think that a God who could save everybody but chooses not to is more
    odious than a God who would like to save everybody but is unable to

    Well, I certainly prefer an entity that uses what limited power it has to help people to an entity that uses its unlimited power to hurt people.

    And I would agree that in a universe with Hell in it, a limited entity that is not responsible for that Hell and does not willingly consign anyone to it is not necessarily an odious entity.

    Under what circumstances I might choose to worship such an entity, as opposed to going out for beers with it, is a whole different question.

  • Carstonio

    Although there’s no way to know whether a god is more likely to love conditionally or unconditionally, that’s less important than the principle that deservedness shouldn’t even be a consideration. Everyone is deserving of unconditional love, and the would be true with or without a god to love that way.

  • Ross

    Consider: while everyone might deserve unconditional love, is conditional love per se bad? Because if not, there’s nothing inherently monsterous about a God who loves conditionally, leaving people to get their unconditional love elsewhere.

  • mcc

    I do not think of “conditional love” as good or bad but simply contradictory. If it is conditional then I would most likely think of it as something other than “love”.

  • Dan Audy

    Really, the issues with Calvinism and hell in general don’t have much to do with the conditional love parts but the malevolence of setting the people who don’t meet his conditions up to fail and then punishing them for that failure.  A God that loves his chosen people and ignored everyone else would be kind of a dick if he were omnipotent and could choose to love them too without diminishing his attention or love for any others but he wouldn’t be the evil monster that Calvinism supposes God is.

  • Carstonio

    My idea of conditional love would be a parent who disowns a 5-year-old for not cleaning hir room. Such a love would be monstrous from a god if the being had the power to do anything it wanted to humans. It could negate unconditional love from elsewhere, or change the love from other humans from unconditional to conditional.

  • esmerelda_ogg

    what about the believers at the bottom of the pile? – Charlie Stross

    I suspect the “bottom of the (earthly) pile” attraction is that Calvinism gives believers a chance to feel superior to somebody, in a way their visible circumstances don’t offer. A slightly kinder interpretation might be that it gives the unprivileged hope that they’ll eventually receive more than anybody could ever hope for in this life, so it’ll be okay in the long run.

  • esmerelda_ogg

     (Only slightly kinder, because you can get the same reassurance from any sort of belief in a good afterlife; you don’t need to assume that most of the people around you are doomed.)

  • Ross

     That’s one reason. Another — what I’m told was the reason *Calvin* was drawn to it — is this: if you’re living in a world of harsh, puritanical religion, full of warnings about sin and how every impulse you experience is pulling you inexorably toward damnation, it’s actually a great *relief* to know that grace is irresistible, that no matter how you might screw up, if you’re one of the elect, *nothing* you ever do will get you off the list. It is, in fact, even reassuring in its own way to know that if you’re *damned*, nothing you do will get you into heaven either: you don’t have to spend your life worrying that if you’d just done *one more* good deed, it’d tip the scales and get you into heaven.

    From Calvin’s point of view, the upside of Calvinism is that you can stop worrying about achieving or maintaining your salvation, and just do what comes natural

  • Lori

    I think a lot of Calvinists 1) are pretty insular (they mainly hang out with other Calvinists) and 2) don’t really think through the implications of their theology beyond how it plays out in their own life.

    I mean, the God of Calvinism is, if you are one of the elect, pretty awesome.  He loves you unconditionally, he’ll save you no matter what.  Calvinism is, I’ve always thought, both a step and a world away from universalism; the way that God behaves towards the elect in Calvinism is the way that at least some universalists imagine God behaves towards everyone.  

    They just don’t think, I think, about the ugly underside of it.  I mean, how many of us do?  How many of us really think about the conditions under which the clothes or consumer electronics we buy are produced, for example?  If we had to actually face it–if we had to actually walk through the factory full of suffering workers before we could buy our iPhones, if we had to watch the child stitching our jeans before we could purchase them–I think we’d be horrified, but it’s at such a distance that it remains mostly an intellectual abstraction, whereas the pleasure we get from those items is immediate.  

    I think the same is largely true of Calvinism.  The horrors are pretty abstracted; sure, people can know on some level that their theology means that most of humanity will be consigned to an eternity of torment because that’s how God planned it, but that’s at a huge distance.  On the other hand, the immediate aspects of Calvinism for them–that God loves them, that God chose them, that God will never let them go–are positives.  It’s really easy, for all of us, I think, to turn a blind eye to systems that benefit us and harm others, especially when those others are either quite distant from us or when that harm is at a distance.

  • Dash1

    As Dave said, once you’ve got Hell as a construct, you’re more than halfway there already. Christians who believe in Hell rarely, in my experience, think about this consciously, but their worldview requires them to believe that in having a child they are creating a being that has a nonzero chance of begin eternally tortured. They will agree that anyone in Hell probably wishes s/he had never been born. But they don’t take the extra step of recognizing that by having children they are quite possibly forcing existence, and an eternally agonizing existence, on a being who would not otherwise exist. It’s there, but they don’t see it.

    Those I have asked about it have pretty consistently replied, “We have to leave it with the Lord.” I.e., the assertion that God is infinitely just applies and that’s supposed to take care of it.

    Those who believe in free will can claim that ending up in Hell is the individual’s fault (although some take the view that it may not be, that not having heard the gospel means one can’t be saved). The Calvinists I’ve talked to simply insist that God is infinitely just and infinitely holy, so whatever He does is right.

    As to the possibility that their children will end up in Hell or indeed that they are not among the elect, that seems to fall into the same black hole as “I might lose my job and my health insurance might be canceled,” i.e., they can talk about it as a possibility, but really, they know it ain’t gonna happen to them, because God wouldn’t do that. To them.

  • Lunch Meat

    Those who believe in free will can claim that ending up in Hell is the individual’s fault (although some take the view that it may not be, that not having heard the gospel means one can’t be saved).

    My youth minister used to say, “God doesn’t send good people to hell; good people send themselves to hell.” I used this answer in a conversation my first year in public school. It went about as well as you might imagine. I never said it again.

  • Joshua

    I am wondering about *why* Calvinism (in this particularly absolutist form) exists. I mean, from a sociological perspective. … What *attracts* people to such an odious creed?

    To add to the other answers here, I think that if you

    i) Belief the Bible to be inerrant, or close to it;
    ii) Belief that the best way to read it is to ignore the story and emotional impact, but rather just find all the propositional statements of beliefs and believe them;
    iii) Ignore or lack a basic understanding of personality (I mean ignore the idea that if Jesus goes out of his way to help outcasts in this life, he’s unlikely to condemn them to eternal torment in the next, even though the two statements are not directly logically contradictory); and
    iv) Get presented with the right verses in the right order, starting with some carefully selected passages from Paul and leaving the Gospels ’til last

    you could make a convincing argument in favour of Calvinism. By the time you’d finished the Pauline passages, the person would be convinced, and reading the rest of it wouldn’t change his or her mind, because when they do, they’d regard it as being tempted away from (i).

    Paul wrote most of the propositional logic and argument type stuff in the Bible, and is thus the most attractive to this type of personality. Which is not a criticism of Paul, I like my logic too, but ignoring the story and emotion in the rest is bad, and some parts of Paul are better than other parts.

    The major reason I think Calvin was a lousy theologian is because of deficiencies in (ii) and (iii), although I try to be fair that he can’t be blamed for the excesses of some of his followers.

  • Joshua

    Believe not belief. I saw my typo one second after I hit post.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Is Calvanism even popular at the bottom of the pile? It’s very much been a minority faith in my various cirles, and the only people I’ve known personally who expressed a Calvanist theology were highly privileged–educated, upper middle class white straight Protestants.

  • fraser

    Lester DelRey’s For I Am a Jealous People has a preacher watching humanity lose against alien invaders, then discover that it’s because God is on their side, so they get all the miracles.

  • Joshua

    I’m tickled that the linked article mentions Stephen May, who was a lecturer of mine at university, and a person for whom I have a great deal of respect.

  • Michael E. Bowen

    Sorry, I don’t have time to read the all of the comments so someone may have already thrown this out there.  But I know *exactly* what would happen if the elect new 100% for sure and for certain that they were the elect.  They would become monsters.  After all they would be men who could pretty much do whatever they wanted to do with full assurance they could never fall from grace.   They could steal, rape, torture and murder all in the name of God if they wanted to.  Wait a minute… Perhaps this is what’s already happened.

  • Dash1

     I don’t know about this. Likely enough there are some who would. But we’ve got a lot of evidence right in front of us in the form of all the atheists who are assured of no punishment after death but who don’t take that as license to do evil. And we don’t have to look far to find religious people who believe that one can lose one’s salvation and who go ahead and do all sorts of terrible things anyway. With that kind of real-world evidence, it’s hard to imagine that the sudden discovery that one is among the elect will drive good people to do evil (or vice versa).

    (Also, “they would be men….”  No women among the elect?)

  • reynard61

    Here are my problems with Calvinism:

    1. If I’m going to Heaven *anyway*, then why should I waste my time worshipping God?

    2. If I’m going to Hell *anyway*, then why should I bother worshipping God?

    See how God and Calvin kinda put themselves in a lose/lose position here?

  • Iain King

    I see it being the other way around: after all, the Elect are few, very few, and the majority have every reason in the world to despise and hate them.  The masses will live their years and die, while the Elect will live forever and gain only paradise in death.  So, my 2 would be:

    1) the Elect are a slave race, used, *punished*, by the masses for the unfair and arbitrary gift they have been given, which the masses have been denied.  So: take all your suggestions and flip them :)

    2) the Elect are subject to a pogrom, hunted and killed on sight.  Babies are tested at birth (or even before?) and killed ASAP.  Possible stories: (1) the war for survival,  a World War Z like collection of stories about how the Elect (the Abhorrent?) were eradicated (with the twist being they can’t be, as it isn’t genetic and more are/would be born with every generation).  (2) The Last Elect, a poor I Am Legend knock-off.  (3) The pregnant mother who finds out her child is to be terminated and must flee the system.

  • Beleester

    God has to be doing something to tag people as “elect,” whenever that happens.  And that means there’s a scientist trying to figure out what happens when someone gets tagged.  I don’t exactly know where to go from there, though.  Perhaps they hack God’s “salvation signal”?
    You might get better storytelling potential by not making the mark appear until adulthood, even if it’s still determined from birth.  If the mark is there at birth, it’s hard not to end up with selective abortions or similar.  But you might get a more interesting story if the person who finds out that they’re elect is old enough to be a character in their own right.  That, and I like the image of a kid at a Bar Mitzvah suddenly getting a glowing cross on his forehead.

  • banancat

    The abortion angle is an interesting one to explore.  When does the pre-determination happen, and is it possible to detect in utero?  I guess it’s sort of a catch-22 because the time you could detect it, it would already be determined.  If it didn’t happen until late in pregnancy or even during birth, then you wouldn’t know who would be unmarked.  If it happens early in pregnancy, then that would be a sign that embryos can end up in Heaven or Hell.  Now I’m imagining miscarriages and abortions with early fetuses having a half-developed mark.  It’s not likely that it would appear fully formed.

    Except maybe it’s encoded into DNA (in a non-hereditary way because God and magic) and it’s there from the time of egg meets sperm, but it actually can’t be detected until society develops the means to do it.  And that brings up another good storyline, where this already exists inside of us and the certainty of marked/unmarked occurs in some dystopian future of our own current world.

  • Dash1


    You might get better storytelling potential by not making the mark
    appear until adulthood, even if it’s still determined from birth.

    I like that idea. That would also allow the parents (if elect) and any elect friends time to develop a real fondness for the person, so the discovery that the individual is not elect would be a shock. (Or the discovery, by zir non-elect parents and friends, that the individual is elect, which carries its own weirdness.) That means that  elect parents who have a non-elect infant won’t know and therefore won’t be able to say, “OK, non-elect. We’ll send it off to the Home for Non-Elect Children of Elect Parents because, really, we can’t let ourselves get attached to this one.”

    It would also be interesting if the signs of electness appeared gradually, allowing some time for potential confusion: is it just a rash? did she bump her head? or is it the start of the sign appearing?

    Seriously, I want to read all these books people have been proposing!

  • banancat

    I am late to the game, but I still want to share my idea. I would love to see this story take on everyone’s attitudes toward death. Would the elect be more likely to commit suicide, or would they enjoy earthly power too much? Would the unelect develop the technology to stay alive indefinitely? I could see a story where an elect is contemplating suicide as a perfectly rational response to a minor tragedy or just a slightly uncomfortable life, and discussing this with an unelect who would cling desperately to life no matter what. One would change the mind of the other about the wrongness of suicide for the elect, but it could really go either way.

  • Scott Paeth

    A young man waits to take a test which will determined if he is saved or damned.