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Thematic Guide: The Bible in Sci-Fi and Fantasy

Krista N. Dalton
Kenyon College

Key Terms

The genre of speculative fiction serves as a broad canopy for narrative that incorporates supernatural or futuristic elements. Under this rubric, fantasy and science fiction exist as two genres distinguished both by the kinds of beings included in the narrative's imaginary world as well as their particular discursive relationships with literature at large. Fantasy emphasizes the inclusion of fantastical creatures such as dragons, dwarves, and faeries alongside magical systems such as sorcery and witchcraft, marking the form as supernaturally inflected. Science fiction incorporates technologies envisioned to exist in the future such as robots, interstellar travel, and contact with aliens, while interrogating this technology’s relationship to innovation, colonialism, and conquest.

Authors of these two genres frequently make use of biblical themes in their world building either to invoke biblical symbolism or to invert it. This guide will begin with the major recurring tropes authors routinely draw upon and then turn to more localized sources of inspiration derived from biblical texts.

Biblical Tropes

Creation of Adam and Eve

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818) has been heralded as the origin of modern science fiction. The novel makes frequent reference to the book of Genesis. The purity of Adam's creation appears distorted in Frankenstein's monstrous conception. In a tense confrontation between the monster and his creator, the monster exclaims, "I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed." Later, the monster mourns his dissimilarity to Adam, who came forth "from the hands of God a perfect creature, happy and prosperous," while from birth the monster was "wretched, helpless, and alone," without even Eve to console him.

Other writers, such as C.S. Lewis and Octavia Butler, have retold the Genesis story in futuristic settings. Lewis's Perelandra (1943) begins in a sinless planet ruled by Tor and Tinidril, also called King and Queen or Father and Mother. Lewis uses this allegory to consider what would have happened if Adam and Eve had not fallen to temptation. J.R.R. Tolkien's The Silmarillion rewrites the creation myth as a result of singing angels serving on God's behalf, while Butler's Xenogenesis trilogy Lilith's Brood (1987-89) invokes the Jewish legend of Lilith found in the Alphabet of ben Sirach. Lilith, whom the legend depicts as Adam's first wife, was cast out of the Garden of Eden for her refusal to submit to her husband's authority, but in Butler's telling, creation begins with Lilith—not Eve—upon a spaceship. Lilith's genetic enhancements cross the boundary between human and nonhuman as she births an entirely new race of beings.

Christ the Messiah

Allegories of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ appear explicitly in prominent fantasy series. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950) begot a bestselling series and film adaptation. Set in a land of talking animals and a mythical "White Witch," the triumph of Jesus is retold through the character of Aslan. Like Jesus, Aslan must be killed and resurrected in order to break the hold of the Witch's power over the land of Narnia. The central character of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series (1997‒2007) similarly functions as a Christ figure. The series' conclusion rests on Harry's acknowledgment that he must die and be resurrected in order to both fulfill a prophecy and break the cursed link between himself and Voldemort. Harry experiences a Garden of Gethsemane moment when his dead family members and friends greet him as he wrestles with the knowledge that he is heading toward death. The literal death of Christ is also conveyed as a metaphorical suffering in other Messiah narratives. Frodo, the protagonist of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (1954‒55), must trek into the mouth of hell-like Mordor to secure salvation for the inhabitants of Middle Earth, requiring Frodo to sacrifice his home and leave Middle Earth altogether.

A number of science fiction novels reference the figure of Jesus in their imagining of a different technological future. H.G. Wells's A Modern Utopia (1905) is set in an alternate timeline where "Jesus Christ had been born into a liberal and progressive Roman Empire that spread from the Arctic Ocean to the Bight of Benin, and was to know no Decline and Fall." Michael Moorcock’s protagonist in Behold the Man (1969) uses time travel to meet Jesus in AD 28. Philip José Farmer's Jesus on Mars (1979) imagines a Martian conversion to Messianic Judaism, though Jesus is seen as a man rather than God (contrary to the Nicene Creed). Ray Bradbury's 1951 collection The Illustrated Man includes "The Man," a short story about space explorers who discover a blissful population visited by a mystery man—presumably, Jesus.

Forces of Light and Dark: Angels, Demons, and the Devil

Angelic beings—whether from heaven or hell—appear with frequency as representatives of the heavenly realms. Sometimes these beings are personified as biblical angelic characters, such as Gabriel, who appears as the archangel in Sharon Shinn's Archangel (1997) and as the reincarnated being in Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses (1988), or the Enochic angel Metatron, leader of the forces of Heaven, who appears in Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman's Good Omens (1990), Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials, and the Japanese anime El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron. Other angelic beings are given new names and personalities. Pratchett and Gaiman's The Good Omen also features an angel called Azriaphale and a demon called Crowley who attempts to keep an eye on the child Anti-Christ in order to prevent the Earth's impending apocalypse. Cassandra Clare's Mortal Instruments (2007‒14) series features "shadowhunters," descendants of angels tasked with keeping demons in check. The devil often appears as a fearsome representation of dark fantasy forces. The title character of the fifth novel in Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles series, Memnoch the Devil (1999), takes the vampire Lestat from heaven to hell and even back to the dawn of creation.

Reference to the Bible

In a somewhat different vein, brief references to biblical concepts, verses, and genres appear scattered throughout speculative fiction. In these cases, authors draw inspiration from localized and lesser known moments in scripture as the foundation for a wholly new literary creation.

Parables

The genre of parables has appeared throughout George MacDonald's fantasy writing, including "The Wise Woman: A Parable" (1875). As a Christian theologian, MacDonald sought to use parabolic language for his own Victorian context as a continuation of Jesus's ministry. In a less confessional vein, Butler invoked the biblical parable genre with Parable of the Sower (1993) and Parable of the Talents (1998) in her Earthseed series. Although they are named for the gospel parables, Butler invents her own religion in these books, setting them in a futuristic dystopia where the United States devolves into warring city-states governed by an unhinged dictator. She calls the religion called "Earthseed," its creed based on the idea that "God is Change." In a work that mingles Christianity with faerie lore, Jeanette Ng's Under the Pendulum Sun (2018) imagines Gethsemane as a Gothic-inspired fort where the main character, Catherine, must reside with a changeling and a gnome. She and the gnome engage in a number of theological conversations concerning Jesus’s parables of the mustard seed and the sower, among other topics.

Verses and Verse Inspiration

The Bible can be used as a sourcebook for citation and inspiration. Mrs. Who, for example, quotes the opening of the Gospel of John in Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time (1962). Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale (1985) takes inspiration from the Genesis 30 story of Bilhah, who was instructed to bear her child upon Rachel's knees so that Rachel could claim the child as her own. Butler's Kindred (1979) refers to the attempted seduction of Joseph by Potiphar's wife in Genesis 39. Veronica Roth's Divergent (2011) includes the abnegation of ritual feet washing in John 13:1‒17. Often, these biblical references are mentioned only briefly, and do not direct the plot in a substantial way.

Using Speculative Fiction to Read the Bible

A recent turn in biblical studies looks to the new avenues speculative fiction offers for reading the Bible. As more scholars embrace the understanding that the biblical canon came to be fixed through a long—and relatively late—process, the Bible's stories are lifted from the pages of manuscripts and into the plane of an imagined world. Krista Dalton, James McGrath, and Frauke Uhlenbruch have argued that ancient interpreters have much in common with modern fantasy and science fiction writers. Both sets of authors construct narratives based on carefully crafted rules and central characters. Both bodies of literature explore metaphysical questions about the category of the human as well as boundaries between good and evil. Themes such as the superhuman and the uncanny can inform readings of both the Bible and speculative fiction. Expanding the framing of the Bible from stable text to fictional world emphasizes the relationship of ancient readers and hearers to a wide textual corpus prior to the formation of rigid canonical boundaries. Further, the logic of these worlds governs what counts as "canon" within the localized text and to larger fan communities. Such fan communities engage modern speculative fiction as living entities, where aspects of the imaginal world are remembered and/or forgotten depending on community interests.

Is It the Bible?

The sources surveyed in this brief guide contain authors who made explicit reference to the Bible. Yet in analysis of the persistence and influence of the Bible in speculative fiction the question must be raised whether it is possible to write with themes that happen to be found in the Bible without allusion to the Bible itself. In other words, can one write a work dealing with angels and devils and not invoke to their readers the biblical associations with those beings? Can a savior narrative drive a hero's actions without assuming the narrative to be an allusion to the salvation of Jesus? There are works of fantasy and science fiction where the authors make direct allusions to the Bible or derive inspiration from its texts, as summarized above. Yet there are also works which engage the major themes of creation, salvation, and divinity by virtue of their essential relationship to the human condition. Just as the Bible itself participates in the broader ancient Mesopotamian and Greco-Roman traditions, such as the creation story in the Enuma Elish, so too does speculative fiction engage in themes commonly defined as "biblical." Thus, because the Bible does not have a monopoly on these themes, the task of identifying the influence of the Bible upon fantasy and science fiction literature is far more complicated than just identifying verses and tropes that appear. Rather, analysis involves a careful examination of both the work's relationship to the author's goals and the work's relationship to the cultural contexts informing the reader's engagement with the text. The Bible is present in many works of speculative fiction, but it remains to be seen how and in what capacity the Bible's presence remains with the work.

Further Reading

Dalton, Krista. "Using Harry Potter to Construct a Canon." Ancient Jew Review, 23 Aug. 2017.

McGrath, James F., ed. Religion and Science Fiction. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2011.

Uhlenbruch, Frauke. The Nowhere Bible: Utopia, Dystopia, Science Fiction. Berlin: de Gruyter, 2015.

Uhlenbruch, Frauke, Anna Angelini, and Anne-Sophie Augier, eds. "Not in the Spaces we Know": An Exploration of Science Fiction and the Bible. Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias, 2017.

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