Have you ever wondered why throughout human history, in all times and in all places, fantasy stories prevail? Think ancient myths and epics, fairy tales, science fiction, and modern fantasy novels. Legends of supernatural creatures and imaginary worlds seem to remain a staple of the human experience. This is certainly true today as fictional universes full of magic and mythical creatures fill our pages and screens.
Writer J.R.R. Tolkien, best known as the author of the high fantasy works The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, argues in his essay, On Fairy Stories, in favor of the transcendent nature of the fantasy genre. He defines what he calls Primary Belief vs. Secondary Belief. Primary Belief is when someone tells you a story and you know it actually happened. You can verify that it is real and true. Secondary Belief, on the other hand, is when someone tells you a story, which you know is fictional, but they tell it in such a way that really captures your heart. You start to hope that the story is true and redeeming and the characters get their happy ending. The story commands what Tolkien calls, Secondary Belief.
Tolkien’s essay goes on to say that there are deep longings in the human heart that realistic fiction simply cannot satisfy. He explains why mankind seems to have a special appetite for fantasy stories. According to Tolkien, the fundamental qualities of true fantasy stories are:
- Stepping outside of time
- Escaping death
- Finding perfect love without parting
- Communicating with non-human beings
- Good triumphing over evil
As a devout Catholic, Tolkien believed that fantasy stories resonate with us because they bear witness to an underlying reality that we all know in our hearts. Pastor and author Tim Keller expands on Tolkien’s ideas in many of his sermons and in his book Preaching. He says that the gospel, the story of Jesus, is not just another myth or fairy tale that evokes Secondary Belief. Rather, Christ is the underlying reality to which all other fantasy stories point. He says the climax of the Christian faith is Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, when He broke through the fabric of reality. As Keller puts it, he poked a hole between the ideal and the real.
In response, we must ask ourselves what we really believe. If the gospel is true, we have tremendous hope for the future. Keller says, in Christ, all of Tolkien’s fundamental qualities of true fantasy are coming true in the realest sense. Let’s explore these qualities in Scripture through the lens of John, the beloved disciple. John beautifully reveals God’s promises in his writings of the fourth gospel, the epistles that bear his name, and the book of Revelation.
Stepping Outside of Time
1 John 5:11 And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.
Christians believe Jesus died to save sinners. He stood in our place and paid our debts. But, more than that, He also graciously and freely gives us His reward which is eternal life. Through faith in the work of Christ, we will live forever in communion with our Maker. As Keller explains, like so many of our favorite fantasy stories, the gospel is a message of hope that steps outside of time and promises life unbound by time because of the redeeming work of our Savior.
Similar to the hope of eternity we have in Christ, John tells us:
Revelation 21:4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.
One of the remarkably distinct characteristics of Christianity is its unique view on the afterlife. Unlike most religions that say heaven is a distant paradise, the Bible teaches that at the end of days, there will be a new heaven and a new earth. Christians do not believe in the end of this physical world, but rather in its transformation. The former things are passing away. Death, sadness, and pain will be no more. God is making all things new!
Finding Perfect Love Without Parting
The Apostle John penned perhaps the most well-known verse in the New Testament in his gospel account referencing the perfect, unending love we find in God.
John 3:16 For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.
On this side of heaven, the most wonderful times in our lives are with the people we love and the most tragic times in our lives are when we lose those dear loved ones, either to broken relationships or death. The Christian’s hope is that God loves us so infinitely, that He sacrificed His own Son to restore our relationship with Him. Not only will we never perish, but the relational distance between us and God has been fully and forevermore dissolved. In Christ, fairy tale love is not fantasy. We are fully known and fully loved.
Communicating with Non-Human Beings
Throughout the book of Revelation, John writes about his apocalyptic visions.
Revelation 22:1-2 Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and the Lamb …
Notice how John says the angel showed him this vision of the river of the water of life. The future promises of God include communication with non-human beings. We will not only commune with the Triune God, but we will also have access to God’s other-worldly creatures, including angels. This is part of the fantastical nature of stories that will come true in the gospel.
Good Triumphing Over Evil
Revelation 19:11-16 Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! The one sitting on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems, and he has a name written that no one knows but himself. He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is The Word of God. And the armies of heaven, arrayed in fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings, and Lord of lords.
Part of the draw of fantasy stories is good finally triumphing over evil. This is not always true in the reality of here and now, but we desperately long for it to be so. We wait for justice to be done and for wrongs to be set right. Christianity clings to the hope we have in Christ’s triumph when Satan and evil are destroyed once and for all. On that great day, the King of kings and Lord of lords will be seated victoriously on the throne.
The story of the gospel contains the essence of good fantasy because we were made for how things ought to be, not how they are. This is why we love stories. Tolkien’s essay reminds us of God’s glorious design and the hope we have in Jesus that in the end, fantasy will come true.
Fantasy remains a human right: we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.J.R.R. Tolkien, On Fairy Stories