A little over a year ago, I attended a lecture by Jeff Childers regarding the gospel embedded in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) epic novel. I don’t know if I quite reach the level of a LOTR nerd, but I’m pretty close. I’ve read through all of the Middle Earth works twice (including Silmarillion). That may not seem like a lot, but I didn’t discover LOTR until the 2000’s and I have a lot of things I like to read, so I intentionally space my journeys through Middle Earth at about ten year intervals.
In the meantime, I also enjoy watching the movies, at least once a year, though I’m not as big of a fan of the recent Hobbit movies. I’ve also read a book on Tolkien called Gospel According To Tolkien by Ralph C. Wood. So, while I’m not the most die-hard Tolkien nerd you will find, I would like to believe I can hold my own in a conversation.
So, I was very thrilled to attend this two-session lecture series by Childers and one of the quotes he shared from Tolkien that really stuck with me was this: “[As a] Christian I do not expect history to be anything but a long defeat–though it contains some samples of final victory.”
Wow! When you think about it, that’s pretty bleak. And when you think about his Middle Earth saga, that’s exactly the story it reflects. If you only read LOTR, you would not see this as clearly. LOTR is only the final story of the third age, culminating in an ultimate victory. But The Silmarillion is mostly a long tale of flawed heroes and demoralizing defeats at the hands of evil. There were certainly those “samples of final victory” included and Sauron is temporarily hamstrung, but the damage done leaves behind a world full of greed and mistrust, not at all unlike our own.
I come from a faith tradition where some of my ancestors of the faith were postmillennialists. They believed that through the influence of the gospel the world would eventually enter a golden age of a thousand years before the return of Christ. They saw the world completely opposite of Tolkien, but Tolkien had the benefit of a post-World War perspective.
If Tolkien is right, then believers can expect worsening moral conditions in this world and perhaps even worsening natural conditions right up until the time of Christ. This view has some biblical support.
Though Jesus is likely referring to the destruction of Jerusalem, by extension we might find this relevant: “You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains” (Matt. 24:6-8).
In another place, Jesus seemed to wonder out loud whether or not he would find faith on earth when he returned (Lk. 18:8). Other places in the New Testament describe growing heresy, the man of lawlessness (whatever that means!), and in Revelation we find a cycle of destructive behaviors by God’s enemies and even more destructive judgments by God before the end.
I know of no passage that teaches us to expect that the world will be a better place before the return of Jesus. I know taking this view makes some concerned that Christians will not try to improve the world, if they believe it is ultimately futile. Yet, I would counter that every Christian who acts for the good in the name of Jesus brings the Kingdom into this world in such a way that it will prevail into eternity.
This is the beauty of Tolkien’s story. Against all hope, his heroes continually behave sacrificially, and with great courage act as if there is good worth preserving for the future.
There is danger in only seeing God in the good things of the world. What of your faith when the good seems to become the exception to the rule? Can you see God at work when history seems to be nothing but a “long defeat”? Will the “samples of victory” be enough to sustain your faith as the shadow–to use Tolkien’s word–holds greater sway over this world? How we answer those questions, will go a long ways toward answering Jesus’ own, “When [I] come, will [I] find faith on earth?”