Science fiction, in the hands of a master like Arthur C. Clarke, can explore transcendent themes rarely addressed outside the realm of philosophy and religion.
As a teen in the 1970s, I found Childhood’s End, Clarke’s 1953 novel, gripping and unsettling. Timeless themes erupt from the tensions of its time—in the shadow of the mushroom cloud, four years before Sputnik launched the space race.
Written in the midst of what Clarke later called “the most barbaric century in history,” the book moves rapidly from mankind’s baby steps into space to a massive and mysterious alien invasion. Spaceships hover over all the major cities (a scene much copied in science fiction since, à la Independence Day).
Soon humanity realizes that resistance is futile—that our puny power is nothing when measured on a cosmic scale. Yes, the reclusive aliens have saved man from nuclear suicide—but for what purpose? The trade-off for utopia on earth seems to be giving up visions of visiting the heavens. “The stars are not for Man,” the unseen alien Karellen tells them.
Clarke, with his trademark twists and imagination-stretching ideas, kept me entranced. The book explores pride and powerlessness, freedom and frustration, curiosity and conformity—and much more.
Many critics, fans and Clarke himself judged Childhood’s End to be the finest novel of his nearly 100 books.
What stands out in my memory, after more than three decades, is Clarke’s vision that the end of humanity marks the beginning of a higher level of existence for their offspring.
The mysterious aliens—who turn out to have pointed tails and to envy the humans—are apparently a catalyst in humanity’s complete transformation.
While the older generations die out, the children are destined to join the Overmind.
Why did this book disturb me so much? It gave me a feeling of déjà vu, with a twist. Arthur C. Clarke’s alternate universe eerily reminded me of another cosmic story I had been reading, but transmogrified, like an image in a fun-show mirror.
The other story also included demonic beings jealous of the human potential to move to a higher level of existence. These beings also didn’t want to be seen—but more, they did not even want humans to believe they existed. And their purpose was to thwart humans from reaching the next level—not to facilitate it as in Clarke’s literary universe.
The other work I had been reading was not science fiction—far from it. It was actually the translation of ancient texts written by wise men who claimed to have seen the future and to have contact with beings from outside this realm.
They claimed to have been contacted by the Overmind of Overminds. Even though they found it hard to believe themselves, their collective story reveals a hidden human potential beyond their wildest dreams.
One of these ancient texts says, “Just as we have borne the likeness of the earthly man, so shall we bear the likeness of the man from heaven.” The same writer almost 2,000 years ago wrote of a transformation from mortal flesh and blood to immortality “in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye.”
These writers talked about the universe—everything—coming under man’s control as humans see—and become like—the transcendent and truly benevolent Lord of Lords.
They claim humans are destined to become children of the Creator of the universe—to join God’s family!
What’s the point?
Arthur C. Clarke was an amazing man. He imagined communications satellites in geosynchronous orbit way back in 1945. He explored the ocean depths. He hosted television shows. But in a video reflecting on his 90th birthday in December 2007, he said he would most like to be remembered as a writer who has “entertained readers and hopefully stretched their imaginations as well.”
The other epic I was reading (and am still reading today) claims not to be fiction at all, but mind-expanding reality. Most who read it today do not grasp its depth or the power of its vision. The themes mentioned above are, of course, from the Holy Bible—the most printed but perhaps least understood book of all time. (The quotes and references are from 1 Corinthians 15:49, 52; Hebrews 2:8; and 1 John 3:2 in the New International Version.)
These themes are rarely explored in most churches and are even considered suspect by many.
That Clarke touched on these transcendent themes and deep philosophical questions in a way that got me to thinking is to his credit. Clearly he did not believe in the story of the Bible or any other religion for that matter. He left clear instructions that his funeral not include religious rites of any kind.
But he was obviously concerned about the future destiny of mankind. In his 90th birthday video he said he hoped “we have learned something from the most barbaric century in history—the 20th. I would like to see us overcome our tribal divisions and begin to think and act as if we are one family.”
One of his three wishes brought this hope even more down to earth. He said, “I dearly wish to see lasting peace established in Sri Lanka [his adopted home for over 50 years] as soon as possible. But I’m aware that peace can not just be wished; it requires a great deal of hard work, courage and persistence.”
Sir Arthur C. Clarke’s death March 19, 2008, caused me to reflect on all this. I don’t believe a fleet of alien spaceships will come and stop man from destroying himself. I don’t believe the lessons of history show that man will somehow learn the way of peace on his own either.
But I do believe the real hope and destiny recorded in the ancient revelations from the Creator of the universe. There is a way of peace, and God holds out the plan and the power to accomplish it.
Someday—hopefully soon!—Sri Lanka and the whole world will have peace. The threat of the mushroom cloud will be removed. Real utopia will come, not at the hand of mysterious demonic-looking aliens, but by the intervention of Jesus Christ when He returns to earth in full glory. Life will not become meaningless, as it did for many in Clarke’s vision, but will have meaning far beyond man’s greatest dreams. Everyone will really understand man’s incredible destiny.
Someday, humanity will be transformed—given immortal, spiritual life—as God brings “many sons to glory” (Hebrews 2:10). The Bible describes a new heaven and new earth—a time when the stars will truly be ours (Revelation 21 and 22). Our new life will be to assist the King of Kings and Lord of Lords in ruling over the universe. The next chapters in the cosmic story are much more incredible than fiction!
What does the Bible say about humanity’s purpose and the meaning of life? The booklet What Is Your Destiny? gives a biblical foundation for the fascinating subject. Download or request a free copy today.