Christianity and Warhammer 40k

(This post is the 3rd of 17 remaining in my “200 for 200” goal. While originally intended to be included in the post reviewing Wrath and Glory, I thought it better to be separated out.)

(This post is related to the “Big Review: Wrath & Glory” post. If this topic interests you, I’d encourage you to read both posts in proximity to one another. Of course, this is not mandatory.)

Fantasy Fiction and Christianity in General

No, I’m not going to diatribe about magic and daemons and the like being anathema to Christians. If you think I was, you have not been paying attention to my writing, or this is your first post of mine to read. If it’s the latter, welcome and thanks for taking the time!

To those who say that Christianity means we can’t (or shouldn’t) enjoy Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Harry Dresden or any other fiction that deals with the supernatural in any form, my response is the following:

“Put on your big-boy or big-girl pants, grow up, and understand that fiction doesn’t necessarily endorse any of those things. Realize that you don’t have to agree with everything in a fictional setting to enjoy it or–as important–be caused to think about some idea in new and different ways. That kind of intellectual challenge is healthy and good. If you are worried about the make-believe and imaginary shattering your faith or diverting you from the “one true path,” I question the composition, sincerity and depth of that faith. I suggest you read Milton’s Areopagitica.”

TL;DR: Being a Christian should not prevent you from playing games in or enjoying the Warhammer 40k Universe. Or other fantasy fiction, for that matter.


Okay, that aside, let me confess to you: sometimes, the 40k universe raises within me some issues that make me consider abandoning the setting, despite all the things I love about it. Here’s the crux of it: 40k confronts me with the question of whether I need the settings I enjoy to be compatible with–or at least not entirely counter to–my theological beliefs.

The same question could be given about most roleplaying games that are polytheistic, like default D&D. It’s important to note that the anxiety here is not about a threat to my soul or my salvation–I don’t think that, in the theme of the Cthulhu Mythos or 40k that reading such material is going to turn me to either heresy or insanity. But there is a feeling–and it’s just that, an emotion not linked to any logic or rationale–that sometimes makes me uncomfortable with those settings where the religious beliefs are very different from my own.

I have several potential responses to myself about this feeling:

(1) “Suck it up, buttercup.” Not everything needs to make me happy or comfortable, and the idea of religious ideas different from my own (especially fictional ones) should certainly not be one of those things I get bent out of shape about.

First, I respect real religions that are not my own and honestly believe that there is value to them and that the genuineness of those who seek after what is right and true through pathways other than Christianity are not somehow offensive to God (while maintaining that Jesus Christ represents the clearest manifestation of truth in this world, that his life and death were cosmically significant for all people, and that the full answers–as best humans can understand it–to the existential questions of who and what we are and what we are supposed to be are only found in Christ.) That being the case, why should I feel threatened by a fake religion?

Second, it’s a good thing for my faith and theology to be challenged at times; roleplaying games and reading/writing fiction are probably the safest spaces for these explorations, so that should be welcomed.

I think that, at the end of the day, this may be the best answer.

(2) “Adapt and Overcome.” Usually, with some minor tweaks, a setting can be modified to be at least not contradictory to my broad theological thoughts. Tolkien’s work and my own Avar Narn (inspired by the former, of course), seek to synthesize the greatest universal truths about Christianity with an ability to tap into the mythopoiea and narrative power of polytheistic faiths; to have our cake and eat it, too.

This is especially tempting with Warhammer 40k, partially because of my ideas about the “theology of 40k” (if you’ll permit me to call it that), partially perhaps in the same vein of Arthur Derleth “posthumously collaborating” with Lovecraft to bring the Mythos more in line with his Christianity, and partially because it’s the most comfortable thing to do.

Just like Tolkien did, there are ways to do this without losing too much fidelity to the setting–if there’s some true monotheistic god who lies behind the D&D pantheon and the “gods” are essentially powerful spiritual beings who like to meddle in mortals’ affairs (which makes sense given their pettiness and ability to be killed), what’s the harm in that? Of course, given that D&D encourages homebrew settings, this is perhaps the easiest of RPGs to worry with this in.

Nevertheless, I have several concerns with this. If there’s such a thing as “fiction imperialism,” that seems to cut a bit close to it, n’est pas? Is there something disingenous or unethical about modifying some other writers setting in this way? I honestly don’t know the answer, but the possibility gives me pause.

(3) “Shake it Off.” For most games, large scale issues of religion–except perhaps for conflicts between different faiths that tend to be more about character-building and societal conflict than a real theological argument–simply never arise. There’s just no need to focus on game on meta-discussions of the world’s theology and, to be honest, you’re probably detracting from the story if that’s where you’re spending time. So, it’s probably best understood that this issue is a weird internal idiosyncracy of my own.

But, for the sake of laying some of my thoughts painfully bare and then dissecting them, let’s continue.

There are several reasons, I believe that the Warhammer 40k universe causes me to dwell on these types of thoughts more than any other setting.

First, there’s the over-the-top, nihilistic grimdarkness of the setting as often portrayed. At their core, the thoughts I’ve been describing above are probably indicative of nothing more of than a psychological need to spend time only on settings that have some glimmer of (existential) hope to them.

Second, there’s the inherent conflict between the truth of the Emperor and the religion about him in 40k. According to the backstory (particularly in the Horus Heresy books), the Emperor is patently not a god and, while whole, actively campaigned for atheism (see Graham McNeill’s “The Last Church” short story). In particular, playing characters of the Inquisition, with their fanaticism for a religion that is known to be false (at least in meta), brings about a massive cognitive dissonance for me.

Third, at its best, the ideas of 40k regarding religion (and a number of other things) are meant to get us to question things like “what should we do (or not do) in the name of religion?” What is the difference between faith as sincere believe and religion as social institution? What are the differences (existential and social) between atheism and faith? The setting sometimes begs the question I confound myself with! (Again, see “The Last Church”).

Fourth, some of the ideas (which we’ll look at next) in the 40k universe come so close to touching on core principles of Christianity (as I understand it) before backing away that it’s too tempting for me not to consider them.

The Core (Theological) Irony of Warhammer 40k

If we view the core conflict in the Warhammer 40k as the struggle against Chaos, I cannot but help see the coincidence with Christian theology. To be fair, this conflict within 40k by design is meant to be between Order and Chaos (harkening back to Elric and all) rather than Good and Evil. Nevertheless, follow me here:

The Warp, as the source of Chaos, is responsive to the thoughts, beliefs and collective will of mortal beings. It is explicit that the state of Eldar/Aeldari society brought about the birth of the Chaos god Slaanesh and implicit that the darker impulses of mortals brought about the existence of the other Chaos gods.

If this is the case, the only way Chaos can be truly defeated is through love and compassion–if all mortal beings were to become enlightened enough to be righteous, Chaos would have nothing to feed off of and would starve to death. It is the greatest irony of the setting that (especially for the Imperium of Man) the only methods actually employed to fight Chaos: hatred, violence, rigidity and regressive social thought, are contributing to Chaos in the long run!

The belief that evil must be overcome by love and not violent opposition is a core tenant of Christianity–progressive Christianity, at least.

In this way, in its typical grimdark and sardonic approach, the basis of 40k is ironically Christian.

John Milton’s Shadow

Graham NcNeill and other writers for the Horus Heresy series have explicitly given John Milton’s Paradise Lost as an influence on the writing.

I love Milton’s writings and applaud that influence making its way into Warhammer; it’s been an influence on some of the mythopoiea of Avar Narn as well.

But we must be careful in assuming that this necessarily means a Christian influence on the Horus Heresy writing. I have lamented elsewhere that what most people–Christian or not–think about Christian ideas about the nature of hell or the devil derive not from Biblical sources but mostly from Paradise Lost and Dante’s Divine Comedy. We have to keep in mind that these are poetic works well-rooted in the culture and ideas of their authors. In modern and sardonic terms, we might think of these as Bible fanfic. Yes, theological arguments are made within them. Yes, Christianity is the most significant influence upon them. But neither makes them indicative of good Christian theology.

Bear in mind that Dante choose with great particularity those people he encounters in hell–they are real figures in the history of Florence and people against whom Dante held very deep grudges. While he used these real people to give examples of what he considered to be mortal sins, his choice in using them was very much to get a dig in.

And Milton was concerned with writing an epic poem in the heroic style of the Greeks but using a more palatable subject–Christianity rather than the pagan gods and heros. (Here perhaps we go full circle to my own confessions above!) In Paradise Lost, Milton paints Satan as a sort of tragic hero–filled with hubris that causes his downfall, but also indicative of a heroic will and admirable qualities.

This directly translates to Horus Lupercal in the Horus Heresy narrative. A fitting influence perhaps, but let’s bear in mind that Milton was creating a sort of Christian mythopoeia and not quite dealing with Biblical narrative or strict theological argument.

Further, as I’ve also argued before, it seems much easier for we humans to characterize evil and damnation than righteousness and the eternal good. Perhaps that’s part of the reason (aside from its innate nihilism) that there’s so much more detail to the machinations of Chaos and so little to any spiritual or supernatural forces that could truly be called good.

The Emperor, you say? Well…

The Emperor’s an Ass

There is, for those not deeply familiar with the lore of 40k, a temptation to link the Emperor with the Christian God or with Jesus as a saviour of humankind. But this really doesn’t work.

As mentioned above, the Emperor isn’t God and is an atheist according to the “Imperial Truth.” If he is ultimately responsible for the creation of the Imperium’s bureaucracy, dogma and general approach to things, he’s neither a good person nor very bright when it comes to dealing with the long-term threat of Chaos.

He’s powerful, to be sure, mostly using that power to protect humanity by pyschically staving off the forces of Chaos, and apparently immortal, but he’s just not good in any moral or theological sense. He is victim to the same mistaken belief that Chaos can be vanquished by violence rather than righteousness. At least, this is what we can say about him as an active character–as a sort of passive force from within the Golden Throne; it might be possible to speculate that he has become morally better than he was in life (but no answers are to be found here).

Let’s also remember the uncomfortable fact that, according to the lore, 10,000 psykers must be sacrificed to the Golden Throne daily to keep it operational. We could perhaps fairly chalk this up to a very misguided plan by the Emperor’s supporters, but according to the Horus Heresy novels, the Emperor is the designer of both the original Golden Throne and the life-support system that it became. We have to face it, the Emperor’s as grimdark as they come.

The Ecclesiarchy and Inquisition

The Ecclesiarchy can most fairly be said to represent the worst about institutionalized Christianity. The Schola Progenia seem to be the worst-case scenario of stereotypical old-school Catholic institutions–schools, Magdalene asylums, etc.–where what we would now call abuse served as “encouragement” to learning and good behavior.

From the pulpits of the Imperium’s temples, priests spew rhetoric of hate, fear and paranoia. Do Christian priests and pastors do this? Of course they do, every day, and especially in mainstream Evangelical Christianity in America. But to those pastors and preachers I must say, “Christianity? I think you’re doing it wrong.”

Many authors have commented and criticized organized religion as “the opiate of the masses” (to quote Marx) or as construct of societal control above all other things (Jorge Luis Borges has at least one short story with this theme). And, in some ways, this is explicitly the purpose of the Ecclesiarchy: to use fear to control the thoughts of manking and therefore (hopefully) keep them from behaving in ways that feed into Chaos. Again, the irony of this is that such coercive force itself plays right into the hand of Chaos.

The Inquisition itself offers both the best and worst in dealing with these issues, I think. Most commonly, the Inquisition is at its worst: a sci-fi reimagining of Matthew Hopkins, Torquemada (for whom one of the inquisitors is named!), the Salem Witch Trials and the early modern witch-scare of Europe. In this mode, the Inquisition is a blunt instrument wielded without analysis, the very epitome of “Kill ’em all; let God sort ’em out” (a phrase, mind you, purportedly coined by Papal legate and Cistercian abbot Arnauld Amalric at Beziers during the Albigensian Crusade). It is torture and murder and wanton abuse of power in the name of theologically unsound ideas. I hope you’ll pardon me if that doesn’t strike me as a background I’d like to have for a character in an RPG (though I will readily admit that such a background could give rise to a very interesting meta-narrative around these issues in a long-term campaign and a killer story arc as the character is confronted by this past).

At the same, some of the stories of the Inquisition give us the best of mankind in the 40k universe (I’m still hesitant to call them good, because grimdark and all, but they’re arguably closest as it comes). The stories of Gregor Eisenhorn (and probably Gideon Ravenor, though I’m less familiar with those at present) present us with this: a man possessed of deep will and an earnest desire to uphold and protect what is good against Chaos, a man able and willing to show compassion and reluctant to destroy simply for the sake of it, a man tempted by the very evil he seeks to combat. It’s still a bit militaristic of a theology for me to say it has much place in the real world (being skeptical of the “spiritual warfare” often spoken of as anything other than the internal struggle to become more Christlike), but it’s at least in the same vein of other fiction. It’s the value in fantasy that G.K. Chesterton pointed out: to tell us that there are dragons…and that they may be defeated.

What does this mean for running a 40k RPG?

To refer to my confessions above, and to again be explicit: it doesn’t have to mean anything. This is a fictional world and it can be enjoyed for what it is without having to reconcile it with Christian theology. In this sense, it still serves the convenient function of reminding us how fortunate we are that God has acted in the ways known to us through our faith rather than the cosmic pandemonium the 40k universe embodies. In the same vein, it’s okay for a Christian to enjoy the cosmic horror of Lovecraft regardless of whether it is atheistic and/or nihilistic.

If, like I sometimes feel, you’d prefer to bring the 40k universe more into line with something comfortable for you, I think that’s probably okay, too–provided you don’t suddenly argue that you have found the “one true 40k.” Like any existing setting used for a roleplaying game, those playing the game should feel freedom to adapt the setting to be as enjoyable for them as possible–otherwise what’s the point?

40k seems to me to be readily amenable to this, if it’s your preference. It’s very easy to say, “all of the Horus Heresy stuff is legend–nobody’s exactly sure what the Emperor did or didn’t do 10,000 years ago.” From there, one can easily imagine that the Emperor’s actions were morally upright but that it was the failings of his human companions that led to the current status quo. If you take this tack and view the Emperor as some analog for the Christian God, then you’re still left with the question of why the Emperor would allow this sad state of affairs to persist–but this theodical question is the very same we deal with in reality.

More likely, as I mention above, your game isn’t going to brush hard against these issues anyway, so probably nothing at all needs to be done with any of the above. If you approach your games with the kind of nuance and morality that Dan Abnett and Sandy Mitchell seem to employ in their fiction, then your 40k RPG is going to feel (in regards to this topic, at least) like just about any other RPG in a fantastic setting.


3 thoughts on “Christianity and Warhammer 40k

  1. Amazing article mate, I loved reading it. I’m also a Christian and 40k player and like you tend to think about the setting deeply and within its theological context. I was of the view that as a Christian, maybe black templars would be the nearest army to run but after reading these points on the emperor I’m now seriously questioning which is the most Christian aligned army in the game (I know it doesn’t really map at all onto anything)


    • Thanks, Mark! The more I think about it, the more I grin to myself that I paid no attention to what’s written on the tin: “In the Grim Darkness of the Far Future there is only War!” As my wife would remind me: “You basically have three degrees in reading; how did you miss that? What did you expect?” There are no good guys, only some that are worse than others. I don’t think that there’s any reason that we can’t both dissect the morality and theology of the setting and enjoy it for what it is: an imaginary space for tales of adventure and conflict that’s fun to lose ourselves in for a little while. I might offer the Tau as the most moral of the armies involved in 40K, but I honestly don’t know quite enough about them to not fear being instantly torn apart for the assertion. In the end, maybe 40K is better thought of as what would happen in a universe with no hope. I think the designers would feel that to be a faithful interpretation, regardless of their own personal faiths.


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