The Boundaries of “What if?” – Part 1

Ghosts come out of the graves in the old cemetery with full moonBack when I was contemplating writing Reapers, I asked some of my readers if they would read a story with ghosts in it, that is, disembodied spirits of the dead. Some of the responses I received illustrated the fact that people disagree on the boundaries of speculative fiction for Christian authors and readers. In speculative fiction, we ask “What if?” questions related to our experiences and how the world might be if significant factors were different than they really are.

The important issue to learn regarding speculative fiction is that authors are not saying that their stories are true. In fact, we firmly state that they are not true. We are saying “if these factors were true, what might happen?” For example, I believe souls go to an afterlife and that they likely do not wander around on earth, but what if something occurred that blocked their passage to heaven or hell? What would it be like on earth?

Readers need to understand that the author is not making doctrinal statements or stating that such a scenario might happen. It probably doesn’t happen. It likely won’t ever happen. Yet the story can be an intriguing examination into the human psyche if something like this were to happen. We can learn from it, because it would follow the basic principles of biblical conduct and eternal values.

Some biblical principles are inherent in God’s character, and some are not, and I would never depart from the inherent principles. For example, I would never write a story that shows God to be unloving, that depicts selfishness as good, or that rewards immoral behavior. A story in a Christian world view should uplift principles that will draw the reader to embrace virtues.

Yet there are truths in our world that, if altered in another setting, would not violate universal principles. For example, we know that God promised never to flood the world again. But what if an author were to write a story in which God never made such a promise? He could show the world getting flooded multiple times without violating God’s character, because in that scenario, God would not lie. The author would alter the setting but not God’s principles.

In the same way, what if an evil being were able to create a blocking mechanism that keeps souls bound on earth? There is nothing in the Bible that says God’s goodness and principles are tied to the fact that in reality all souls immediately leave the world for an afterlife. So such a scenario would not violate eternal principles or promote immoral behavior. It would merely alter a setting.

Some readers appeal to biblical truths that everyone goes to an afterlife, either heaven or hell, so we shouldn’t have stories with ghosts. The premise of the complaint is true. Everyone does go to an afterlife, but my point is that we can write a story that asks, what if that reality weren’t true? What if spirits wandered on earth for a while? Such a scenario doesn’t violate eternal principles or promote immoral behavior. It simply asks “what if?”

I could explain that the Bible shows a few ghostly appearances, such as Samuel, Moses, and Elijah, but with regard to whether a ghost story is allowed for Christians, this explanation should be irrelevant. Even if no ghostly being ever appeared within the pages of the Bible, it doesn’t violate godly principles to pose a question that alters a setting as long as eternal and universal truths are honored.

This is speculative fiction. Even if I write about ghosts, that doesn’t mean I believe they exist. I also write about anthrozils. I don’t believe they exist either. I am not pretending that these settings are real.

Yet, I am sure that some will cry foul and say that such a story is not allowed. I think they would be wrong, but I’m accustomed to handling disagreement. If people are offended at reading a speculative “what if” story because it doesn’t exactly conform to a set of realities that are true in our world, even if altering those realities doesn’t violate God’s value system, then they might want to stay away from speculative fiction completely. This genre is the realm of the “what if,” and Christian speculative fiction authors are free to ask that question as long as they stay true to eternal principles and promote a virtuous life.


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34 replies

  1. Thank you so much for explaining this! This provides some clarity for me on why some other book series bothered me and some didn’t and I never really knew the reason. You’re books have always been great! Thank you!

  2. Very interesting! I was confused by Reapers on this. Now I see what you pointed out, and why some authors tweak the real world to get the setting they want for the story, without changing basic principles.

  3. Thanks! I totally agree with that!

  4. This makes alot of sense, although I can see both sides of the argument. I can understand how some would stay away though because when one gets really into a book, it can get a little hard to separate reality from fantasy.
    I personally love any type of fiction be it speculative, fantasy, or historical/realistic. I am extremely glad that there are Christian authors out there that will write fantasy and speculative fiction, that show the world as it is and as it could become, without throwing the bad qualities and images other non-Christian books throw at us. So, Thank you..

  5. I think a reason some have been opposed to ghosts and reapers in fiction is they have often been used in horror or, at the very least as scary monsters sometimes associated with witchcraft. At the very least I think that might be why my parents are often immediately wary when it comes to creatures like this, as well as other creatures like zombies, seeing as my parents are opposed to horror.

    Personally I think it should depend more on how the fictional being is portrayed in a story. Just because zombies originated as a more mystical thing doesn’t mean that is how they are portrayed now. And unicorns, for instance, could be portrayed as a genetically mutated creatures rather than a magical beings. The rules an author makes up for their story and creatures are just as important as the creatures, and names for their creatures, they decide to use.

  6. I think it really depends on the author and the underlying things they’re trying to convey. Also how they portray it. I enjoy the what ifs within the realms of God’s character. I just have to be careful and pay attention to my conscience if the book is well written but not displaying accurate descriptions of God (as an over all, not necessarily if it opens with a character’s perception of who God is). Good food for thought :).

    • We do have to be really careful… I think… intention is the most important thing. We have a sleepless enemy who will tell us both things are dangerous when they are not and that they aren’t when they are. You see terrifying analyses all the time of symbols used in fiction and fantasy, and have to question, are we able to co-opt certain themes or images for holy purposes? Some would say yes, some say no.

      I’m personally on the fence. Like entirely on the fence. For example, my whole life I have loved dragons and related to dragons. Only in the past year or so have I… stopped liking dragons. But it was Bryan Davis’ commandeering of dragons for God that set me free, again and again over the years, from huge amounts of guilt and terror. I always struggled a lot between “where we’re at”, with all things that exist being used by God to bring us closer and closer to Him, and the “ideal”, where we’ll be at when in heaven with God… I mean, in heaven, there will be no need for fiction or fantasy, because all will be only the everfresh and sublime Reality. There won’t be anything in heaven that isn’t real, I wouldn’t think. Of course many more amazing things will likely be possible there–it won’t be boring. So fiction is a thing of this world. But, there are many things that are sanctioned and given by God just for this world. For example, marriage, which is only until death. Or eating meat, which was sanctioned after the flood.

      I must always recall to myself that my particular temptation is to want to live in the ideal. However also I can’t stay away from non-ideal things. I’m celibate and a vegetarian, yeah, but I can’t pull myself away from fantasy and stories no matter how hard I try. I have this idea or this longing that ultimately we can reach a sublimity where our creativity finds its ultimate expression in the contemplation of God and service to Him, but I’m not there, and 99% of the world isn’t there either, and urk.

      To do everything with prayer and love of Christ, and going first to Him seeking to do what He wants and not what our own minds or desires tell us to want, I think is the only real solution… because all these things can be used… haven’t Mr. Davis’ stories brought many people to God? That IS the work of God…

      Not to forget that there are myriad works of the Prince of this World who OWNS this world, going on unceasingly… but be not afraid… failing at that right now… I find it terrifying. I must needs figure out how to have more faith.

      Also (this is off topic sorry) no one will approve my application on the fan forums (bridgelands). T_T So I cannot get on there to have people to talk to… I thought I was a member but it’s moved so many times I’m not now.

      • That’s very interesting :). And with what you said about the devil always lying to us and the thing with symbols, etc makes me think about how much I tend to over analyze things sometimes, and wishing I knew precisely what God wants in every situation. One thing I think about is how much of the old testament we need to follow. It’s an important question because it’s something atheists ask Christians, and I don’t like the idea of living my life and then realizing God actually meant for us to still follow certain traditions. But I guess we just have to do our best, and trust that his grace will cover the rest 🙂

        I think symbols are rather situational, though, since they change with time and culture, and maybe there are some that God might claim for a certain time. God had the Iraelites smear blood on heir doorposts to save them from the last plague in Egypt, but that doesn’t mean we can do the same and expect to be safe from everything as long as we are in our homes.

      • Hey Misht Soloi!

        Your comment really intrigues me. I think you are wise to be “on the fence” in the way that you are constantly putting different aspects to question. The moment we accept something as correct simply because it is our culture is the moment we fail to let the Word of God define us.

        I identify with your guilt battle. I have also gone back and forth over fantasy and sci-fi, trying to determine if they are of God or not. Here’s what I have found:

        Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8 deal with the consciences of different people. Applying these passages, I look at fantasy and say, “Ok, some people can read weird stuff (like fantasy and sci-fi) and have no problem with it. But other people do have a problem with it. Both are ok. Each person has to decide what is sin for themselves.” That’s how I see it. 🙂

        One other thing I wanted to mention to you:

        You said that “the Prince of this World OWNS this world….” I don’t know who told you that lie, but rest assured that Satan does not own this world and never will. Yes, he does have power, but he is not greater than God. The Bible never gives Satan ownership of the world. Remember Job? Satan had to ask permission from God to act in Job’s situation.

        I don’t want you to be afraid. John 10:27-29 says, “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they shall never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is GREATER THAN ALL; AND NO ONE IS ABLE TO SNATCH THEM OUT OF THE FATHER’S HAND.” emphasis mine The Father has His hand wrapped around Christ’s hand wrapped around you. I’m not saying you will never have temptation or trouble, just that you don’t have to be afraid because the greatest One is for you.

        Keep seeking to know Him!

        • That is very true! While Satan does have jurisdiction to some extent over the world, it is only to the extent which is given by God, and He does take care of His own. I misspoke. That is my own fear and caprice of course… so thank you for the correction 🙂 Your other points are very good as well! Thank you for your comment!

  7. Stories that take place in settings vastly different from ours tend to frame the reality that transcends the superficial trappings which, however true, are not eternally essential. When we strip away the material aspects familiar to us—social customs, physical environment, mundane routine—we are forced to see all the more clearly those surpassing realities that may seem to get buried in the trenches of daily life: that good and evil are distinct, that the former ultimately conquers the latter, that virtue is practicable and honorable and desirable, that sacrifice, though costly, reaps a sweeter harvest than it forsook. We see that these principles hold true wherever we are, whenever we are, whoever we are. When we remove the temporal details known to us, if the fiction is to be realistic at all, we are left with eternal reality laid bare.

    This is true of historical fiction, and can be taken to a much greater extent in the speculative genres.

  8. Another thing to consider is whether or not it should be a goal for Chrisian authors to take a creature normally portrayed in a way that we would consider wrong, change the rules of that creature, so to speak, and thus help a different version of that creature become more mainstream so future generations are not as likely to be influenced badly by those creatures in books. I suppose it would be the the fantasy version of how people Christianize holidays. If people don’t like the magical or horrific connotations of a certain creature, should they give them, say, a more scientific basis? I’d say that it should depend, but it is an interesting idea to consider. If we don’t like a literary thing, why don’t we write a better version of that thing?

  9. We are writers because we have the courage to ask ‘What if?’.

  10. I agree that fiction is the realm of “What if”s, but I still wish to be cautious in certain areas. I see where you’re coming from with the concept of “what if something occurred that blocked [the dead’s] passage to heaven or hell?”, but I’m concerned about possible implications from it.
    [See to see what I mean.]

    It’s great to ask questions and [as Autumn put it in her last post] to reclaim certain creatures of fiction, but [as Kara pointed out] sometimes it’s hard to differentiate fact from fiction when you’re really engrossed in a book.

    Good points made, Mr. Davis. Thank you.

    • Thank you for the comment and for the link. I read the piece. It has a few logic holes, but I won’t go into those. Even if the writer is correct, nothing in the article contradicts my assertion that we can ask “what if” questions about disembodied souls, ghosts, etc, in the realm of fiction.

      In any case, your contribution is well taken. Thank you again. 🙂

  11. I don’t think there should be limitations to what if, as long as it is used to make an important point. For example, you say you wouldn’t do it, but what if God were unloving?

    I could what if such a story. Maybe satan won the war in heaven. What if? Did God intend satan to do so? And what would be to result on earth? What would creation be like? And what if God hung in the background? And what would happen next?

    I don’t think such thoughts or what ifs should be proscribed at all. Such thoughts expand our horizons.

    • I could not write such a story, because it is not a Christian world view. I don’t see how it could be helpful or uplifting to do so.

      • To prove our God is not unloving,maybe? Basically show people what a universe would be like if ruled by a truly unloving creator, and people can look at our world and see that our world is nothing like that. I could see a way to make a lot of points that could show God’s goodness. I’ve thought about doing that, and I think there is some difference between an author that is actually hoping readers will see God as evil, and one that wants to show others he is good. That said, anyone who wrote such a story would have to be careful.

      • That would be a most difficult feat. I haven’t seen it done successfully.

        • Yeah, though I haven’t read any stories where God is evil, at least as far as I can remember. I think the challenge for writers is that no matter what we write there will be people that take it the wrong way. One time I saw a comment on October Baby that basically said the film was actually a better argument for abortion than against it, and when I saw the movie I saw that the person completely missed the point of the show. I think an evil God story that ultimately pointed to God’s goodness has the potential to be taken wrong,Ike everything else. That sort of thing has made me rather cautious with one of my stories and has made me decide that I would need to release the sequel quickly as possible, since otherwise I would probably get even more people trying to use the story to say God is horrible and unhelpful, even if that is the opposite of what my story will portray. I guess writers jus have to do their best to portray their points well, and beyond that perceptions are the reader’s responsibility

          • Definitely tough to do this – I agree.

            In fact, as I’ve thought about it over the day – in this story concept I presented – Satan would be “God”, because Satan won the war in heaven, or so it is thought. And then we pick up with a lot of Autumn’s good points (even if I don’t know what they are)… 🙂

            And then there would be some sort of climax where God reappears and confronts Satan with the universe Satan has created … sort of like the confrontation in Job in reverse.

            But indeed – “God is unloving” – because in this created universe Satan is God.

            Then more hilarity would result (I hope everyone realizes that’s a total non-sequitur joke).

            The point though, is nothing should be “forbidden” in what if – just one should be careful with any thought or any idea.

          • I’m not sure who would bring about “forbidden” or how it would be enforced. I just outlined boundaries that I think are appropriate, and writing God as unloving goes beyond those boundaries.

            • A boundary suggests a fence or a “thou shalt not pass” concept. So, for you to suggest a boundary implies you lie within the same state that others are – who simply have narrower boundaries.

              So you protest the narrow boundaries, but also protest broader boundaries?

          • A boundary suggests “I shall not pass,” not “thou shalt not pass.” I am explaining what I will and won’t do as well as what I will and will not give approval to and/or endorse. I am not telling anyone what they should do.

          • Sounds like I interpreted the word boundary differently. Since you mean personal boundary vs. a global for all boundary, I’m in agreement with you.

            We all need to be comfortable with the boundaries we set for ourselves. I think I was interpreting you differently based on the line,

            Yet, I am sure that some will cry foul and say that such a story is not allowed.

            Which to me suggested the concept of boundary, especially in “not allowed”.

            Thanks for the clarification.

          • Since a personal boundary can include what I approve and disapprove, I have no problem with stating that someone else’s story is inappropriate. “Not allowed” is a stronger phrase that connotes authority to set restrictions and perhaps even punishment, which would be startlingly arrogant, though I have heard such a rant, which is why I mentioned it.

          • You could potentially write a “what if” world where Satan is given absolute jurisdiction. Actually this is a real world; it’s called hell. Even in this world the devils are given jurisdiction, especially over sinners. Ultimately God is in control, but people, and the world, are allowed to exist for some time without reference to Him.

            However I think it would be a great difficulty to portray this in a way that was enlightening to people and not upsetting.

  12. that wasn’t meant to be anonymous. Oh well.

  13. This is great, Mr. Davis. ^ ^ I wish more people would be open to speculative fiction especially Christians, because it feels like it’s automatically assumed many times that speculative fiction is going to be blasphemous or pointless. I was talking to my uncle recently about writing and he asked me, “Is there any truth in it?” And I had to explain that because speculative fiction may not be true doesn’t mean it doesn’t have truth. Fiction has just enough power to influence people in a positive way as any real life story, because it isn’t real doesn’t make it lesser in value.

  14. Personally, I think of ghost, wizard, dragon, undead, miscellaneous mythos, and stories with pantheons pretty well similar: in a fantasy setting, it’s a world of different rules. Either the reader can accept the terms of the storyworld, or they can’t. If I can’t accept a ghost story on theological grounds, I cannot accept a book with demigods. (I don’t have a problem with either.)

    Besides, if we’re going to observe the Bible on the dead, let’s take a peek at this:
    –Samuel’s spirit is called up from the afterlife by a witch;
    –David writes that ‘the dead do not praise you’ (Psalm 115; and, really, a lot of the OT uses this idea of “God save us so we can continue to worship you” as though the dead cannot do so)
    –Solomon writes “who can say that a man’s soul goes upward to heaven and a beast’s goes down into the earth?” (Ecclesiastes 3, my paraphrase)
    –those odd parables by Jesus where the dead are talking to each other across ‘rifts’ between heaven and hell (specifically, the rich guy asking Abraham to have Lazarus give him water, which presumes he thinks this is possible; Abraham points out the rift makes it impossible, but clearly they’re talking across it; also, I think in the same parable the guy asks someone to be sent from the dead to warn his family; this is where it’s pointed out that if the family won’t believe Moses, they won’t believe even someone resurrected from the dead.)
    –seven demons beat up professional exorcists
    –a magician believes Jesus, but apparently doesn’t understand you cannot buy the Spirit or use him for money and gets a rebuke; there’s no real way to know the ending, but I’d like to think he took the rebuke to heart
    –that weird Genesis 5/6 passage with angels humans cohabiting
    –on the day of judgment, the Sea, the Earth, and Hell ‘give up their dead’ and all of them face the second death, which is the lake of fire; somehow this is a separate thing

    The Bible says a lot about not participating in occultic, pagan, or demonic practices. I am not sure I see much on how that relates to reading fiction or seeing films, but I would suppose it’s a matter of conscience and what the writer’s actually done with it.


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