In a letter to Milton Waldman, Tolkien explained much of the meaning and purpose of his Middle Earth legendarium. He summarised the theme of it all in these words, saying “All this stuff is mainly concerned with Fall, Mortality, and the Machine.”
That description might seem rather obscure, but it is worth unpacking, and seeing its implications for premillennial eschatology. By Fall, Tolkien imagined the effect of sin and evil upon rational beings. He pictures this in the fall of one of the angel-like beings, Melkor and other Valar and Maiar. He illustrates this in the fall of the Noldor (an Elvish race) into pride and fratricide. He describes it in the fall of the human Numenoreans into a proud grasping for immortality. The cycle of prosperity leading to pride and then a fall reads like the book of Judges. Tolkien did not envision a steady evolution from bad to better, but a persistent depravity that corroded the life of rational beings.
By Mortality, Tolkien grappled with the dilemma of Psalm 90. Though we are created for eternity, our days are restless and short and we long for God to establish the work of our hands, even as we pray for wisdom to number our days. Tolkien explored this theme with both immortal Elves, tied to the griefs of a changing world, and mortal humans, doomed to die. When confronted with mortality, we aim to make sense of a brief life, though we are conscious of eternity in our hearts. Tolkien called this the “the creative…desire which seems to have no biological function, and to be apart from the satisfactions of plain ordinary biological life.” Humans, as image-bearers of the Creator, seek to make sense of ultimate things by writing, making music, painting, sculpting, playing. We separate ourselves from the brute beasts by our powers of creation: our ability to clothe life with meaning, and symbolise our own place in it.
But we can create in other fallen, evil ways: we can dominate and subjugate the world and others. The desire to control the world, extend our lives, conquer our mortality, and be gods in our own right leads to the temptation to Power and the Machine. By Machine, Tolkien meant, “all use of external plans or devices (apparatus) instead of development of the inherent inner powers or talents — or even the use of these talents with the corrupted motive of dominating: bulldozing the real world, or coercing other wills. ” Whereas the Elves seek to shape and beautify the world with Art, the “Enemy in successive forms is always ‘naturally’ concerned with sheer Domination, and so the Lord of magic and machines”. Using creation in submission to God is Art, using creation to be gods is evil Magic or Machine. One is submitting to the power the Creator gives, the other is grasping for a power of our own.
In many ways, the theme of Power is at the core of most stories. Will Power be grasped, hoarded and used selfishly, or will it be surrendered, sacrificed and relinquished for the good of others? Will creation be used to beautify us and magnify our Creator, or will we enslave it so as to enslave others? The question of Power is at the heart of the Bible’s account of reality. Satan apparently fell in a selfish grasp for Power, and then tempted Adam and Eve to seek the same for themselves. “To be as gods” is independent Power: subjugation, exploitation, or conquering through competition and consumption. It is power that devours.
In God’s kingdom, power always gives and shares life, as Christ did. True authority comes by giving up one’s life for another. As a Man, Jesus had every power we could dream of: power over disease, demons, weather, food, gravity, knowledge of the future, and death itself. But Jesus used His power in complete submission and unselfish union with the Father. As Philippians 2:6-11 eloquently describes, it was through that self-surrender that He obtained all the exaltation that Evil seeks to greedily grasp.
Tolkien pictures this by showing how the smallest race in Middle Earth ultimately overthrows the greatest Evil Power. It is precisely the unpretentious homeliness of the Hobbits that makes them most immune to the temptations of Power. Their very simplicity is not only what causes Sauron to overlook them as real threats, but what causes them to overlook themselves as pretenders to the throne of Middle Earth. Power is defeated by love.
What has this to do with premillennialism and its opposing eschatologies? We err greatly when we imagine that Evil will be overthrown in the world by Christian Power. The vision of a conquering church, in this age, owning the places of political power, inhabiting the heights of the academy, the forum, the media houses, the Senate or Parliament, is a skewed vision. It comes from a desire to do good, but that is its greatest danger. Tolkien said it was one of his recurring themes that “frightful evil can and does arise from an apparently good root, the desire to benefit the world and others”. When Galadriel faces the temptation to take the Ring and use it for good, we see the terror of how a good Queen would turn to domination, as she imagines herself with it on and ominously cries, “All shall love me and despair”.
Premillennialism’s vision of cultural influence and power is faithful presence until Christ returns. Individual Christians may lawfully enter the vocations of statecraft, jurisprudence, education, and media. But the church as the commissioned Body of Christ has no mandate to conquer the places of power and worldly influence. We understand our calling to be quite Hobbit-like: “to live quiet and peaceable lives in all godliness” (2 Tim 2:1). True, some of us must risk greatly, some must go to the frontier. Some must live on the border of Mordor, and some must even go into it on missions of certain death. But this is because most of us should learn to “lead a quiet life, to mind our own business, and to work with our own hands” as 1 Thessalonians 4:11 commands.
Middle Earth certainly has its valiant battles and heroic defences. But one of the greatest messages of the whole Middle Earth legendarium is that you cannot fight Power with Power. Those Dwarves and Men who took Sauron’s offer were captured by his will. Gandalf and Aragorn flee from its temptation. Those who desire, out of good intentions, to take the One Ring so as to destroy Sauron soon find they are devoured by it, or driven mad by it. The great and noble Boromir is deceived by it. His father, Denethor, lusts for it, and is driven mad by despair when he cannot match Power for Power. The only antidote to the Machine and Magic is the surrender and sacrifice of true, unpretentious humility.
I am not making the claim that premillennialism is inherently humble or that its eschatological counterparts are proud. Rather, I suggest that when we embrace the posture of being a faithful presence till He comes, we are more likely to have modest ambitions than if we are strategising how to re-institute Christendom. We should not want to wear the Ring so as to defeat the world. We should desire the simplicity of Shire-life, trusting that we may be unlikely instruments in the Enemy’s downfall.