The Last Church
The Last Church by Graham McNeill is a short story describing the conversation between an old and lonely priest named Uriah Olathaire of the very last church on Terra (The Church of the Lightning Stone) during the Unification Wars (where the Emperor banned religion and the worship of gods) and a mysterious character named Revelation, the story is pretty deep and thought provoking and shows you that you don't need XTREME GRIMDARK and violence to make a great 40k story (even though the story doesn't take place in the 41st millennium). As well as being the earliest complete story in the 40k canon, it deals with morals, religion, atheism and humility and the benefits and costs of each. And also, Uriah is probably running for 'most badass non-augmented human' in the setting at first place. What's better than getting killed by Horus? Telling the Emperor, to his face, why he sucks.
Without further ado, The Last Church....
In the titular last church, the very last worshipper and priest on Earth, Uriah Olathaire, is visited by a mysterious figure. They talk about why the church is the last of its kind, and what happened to all of the faithful who once cherished it so much. This figure, "Revelation", argues about all of the harm that religious worship and organizations have inflicted on humanity throughout history, whilst the priest attempts to refute it. Finally, Revelation reveals himself as the Emperor of Mankind, and more specifically as the being who originally inspired the priest's religion. He then gives the priest a chance to recant his false beliefs and leave; the church will be destroyed, but he does not have to perish as well.
The priest refuses. Instead pointing out the Emperor's hypocrisy, in the various things he has done and is doing that make him absolutely no different to the crusaders and fanatics of the past. Despite this, the Emperor disregards Uriah's words and escorts him outside before his troops start destroying the church. As his church is destroyed, Uriah gives the Emperor one last warning about the folly of his plan before calmly walking back in to the church, preferring to die with it, and prays while he waits for death before he is crushed beneath the rubble.
The Emperor dismisses him as a lost cause and moves on. Inside, a broken clock, prophesied to chime only when the world is at an end, starts ticking...
the moral of the story is a lot more complicated and relevant than most would think. The Emperor is a well-intentioned extremist fighting against four monstrously powerful daemonic gods and trying to starve them out by spreading the Imperial Truth. He made mistakes, yes, but his intentions were pure. (Ah, but good intentions matter not. Only good deeds.) In this he had the stereotypical view of religion that some atheists have; that it is the cause of most of humanity's problems including much of the killing and/or all the wars in human history. In actuality, the causes are usually greed, corruption or just human stupidity. People fight because they mistakenly believe that they should, this true in real life as well. The story is about why people really do what they do for their beliefs. The god emperor was prepared to do whatever it took for his beliefs because it appeared to him that he was undeniably correct, just like extremists. The moral is that any reason based on rejection is immoral reason.
He was also under the belief that it was faith in general that makes the Chaos Gods stronger and the Imperial Truth was an attempt to stop them, What the Emperor failed to understand was that the Chaos Gods were powered not only by faith, but by emotions. People going about their daily lives experience their normal emotions would still empower the Chaos Gods, if the Emperor had not destroyed the other religions and actually WARNED people about Chaos (like some other people), Chaos would have been less powerful because people would have directed their belief to those religions (such as a God-Emperor). So, by abolishing religion (and purging the theistic ones) the Emperor HELPED the Chaos Gods (unintentionally) or outright have nothing to do with it at all (which is still better than falling to it). As such the Emperor's own stupidity in this regard led to the Horus Heresy, bringing about his own downfall. The Emperor may have been tens of thousands of years old, vastly intelligent and unbelievably powerful, but even he could not predict everything.
Makes you think though - The Emperor knew about the Chaos Gods (even if he didn't refer to them as such), since he talked to Horus about them, who then passed it on the Garviel Loken to soothe his mind. The Emperor also might have had an inkling that it wasn't just belief that powered them, what with him being in such close contact with the Warp 24/7. This begs the question - was he, in fact, out-Just As Planning Tzeentch and, as Erebus' false(?) memories showed Horus, did he ALLOW the Primarchs to be taken, just so Lorgar would land on Colchis, be raised by Kor Phaeron, learn about Chaos, fall to Chaos, turn Horus, allow the Horus Heresy to happen, teleport to Horus' Battle-Barge, kill his son while being mortally wounded himself, and be installed on the Golden Throne just so the billions upon billions of humans would have someone to worship other than the Chaos Gods, as a God that can be seen, touched and interacted with is nowhere near as powerful as a God that must be believed in purely through faith. Probably the only hiccup that The Emperor didn't forsee was Magnus ripping through his psychic shields and wrecking the Golden Throne/Webway Gate, Which could've been avoided if The Emperor had fucking told his sons what he was doing.
- Isandula Verona's paintings depict 3 events of old earth (both factual and presumably fictional), one painting depicts "nude figures disporting in a magical garden", likely the Garden of Eden. The second is a painting of "a battle between a golden knight and a silver dragon", undoubtedly based of the battle between the Emperor and the Void Dragon. But the third painting is by far the strangest, it depicts a "wondrous being of light surrounded by a halo of golden machinery" (couldn't possibly be foreshadowing the Emperor on the Golden Throne) ... Also, there is the description of an "explosion of stars", possibly referring to the creation of the Eye of Terror.
- However, as it is Catholic church (according Emperor at least) it's more likely that this scenes (along with many other undescribed panels) depicts scenes of Catholic mythos- Eden, St. George (-except this is not the first time the Emperor has been described fighting this Dragon. It's implied that He IS St. George) and resurrection/second coming of Christ (machinery part may seem strange, but religious art have strong tendency to be anachronistic- most of Renaissance art, for egzample, are more "XVI century Italians doing Bible's cos-play" than anything else). Explosion of stars could represent Genesis or Rapture. Big E is centerpiece of 40K, but there is no need to stuff him in every single piece mentioned. Especially then it makes more sense not to. The paintings and church itself is foreshadow no doubt, but also look what examples Emperor chooses to trash religion- crusades, witch-hunt, Inquisition, purge of Cathars- all this things done by Catholic Church. The Last Church, building itself, is physical manifestation of what will Imperium will become (and it makes sense as setting is strongly based on Christianity). Uriah represents the part of religion that is not killing of infidels, but love and turn other cheek etc. And Grimdark part is, that Emperor see this- he is not consider Uriah to be enemy or bad in general and he admires Isandula's work. But he is ready to destroy all this to prevent Crusades and Inquisition, things go to the top of the "Imperium of Man's most popular things" chart the same moment Emperor (almost) dies. And as he himself was more like Stalin than Jesus, new Church have all the zealous "burn the heretics" of old one, but none of its compassion or "turn the other cheek". Also Emperor had political reasons to destroy religion (most likely they would've disapproved of the Emperor's brutal dictatorship/had more influence over people than he liked; making the Emperor part-Hitler in addition to part-Stalin), but they touched very little in this story, so its not important.
- The church in question appears to be Lindisfarne: perched on "a rocky promontory jutting from an island that was said to have once ruled the world". Uriah even references it being raided by Scandi.
- Many of our currently existing countries and continents are mentioned in the story, however they are spelled and pronounced differently.
- The Mariana Canyon where the giant stone figures are carved in is most likely the remnants of the Mariana Trench, the deepest point of the Earth's present-day oceans -- given that this place is now exposed, you can grasp just how much Earth has changed... For example, the oceans boiled away due to various factors. Some of the new land that became exposed became known as the "Panpacific".
- Given Uriah's knowledge of (and ability to travel to) other countries, and his reaction to the Emperor's plans to conquer the galaxy, it seems likely that the Age of Strife on Terra was less of a complete societal breakdown and more of a regression to the dark ages in which knowledge of the past remained largely intact but functionally useless. Ironic, considering the state of the Imperium ushered in to save humanity from that.
- The Emperor's theological quibbles with religion in the story are very sophomoric. Most of them are convincingly refuted in the writings of St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, two writers any Catholic priest is overwhelmingly familiar with, but Uriah's refutations of the Emperor are quite amateur as well. Graham McNeill is likely not a philosopher or theologian, and so is probably unaware of the counter arguments a Priest would realistically have used, but it might hurt the suspension of disbelief of certain readers.