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 more badass than getting killed by Horus? Telling the Emperor, to his face, why he sucks (note that the Emperor was never Jesus: at most, and in fairly old lore he was implied to be Jesus's 13th disciple, which in turn means not only that he knew Jesus, but purposely tried to do better than God at guiding humanity with predictable results. What is more, other than its being called a "church," there is not really anything specifically Christian about Uriah's religion explicitly described–rather it seems like a vague syncretic religion that venerates miracles, saints and nature.)
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 (unintentionally, more or less incidentally due to Uriah's experiences during a brief and dramatic encounter between the two during the Unification Wars) inspired the priest to believe in his 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 in doing that, makes him to be 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. As the rain lifts, and the morning sun rises over the smoldering remains of the last church on Terra; inside, a broken clock, prophesied to chime only when the world is at an end, begins to softly ring...
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 towards 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, ignoring any and everything else that was a factor in said problems/wars, the fact that those same negative behaviors and actions are also found in non-religious people and ignoring the fact that other modes of thought (such as his own) also cause untold suffering. It also ignores the fact that any time extremists acted on their religion, their beliefs were always directly contradictory to their religion (religions teach peace, extremists are anti-peace). So, if anything, the Emperor should have made religions enforce their own teachings. The story also is about the Emperor's adamant refusal to accept that extremists are extremists, whether religious or secular. On top of that, the extremists who might have become religious extremists instead become secular extremists thanks to his own secularization of his Imperium and this comes back to bite humanity horribly for the next ten thousand years. The story is about why people really do what they do for their beliefs. The 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 experiencing their normal emotions would still empower the Chaos Gods. It has been argued that 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 religions (such as the Abrahamic faiths) or outright have nothing to do with it at all (which is still better than falling to it). If anything, belief and faith grant power in this setting and even make gods real if they weren't before, so while an atheistic approach guarding against Chaos could help, at most it would just result in a stalemate; theistic religiosity in the 40k verse not only defends but allows adherents to take the fight to Chaos and provides the only possibility of defeating them. Therefore, by abolishing religion (especially purging the theistic ones) the Emperor HELPED the Chaos Gods, albeit unintentionally. As such the Emperor's own ignorance 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. Perhaps that was his greatest failing: he attempted to predict how to defeat Chaos instead of applying the scientific method. From his words throughout 40k it is clear he saw Warpcraft and science as completely separate and distinct fields. Had he applied the scientific method to studying Chaos, he would have learned the above information about Chaos's strengths and combating it with faith. As with most genii, he outsmarted himself.
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 (not strictly true - Horus and Loken only learned about Daemons - Loken is totally mystified when an Interex soldier explains the nature of Chaos/Kaos to him). 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 which 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 foresee 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.
McNeill's website has an explanation for his thought processes when writing the story as well as his opinion of it on its own page, but it's been copypasted here for convenience. Strangely, Graham states that "he didn't want to preach", but then states he wanted Uriah to be "wrong" and the Emperor to be "right" (see below).
I came late to this anthology, as I was finishing a novel while the bulk of writers were thrashing away at their keyboards. So when it came time to start developing a story, I asked the editors to send me a one-line pitch for each of the other stories so I didn’t waste time replicating a story that had already been written. When I got them, they were mostly bolters blazing, chainswords hacking stories, which is great, but I felt needed balancing by one that had a more thoughtful pace, with less fighting. One of the aspects of the Heresy I’ve liked the most has been the dichotomy between a growing secular empire butting heads with humanity’s urge to worship things in the sky. I saw this story as a challenge to myself, the readers and to BL. Would I be able to write a story like this that was exciting and engaging? Would the readers buy into it or would they be bored without the action? Would BL publish a story like this? Turns out that it seems all three were answered with a resounding yes. There’s a lot of me in this story, though I’m certainly not preaching to anyone with it. It’s more like I wanted people to talk about the story, to ask themselves questions and look at things in a different light. Some folk have said that Uriah is a straw man, and that the arguments made on both sides of his and Revelation’s debate are simplistic. Part of me agrees with that, as I’m not a theologian (and, crucially, neither was Uriah. He was a drunken rake, called to be a priest by a personal experience. No years of training in a seminary for him…) and I wasn’t trying to write a treatise on religion or belief, but rather a story that got people talking and entertained them. It’s also the first time the Big E turns up in a Heresy story in any real form. He’s appeared a few times to deliver the odd line of dialogue, but this was the first time we’d seen him talk, interact and appear for any length of time (even though most of it is in another guise) so I needed to be careful. In the end, to really stir the pot, I wanted to end the story in a way that, while Uriah might have been wrong, he was the one you liked better and who came out with the apparent moral high ground. The Emperor was right, yet he came across as the arrogant, short-sighted tyrant – the very kind he rails against in the story. Now go back and read it again and see if you agree!
- 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 in ancient Syria. 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, if it is a Christian or quasi-Christian church (it is almost certainly not contiguous with Christianity as we know it today, though) it's more likely that these scenes (along with many other undescribed panels) depicts scenes of Christian mythos - Eden, St. George (except this is not the first time the Emperor has been described fighting a dragon. It's implied that He IS St. George) and resurrection/second coming of Jesus (the machinery part may seem strange, but Christian Renaissance art tended toward anachronisms, as in "XVI century Italians doing Biblical cos-play," seen in just about every Biblically based piece of art; i.e. why does Mary dress like a contemporary nun instead of a pious Jewess of the 1st century? Because visual historicity wasn't the point but rather devotional artwork that people could relate to!) The explosion of stars could represent the Creation or possibly events of the End Times. Big E is the centerpiece of 40K, but there is no need to stuff him in every single piece mentioned. Especially when it makes more sense not to. The paintings and church itself is foreshadowing, no doubt, but also look what examples The Emperor chooses to trash religion - crusades, witch-hunts (actually witch trials was more of a Protestant thing), the Inquisition (which is blamed for the punishments of the secular governments, and, in fact, some people who were being persecuted by the latter would actually take it upon themselves to blaspheme in court so they would get the Inquisition instead of the royal courts), the purging of Cathars and other heretics all both inspired certain elements and aesthetics of the 40K universe and presumably transpired as "ancient history" in-universe.
- The Last Church, the building itself, is a physical manifestation of what the Imperium will become (and it makes sense as the setting is strongly based on Christianity). Uriah represents the part of religion that is not killing the infidels, but love and turn other cheek, etc. And the Grimdark part is that The Emperor sees this - he does not consider Uriah to be an enemy or bad in general, and he admires Isandula's work. But he is ready to destroy all this to prevent the Crusades and the Inquisition, EXACTLY what the Emperor did to try and destroy religion and EXACTLY the things that go to the top of the "Imperium of Man's most popular things" chart the very moment The Emperor (almost) dies. And as he himself was more like Stalin than Jesus, the new Church has all the zealous "burn the heretics" of the old one, but none of its compassion or "turn the other cheek". Also, The Emperor had political reasons to destroy religions (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 are 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 the 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 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 (although, he's not Catholic, and doesn't seem to be highly educated himself regardless. His religion is vague but implied to be a highly syncretized quasi-Abrahamic faith. Jesus doesn't warrant a mention, somehow, although the excesses of the Catholic church are front and center in the Emperor's arguments, just as they are among many edgy athiests of our day.) Graham McNeill, not being a philosopher or theologian, and not, as far as we know, even religious, is probably unaware of the counter arguments a real priest would realistically have used, and evidently didn't do a lot of research in that arena, or want to.
- The fact that attempts to abolish religion in real-life have proven harmful rather than good isn't addressed in the story either; as in Uriah doesn't mention any of those cases to refute the Emperor (look at Soviet Russia, North Korea and Cambodia under Pol Pot for three examples - it's even possible the Emperor was Stalin in this universe). Again, Uriah is most probably simply ignorant of those things happening in the past.
- Lastly, The Emperor's claim that "humanity will not be free until the last stone of the last church falls on the head of the last priest" is a (mis)quote of Denis Diderot. He could have at least tried to be original.