The Last Church
"May have been the losing side. Still not convinced it was the wrong one."
- – Malcolm Reynolds (Firefly)
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, the story focuses on 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!
On religion: remember that the Emperor was never Jesus - in fairly old lore he was at most 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's 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 who tells Uriah to call him "Revelation" when asked for his name. 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. "Revelation" argues about all of the harm that religious worship and organizations have inflicted on humanity throughout history (despite his examples being blatant lies and the opposite of what really happened in 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 (and unintentionally 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, he points out the Emperor's hypocrisy in the various things he has done - and in which doing made him no different than the crusaders and fanatics of the past. 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. He prays while he waits for death, 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 (sort of; his methods weren’t at all necessary, merely easier than worrying about people calling him out on immoral acts, as proven when his ultimate rebuttal to Uriah calling him out was to eliminate him). 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. This ignores any and everything else that was a factor in said problems/wars, the good various religions have inspired as well as the fact that those same negative behaviors and actions are also found in non-religious people and other modes of thought (such as his own) also cause untold suffering. It also ignores the fact that any time extremists act on their religion, their beliefs are almost always directly contradictory to their religion (any successful religion teaches tolerance to an extent, to avoid constant fighting within and without; extremists are anything but). 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. 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 Emperor himself 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: case in point, the Emperor-led Imperium purged so much and so often that its sheer scale of atrocity was part of the traitor Primarchs’ motivation to rebel.
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 as well as aspects of reality itself such as change (which also means wiping out all life probably would fail to destroy Chaos). It has been argued that if the Emperor had not destroyed the other religions and actually warned people about Chaos (like some others), 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, leading to the Horus Heresy and 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 about what drove Chaos's strengths and combated it with faith. As with most genii, he outsmarted himself. Naturally trying to understand the Warp scientifically is impossible, but that's its behavior not its nature; nothing stopped him from studying its nature in order to get a good enough concept of what it feeds on. The Inquisition did exactly that which is how they got so good at fighting Chaos in the first place. Even so, his reaction to anything but blind obedience was "kill them with fire." When you're claiming there must be no religion and kill anyone who wants a reason to believe your claim that religion is bad, you set yourself up for self-destruction at best. Murdering countless worlds while claiming it's because religious people are violent really just gets people to think "then what the fuck are you!?" In short, the Emperor turns out to be a high-functioning psychopath. There's a reason religion exploded shortly after the Emperor's internment into the Golden Throne.
Consider, 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 and 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 (in actuality, they solely feed on emotion; worship and belief are vectors to reality but not even slightly needed or empowering for them), what with him being in such close contact with the Warp 24/7. This raises the question: was he, in fact, out-Just As Planning Tzeentch and (as Erebus' false(?) memories showed Horus) allowed the Primarchs to be taken just so the Horus Heresy would happen, teleport to Horus' Battle-Barge and kill his son while being mortally wounded himself, and have himself installed on the Golden Throne? In other words... did the Emperor plan to be worshiped all along? Probably not, but it makes you think. This idea might actually have some merit judging by how the Emperor didn't seem so disbelieving of his divinity when chatting with Guilliman after his son's return from stasis. Given he planned for Magnus to take his place on the Golden Throne and how Sanguinius was basically an even better Emperor than the Emperor, it seems likely that he have every intention of arranging them as such and perhaps sacrificing himself in someway to become humanity's "god" in the Warp. He's the sci-fi version of Warhammer Fantasy's Sigmar and that is basically what Sigmar did, so it would make sense if you add Grimdark.
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 Libya. 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.
- 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. **Alternatively, according to Alfabusa (yes, that one) on a Reddit post, he asked McNeill directly, who said "it is not Lindisfarne, it is actually located on the Isle of Skye." To quote (McNeill) further, he said: "The Church of the Lightning Stone is not Lindisfarne. It set on the Isle of Skye, built around the Old Man of Storr which is the titular Lightning Stone."
- Many of our currently existing countries and continents are mentioned in the story, though 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. The oceans boiled away due to various factors and some of the new land 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. So, the inverse of the 40k Imperium.
- 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 lifted from a quote of Émile Zola. Interestingly, he doesn’t seem to have a reason for believing this.