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The Matrix and Christianity

Is the Matrix a Christian Film?

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Warning: This section contains spoilers for the Matrix: Reloaded. Read with caution.

Because Christianity is the predominant religious tradition in the United States, it is only natural that Christian themes and interpretations of The Matrix will also be dominant in discussions about this film series. The presence of Christian ideas in the the Matrix films is simply undeniable, but does this allow us to conclude that The Matrix and The Matrix Reloaded are Christian movies?

First, let's review some of the obvious Christian symbols that appear in the film. The main character, played by Keanu Reeves, is named Thomas Anderson: the first name Thomas may be an allusion to the Doubting Thomas of the gospels, while etymologically Anderson means "son of man," a title used by Jesus in reference to himself.

Another character, Choi, says to him "Hallelujah. You're my savior, man. My own personal Jesus Christ." A plate in Morpheus's ship Nebuchadnezzar bears the inscription "Mark III No. 11," a probable allusion to the Bible: Mark 3:11 reads, "Whenever the unclean spirits saw him, they fell down before him and shouted, 'You are the Son of God!'"

Anderson's hacker alias Neo is an anagram for the One, a title which is used in the film to refer to Keanu Reeves' character. He is The One who is prophesied to liberate humanity from the chains that imprison them in their computer-generated illusion. First, however, he has to die - and he is killed in room 303. But, after 72 seconds (analogous to 3 days), Neo rises again. Soon thereafter, he also ascends up into the heavens. The first movie itself happened to be released on Easter weekend, 1999.

According to the Architect in The Matrix Reloaded, Neo isn't actually the first One; instead, he is really the sixth One. Numbers are not meaningless in these films and perhaps the first five are meant to symbolize the Five Books of Moses of the Old Testament. Neo, representing the New Testament and New Covenant of Christianity, is described by the Architect as differing from the first five because of his ability to love - and the concept of agape, or brotherly love, is key in Christian theology. It seems, then, that Neo's role as a sci-fi iteration of the Christian Messiah is rather secure.

Or is it? Certainly some Christian authors argue so, but the parallels here are not nearly so strong as they might appear at first glance. For Christians, the Messiah is a sinless unification of both divinity and humanity who brings salvation to humans from their state of sin through his own freely chosen, sacrificial death; none of these attributes describe Keanu Reeve's Neo, even in a metaphorical sense.

Neo is not even vaguely sinless. Neo kills people left and right and isn't averse to a bit of extramarital sex. We are offered no reasons to think that Neo is a union of the divine and the human; although he develops powers beyond what other humans have, there is nothing mystical about him. His powers derive from an ability to manipulate the programming of the Matrix, and he remains very much human.

Neo is not here to save anyone from sin, and his purpose has nothing to do with bridging the gap between us and God (not that God is even mentioned in the Matrix films). Instead, Neo arrives to release us from ignorance and illusion. Certainly a release from illusion is consistent with Christianity, but it does not constitute a metaphor for Christian salvation. Moreover, the idea that our reality is illusory is inconsistent with Christian beliefs in an omnipotent and truthful God.

Nor does Neo save humanity through a sacrificial death. Although he dies, it is by accident rather than by free choice, and his means of salvation involves a great deal of violence - including the deaths of many innocent people. Neo loves, but he loves Trinity; he hasn't exhibited an overarching love for humanity as a whole, and certainly not for the human minds he kills time and time again.

Christian references go far beyond the character of Neo, of course. The last human city is Zion, a reference to Jerusalem - a city holy to Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Neo falls in love with Trinity, a reference to the Trinity of Christianity. Neo is betrayed by Cypher, someone who prefers hedonistic illusions where he has power over the drab reality he was awakened to.

Even these, however, are not exclusively Christian themes or allegories. Some may see them as such because of their obvious relations to Christian stories, but that would a rather narrow reading; it would be more accurate to say that Christianity makes use of many stories and ideas which have been part of human culture for millennia. These ideas are a part of our human heritage, cultural as well as philosophical, and the Matrix taps into this heritage in culturally and religiously specific ways, but we should not let that distract us from the core messages which reach well beyond any one religion, including Christianity.

In short, The Matrix and its sequels make use of Christianity, but they are not Christian films. Perhaps they are poor reflections of Christian doctrine, rendering Christianity in a superficial manner that is amenable to American pop culture but which requires sacrificing depth for the sake of people accustomed to sound bites over serious theological contemplation. Or, perhaps, they aren't meant to be Christian films in the first place; instead, they may be meant to be about important issues which are also explored within Christianity.

More: The Matrix as a Gnostic Film


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