Is The Matrix Gnostic or Christian?
Note: This article refers to important plot points in The Matrix necessary to this overview of the moral and spiritual significance of the film. If you haven’t seen the film and wish to be able to do so without knowing in advance what will happen, please do so before reading this article.
By Steven D. Greydanus
I’ve lost track of how many readers have written to me in the last three years asking me to review The Matrix, but it’s safe to say that such requests have outnumbered similar requests for all other movies combined.
This level of interest is not primarily due to The Matrix’s visual innovations, such as its groundbreaking use of bullet-time photography. Nor is it, for example, Keanu Reeves’s acting that cries out for more critical discussion. Rather, it’s the philosophical, spiritual, and moral implications of this phenomenally popular action pic that are responsible for all the attention.
Interpretations of The Matrix differ widely. There are some who see the film as a neo-gnostic fable, an allegory of Eastern world-denying thought, in which the known world is perceived by an elite few as an illusory dream-prison from which we must escape. There are also some who see it as a veritable Christian parable, in which mankind is born into slavery until the arrival of the promised One who will bring liberation to all.
This year, the whole question has been cast in a new light by the release of a pair of Matrix sequels, The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions. However, it still seems to me to make sense to begin discussion with the first film considered on its own. As useful as the sequels are for understanding how the Wachowski brothers today see the storyline of the first film developing, the original film, released four years ago, represents a separate creative act, and its indeterminacy is an important part of its widespread appeal and diverse interpretations. (For a separate consideration of the sequels, see Part 2 of this essay.)
In any case, my view with respect to the original film is that both of the above-mentioned views are exaggerated: that The Matrix is neither meaningfully gnostic nor meaningfully Christian. Rather, it is simply a sci‑fi action-adventure tale told in a mythic mode. While influences from both biblical motifs and pop mysticism are in evidence, the film references these sources — along with many other sources, including classical Greek culture, Lewis Carroll, and Star Wars — in a way that is of aesthetic significance, not religious. Certain motifs and phrases may remind us alternately of Christianity or of Eastern mysticism, but attempts to force the movie into a gnostic or Christian mold are unconvincing, and depend upon a selective approach that ignores inconvenient or contrary facts.
Is The Matrix Gnostic?
From a historic Christian perspective, one’s attitude toward the physical world and the body is very important. Christianity (like Judaism and Islam) has a positive, world-affirming view of matter and the body, which are the work of God’s creative activity and are therefore both real and good.
By contrast, many religious traditions, including heretical gnostic offshoots of Christianity and Judaism, have a negative, world-denying view of matter and the body. The physical world is variously seen as somehow illusory, intrinsically defective, or outright evil, and bodily existence is regarded as a trap or a prison, perhaps a punishment or a process of purification.
In any case, physical existence at best seen as a necessary evil from which the goal is to escape. Those who succeed go on to a disembodied higher state (which may or may not involve the dissolution of their individual identities); those who don’t may be forced to perpetuate their corporeal entanglement through reincarnation.
This vision of the afterlife contrasts sharply with the Christian hope, which is not a purely spiritual existence in heaven, but the resurrection of the body and the renewal of the physical world. Where gnostics long to put off the body, the Christian longing is "not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed" (2 Cor 5:4), that "this mortality must put on immortality" (1 Cor 15:53).
To what extent does The Matrix resonate with or reflect this contemptuous attitude toward the world, physical reality, and bodily existence? The film’s premise, as Neo (Keanu Reeves) learns from the mysterious Morpheus (Lawrence Fishburne), is that the world he knows — a world ostensibly identical to our own — is in reality a computer-generated virtual environment, contrived by an insidious artificial intelligence to pacify the minds of human beings while using their bodies as a natural resource.
So, The Matrix does propose that the known world is both an illusion and a prison. Yet for many reasons, the film is very far from expressing anything like gnostic or world-denying contempt for physicality or the body.
"Welcome to the real world." First and foremost, although The Matrix depicts a world very much like our world as an illusion and a prison, it does not depict liberation or freedom from that illusion as escape from physicality into a state of disembodied happiness. On the contrary, the "real world" depicted in the film is even more intractably physical — and far more disturbing — than the illusions of the Matrix.
In fact, it’s precisely in the Matrix — not outside of it — that Neo and Morpheus and the others leave behind their real physical bodies and escape, at least partially, the constraints of gravity and other physical laws. Yet the film is quite clear that it’s the quasi-disembodied state of the Matrix that’s the prison, and the real, physical, bodily world, frightening as it is, that represents freedom.
The heroes of The Matrix are precisely those who have chosen to reject a comforting, disembodied illusion for the freedom of corporeal existence in the physical world, with all its rough edges and sharp corners. "Welcome to the real world," Morpheus tells Neo when he emerges from the Matrix for the first time. Significantly, the one character who does finally choose the Matrix’s disembodied illusion over the reality of the physical world is precisely the traitor.
The film also establishes that, even while in the Matrix, the heroes remain inseparably dependent upon their physical bodies in the physical world. The importance of the body is graphically illustrated in a scene in which a character in the Matrix is prevented from returning to the real world when her body is forcibly unplugged from the Matrix. From a gnostic perspective, we might expect this to be the character’s moment of liberation from the prison of the body. Instead, she dies. This is hardly a gnostic repudiation of the body.
Embracing procreation and sense experience. The Matrix further contradicts gnostic attitudes by depicting the common gnostic dream of escape from sex and procreation as part of the nightmare of mankind’s enslavement, and idealizing normal human procreation.
The premise is that, because most humans lead virtual lives within the confines of the Matrix, new generations aren’t born naturally, but are grown in laboratories by the enemy. Among the free humans of mankind’s last remaining community, however, there are some who are naturally conceived and born. "Me and my brother Dozer, we’re both 100% pure old-fashioned home-grown human, born free, right here in the real world," one of them tells Neo with a smile. This cheerfully positive attitude toward sex and procreation is the very antithesis of gnostic contempt for physicality.
A similarly positive approach to bodily existence can be seen in an animated discussion about eating and taste, in which a character contemplates the implications of having lived much of their lives in the illusion of the Matrix. "How do the machines know what Tasty Wheat tasted like?" he asks rhetorically. "Maybe they got it wrong. Maybe what I think Tasty Wheat tasted like actually tasted like oatmeal, or tuna fish. That makes you wonder about a lot of things." It’s a small thing, but interest in how food tastes is, as far as it goes, a good and wholesome thing.
Significantly, there is one character who shows no enthusiasm for physical or sensory experience, even in the simulated world of the Matrix. In the film’s lone flash of something like real gnostic-like contempt for bodily and physical experience, the malevolent Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) — an enemy computer program — expresses disgust at even the simulation of physicality around him.
"I hate this place," he tells Morpheus. "This zoo, this prison, this… reality, whatever you want to call it, I can’t stand it any longer. It’s the smell, if there is such a thing. I feel saturated by it. I can taste your stink and every time I do, I fear that I’ve somehow been infected by it."
Even the traitor, who would rather eat steak in the Matrix than real-world rations on the Nebuchadnezzar, doesn’t have the utter world-rejecting attitude of Agent Smith, the movie’s one true gnostic.
Echoes of pop mysticism. Having said all of the above, it is true that The Matrix plays with echoes of Eastern-style philosophy and pop martial-arts mysticism in ways that may remind knowledgeable viewers of world-denying attitudes.
In particular, Morpheus, with his riddles and esoteric pronouncements, is like a Zen master or martial-arts guru who schools Neo in the ways of mind over matter. Within the confines of the Matrix, Morpheus suggests, Neo’s only boundaries are those in his mind: "What are you waiting for? You’re faster than this. Don’t think you are, know you are… Stop trying to hit me and hit me!" (One is reminded of Yoda’s challenge to Luke in The Empire Strikes Back: "Try not! Do, or do not. There is no try." In the real world, where one’s best efforts can be defeated by intractable reality, this is nonsense.)
Perhaps the most obvious pop-mysticism reference is that of the "spoon boy" in the Oracle’s apartment, who can bend spoons by looking at them (as Uri Geller and others have claimed to be able to do). "Do not try and bend the spoon," this young guru calmly instructs Neo. "That’s impossible. Instead, only try to realize the truth: There is no spoon. Then you’ll see that it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself."
Within the world of the Matrix, of course, it’s quite true that "there is no spoon." However, the line "it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself" is unavoidably pseudo-mystical gibberish. Lines like this don’t make The Matrix gnostic, but they do deliberately echo or resonate with popular pictures of world-denying mysticism. Essentially, the film is riffing on popular mystical and martial-arts stereotypes in order to create an aura of profundity. Significantly, no one does any spoon-bending in the mess of the Nebuchadnezzar.
Brains in a vat. If the premise of The Matrix seems genuinely gnostic or world-denying to some Christian viewers, this may be in part due to a lack of familiarity with the more direct philosophical roots of the premise — specifically, the thought-experiments of René Descartes.
Descartes’s philosophical method was to begin by asking whether we can know anything at all — even that our own bodies or any of the things we see are real — since we can imagine that all our perceptions are being generated by a powerful enemy spirit. In subsequent philosophical discussion, Descartes’s hypothetical powerful spirit has often been replaced by a mad scientist, and the hypothesis has come to be known as the "brains in a vat" hypothesis. This — not eastern mysticism or world-denying philosophy — is the real imaginative source of The Matrix’s premise.
Incidentally, Descartes’s conclusion was that we at least know that our own minds have existence (cogito ergo sum, "I think, therefore I am"). From there, Descartes proceeded to argue for the existence of God and thence to the knowability of the world around us. In other words, he effectively rejected the Matrix premise, on the grounds that it would be inconsistent with God’s perfection to permit so absolute a deception to occur. If he’s right, this has obvious implications for the extent to which The Matrix can be regarded as a Christian allegory.
Is The Matrix Christian?
In the world of The Matrix, men are "born into bondage, born into a prison that you cannot smell or taste or touch." Then comes "the One," the promised deliverer who will overcome mankind’s enemy and liberate the human race from bondage. Morpheus has been foretold that he will find this figure of prophecy; and, like John the Baptist heralding Jesus as the Lamb of God, Morpheus recognizes Neo to be the One.
"Neo" has two meanings: It’s the Greek word for "new," but it’s also an anagram for "one." Like Christ, the New Adam, the Chosen One, Neo freely gives himself up to save another, going to face his enemies alone. He "dies," comes back to life transformed with greater power and authority, and, in the film’s final shot, ascends into heaven, where he prepares for the coming liberation of humanity.
Neo is the "one," the Christ figure, but he’s also connected with "Trinity" (Carrie-Anne Moss). This three-one connection is reinforced throughout the film by the recurrence of the room numbers 101 and 303. It might further be argued that Morpheus, besides being a John the Baptist figure, is also a kind of father figure to Neo and the other resistance fighters, completing the "trinity" of heroes. Of course there’s also a Judas figure (in one scene he and Neo drink from the same cup, as Jesus and Judas dipped in the same dish).
There are other resonances with Christianity. The "fallen" world of the Matrix, we learn, was preceded by a "perfect," paradisaical simulation-world "where none suffered, where everyone would be happy." But its first inhabitants rejected this blissful environment, leading to the creation of the more familiar Matrix-world. This back-story both echoes the doctrine of the fall and also suggests the impossibility of putting fallen man back into a paradisaical setting ("I believe that, as a species, human beings define their reality through suffering and misery," opines Agent Smith).
There’s also a sort of metaphorical birth-incarnation scene, when Neo first leaves the disembodied world of the Matrix and enters the physical world. Neo awakens in the "womb" of the fluid-filled pod in which his body has grown, is severed from umbilical-cord-like connective lines, and is flushed down a birth-canal-like chute.
Still other biblical references include the name of humanity’s last refuge, "Zion," and the name of Morpheus’s ship, the Nebuchadnezzar (perhaps signifying Morpheus’s crew as "exiles" awaiting a deliverer).
A doubtful Christ figure. Despite all of these Christian and biblical references, The Matrix isn’t really a Christian allegory, any more than it is a gnostic fable. To put it another way, however interesting the film’s Christian references may be from a critical perspective, The Matrix offers little in the way of genuinely edifying or uplifting moral or spiritual significance, at least as regards the Christian parallels.
Certainly Neo is a dynamic hero, perhaps even a charismatic one, but as a Christ-figure he doesn’t inspire the viewer with anything like faith or love. His willingness to face death to save another may be dramatically pleasing, but it lacks any sense of true moral depth, self-sacrifice, humility, service, or love. By contrast, Gandalf in The Fellowship of the Ring, William Wallace in Braveheart, Fr. Gabriel in The Mission, and even the eponymous hero of The Iron Giant are all much more evocative and inspiring Christ-figures whose various self-sacrifices resonate far more persuasively with Jesus’ passion and death.
More troublingly, Neo’s mission of salvation involves killing dozens of innocent human beings. In the movie’s biggest set piece, Neo and Trinity walk into a government building lobby, armed to the teeth, and begin blowing away dozens of unsuspecting security guards.
From the perspective of real-world moral theology, this is akin to resistance fighters killing innocent, unwitting civilians of an oppressive regime. The film tries to justify the massacre, in part with some philosophizing about people in the Matrix being "part of the system," but it doesn’t wash. Nor does the mere possibility of an Agent taking over the virtual body of one of the guards offer credible justification.
Positive moral implications. That’s not to say that there are no positive moral dimensions to the film. There are. Most crucially, The Matrix emphasizes truth as preferable to illusion, even when the truth is unpleasant and the illusion comforting.
As a corollary, because truth is real and important, those who claim to know the truth and who want to convey it to others are depicted, not as arrogant, but as honest and compassionate. Given the level of resistance to objective truth claims common today (e.g., "How can you tell me what’s true for me?"), this is a significant point.
Beyond this, The Matrix obviously depicts it as evil for human beings to be deceived and enslaved, and above all to be treated as commodities, as things to be used and then disposed of. The startling image of an (animatronic) infant plugged into the Matrix and awash in black goo may even be felt to have pro-life implications. Finally, loyalty and sacrifice among friends is depicted in a positive light, and treachery and self-interest in a negative light.
Problematic moral implications. There are also other problematic implications to the film. From a Christian perspective, to begin with, the whole premise of the unknowing enslavement of all of humanity by machines is a staggeringly apocalyptic event that raises serious eschatological questions: Would God allow all of humanity to be subjected to so immense a deception? Descartes argued not.
Consider especially the implications of generations of humans living and dying without real physical contact with one another. While it’s possible to imagine Christian faith existing in such a world (and indeed Morpheus mentions people going to church in the Matrix), the Church itself, and in particular apostolic succession and the papacy, cannot be perpetuated under these conditions, since there is no physical laying on of hands. (This problem is mitigated, though, by the fact that the film does establish that not all of mankind is in the Matrix — there is one surviving human community, Zion, where it’s possible to imagine the Church having survived. On the other hand, what we see of Zion in the sequel, The Matrix Reloaded, offers no indication whatsoever of any Christian presence.)
In fact, God and religion seem to be basically irrelevant to the characters in the film. Morality, too, tends generally to be a nonissue. Of course there’s the glaring disregard for life seen especially in the lobby massacre. Beyond this, Neo himself has a shady background, and although he is in many ways transformed during the course of the film, this doesn’t include any kind of moral transformation. Likewise, Morpheus sets people free from the Matrix, but there’s no indication that they’re any freer from sin or evil.
Consider a scene in which a character named Mouse invites Neo to have virtual sex with a digital woman of his own creation. The other crew members may needle Mouse as a "digital pimp," but there’s no real moral backbone to their criticism. ("Pay no attention to these hypocrites," Mouse tells Neo. "To deny our impulses is to deny the very thing that makes us human.")
Of course there’s no rule that says that characters fighting against a great evil must be depicted as paragons of virtue. On the other hand, the film’s overall lack of moral perspective does make it hard to see it as meaningfully "Christian."
Note: For further discussion, see Part 2 of this essay.