The Matrix as an Allegory of the early Church Father’s cosmology
RIDDLE: WHAT DOES THE MOVIE “THE MATRIX” HAVE IN COMMON WITH THE EARLY CHURCH FATHERS’ VIEW OF REALITY?
ANSWER: ALMOST EVERYTHING!
Obviously, the early Church Fathers never actually watched the Matrix trilogy of movies. But, then again, maybe in some archetypal way, the Lord projected the movie’s major themes across time and space onto the screens of their corporate consciousness.
I am awestruck at how closely the cosmology of the early Church lines up with metaphorical symbols in The Matrix movies. Cosmology is simply the metaphysical study of the form, content, organization, of the universe. Christian Cosmology helps us understand the respective roles and relational dynamics of humans, angels, demons, fallen principalities and fallen powers.
I absolutely love the Matrix movie trilogy, but for years I thought its only metaphorical message for us was to leave the dead, institutional and formalistic religion of “blue pill” Christianity. We were instead to take the “red pill” of true and transcendent Christianity which brings us into a Spirit-led existence lived outside of the confines of the religious Matrix. And while that is certainly one symbolic aspect of it, the movies’ themes goes far, far deeper.
In the first movie, The Matrix, computer hacker Neo is contacted by underground freedom fighters who explain that reality as he understands it is actually a complex computer simulation called the Matrix. Created by a malevolent network of mechanical intelligences, the Matrix hides the truth from humanity, allowing them to live a convincing, simulated life in 1999 while machines grow and harvest people to use as an ongoing energy source. The leader of the freedom fighters, Morpheus, believes Neo is “The One,” the messiah figure, who will lead humanity to freedom and overthrow the machines.
To escape the computer simulated prison, the person has to first be disconnected from the machine’s control by taking a “red pill” which allows the freedom fighters to then physically trace and disconnect the person from the mechanical cocoon in which they continuously sleep and dream, all the while oblivious to their true condition.
Neo chooses the “red pill” of freedom over the “blue pill” of forgetfulness which would have returned him to the Matrix’s illusory reality. Together with a freed female who is auspiciously named “Trinity,” Neo and Morpheus fight against the machine’s enslavement of humanity as Neo begins to believe and accept his role as “The One.” He displays increasing power to resist and defeat the machines within and without the Matrix.
In terms of Christian metaphor, Neo definitely represents a Christ-like figure. Morpheus represents a John the Baptist who prepares for and heralds Christ’s coming. The freed city of Zion represents the Church of those who have chosen the “red pill” of salvation. Even one of Zion’s ships is called “The Logos,” an obvious reference to one of Jesus’ divine names from John 1.
But, and here is where we get to the early Church’s cosmology, the machine world clearly represents the fallen angelic powers ruling over a scorched and fallen earth. Both human and machine are blocked from contact with the life-giving Sun because of a cloud of darkness which canvasses the earth’s atmosphere. This scorched earth caused the machines/angels to substitute their power source with human energy instead of the divine solar energy they once used.
In the fallen world of the Matrix, all reality is run by sentient programs. There is a specific program to run each aspect of creation. We are told by one of the sentient programs that whenever we see creation misbehave from its created purpose, some program is in rebellion and not following its original design.
Both human and machine/angels clearly have freewill, and both have chosen poorly. Neo is actually able to see through these machines into their inner natures and recognizes them as creatures of light. One of them even bears the name “Seraph,” a well known angelic name and a clear hint that the machines are indeed metaphors for angelic powers. The angelic powers, viewed this way, become a “sentient system of sentient sub-systems” which inhabits all aspects of creation.
The second movie, The Matrix Reloaded, reveals that there are many different levels of control OUTSIDE of the Matrix. The control of our own mind, our own fractured spirit, our own self-will, our own self-limiting mindsets, our own inability to take dominion over the machines/angelic powers, our own less than perfect Zion, our own religious control so to speak, is just as great an enemy as is the Matrix.
However, the greatest enemy of all is not man or the Matrix, but an off-the-grid program called “Agent Smith” who seeks to reform and deform all humans and angels into his own image. He moves in and out of the Matrix and is able to stick his hand into the hearts of others and transform the victim into his own evil image. Even the machine main frame sees Smith as its greatest enemy.
The third movie, The Matrix Revolutions, revealed that Neo, as the Christ figure, did not use force to overcome the coerced homogenization of all living beings into Agent Smith’s (Satan’s) image. Instead, Neo offered Himself as a voluntary RANSOM to Smith. Neo intentionally lowered His guard and allowed himself to be fully absorbed by the Satanic Smith, just as Christ voluntarily ransomed Himself into the devil’s hands for the three days following His death.
But, Smith/Satan could not contain the virtuous essence which he had absorbed. It blew him up and dismantled his power grid. Literally. He simply could not contain the virtue he sought to enslave. And it tore all the prison doors off their hinges in all the dark places, in Hell, in the Matrix and in Zion. Neo/Christ led captivity captive in the process, freeing all the prisoners, be they machines (angelic powers) or men.
The movie ends with this scenario. The men who want to stay plugged into the matrix are allowed to remain. The ones who want to be unplugged are set free to join the inhabitants of Zion. Both men and machine (angelic powers) now peacefully co-exist. And Neo/Christ somehow inhabits it all.
The theme of the Matrix, then, is not so much about just coming out of dead religion, but is more about Neo/Christ reconciling all things to Himself. It is about redeeming the fallen powers through the use of our second Adamic power. We are to repair the world. We are to judge angels. We are restore creation to it’s original and fully functioning state. After breaking the gates of death and Hell, Jesus gave us the keys of the kingdom to restore the creation, what the Hebrews call Tikun Ha Olam, “the repair of the world.”
Let me leave you with a few quotes from the early Church Fathers. You will see how closely their cosmology matched that of The Matrix. In fact, so similar are their ideas, the script to the Matrix could easily have been partially based on the below quotes. As you read them, perhaps your jaw will drop as mine did.
Athenagoras (133-190 AD) summarized the early Church’s cosmology as follows: “The Maker and Framer of the world distributed and appointed….a multitude of angels and ministers…to occupy themselves about the elements, and the heavens, and the world, and the things in it, and the godly ordering of them all…. Just as with men, who have freedom of choice as to both virtue and vice….so is it among the angels. Some, free agents, you will observe, such as they were created by God, continued in those things for which God had made and over which He had ordained them; but some outraged both the constitution of their nature and the government entrusted to them.” A PLEA FOR THE CHRISTIANS, 10.
Athenagorus further believed that Satan, as “the (spirit) prince of (earthly) matter exercises a control and management contrary to the good that is in God” (A Plea, 25). Thrice Jesus called Satan the archon (ruler or prince) of this material creation (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11). Paul likewise called Satan “the god of this world” (2 Corinthians 4:4) and “the archon (ruler or prince) of the power of the air” (Ephesians 2:2).
As theologian Greg Boyd has sagely noted, “Athenagorus concluded that everything in nature that obviously looks contrary to God’s character appears that way because it is contrary to God. It didn’t arise from the omni-benevolent hand of the Creator (as the atheists of his day and ours object) but was rather due to the activity of an evil ‘ruling prince’ and ‘the demons his followers'” (A Plea, 25).
Tertullian (160-225 AD) wrote that “[d]iseases and other grievous calamities” were demons on the attack, whose “great business is the ruin of mankind.” Whenever “poison in the breeze blights the apples and the grain while in the flower, or kills them in the bud, or destroys them when they have reached maturity…” the fingerprints of evil spirits becomes clear (Apology 22).
Origen (184-254 AD) wrote that that every fiber of nature was under the direct care of “invisible husbandmen and guardians” (Against Celsus, 8.31). “Natural” evil came from certain spirits rebelling against their creator. Origen taught that the destructive horsemen of disaster, death, pestilence, war and famine were not “natural” in God’s creation, but were rather the result of fallen angels on the attack (Against Celsus, 8.31). These rebel forces were “the cause of plagues…barrenness…tempests… [and] similar calamities” (Against Celsus,1.31).
Gregory of Nyssa (335-395 AD) states it more simply: “In this visible world…nothing can be achieved except through invisible forces” (Dialogues, IV.5).
Finally, the Matrix paints an atonement dynamic in line with the Ransom/Christus Victor Theory which the majority of the early Church adopted. This view is so much more God-honoring than the cruel Penal Atonement Theory which claims that the Father smote Jesus on the Cross with His killing wrath meant for us. This harsh idea was not the view of the early Church.
Theologian Roger Olson makes the following statement as to the prevalence of Christus Victor in the early church:
“The earliest theory or model of atonement in Christian history was the so- called ransom theory (Christus Victor). It is first found in somewhat definite form in the second-century speculative Christian theologian and church father Origen of Alexandria. It appeared repeatedly in the early Christian writings and gradually became the most popular explanation of how Christ’s death on the cross saved humanity.” Roger Olson, The Mosaic of Christian Belief, (Downer’s Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 256.
In his fine synopsis of Christus Victor, Anabaptist Pastor Josh Crain builds on Olson’s point made above:
“Indeed, great church fathers and thinkers throughout the first millennium of church history held this view almost exclusively. Origen, Athanasius, Gregory of Nyssa and Irenaeus all shared this view of the atonement and wrote about it at great length. Though it saw a decline in support after the publication of Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo, a renewed interest has been taken in Christus Victor over the last seventy years.
More recent proponents of the view include Gustaf Aulén, Gregory Boyd and C.S. Lewis. N.T. Wright has recently suggested that we give priority ‘to those Pauline expressions of the crucifixion of Jesus which describe it as the decisive victory over the principalities and powers’ and Hans Boersma believes that Christus Victor is ‘the most significant model of the atonement.'”
~~Christus Victor: A Holistic Approach to the Incarnation and Atonement of Jesus Christ by Josh Crain, page 2.
Here are some direct quotes by the early church fathers which I have collected:
“Redeeming us with his blood, Christ gave himself as a ransom for those who had been led into captivity.” (Ireaneus, Against Heresies).
Origen , in referring to whom was the Ransom paid, says, “But to whom did He give His soul as a ransom for many? Surely not to God. Could it, then, be to the Evil One? For he had us in his power, until the ransom for us should be given to him, even the life (or soul) of Jesus, since he (the Evil One) had been deceived, and led to suppose that he was capable of mastering that soul, and he did not see that to hold Him involved a trial of strength (thasanon) greater than he was equal to. Therefore also death, though he thought he had prevailed against Him, no longer lords over Him, He (Christ) having become free among the dead and stronger than the power of death, and so much stronger than death that all who will amongst those who are mastered by death may also follow Him (i.e. out of Hades, out of death’s domain), death no longer prevailing against them. For every one who is with Jesus is unassailable by death.” Commentary on Matthew XVI, 8; Christus Victor, Aulen, op. cit., p. 49. In footnote 13, Aulen says, “Translation from Rashdall, p. 259. where the Greek is printed in full.”
Christ’s death, Origen declares, “not only has been set forth as an example of dying for religion, but has effected a beginning and an advance in the overthrow of the evil one, the Devil, who dominated the whole earth.” Contra Celsius 7, 17. Quoted by Kelly, Early Christian Doctrine, 185.
Kelley says that Origen’s “underlying idea seems to be that the Devil, with whom death is identified, deluded himself into imagining that he had triumphed over Christ, but his seeming triumph was turned to defeat when the Savior rose from the grave.” J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrine, 185. He refers to Origen, Commentary on Matthew XIII, 9.
Gregory of Nyssa affirmed that the Devil had a legal claim over Adamic man because we have freely placed himself under the Devil’s domain. As did Irenaeus, Gregory of Nyssa asserts that God would not use violence or coercion in saving man from the Devil. Had He had done so, God would have committed a reality-rape and violated His own character. As a result, man would not have been justly redeemed. So then, to redeem man and still not impermissibly violate man’s freewill, God paid the Devil, who was man’s owner, all that he asked as the redemption price for his property. The Devil was so dazzled by Christ’s miracles that he was willing to give up all the imperfect first Adams in order to capture the perfect second Adam.
“When the enemy saw the power, he recognized in Christ a bargain which offered him more than he held. For this reason he chose him as the ransom for those whom he had shut up in death’s prison.” Gregory of Nyssa, “An Address on Religous Instruction,” Chapter 23. LCC, III, 300.
Gregory likens the Devil to a hungry fish who is caught on the hook of Christ’s deity when he is enticed to swallow it by the bait of Christ’s flesh. Ibid., chapter 24, 301.
Gregory claims the Lord’s “Trojan Horse-like” actions were perfectly just: “By the principle of justice the deceiver reaps the harvest of the seeds he sowed with his own free will. For he who first deceived man by the bait of pleasure is himself deceived by the camouflage of human nature. [Here, the Lord never actually deceived Satan, but rather allowed Satan’s own self-deception and wrong presumption to run its own course]. But the purpose of the action changes it into something good. For the one practiced deceit to ruin our nature; but the other, being at once just and good and wise, made use of a deceitful device to save the one who had been ruined. And by so doing he benefited, not only the one who had perished, but also the very one who brought us to ruin. For when death came into contact with life, darkness with light, corruption with incorruption, the worse of these things disappeared into a state of nonexistence, to the profit of him who was freed from these evils.” Ibid., Chapter 26, 303.
Augustine thereafter described it as follows: “And where the devil could do something, there he met with defeat on every side. While from the cross he received the power to slay the Lord’s body outwardly, it was also from the cross that the inward power, by which he held us fast, was put to death. For it came to pass that the chains of many sins in many deaths were broken by the one death of the One who himself had no previous sin that would merit death. And, therefore, for our sake the Lord paid the tribute to death which was not his due, in order that the death which was due might not injure us. For he was not stripped of the flesh by any obligation to any power whatsoever, but he willed his own death, for he who could not die unless he willed doubtless died because he willed; and therefore he openly exposed the principalities and the powers, confidently triumphing over them in himself.” ON THE TRINITY 4-13-17-57.
In conclusion, The Matrix is almost flawless metaphor for rightly understanding Christian cosmology. I think it highlights the truth expressed in this great quote. “Millions of spiritual creatures walk the earth unseen, both when we wake, and when we sleep.” Lines 677-678. John Milton, Book IV, PARADISE LOST.
Lest we think this is TOO speculative, reread the quotes from the early Church Fathers. The story lines up with their cosmology in amazing ways. I think they would heartily approve. Watch the movies and see what you think. They just might be a great teaching tool for our kids to better understand the meta-narrative of the Bible.