[It is not the intent of this article to be a review of the merits of these movies or to recap the plots. Many sites exist which already do this. This article offers observations on and a limited evaluation of the spiritual themes and messages in the Matrix movies, as well as whether this is a film with a Christian message. For further articles on spiritual and philosophical themes in the movies, see this article on Buddhism in the Matrix movies at http://www.nisargadatta.net/Matrix/matrix_philosophy_1.htm and the longer article from the Journal of Religion and Film on Buddhism and Gnosticism in the Matrix movies at http://www.unomaha.edu/jrf/gnostic.htm.
It is fairly obvious in “The Matrix” and “The Matrix Reloaded” that one of the major themes of the movies is the theme of illusion and reality. Neo, the computer programmer turned hero/savior, learned in the first movie that what he thought was reality is actually a program engineered by computers that have taken control over humanity, plugging into humans for fuel and engineering a “reality” in people’s minds that gives them an illusion they are living a regular life. Neo’s guide to this revelation is Morpheus, who serves as Neo’s mentor. Neo is considered to be “the One” (“Neo” is an anagram of “one” and also means “new”) who will save humanity from their enslavement to machines. Neo, Morpheus, and a woman named Trinity team up to fight the computers and the programs sent their way to stop them, such as Agent Smith, one of the main villains.
The movies raise many questions having to do with reality, technology, and computers. Is what we see reality or an illusion? Can we trust our perceptions? Is it better to live in ignorance in what one believes to be reality, or is it better to awaken to the truth that what one sees as reality is an illusion? Can computers actually progress to the point where they can think and take over humanity? Is what we see everyday real or an illusion? How do we know what reality is? Are we “programmed” or do we have choices? Mythological and spiritual references, images, and names abound. These are just a few of the questions raised by the movies which seem to combine the elements of a video game, science fiction, and spiritual teachings.
The question of reality and illusion is a philosophical and spiritual one that has been addressed by several religions, most notably Gnosticism, Hinduism, Buddhism (Buddhism came from Hinduism, so there are some similar views), and New Age beliefs. One form of Hinduism (nondual) posits the view that we live in this world in maya, in ignorance of who we really are and why we are here. Through various teachings and practices, one can awaken to the truth that all is from the Absolute and is part of the Absolute. Our individual identities are merely temporary roles we take on to play out our karma and hopefully from which we will escape one day. Buddhism exists in many forms, but the crux is usually that we are being fooled by our perceptions due to our attachments to this life and to this world, and this attachment to and desire for this world causes our suffering. Reality is neither this world nor our experiences, which are merely transitory, but reality is the void, an emptiness that is not really empty but is what lays behind what we think is real (Buddhism does not believe we can describe this in words). One’s self actually does not exist as a cohesive identity, but rather as a series of feelings, thoughts, and experiences that pass through us like film in a camera. Gnosticism sees a dichotomy between the material and the spiritual; the material world (created by an evil god) traps the spiritual, and the spiritual “forgets” that the material in not real or necessary to its existence. [For a detailed article on the Gnostic and Buddhist themes in the Matrix movies, see “Wake Up! Gnosticism and Buddhism in the Matrix” by Frances Flannery-Dailey and Rachel Wagner at the Warner Brothers site given above. Also see “The Gnostic Matrix” by Don Closson at http://www.probe.org/docs/gnostic.html ].
New Age beliefs are a composite of these with its own myriad variations. Basically, New Age teaches that we are all divine and all came from God, the One, the universal spirit, the creative source, or however one wishes to term the source of everything. We have forgotten this and live instead as though we are separate individuals and are not divine. We must awaken to the truth of who we really are and realize that what we perceive as reality is either something we have projected from our own thoughts arising from confusion, deception or needs, or is an illusion. We ourselves possess the wisdom and power within us to free ourselves from illusion.
These descriptions are mere generalizations; actually, the teachings of Gnosticism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and the New Age are complex and varied. I apologize for the need to oversimplify here, but my goal is not to give detailed information on these beliefs, but merely to show how these beliefs appear, at least in part, in the Matrix movies.
There are Christian and/or Biblical references in the Matrix movies as well, mainly because Neo appears to be a type of savior of humanity, and because of names such as the character named Trinity, the spaceship called the Nebuchadnezzar, Zion as the last remaining human city, and other more oblique references. However, do names necessarily indicate a Christian theme or message? After all, Gnostic Christianity, which is vastly different from the historic, orthodox Christian faith, uses the same terms as Christianity but with a different meaning, as does the New Age. In fact, there is a voluminous tome, The Metaphysical Bible Dictionary, put out by the Unity School of Christianity (a New Thought church holding views that sprang from Eastern beliefs and beliefs in the powers of the mind) that interprets the names, places, and people of the Bible through an Eastern and somewhat gnostic filter. A Course in Miracles, a book channeled by psychiatrist Helen Schucman in the 1970’s, discusses Jesus and the Holy Spirit throughout its teachings in a context that is Eastern and New Age, and is completely at odds with Biblical Christianity. Therefore, we can see that the use of the same terms does not always result in similar meanings.
It is telling that at the beginning of “The Matrix Reloaded,” a young man tells Neo that he is grateful because Neo “saved” him. Neo faces the young man and pointedly states, “I did not save you; you saved yourself.” This type of salvation would especially fit in with Buddhism, Gnosticism and the New Age. Salvation or enlightenment is by knowledge, or gnosis, rather than the salvation by faith found in the historic Christian faith. The Trinity character is a woman, and there are many beliefs that propose God or the Holy Spirit as female. (God is spirit and yet is referred to in masculine terms. In Jesus’ dialogue with the Samaritan woman, as Jesus is about to reveal to her that he is the Messiah, he refers to God as “Father” right before he says “God is spirit” ? John 4:23-25). The Holy Spirit and Christ are two Persons of the one Godhead, forming the Trinity. The Trinity is not three gods, nor is the Trinity one God with three roles. The Trinity is one Godhead, one divine essence shared by three distinct, co-equal, eternal Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who act in harmony and unison. [See “What is the Trinity” at http://www.carm.org/doctrine/whatisthetrinity.htm and “The Trinity Chart” at http://www.carm.org/doctrine/trinity.htm for helpful explanations.] It seems that the Matrix movies present Neo, Trinity, and Morpheus as its own Trinitarian unit that sets out to liberate humanity.
The spaceship used by Neo is the Nebuchadnezzar. Nebuchadnezzar, a king in Babylon, had his dreams interpreted by Daniel, God’s prophet. Morpheus is a Greek god of dreams, (and is also the son of Hypnos, the god of sleep who is the twin brother of Thanatos, god of death). I do not believe these names are accidental; according to many reports, including earlier interviews of the Wachowski brothers, the Wachowskis are quite well read and up on their philosophy. Larry Wachowski admitted that they were influenced by Buddhist beliefs (see recommended article on Warner Brothers site). Therefore, it seems that using the names Nebuchadnezzar and Morpheus relate to the overall theme of reality versus illusion or dream. Will Morpheus turn out to be an illusion himself, a program sent perhaps by the Architect to fool Neo and others? Is the Nebuchadnezzar and the rescue of humanity real or just another illusion?
What about Zion? In “The Matrix Reloaded,” Zion is a rather bleak place, the last refuge of men and women who are aware of the computers’ reign and oppression. Biblically, Zion is Jerusalem, the seat of King David’s reign, and Zion is also prophetically the New Jerusalem, the eternal city (Revelation 21-22) at the end of time. The eternal Zion is not a city established by man’s efforts, but is created by and belongs to God.
The Buddhist and New Age beliefs about reality have much in common. Both propose the idea that what we perceive as reality is not reality, that we are deceived by our perceptions, and that we must become enlightened or awakened to the truth of who or what we really are, and what reality really is. This is in stark contrast to the Christian worldview based on God’s word which reveals an objective world and reality. We can trust our perceptions and senses that what seems real is real since it was created by God. And when God created the world at the beginning, it was declared good by him, not evil (as in Gnosticism) and not an illusion to fool us. The world was stained and corrupted by man’s sin, and thus fell into decay and danger, but it is still God’s creation and is real. God did not give us our perceptions in order to trick or deceive us but rather to allow us to interact with our environment and with each other.
The theme of reality vs. illusion is completely antithetical to a Christian worldview. Christ did not come to rescue us from illusion, but from the wages of sin ? spiritual death and separation from God. The lack of God in the movies bespeaks either a remote, unknowable Gnostic deity, or the lack of any theistic deity as in Buddhism. The Architect in “The Matrix Reloaded” might be seen as a god figure, but a cruel and uncaring one.
The final word on the message in the Matrix movies will have to wait until after the third movie comes out. Until then, we have two movies raising a host of thought-provoking questions and fodder for spiritual discussions.
Questions for dialogue with others:
What is humanity’s plight according to these movies?
Do you agree humanity in our contemporary time is in a plight that needs salvation or liberation? If so, what is the nature of that plight?
What is Neo saving humanity from ? a comfortable illusion they might prefer? Would humanity necessarily want Neo’s rescue?
Can we save ourselves and from what are we being saved?
What is the difference between Neo and the Biblical Christ?