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Last Updated: Wednesday, 14 May, 2003, 16:51 GMT 17:51 UK
Forget sci-fi and guns - The Matrix is really about religion
By Steven Tomkins

The sequel to The Matrix is being keenly awaited by many of the film's fans - geeks, sci-fi addicts, as well as those who just love stylish violence. But also lining up outside cinemas will be those who see the film as a work about religion.

Matrix poster in Thailand
No end to the religious parallels found in the film
In a quiet moment in The Matrix, our hero Neo talks with one of his new crewmates, Cypher. Neo is still getting used to the news that all he ever knew was an illusion fed into his head by the computers who now enslave humanity, and that according to the leader Morpheus he is The One destined to deliver us.

"Did he tell you why you're here?" asks Cypher.

Neo nods.

"Jesus! What a mindjob! So you're here to save the world."

It turns out that Cypher is right on all three counts. Yes, Neo has to save humankind. Yes, it is a job for the mind over computer-simulated matter. And yes, he is Jesus.

Deeply symbolic

In most Hollywood movies it would be ridiculous to pick out hidden meanings in such throwaway lines. But The Matrix is not most Hollywood movies. Dazzled by the stupendous effects, the sci-fi story, the kung fu and the "guns, lots of guns", it is easy to miss the fact that The Matrix is also a spiritual film, saturated with religious symbolism.

Matrix Imagenet image
So you're here to save the world?
Neo's mission, foretold by prophets, is to reveal the truth that will set humankind free. And if that's not messianic enough for you, he gives his life for others and then rises from the dead more powerful than ever. He even ends the movie ascending to heaven.

Then there are the little clues scattered across the film. The hull of their ship bears a plate reading "Mark III No. 11". For those who don't take a Bible to the cinema with them, Mark 3:11 reads, "Whenever the unclean spirits saw him, they fell down before him and shouted, 'You are the Son of God!'"

Parallels

Another is right at the beginning. Neo, the ace computer hacker, hands a valuable disk over to a caller.

"Hallelujah!" is the response. "You're my saviour, man. My own personal Jesus Christ."

There is no end to the biblical parallels that have been found. There are names like Trinity and Zion. There is a baptism and a betrayal. After a while though, the parallels start to get rather debatable, and more to the point nerdish.
The truth is that The Matrix is a pot pourri - you can't pin it to any one religious system

But where the jury is really out is on the spiritual message of the film. What does The Matrix "believe"?

Many see it as a Christian allegory, which is natural enough because it draws so much on the life of Jesus. Others question that though, because some pretty essential elements of Christianity are missing.

No God

For a start, there is no idea of sin, repentance, or forgiveness in The Matrix. Instead people just need to be liberated from illusion, which seems more Buddhist than Christian - although no allegory is perfect, so maybe we shouldn't read too much into that.

More seriously, there is no God in charge. Instead their lives are ruled by "fate". Again, this is more Buddhist than Christian, and so some scholars argue that the film is actually a Buddhist myth in Christian clothing.

Still others - and we're getting a tad obscure here for the moment - say the film is Gnostic. In the second century, many Gnostics embraced the story of Jesus, but changed the meaning. Instead of saving us from sin, he came to give us true "knowledge" which frees us from the material world.

And this issue of the material world is a crucial one. Both Buddhists and Gnostics hope to escape it into a good, peaceful, disembodied existence (or non-existence even), but when Neo escapes the Matrix he is not in Nirvana or heaven. He is in a scorched earth, far grimmer and more solid than the Matrix, and he is not supposed to escape this one, but to liberate it.

And this brings us back to Christianity again, which claims that the world is basically good, though spoiled, and should not be escaped but repaired.

Melting pot

So where does this leave us? The truth (with a small t) is that The Matrix is a pot pourri.

Matrix Imagenet image
But what does The Matrix believe?
You can't pin it to any one religious system. The Wachowski brothers have taken ingredients from various spiritual recipes in our melting-pot world, and made something all their own. Good luck to them.

In fact it's hard to pin the film down to saying anything very much by way of a clear spiritual message. It does make a few points. "Wake up" is one that every religion would agree with. "Open your eyes to the spiritual dimension of life."

Another, equally uncontroversial, is that like Neo and unlike Cypher we should prefer uncomfortable truth to comforting illusion. Far more controversial is that, as Neo says in his closing speech, we are called to live a life free from all rules.

But the real point of all the religion in The Matrix is not to preach a sermon. It is to bring lots of different religious images and ideas, throw them together, and see what a good story they can make. Which is what they do. In a culture that is often thought to have lost interest in religion, The Matrix shows how compelling it can be.


Do you agree? Add your comments - or examples of religious parallels in the film - using the form below.

Your comments so far:

What excited me most about the film was the concept of reality. What is actually real? Do the people around you actually exist or are you the only actual living creature living in a world of your own imagining?
Sean Hayward, UK

To quote Morpheus in the first film, "You take the blue pill, you wake up in your bed, and believe, whatever you want to believe."
Jon Cording, England

Nah, I still say it's about "guns, lots of guns".
Stuart, UK

The Christian Rhetoric in the original Matrix film was quite clear. The message is a message of hope and that is basically a Christian message. But the film can only be an allegory for Christianity. It is not a Christian film, it is a Sci-Fi film with a Chrisitan message of hope at its core. Its design is to entertain - and it does that stupendously.
Kneewax, Great Britain

While there certainly are religious parallels in The Matrix, exactly what they are won't become fully clear until all three films in the series have been released. By the end of the trilogy, for instance, the "real world" might not be the scorched desert depicted in the first film, but a genuine utopia.
Steve, UK

The Matrix brings a message of hope... to everyone except other film-makers. Why bother guys? Seriously. Retire now. You just aren't going to make a film as good as The Matrix.
Chris White, UK

It could just be a liberal sprinkling of random religious mythology to get us all talking.
Doris, UK

There is a slight reference to God in the first film, quote Morpheus: "In the beginning there was one who could change The Matrix to how he saw fit." This is said before proclaiming a return by a Saviour. Could that be the God reference? Genesis starts - "In the beginning..."
Stephen, United Kingdom

At its most fundamental, Buddhism is about cutting through the illusion of a true, independent, and inherently existing Self, and our attachment to same. Once this is realised, clinging and aversion are eradicated, and ignorance dissolves - meaning no more rebirth. That's Nirvana. You don't disappear or go to some Buddhist 'heaven'. Actually, I thought Neo had realised this at the end of the first movie, so I'm intrigued to learn why he's now battling with the illusion all over again. Maybe he started believing his own press, ie that he really is God. Then again, if he hadn't taken some kind of backward step, there'd be no illusion for us all to watch when the sequel opens.
Alix Sharkey, France

Talking of religious parallels in the pot pourri, the Oracle (from ancient Greek theology)didn't get a mention. Yet, she seems to me to be the most enigmatic, unexplained character so far. Any ideas, anyone?
AJ, Germany

Our society seems too afraid to "open our eyes" to the spiritual dimension in life. It is great to see that one of our main forms of escapism is making us more aware of our spirituality. We need to ask more questions and seek the answers!
John, UK

I haven't seen the sequel yet but the original film's concept of reality is probably based on one of Descartes' arguments in philosophy (which is 400 years old).
PJackson, England

As a Muslim, the one thing from the original Matrix I found to be in alignment with my religion was the amazing scene when Keanu actually "wakes up" and sees the world for what it is. As Muslims, we believe that the life of this world is, in effect, like a dream. It will pass us by in the blink of an eye. Hence, we should use our time here wisely and not get too caught up in material things or idle life but excel in prayer and spirituality to realise that this life is merely a stepping stone and a test prior to what comes after.
Mak, UK

It's not about Christians, it's more about Jewish. Look at Zion, and look at Neo's name "Mr Anderson" the root "Ander" evokes "Andros" which means "Man" in Greek, so "Anderson" becomes "The Son of Man" which is what the Jewish call their Messiah, the one that will liberate them from their enmeies by means of force.
Jose, Spain

What about all the Alice in Wonderland references? The pills, the tunnel, the white rabbit, the mirror, alternative realities...
Mark, UK

I think there are a lot of similarities with The Wizard of Oz and Frank Baum was a Theosophist and they were psuedo gnostics.... remember in the first film when Neo chooses the green pill and is taken into a room where he is wired up to go into the Matrix, one of the other characters says.....and I feel this is a classic line "grab your seat Dorothy, Kansas is about to go bye bye"
Jonathan, Ireland

The Matrix can be seen as an anti-religious movie. Karl Marx once sad that religion is opium to the people; meaning that the people can be controlled and oppressed by religion. According to Marxism, the Matrix is what religion is to people i.e. opium. The Matrix is, though, superb high quality opium.
Alex Karlsson, England

To me, The Matrix, is a film about an open mind. You think you're in hell, but are you? Make the world your world, live each day to the fullest but question the actions of others, are they what they seem? Friends or foes? Matrix tries to show you that not all is what it seems!
Ranjit Gurtwalla, UK

Mindboggling! Having watched the film many times I never made the connection before which makes this article even more interesting. Perhaps the author could do a similar piece on Starship Troopers and Facism?
Steve, UK

The Matrix's main conceit is sub-Cartesian sixth form metaphysics, which was neatly demolished by Descartes himself in the 17th Century. That isn't to say it's not a great film, though.
Victoria, UK

I'm sure that Mother Teresa, the Pope, Mahatma Ghandi, Siddhartha, Mohammed, and Confucius have a lot in common with a movie in which more than half the time is spent on explosions.
Jim, US

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.
Matt Kowalski, UK

How can I be sure this movie actually exists?
Mark, USA

God and Shakespeare have got all the good stories.
Al Jackson, England

"In the beginning, the Matrix was designed as a utopia for humans," says Agent Smith, "but some say we lack the programming code to create a perfect world." This, I feel, is a reference to the Garden of Eden. "I thought you were a guy," says Neo speaking to Trinity. "Most guys do." she responds. This pokes a reference as to how most people associate the Christian God, the Trinity, with a Man.
Neo falls 3 times in his last fight in the subway v Agent Smith.
Neo had to believe that he could do what he could really do. In the Bible, it mentions that anyone who truly believes that they can, can move mountains.
I hope to see more of this in Matrix Reloaded.
Philip Frangipane, US

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