By Jonathan Decker (Clinical Director, LMFT)
The life of Jesus Christ has inspired, directly and indirectly, many of your Hollywood favorites. Don't believe me? Check out these examples of cinematic heroes as “types of Christ.”
WHAT IS A “TYPE OF CHRIST?”
When we speak of “types of Christ,” we're usually referring to prophets and others who, according to Bruce R. McConkie, “lived in special situations or did particular things that singled them out as types and patterns and shadows of that which was to be in the life of our Lord” (The Promised Messiah, p.448).
For example, Jonah in the belly of the whale for three days foreshadowed Christ's body being in the tomb for the same amount of time (Matthew 12:38-41). Abraham being asked to sacrifice his son Isaac was symbolic of Heavenly Father later offering the life of his only begotten Son (Jacob 4:5).
Similarly, events, objects, and ceremonies can be types of Christ if they specifically orient our minds towards the Savior, his life, and his mission. The Israelite killing of unblemished lambs and spreading the blood on their doors during the Passover, leading to their deliverance from death, was symbolic of Jesus, the sinless (unblemished) lamb of God, spilling his blood as a sacrifice to deliver humanity from death, both spiritual and physical (Exodus 12; 1 Peter 1:18-19).
The ordinance of baptism, likewise, is symbolic of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ (Romans 6:3-6), which is why our baptismal fonts are below ground level, symbolizing the tomb. We “die,” lying down underneath the water, then emerge to a new life as a disciple of the Lord.
TYPES OF CHRIST IN POP CULTURE
Types of Christ aren't limited to prophets, scriptures, and ordinances, however. In literature and at the movies, the story of Jesus Christ has been the inspiration for numerous fictional heroes. Sometimes the authors, screenwriters, and directors have believed in the Lord and deliberately sought to use their art to direct people to him, like C.S. Lewis did with The Chronicles of Narnia. In other cases these story-tellers have seen the life of Jesus merely as inspirational mythology from which to draw themes. Others aren't even intentionally symbolizing Christ, but the parallels are nevertheless clearly there.
The adventures of these fictional heroes can serve as gateways for viewers and readers to thoughtfully consider the teachings and sacrifice of the Son of God. They can enrich our understanding, stimulate conversation, and inspire us to better know the world's greatest hero: Jesus Christ.
Below you'll find some of the clear Christian parallels among the most widely-known stories in modern pop culture, and how these fictional stories can increase our dedication to the living Christ. For brevity I'll limit this review to cinematic examples. Obviously, spoilers abound, so feel free to skip the ones you've not watched yet, if you choose.
Like the Savior, Superman was given a mission by his father to come to Earth, endowed with incredible powers, and be a savior of the human race (as well as an inspiring example of virtue). The parallels are at their most salient when young Clark Kent enters the Fortress of Solitude and prepares for his earthly mission by receiving training and wisdom from his father. There he spends twelve years learning about the mysteries of the universe, including “the various concepts of immortality, and their basis in actual fact.” His father tells him that the inhabitants of Earth “can be a great people…they wish to be. They only lack the light to show them the way. For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you: my only son.”
Clark emerges from his training as Superman, ready to begin his calling.
This is, of course, reminiscent of Jesus being “led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be with God” (Matthew 4:1, JST), fasting for forty days and nights. President Howard W. Hunter taught that Jesus spent this time “preparing himself for the formal ministry which was then to begin. The greatest task ever to be accomplished in this world lay before him, and he needed divine strength” (“The Temptations of Christ,” October 1976). It's worth noting that when Superman emerges from the Fortress of Solitude, he's 30 years old, the same age as Jesus when he began his ministry (Luke 3:23).
With Anakin Skywalker, George Lucas offered up a twisted spin on the Christ story. For starters, both were immaculately conceived. When asked who Anakin's father is, his mother Shmi (Pernilla August, who incidentally played Jesus' mother in a TV movie that same year) answers: “There was no father. I carried him, I gave birth, I raised him. I can't explain what happened.” But while Jesus' father was God, it is implied in Revenge of the Sith that Anakin was possibly conceived through the manipulation of the Dark Side of the Force.
Both Anakin and Christ left their mothers and their homes in pursuit of a grand life mission. Their paths diverged widely, however. The Lord's days were spent healing the sick, teaching love, comforting the afflicted, and challenging hypocrisy. Anakin assumed the name Darth Vader and became a genocidal, power-hungry maniac. Jesus forgave freely and was the Prince of Peace; Anakin developed a penchant for Force-strangling anyone who let him down.
One was the light of the world, the other a dark lord of the Sith. Still, both selflessly gave their lives to save others and to assure the defeat of evil. Christ redeemed others through his love; Vader was redeemed by the love of his son, Luke. After death, both Anakin and Jesus assumed their place in a holy trinity of sorts.
E.T. in E.T: THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL (1982)
When an alien supposedly visits Springfield on The Simpsons, Reverend Lovejoy sees an opportunity to draw a parallel while preaching at the pulpit: “I remember another gentle visitor from the heavens. He came in peace and then died, only to come back to life, and his name was… E.T, the extra-terrestrial. I loved that little guy.” This bait-and-switch humor (we assume he's talking about Jesus Christ) works because the stories are, in fact, very similar.
E.T. loves children, has healing powers (see the clip above), and is killed by authority figures who are suspicious of his motives and fearful of his power. After returning to life, he's last seen ascending into the sky. When E.T. points to Elliot's heart and says “I'll be right here,” one can almost hear Jesus saying “I am with you always, even unto the end of the world” (Matthew 28:20).
Hercules in HERCULES (1997)
Disney's version of Zeus' most infamous son alters the mythology quite a bit. Frankly, it's a lot more like the story of Christ now, whether they meant to or not (the gospel music soundtrack would suggest that they meant to). Here, Hercules is born to happily married, righteous parents instead of resulting from Zeus' infidelity (as per tradition). Hercules comes to earth mortal, but with godly powers, spending his days in the service of others. Granted, early on his motive is fame, but later he assumes more Christ-like motives. He learns true heroism by descending into the underworld (hell) and sacrificing his life to save another out of love, emerging glorified and immortal. He stands by his father when Hades tries to kick him off of his heavenly throne, as Jesus did when Satan tried to dethrone the Father (Isaiah 14:12-14; Moses 4:3-4).
Neo in THE MATRIX TRILOGY (1999-2003)
Neo is a computer hacker whose eyes are opened to his true calling. He is “The One,” prophesied to overthrow The Matrix, a computer system that enslaves humanity in a world of virtual reality while using their actual bodies for energy. Similar to Old Testament prophesies of The Messiah, Neo is expected to liberate his people through battle and bring them to a city called Zion (Psalms 69:35; Isaiah 1:27; Isaiah 46:14). While in The Matrix, Neo learns to control the elements (Matthew 8:23-27) through the power of belief (Mark 9:23). At the end of the first film, a small group of friends (disciples?) accepts Neo as the prophesied savior of enslaved humanity.
In the narratively-convoluted (but thematically rewarding) sequels, the parallels between Neo and Jesus become even more concrete, as it is revealed that he has not only numerous supporters but also legions of doubters. He is visibly uncomfortable when asked to heal sick children (a nice acknowledgement by the filmmakers that Neo is not, in fact, on par with the Lord).
When it is revealed that Neo will not be able to rescue all of humanity through his fighting skills, many lose faith in him, just as many of Jesus' disciples turned away when it became apparent that he hadn't come to liberate Israel from Roman rule. (Note: Jesus' prophesied role as a “military Messiah,” who will end all war and oppression, won't be fulfilled until his Second Coming; see 1 Corinthians 15:24-27 and Doctrine and Covenants 45:47-52).
In the third and final film, Neo's similarity to the New Testament Christ becomes crystal clear. With the machine forces engaged in brutal warfare against the human inhabitants of Zion, Neo offers to eradicate the destructive Agent Smith, a virus who threatens to destroy the Matrix from within. In exchange for saving the Matrix through the sacrifice of his own life, he demands peace.
In other words, his voluntary death leads to the machines' ceasing their war on humanity, as well as allowing those persons still trapped inside the Matrix to have the ability to free themselves if they choose to do so. This is reminiscent of Jesus, who lived for peace and died to give the option of redemption (from spiritual bondage) to anyone who chooses to take it (see Helaman 14:30-31; Alma 42:27).
Frodo in THE LORD OF THE RINGS TRILOGY (2001-2003)
J.R.R. Tolkien, a Christian and a contemporary of C.S. Lewis, was a bit more subtle than his friend. While Lewis molded Narnia‘s Aslan into a direct Christ-figure, with all of his perfection and flawlessness, Tolkien wrote three flawed-but-heroic characters (Frodo, Aragorn, and Gandalf) among whom he spread out his Christian parallels.
Like Jesus Christ, Frodo Baggins was an innocent and virtuous soul who volunteered to carry the full brunt of evil in order to save the world. Frodo's journey to Mt. Doom with the ring weighing him down is akin to the Via Dolerosa, or the path walked by Christ as he carried his cross and the burden of sin along with it. Samwise Gamgee, who carried Frodo up the mountain while Frodo carried the ring, is then representative of Simon, who couldn't remove the Master's spiritual burden but helped to lighten his load by carrying the cross (Luke 23:26).
Aragorn in THE LORD OF THE RINGS TRILOGY (2001-2003)
Like the Messiah, Aragorn is a king of royal bloodline who fulfills prophecy by delivering his people from evil and bringing peace to the Earth. Aragorn comes to gradually understand and embrace his role over time, much as we read that Jesus progressed “grace for grace” over time (see Doctrine & Covenants 93:11-14). Both Aragorn and Christ recruited, and organized forces, from among the spirits of the dead to aide in their work (1 Peter 3:18-20; Doctrine and Covenants 138:11-37). Of course, the title of the third book/film, Return of the King, is significant to those believers who await the Second Coming of the Lord.
Gandalf in THE LORD OF THE RINGS TRILOGY (2001-2003)
Gandalf is the third Christ figure in J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings series. He lays down his life for his friends (John 15:13) and returns from death having seen heaven. Both come back with great power and purity. In their glorified state, both of them have hair, beards, and clothes that are brilliantly white (Doctrine and Covenants 110:2-3; 3 Nephi 11:8-10); Tolkien likely wouldn't have known this detail about the resurrected Savior, as it's a Latter-day Saint doctrine, but it's a neat parallel nonetheless. Of course, Gandalf is never more Christ-like than when he frees King Theoden from possession by Saruman, which echoes numerous instances of Jesus casting out demons from possessed persons (Mosiah 3:6).
Harry Potter in the HARRY POTTER films (2001-2011)
Like the Redeemer, Harry Potter was born a child of prophecy, one foretold to triumph over evil. Like the Lord, Harry was both revered and persecuted in his life, with much evil spoken about him falsely. He learns to love his enemies (specifically Snape and Malfoy). Harry's greatest strengths were Christ-like: humility, uncommon kindness, and love for his friends, for whom he willingly lays down his life.
When Harry dies, he spends time in a spirit world of sorts, then willfully returns to life in order to lead a final battle against evil. As Jesus was comforted by an angel in Gethsemane (Luke 22:42-44), Harry takes courage on the way to his death through the visitation of his deceased parents and friends.
Of the series' Christian influences, author J.K. Rowling has said “To me, [the religious parallels have] always been obvious. But I never wanted to talk too openly about it because I thought it might show people…where we were going.” In the final story she tips her hand by quoting 1 Corinthians 15:26: “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.”
Aslan in the CHRONICLES OF NARNIA films (2005-2010)
This first Narnia story, as created by Christian author C.S. Lewis, is clearly an allegory meant to bring souls to the Savior. Aslan, lion and king, is too powerful to be killed unless he voluntarily offers his life, which he does to save another. The humiliation he suffers at the hands of the White Witch and her minions is clearly reminiscent of the mockery endured by Jesus. He dies, then returns to life, and “brings to life” others frozen under the witch's spell (Matthew 27:52-53; 1 Corinthians 15:20-23), culminating in a final battle, similar to the battle of Armageddon, where Aslan and his forces are triumphant and Narnia experiences a long period of peace.
Bruce Wayne/Batman in THE DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY (2005-2012)
They're the same person! Yes, Christian Bale indeed played the Savior in the TV movie Mary, Mother of Jesus. He was actually very good in it, but the film is rubbish. So what do the Dark Knight and the Light of the World have in common? Quite a bit, in fact. As Jehova in the Old Testament, Jesus committed to sparing the city of Sodom if a few good people could be found (Genesis 18:26,32); in Batman Begins Bruce Wayne is similarly committed to saving a corrupt city for the sake of the few good people left in it.
Just as Satan (a being whose only pleasure is the misery of others) tested Jesus to his limits (we read in Alma 7:11 that Christ suffered temptations of every kind), The Joker unleashed hell upon Batman, both to cause suffering and to test the latter's commitment to morality. When the Joker fails to corrupt Batman, he exclaims, with a mixture of admiration and disgust, “You really are incorruptible, aren't you?” It might as well have been Satan speaking to Jesus. The Dark Knight ends with Bruce/Batman willingly accepting the punishment for the sins of another, taking the fall for Harvey Dent's crimes in order to inspire the city to believe in goodness.
Batman becomes a symbol of justice, virtue, and courage to the citizens of Gotham in The Dark Knight Rises, where he's nearly crippled in a vicious beating and lowered into a dungeon to watch the demise of the city he loves. This is his worst moment of despair and hopelessness, the moment where he “descends below all things” (Doctrine and Covenants 122:7-8). “Do you think he's coming back?” asks a young boy while tagging a wall with a chalk-drawn bat-symbol, similar to modern Christians turning to the symbol of the cross for hope as they await Jesus' return.
As believers expect Christ to come back just in time to vanquish evil, Batman returns in time to lead the police and citizens in a battle to reclaim their home. The Dark Knight apparently gives his life, only to be seen very much alive and well later on. The difference is, of course, that Wayne cheats death, whereas Jesus overcame it.
In an interview with Christianity Today, Bryan Singer (director of Superman Returns) explained that Superman as a Christ-figure “is kind of a natural evolution, because he began as kind of a Moses figure, the child sent by the parents down the river to fulfill a destiny…He stirred others; he inspired…and that, obviously, translates into these kinds of allegories, Christ being a natural one, because Superman's a savior. And even more so in my film, because he's gone for a period of time, and then he returns. For me to say that those messianic images don't exist in the movie would be absurd.”
In the film, Superman hovers over the earth, listening to thousands of cries for help, judiciously deciding when and where to intervene. In a surprisingly brutal scene that single-handedly bumps a PG-level film up to a PG-13, Superman is beaten and mocked by Lex Luthor and his thugs while in a weakened state on a kryptonite island. The scene culminates with Luthor stabbing Superman in the side with a shard of kryptonite.
Singer expressly likens this scene to Christ's scourging at the pillar and being speared in the side at the cross. Later, Superman saves the planet by hoisting the tremendous island into space, even though it, for all intents and purposes, kills him, and he falls back to earth in a curious position.
Singer describes the decision to craft the scene as they did: “He [the writer] looked at me—and he went to Catholic school, it’s very interesting—and he said, ‘Are we…? Are we…? Shouldn’t he open his legs a little bit more? Are we…? Is this too on the nose?' And I said, ‘If we’re telling this story, we’re going to tell this story. Some parts are going to be subtle. But this one is not.'” From here, naturally, there is a resurrection, but the Christian parallels don't stop there. The film is loaded with them. For more, there's a terrific interview with Singer here.
Thor in THOR (2011)
Like Christ, Thor is the son of a god who is sent to Earth and ultimately saves it. Jesus humbly volunteered (Abraham 3:27), however, while Thor was banished for his arrogance and warmongering. Still, Thor learns meekness and altruism and, like Christ, is clothed in power and glory after laying down his life for others.
Thor's nemesis is his brother, a manipulative deceiver who wants to usurp their father's throne. Unique to Latter-day Saint doctrine (and something other Christians give us flak for) is the oft-twisted teaching that Jesus and Satan are brothers. Actually, we're all brothers and sisters, children of God, which is why we call him “Father in heaven.”
For those not of my faith, let me clear the air on what we believe. Before coming to earth, we all lived in the presence of our Heavenly Father (Jeremiah 1:4-5; Job 38:4,7). God presented a plan for our happiness; Christ volunteered to be our Savior and preserve our freedom of choice, giving all glory to the Father. Lucifer tried to dethrone God with a plan that would deprive us of free will. War erupted in heaven, and Lucifer was cast out, taking a third of God's children with him (see Revelation 12:3-4;7-9; Isaiah 14:12-15; John 17: 5,24; Luke 10:18; Abraham 3:27-28; Moses 4:1-4; and Doctrine and Covenants 29:36-37).
Katniss Everdeen in THE HUNGER GAMES series (2012-present)
Israel at the time of Christ was exceptionally corrupt. We read that “there is none other nation on Earth that would crucify their God” (2 Nephi 10:3). The Romans were no better, utilizing public crucifixion as a horrifically cruel and drawn-out form of capital punishment. Katniss Everdeen, likewise, lives in a society that has lost its soul and revels in bloodshed. Like the Savior, she is a “light [that] shineth in darkness” (John 1:5), practicing morality in an immoral world.
She exhibits compassion and courage where others display only cold, detached brutality. She serves her enemies and, though she kills out of self-defense, she'd much rather save a life than take one. Her capacity to love defies a corrupt system, sparking a revolution by others who want to live by a higher code. What's more, she voluntarily offers herself as “tribute,” in other words, she takes another's place in facing nearly certain death. As you've no doubt noticed, the concept of loving others enough to die for them (John 15:13) is a running theme in all of these cinematic Christ-figures.
Superman in MAN OF STEEL (2013)
Superman again, in this summer's upcoming Man of Steel. Having not seen the film yet, I can only speak of what I've seen in its rather magnificent trailer. Superman in handcuffs, which he can easily break, strikes me as a meek and willing submission, much like Christ allowed himself to be arrested even though he could choose to deliver himself (Matthew 26:50-54).
Also striking are the words of Superman's father Jor-El, delivered reverently by Russell Crowe:
“You will give the people of Earth an ideal to strive towards. They will race after you. They will stumble, they will fall, but in time they will join you in the sun. In time, you will help them to accomplish wonders.”
These words have a ring of familiarity to students of the scriptures (see 3 Nephi 18:16; 1 Peter 2:21; Moroni 7:33). Superman's mission, given him by his father, is to come to Earth endowed with incredible powers and be a savior of the human race, as well as an example of virtue to motivate the best in them. This is unmistakably similar to the story of Jesus Christ.
As it turns out, this was deliberate. Composer Hans Zimmer, who worked closely with the filmmakers and is keenly aware of the story and themes of Man of Steel, was asked if there are similarities between that film and the story of Jesus. He responded: “Yes. Yes is the answer. Once you see Superman, you'll see how close you are with your question.”
THE GREATEST HERO OF ALL
The reason all of these cinematic heroes remind us of Jesus is because he was the ultimate hero. Honest, courageous, selfless, compassionate, kind, and full of love, he championed the greatest human virtues (which are also godly virtues because we are children of God). Unlike these fictional characters, who have their flaws and weaknesses, he was the perfect son of his Heavenly Father, “in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). He suffered all things and was tempted in all things so that he would know how to comfort and strengthen us (Alma 7:11-12).
Jesus taught: “I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly. I am the good shepherd, the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep” (John 10:10-11). I know that Jesus died for us. I know that he lives. I know from my own experience that following his teachings brings us a more “abundant life,” because my life is so much richer, happier, and peaceful when I try to do what he would do and rely on him for strength. I know that it is only through his grace that I can be saved (2 Nephi 26:23).
If you'd like to know more about Jesus Christ, please visit jesuschrist.lds.org.