Jesus and Nicodemus in The Matrix

The question of what kind of life is worth living is addressed in compatible and complementary ways by the Gospel of John and by the Wachowski brothers movie, The Matrix.[1] John’s account of the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus is powerful, but it is confusing and if you are trying to visualize what they are talking about, you are going to have trouble. The Matrix is a dystopian fantasy, but it tells much the same story John tells and it is remarkably visual.

If they really tell the same story, they belong together. Do they really tell the same story?  I think so. Both ask what “real life” is and if we are going to think about it, we are going to ask what “unreal life” is.

I can think of two ways to approach to notion of “unreal life.” In one, the life you are experiencing isn’t really happening at all although it feels like it is. In the other, the goals toward which a life is oriented are so nearly insignificant that a life in pursuit of them might be said not to be a “real” life at all.

The Matrix

What does the contrast between real and unreal life look like in The Matrix? I’m going to have to count on your familiarity with The Matrix because there is not a good way to summarize it. I do want to point out some of the most important parts.

In The Matrix, we hear about, but do not see, a city of humans located down in the earth where it is warm. [2] It is called Zion. All human beings who are living “the life of the ages” [3]—real life, rather than imaginary life— are in Zion or in one of the ships sent out from Zion. These ships are the only settings in which we see truly self-aware humans in the first movie. It is into one such ship that Neo’s body is taken when it (he) is rescued from his tub of goo.

What about all the other humans? Every other human in the world is locked up in a podmatrix 3 of goo and the sole function of these humans is to provide, through the natural operation of their bodies, the electricity that the Matrix requires to rule them and keep them (us) in their place.  In this picture you can still see the goo on Neo and several of the pods near him, each containing a “human battery.”

It turns out that it is necessary, in order to keep the human bodies alive, to stimulate the brain with an electronic probe. This probe provides all the neurological input that is needed to simulate a life in society and even the illusion of free moral choice.

Our hero, Neo, is rescued from one of those pods by a crew from Zion and is given access to “the life of the ages”—a life in which things will actually matter. All the other people we see—people who are apparently living lives of consequence (except that there are no consequences)—are people we see as they appear to themselves in the Matrix. They are actually, physically, encased in their own tubs of goo.

Given that a big part of the New Testament is given over to contrasting “real life” and “lingering death,” The Matrix is a good theological movie because it is so graphic. The dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus is not at all graphic. It is all verbal, and the words are deliberately filled with ambiguity and misunderstanding. [4] If the point being made by John in chapter 3 is the same as the point being made by the Wachowski brothers in The Matrix, it will be a marvelous convenience. John is obscure and difficult; The Matrix is explicit and graphic. My case today is that each is making the same point about life.

Jesus and Nicodemus in John 3

Here I show how the argument is organized in John, with particular attention being paid to some of the deliberately ambiguous words Jesus uses. Here is the passage from the New Jerusalem Bible.

3 Jesus answered: In all truth I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above. 4 Nicodemus said, ‘How can anyone who is already old be born? Is it possible to go back into the womb again and be born?’ 5 Jesus replied: In all truth I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born through water and the Spirit; 6 what is born of human nature is human; what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not be surprised when I say: You must be born from above.
12 If you do not believe me when I speak to you about earthly things, how will you believe me when I speak to you about heavenly things? 13 No one has gone up to heaven except the one who came down from heaven, the Son of man; 14 as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so must the Son of man be lifted up 15 so that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him. 16 For this is how God loved the world: he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

Jesus talks (verse 3) about being born (genēthē) from above (anōthen). Both of the Greek words I put in parentheses have alternative meanings and Nicodemus takes the wrong one both times. That is the way John has organized this tutorial. Jesus offers the opportunity to misunderstand. Nicodemus makes use of that opportunity. Then Jesus “explains further,” making, in that explanation, the points John thinks are most important.

For instance, the Greek genēthē can mean either “begotten” or “born.” Jesus likely intended “begotten,” since it was more common in his time, as it is in ours, to refer to God’s action as male rather than female and “begetting” is the male contribution as “bearing” is the female contribution. It doesn’t actually matter very much.

On the other hand, it does set us up for his misunderstanding of anōthen, which can mean either “from above,” which is clearly what Jesus intended, or “again,” which is the way Nicodemus construed it.

The third ambiguous expression, one that Nicodemus doesn’t seem to have trouble with, although exegetes do, is zoēn aiōnion. It means “the life of the ages.” It can be construed as a life as long as the age {5] or as long as all the ages. Or it can be construed as a life characteristic of the ages, a life of enduring significance and value.

matrix 5By all three of these expressions, Jesus is talking about the new life in the spirit—the life of the ages—and Nicodemus is talking about the old life, the life of the flesh. So when Nicodemus understands anōthen as “again,” he immediately thinks about being born a second time in the same manner that he was born the first time. So he asks disbelievingly how it is possible for a grown man to enter his mother’s womb so he can be born again. My argument is that in his conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus is better understood as contrasting the insignificant (merely earthly) with the enduringly significant (the heavenly).

Jesus continually stresses the higher life—the life of the ages—and contrasts it with the lower earthly life. He does it in verse 7 where he says “You must be born (begotten) from above.” In verse 12, he chides Nicodemus about not being ready to hear about heavenly things since he is not even ready to hear about earthly things.  Notice the “higher and lower” imagery.  In verse 13, he refers to himself as “the one who came down from Heaven.” In the famous verse 16, he says that the higher life—the zoēn aiōnion—may be granted to anyone who believes in him

Throughout this failed and frustrating conversation, Nicodemus presupposes the quotidian life while Jesus presupposes the significant life. In none of these uses is the extent of “the ages” the point of the argument; rather it is the quality of “the ages” that matters.

This is an easy argument to make, but it is abstract and as pointed as the contrasts might have been for the Johannine community, they seem vague to us. And there, I think, The Matrix can help us.

Jesus and Neo

In The Matrix, the meaningful life is the result of the grasp of reality you have and the choices you make and the actions that flow from those choices. [6] If you are not part of this “higher life,” you are stuck in a tub of goo with a brain probe helping you to imagine that you are living a real life—the life you are not actually living. The contrast on the screen is overwhelmingly clear.

And it is made clearer by the one person who has chosen to live the zoēn aiōnion and matrix 2found it too challenging. Cypher is rescued from the life he imagined he was living and was made part of a real life. The real life was dreary and difficult and he made the choice for which John ridicules Nicodemus. Here we see Cypher in the matrix “experiencing” a juicy steak. At the moment of this picture, his body is back in the hovercraft, but he is making arrangements to be put back into a tub of goo and to have an imaginary life restored—a life of complete insignificance. He says he wants to be somebody famous.

Just how good is this analogy? Well…it’s not perfect. (Perfect is a lot to ask of analogies.) But it is very good in some ways and it is graphically clear, which the account in John is not. First of all, in The Matrix we clearly see “the living and the dead.” The living dodge around in the dark places of the city or hide in the last human city, deep underground. The “dead”–people whose choices matter not at all– are secure in their tubs of goo, imagining that they are actresses or police or notorious hackers, but actually, just producing the electric power that enables their enemies to dominate them. The dead live wonderful lives, but only by the courtesy of the brain probes that allow them such a satisfying hallucination.

matrix 1Second, you can be rescued from such a life. We see Neo choosing it. This is the justly famous “red pill or blue pill” scene where Neo may choose to go back into his life of illusion (blue pill) or he may choose to be rescued (red pill)—literally “lifted up” from the tub of goo—and live a real, though hazardous, life.  Note: to insert the picture here, I have to click on a button that says CHOOSE.  Not a bad name for this picture.

The question I am asking by bringing this difficult passage from the Gospel of John together with an imaginative movie like The Matrix is this: do the “higher” and “lower” lives in the Nicodemus dialogue match up with the “in the matrix” or “free from the matrix” pictures in the movie? I think they do.

Neo is offered the red pill or the blue bill by Morpheus. Nicodemus is offered the red pill—“believe…and enter the life of the ages” or the blue pill by Jesus. Nicodemus chooses the blue pill He is not begotten by the Spirit; he does not enter into the life that believing the claims of the Son of God would have enabled him to enter. He continues living in his tub of goo. [7]

From here on, Neo, having accepted the red pill—which is the only thing he can do as a slave of the matrix—has experiences that Nicodemus cannot have. Neo is redeemed from his tub of goo; his body is restored and his mind aligned to reality; he is trained to do the work that his new colleagues are doing, including rescuing others. But Neo discovers that he is not just one of the colleagues; he is, as Morpheus always believed, “the One.” [8] He is killed by the forces of evil and restored to life, but a life of an entirely different kind. There is a “risen Neo” that is comparable to the risen Christ, but there is nothing in Nicodemus’s life to compare it to.

So far as Nicodemus’s life of “new reality” is concerned, it ended when he took the blue pill rather than the red.

The analogy assessed.

Pretty good. My goal here is to bring John 3 and The Matrix into alignment so that the obscure and hard to visualize meanings in John are given graphic form in The Matrix. If that works for you, you have to see Nicodemus’s puzzlement at Jesus teaching as equivalent to Neo’s continued imprisonment in his tub of goo.

You have to see Nicodemus’s failure to grasp and to choose the message of Jesus as equivalent to his choosing the blue pill; continuing, that is, to live on the meaningless level of mere existence, rather than accepting the life of the ages, which Jesus is offering him.

From there on, Neo has experiences—described above—which Nicodemus does not have and cannot have because all of them require that he take the red pill so that he can be rescued from his slavery and redeemed to be part of a free people.

In closing, I need to say that this is not the view of the contrast between the gospel and the alternatives that is described elsewhere in the New Testament. The Synoptic gospels don’t see things as drastically as this. Quite a number of the New Testament epistles, notably James, but also the Pastoral Epistles, do not see life and death tin these stark images either.

But I think John does see it that way and I find myself wondering if you do.

[1] As a stylistic matter, I use the initial capitals—The and Matrix—to refer to the movie. When the movie is already the context, I use a lower case m-, to refer to the system of control the machines permit.
[2] We do see it in the second two films of the trilogy.
[3] That way of characterizing it comes from John 3. I’ll spend some time with it when we get there.
[4] In fact, considered only from a teaching standpoint, the dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus is wrong in nearly every way and is an utter failure. As an instance of teaching methodology, it is really awful.
[5] Jesus promises his disciples (Matthew 28:20) that he will be with them “unto the end of the age.” The same word—aiōnion—is used there.
[6] This sentence shows why the style convention I use matters. That sentence with the capitals—The Matrix—is true; without the capitals, it is false. There is no life of significance in the matrix.
[7] I know that is harsh, but I think it is exactly what John means.
[8] Here, as in many places in the movie, the dependence on the language of the Bible is clear. “The One” is a clipped reference to the longer expression “the one who was to redeem Israel.” See Luke 24:21 for an applicable instance.



About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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