It’s almost Christmas, so naturally I was thinking about The Matrix. (It’ll make sense; I promise.) In the 1999 blockbuster, Neo (Keanu Reeves) discovers that he is living in a computer-generated simulation of the real world. His body is trapped in a creepy pink pod along with billions of other humans while his mind lives inside the simulation. This virtual world—the Matrix—was created by sentient computers as a way of turning humans into batteries. The Matrix is a prison that must be escaped, and Neo ultimately is the “One” who can help us.
In a scene that has become many memes, a small child gives Neo some advice about how to exert mastery over the Matrix. The child is bending a spoon with her mind. To replicate the trick, Neo mustn’t try to bend the spoon, instead he must “only realize the truth . . . there is no spoon.”
At this point, we’re all tempted to mimic one of Reeves’ other characters (Ted “Theodore” Logan) and say, “Whoa . . . deep!” Indeed, serious scientists are even considering whether or not the “simulation theory” about the universe may be correct. I read an article recently that argued there was a 50/50 chance that our universe is just a complex algorithm created by some futuristic society. (That society apparently enjoys remembering the good old days of not being transcendent, uber-evolved beings by simulating life at a “less-evolved state.”)
I loved this movie when it first came out and still think it’s pretty awesome. What many people don’t realize is that the story isn’t new at all. It’s been updated for our computer age, but the ancient Mediterranean world was telling this story thousands of years ago. Back then it was called “Gnosticism.”
Gnosticism is kind of a broad word that encapsulates a general worldview that I’ll explain in a moment. It’s useful to go back and read about it because often the label gets used as a way of lazily attacking philosophies and theologies we don’t agree with. As with any teaching/worldview/philosophy etc. there are different iterations and just because something shares some ideas with it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s “gnostic.”
We know about the earliest forms of Gnosticism from a guy named Irenaeus in the 2nd century and from a collection of writings that were discovered not too long ago called the Nag Hammadi texts (because they were found there in Egypt). Irenaeus wrote Against Heresies which refutes gnostic beliefs. Prior to 1945, we really only had his word to go on about what the Gnostics taught. However, with the discovery in Nag Hammadi, we found out that Gnosticism is basically as Irenaeus described it. Some of the literature they found includes the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Judas. These are now called the gnostic gospels, which the church fathers universally condemned.
What did these folks teach? Well, some of it is pretty weird and complicated, but the main points are as follows:
1) The physical world is a prison created by a malevolent deity (sometimes this deity is seen as Yahweh in the Old Testament). Gnosticism is a kind of “dualism” which separates the universe into two realms: spirit and matter. Spirit is good, matter is evil. In a sense then, the physical world itself an unreal quality.
2) Our bodies are part of the prison. There are two ways to deal with this—asceticism or hedonism (denial or indulgence).
3) The way to escape the prison is via special knowledge or “gnosis.” In the Christian version, Jesus is not the incarnate God that forgives sin (sin is basically an illusion), He is a spirit that provides this secret knowledge.
In The Matrix, all these themes are apparent. People are trapped in a false reality and they need someone to come tell them “the secret” that there is no spoon (i.e. the world isn’t real). In this way, they can begin to bend the false world to their will and ultimately escape to the “real” world. When Morpheus shows up to free Neo at the beginning of the movie, he is like a gnostic Jesus. He literally says, “Your world isn’t real.”
Sorry if I just ruined the movie for you, but it’s actually pretty important to understand what’s going on. Gnosticism was one of the first major challenges to the Christian church. Why did we reject it? Why can’t Jesus be just a dispenser of Divine revelation? I mean, He does do that doesn’t He?
This is a huge topic, but I’ll make just a few points:
1) In the Judeo/Christian worldview, God created the world and said that it was good. It has been corrupted by sin, but it was not designed as a prison. Matter and material existence aren’t evil. Creation is meant to be redeemed and cleansed of sin, not escaped. We are headed towards resurrection in a renewed heavens and earth, not a Platonic, disembodied existence.
This understanding is important because it means that God values your entire being, spirit, soul, and body. In Christianity, we’re meant to take care of and value our entire being. Our bodies are the temple of the Lord (1 Cor 6). This is why we don’t use them for sin. It’s also why we should exercise, eat good food, and rest. Similarly, we are transformed by renewing our minds (Rom 12:2). Our intellect, emotions, and will are not evil things to be gotten rid of. Christianity is not a lobotomy. It is also not about become an emotionless Vulcan. It’s about learning to think and feel like God.
2) Once we accept that the world isn’t an evil prison that must be escaped, we can participate in God’s plan to creatively unite heaven and earth. That sounds cool and mystical, but it’s actually intensely practical. It basically just means we get to use our God given gifts to serve our fellow humans and make the world a better place. Doing this is an act of worship that honors God.
This does not mean we somehow ignore preaching the gospel or trying to bring people to Christ. Rather it means that everything you do in life, from raising your kids, to going to work, to grilling steak, to sharing Christ with your neighbors is something that comes from God. There is no sacred/secular division. That’s one reason Jesus became a human. He was showing us that every part of human life is sacred, even the parts that don’t “feel spiritual.”
3) This leads to the last point. The most important reason to reject Gnosticism is Christmas. Christmas is the day we celebrate the Incarnation. The Incarnation means that God actually became a human. He didn’t just appear to be a person, possess a person’s body, or change a person into a demi-god. No, Jesus really is God manifest in the flesh. Jesus is fully God and fully man.
This suggests several things:
A) As we’ve seen, being a human can’t be that bad if God became one. We aren’t looking for “secret knowledge” so we can escape this horrible place. Rather, we’re supposed to partner with Jesus to confront and overcome the evil down here.
B) If someone says, “There is no spoon.” We can respond, “There is no Martix.” Huh? What I mean is, if someone is offering a magic solution to all of our problems—a “gnosis”—we don’t have to fall for it. Get rich schemes, miracle diets, Bible codes, etc. are all usually ways of trying to “escape” the complex world around us and find a “secret” solution that solves all our issues without having to go through growth processes.
C) We don’t need to exhaust ourselves trying to figure out what’s “really going on” in the world. More than likely, what’s “really going on” is what it looks like on the surface. For example, it looks like people have free will. Rather than try to figure out the secret “gnosis” that actually all our decision are predetermined by our DNA, or God, or causal chains, we’re better off simply taking responsibility for our choices. Much time and energy are spent on quests for various types of “gnosis.” Inevitably, these quests end up becoming time wasting endeavors that distract from the day to day reality of living.
The Incarnation teaches us that the complex, beautiful, distressing, heartbreaking, exhilarating world we live in is 100% real. What we do here matters. Our choices affect others and eternity. We don’t need to escape; we don’t need to find “the secret.” Instead, we need to go through the daily process of growing into the full nature and stature of Christ. Evil isn’t overcome by the lottery. It’s rolled back as we, by the grace of God, choose to love one another in the midst of all this complexity.