Yesterday, I was sitting with about twenty middle schoolers watching The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe as a special almost-Easter movie, and it got me thinking about how differently J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis approached magic in their fictional worlds. Lewis liked to go with more showy magic, while Tolkien preferred more subtle magic. And though the kids may like Lewis better, I thought their differing approaches made both worlds more interesting.
Two weeks ago, Saika wrote a post about pop cultural interpretations of Paradise. This week, I want to explore our ideas of Hell. What I think is most interesting about Hell is not how many different interpretations of it exist, but the fact that most people don’t actually believe Hell exists. While some have good reason—the concept of universal reconciliation is a theologically nuanced doctrine that states that all are eventually reconciled with God in the end—many just plain don’t like the idea of Hell. Even if Christians today are more than happy to imagine an other-worldly life of eternal happiness, many don’t actually believe a place of eternal suffering and punishment is real. Why is this the case? Pop culture might have something to do with it.
Believe it or not Jesus often comes to save many of your favorite geek characters. I have to assume at this point that Jesus was and still is a bit of nerd, because he seems to be featured much more often in nerd movies, books, TV shows, etc. Either that or nearly every nerd is a Christian, or maybe it’s because the Christ figure story is very compelling.
The story, for those of you who don’t know it, usually goes something like this, special baby is born, special baby grows up and faces horrible trials, dies selflessly to save everyone from whatever horrible thing they are facing, and then is resurrected and defeats evil for good.
Usually, there are other indicators denoting a Christ figure as well, such as some kind of Trinitarian aspect to the character, a descent into the literal or figural hell, and usually some connection to royalty or a very powerful father figure.
So let’s talk about some of my favorite Christ figures.
I know you’re all thinking it, so I’ll start with the first and most popular Christ figure.
Aslan, from C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, I sometimes feel is less a Christ figure and simply Christ, but that’s just me being silly. Basically if Jesus isn’t actually in your book, then whoever stands in for him is a Christ figure, and Aslan is one of the best. Chronicles of Narnia is an allegory; that’s what C.S. Lewis meant it to be, so Aslan is literally Jesus. He is the king of Narnia (meaning Everything), he selflessly sacrifices himself for Edmund (humanity), is tortured and killed for it, then rises from the dead to defeat the White Witch (Satan/evil). Furthermore, it is clear that Aslan has always existed, the same as Christ: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. (Jn.1:1)” Aslan describes something similar to the Witch in the movie saying, “Do not cite the Deep Magic to me, Witch. I was there when it was written.” There are so many parallels to be drawn between Aslan and Jesus, because C.S. Lewis intended it to be a pretty literal retelling of Christ’s story. Though the books have much to offer adults they were originally intended for children, and it shows. There is no way to confuse the message in Chronicles of Narnia, at least where Aslan is concerned.
J.R.R. Tolkien, a close friend of Lewis’s, wrote a little series that you may have heard of called The Lord of the Rings. If anyone has a market on Christ figures it’s Tolkien—he has a total of three Christ figures in one story. I should note here that Tolkien was very, very, very Catholic and it shows in his writing. Our three Christ figures in The Lord of the Rings are Frodo, Aragorn, and Gandalf. Gandalf is probably the most obvious, because he literally dies and is resurrected, and when he comes back he’s white, glowy, and impressive. Yeah, Tolkien pretty much hits you over the head with Gandalf, but I think he did that on purpose. The reader expects Gandalf to do something amazing and mystical because he is a wizard, so when Christ figure aspects start appearing with Frodo and Aragorn we’re pretty surprised, but it simply shows that grace/Christ/goodness can be found in the strangest of places. A ranger can be a king underneath, and a simple Hobbit can save the world.
Aragorn is a king that has been gone from his kingdom and is destined to return and bring harmony back to the land. If it sounds like the second coming of Christ, that’s because it’s supposed to. There is also a reference to a journey into hell when Aragorn journeys to find the Dead Men of Dunharrow.
Frodo is another Christ figure. He carries the ring to Mordor, which gets heavy throughout the journey. This parallels Christ carrying the sins of the world, as well as Christ carrying the cross to his crucifixion. The parallel between Christ and the cross and Frodo and the ring is made even more explicit by Sam helping to carry the ring and Frodo up to Mount Doom when the weight gets too heavy for him, in the same manner that Simon the Cyrenian helped Christ carry the cross. Frodo is also pierced in the side by the Witch-King on Weathertop, similar to Christ being stabbed with the spear while on the cross. Though Frodo does not literally die nor is reborn like Gandalf, he does appear to be dead when poisoned by Shelob and later wakes up in Mordor. And finally in the end Frodo goes to the Undying Lands (aka Heaven) with the elves, reflecting Christ’s bodily ascent into heaven.
The reason that I mentioned Tolkien being very Catholic is because these three characters combined show the three offices of Christ. This is something I believe I have seen other Christians talk about, but it seems more often emphasized by Catholics, but to any Protestant out there, feel free to correct me if this is untrue. The three offices of Christ are priest, prophet, and king, and these three characters represent that almost perfectly. Aragorn clearly fits the kingly role, while I would say Gandalf represents the prophet role by revealing truth to his companions, and finally Frodo by going through a similar trial of crucifixion symbolizes the priestly role.
Now if you’re sitting there reading this saying, “but Lady Geek Girl, none of these three figures seem to be perfect analogies for Christ.” Well, that’s because they aren’t. In fact Aslan is probably the only one on this list that fits nearly perfectly into the Christ role, again because Lewis was writing an allegory. Tolkien despised allegories, which is probably why he had three Christ figures instead of one. All three characters, Gandalf, Frodo, and Aragorn together, could make up a perfect Christ figure, but separately they do not because Tolkien did not want to do a strict allegory.
Okay, phew! That’s enough talk about Tolkien; let’s move on.
I always find it funny that so many Christian groups burned Harry Potter books and refused to let their kids read them because of the “evil witchcraft.” I further find it hilarious that everyone, even fans of Harry Potter, where shocked by the fact that Harry died to save everyone and then rose from the dead to finally defeat Voldemort. J.K. Rowling actually tried not to talk too much about the fact that she’s a Christian. In an interview with Max Wyman from the Vancouver Sun on October 26, 2000 when asked if she is a Christian, she said:
Yes, I am. Which seems to offend the religious right far worse than if I said I thought there was no God. Every time I’ve been asked if I believe in God, I’ve said yes, because I do, but no one ever really has gone any more deeply into it than that, and I have to say that does suit me, because if I talk too freely about that I think the intelligent reader, whether 10 or 60, will be able to guess what’s coming in the books.
I’ll admit, I didn’t see it coming. I thought that it would be appropriate if Harry died but I never thought she would actually kill him. But Harry of course is a Christ figure and rose again to fight another day. But Harry’s resurrection is actually not what makes me love Harry as a Christ figure. I love him because of all the Christ figures he comes closest to being a pacifist. Yes, Harry uses the Unforgivable curses in the books—again it’s not a perfect analogy—but after Harry rises from the dead he seems to have a more Christ-like perspective on things. For the first time he truly empathizes with Voldemort. When Harry fights him he already knows Voldemort’s wand won’t hurt him so Harry is pretty confident at this point, but I do think it’s important to note that Harry could have just killed Voldemort here, but he doesn’t. Voldemort kills himself in the books, because he can’t kill Harry once again and his own killing curse rebounds on him. Harry never kills him. He actually tries to appeal to Voldemort’s humanity. He calls him Tom and, yes, he does kind of mock his arrogance, but near the end of the battle Harry practically begs Voldemort to repent for what he’s done.
Harry Potter: “Yeah it did, you’re right. But before you try and kill me, I’d advise you to think about what you’ve done…. Think, and try for some remorse, Riddle….”
Voldemort: “What is this?”
Harry Potter: “It’s your one last chance, it’s all you’ve got left…. I’ve seen what you’ll be otherwise…. Be a man…. try…. Try for some remorse….”
This scene is amazing! How many other stories show something like this! Harry wants to save Voldemort. He wants him to be human again instead of the monster he has become. I always kind of wished that this would have worked, that Voldemort would have repented. To see that transformation would have been amazing, but alas it didn’t happen, but we still get a great Christ figure out of it.
Now let’s step away from British fantasy novels, which seem to hold the market on Christ figures, and move into some American comics.
Look, up in the sky! It’s a bird… it’s a plane… no, it’s… Jesus…. But seriously if you don’t think Superman is a Christ figure then you are not reading his comics or watching his movies right. I mean dearest Jor-El basically spells it out for us when talking about humanity.
They can be a great people, Kal-El, they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you… my only son.
Jor-El here takes the form of God and seeing that humanity is good sends his only son to help guide them. This quote is repeated in Superman Returns, which continues the Christ figure narrative. When Lex Luthor creates a continent made out of Kryptonite that will wipe out a good portion of the United States, Superman selflessly sacrifices himself and nearly dies when he hurls the landmass into space. In the movie, he passes out while still in space and his body plummets to earth in a classic crucifixion pose.
Add to this Superman’s basic good moral compass and his unwillingness to kill and Jesus is pretty much spelled out for you. There is a reason Jesus wears a Superman shirt in the Godspell musical.
Superman, furthermore, in the comics and the movies, has his dual identity as Clark Kent and Superman, which people argue can be viewed as him being God and man at once. It’s not a perfect analogy, but I can see how it works. However DC Comics has in my opinion a much better Christ figure and analogy for this.
If you have read the graphic novel Kingdom Come, then you probably already know whom the next Christ figure is. The title alone should give you a clue at how heavily religious this graphic novel is. The story tells about the growing conflict between humans and the growing superhero population. Superman tries to mediate between the two groups but fails. In the end an all-out war between the heroes—those with and against Superman—happens, while the humans simultaneously decide to bomb where all the heroes are fighting. Someone has to stop the bomb and save the day, but this isn’t a job for Superman. It’s for Captain Marvel. Billy Batson is a boy magically given the gift to be the great Captain Marvel, but Billy and the Captain are the same person, but also separate. It’s hard to explain. Perhaps the easiest way to do so would be to say that he is God and man, two natures, together and distinct. Yep, just like Jesus and just like Billy. Superman could stop the bomb, but if he does the heroes will run rampant. If he doesn’t they die. Superman proclaims that he can’t choose because really Superman has never been a human person. He’s always a hero—a god.
But you, Billy… you’re both. More than anyone who ever existed, you know what it’s like to live in both worlds. Only you can weigh their worth equally.
In the end, Billy dies. Choosing to sacrifice himself so that both groups can live, and like Christ, by doing so he leaves behind an example to follow.
I asked him to choose between humans and superhumans. But he alone knew that was a false division and made the only choice that ever truly matters. He chose life in the hope that your world and our world could be one world once again.
Billy may be my favorite Christ figure because the message he leaves behind is so powerful and expressed so beautifully here. In the other stories the death and resurrection seem to have little effect on people. It works like magic and is used to defeat evil. Billy doesn’t rise from the dead but is arguably the better Christ figure because he chose life and he let that be his answer to Superman. His legacy is that we need to choose unity and life over death and destruction.
Christ, the real one, didn’t die on the cross for himself or even to defeat evil. He was leaving an example, a legacy, to follow. And out of all the Christ figures I know of, Billy is the only one that comes closest to this.
“But wait,” you say, “this can’t be the end of the article. There are so many more Christ figures.” Yes, there are, and I would be happy to discuss these and others with you in the comments below.
You know I am kind of disappointed there are no women on this list. There are female characters kind of like this but they are less Christ-like and more… divine.
Next time on Oh, My Pop Culture Jesus: The Divine Feminine
Tune in next time and find some religion!