The Movie Son of God opens in theaters this weekend, just ahead of the annual Academy Awards celebration of all things film. You don’t even have to see the movie to know that it is, of course, about Jesus.
But one interesting aspect of the greatest story ever told is that it gets told a lot, and not always in such an obvious way. The Bible says that God has set eternity in the hearts of men, which means that the story of God’s unfailing love for us and the sacrifice made through Jesus’ death and resurrection will always tug at our heartstrings—even if we only get a shadow or a reflection of that story in a different form.
So, as moviemakers strive to craft stories that will resonate with people and draw them in emotionally, they often draw from elements of the Christ story. Sometimes it’s intentional; other times, it’s just a storyteller going with what seems to work.
Want proof? Well, here are five examples of very secular movies that, either intentionally or unintentionally, actually contain retellings of the story of Jesus.
(Here be spoilers.)
1. Superman Returns
Last year’s Man of Steel got a lot of attention for its intentional Christ references. In fact, the studio created a website just for pastors to help them build sermons around the themes in the Superman reboot.
However, it’s the previous film in the franchise, Superman Returns, that provided the original inspiration for this list.
In all versions of the Superman story, an otherworldly father sends his son—his “only son,” as the father emphasizes—to Earth to be a “light” to all of humanity.
But at the beginning of this movie, the son has been absent, away in the heavens, and many doubt he will ever return. Lois Lane even writes an article stating that Superman isn’t needed, and specifically says that “The world doesn't need a savior. And neither do I.” Of course, Superman does end up saving her from certain death, and then goes about saving everyone else who cries out for help.
In the movie’s climax, Superman gets stabbed in his side, takes the weight of the world (or at least a continent) on his shoulders, and strikes a crucifix pose as he dies. But then a nurse—a woman going to take care of his body—discovers that he has risen from the dead when she finds his hospital room empty. He then appears to Lois and tells her that “I’m always around” before ascending into the sky.
2. The Matrix
The Wachowski Brothers drew from many influences when making The Matrix, but the Christian references are some of the most obvious.
Think about it: in accordance with prophecy, a man called “The One,” who is part of a trinity, which even includes a person named Trinity, along with a father figure (Morpheus), leaves a place called “Zion” and enters the world we know in order to save humanity from a slavery that they don’t even recognize as such. He faces off against the rulers of this world, who deride him for being “Only human.” But after he demonstrates that he has supernatural powers, those authorities kill him—only to have him come back to life and prove he has power over them, too.
The film ends with Neo explaining to the forces of evil that he is going to show the world a different, better way of living—“a world without you.” He then also flies off into the heavens.
3. The Green Mile
This one might not be quite as obvious, but it is still there.
An innocent, gentle giant of a man, with the initials J.C., is wrongfully convicted of a crime he didn’t commit and sentenced to death. In the time leading up to his execution, he heals multiple people of different diseases and even brings one character (a mouse) back from the dead. And he heals them in an unusual way: by taking the diseases upon himself.
The chief guard overseeing the executions becomes convinced that J.C. is for real, and offers to let him go free. However, J.C. willingly chooses to let himself be executed. Whereas other death-row inmates say “I’m sorry for what I did” before their execution, J.C. says “I’m sorry for what I am.” He had done nothing wrong, and was killed simply for who he was.
At the end, it is revealed that the resurrected mouse is still alive more than 60 years later, and that people healed by J.C. live an incredibly long time—possibly even forever.
4. The Dark Knight Rises
Wait, the “Dark” Knight represents Jesus? In some ways, yes.
As in Superman Returns, the film begins with the hero character absent. He returns to save Gotham City, which, in case you haven’t noticed by now, never seems to be a very nice place and has plenty of people who don’t seem worthy of being saved.
The bad guy, Bane, tries to paint himself as the good guy, and gives a speech offering people the freedom to do whatever they want—all the while planning to destroy them. He has a time bomb, and there’s no way to escape the death that it brings.
Bane breaks Batman’s body, and throws him into a hole in the ground from which it seems no one can escape. A pit which one character describes as “hell on earth,” and which is the place Bane himself is from.
Of course, Batman does rise, and returns to find that many of the “good guys” are locked away or hiding out of fear. He organizes them to take on Bane’s forces, but still has to deal with the bomb that’s going to kill everyone. He does so by (apparently) taking that burden upon himself and sacrificing his life so they can live. Of course, we later see that he is still alive, meaning The Dark Knight Rises gives us two metaphors for the resurrection.
5. Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
Lord of the Rings was written by J.R.R. Tokien, who was a close friend of C.S. Lewis. Lewis wrote (among other things) the Chronicles of Narnia series, in which Aslan the lion is a not-at-all-secret representation of Jesus.
So, it’s not surprising that Tolkien’s work also contains allusions to Christ. In fact, you have more than one character to choose from. Gandalf, in The Two Towers, is probably the clearest example.
Gandalf the Grey is an otherworldly being with supernatural powers. At the start of the movie, he is shown battling a demonic creature from the depths of the earth: a supernatural winged, horned beast made out of shadow and flame. Gandalf battles its darkness with light, but is dragged down with it into a nearly bottomless abyss, and eventually dies in order to defeat it.
He comes back to life, but now is different: he is Gandalf the White. His own friends don’t even recognize him at first. After healing a possessed man, he leaves for a time while the enemy gathers his forces to attack under cover of darkness. Right when all seems lost, Gandalf returns: riding a white horse, carrying a sharp sword, and with an army on horseback following him. He again brings light, blinding the lovers of darkness, and quite easily defeats the forces of evil.
This list could go on, and include everything from Gladiator and Harry Potter to The Day the Earth Stood Still and RoboCop (the first one, believe it or not). I’m not endorsing any of these movies or suggesting you should watch them, and I’m certainly not saying they are Christian movies. They just happen to echo the most important story: the story of a perfect King who sacrifices everything and dies so that the one He loves can live. So that you can live. Even though you’re not worthy, and could never be worthy, of such love.
So the next time you are watching or reading or listening to a story, and find that it tugs at your heartstrings in an unusually powerful way, consider what story you’re really responding to.