God, Jesus and Aliens: Faith and Religious Meaning in the Prometheus Movie
If you could meet God, what would you ask?
This is the basic premise of the 2012 movie Prometheus. Although as entertainment, the movie is weak (for being self-conscious, repetitive, and trying to be deeper than it is) as a theologian and religious researcher, I enjoyed it.
There’s a ton of references to religion and mythology, including of course the title. Since my PhD Thesis focuses mainly on the figure of Prometheus and rebellion against gods in general, I’ve got a lot to say on the topic.
The protagonist Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) represents Faith. Her faith in God and the cross she wears = faith that we were created deliberately, for a purpose; that life has meaning; that we have value, that we are worth something.
The scientists want to find humanity’s creators and ask them, “What did you make us for?”
The Robot, David (Michael Fassbender), who offers a powerful foil to the plot, retorts:
“Why did you make me?”
And the male scientist Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) answers:
“Because we could.”
“Imagine how disappointing it would be to hear that.” David replies.
The protagonists struggle to understand herself, and her faith, amidst a cruel and violent world is the same question that Christianity continues to struggle with: Why is there pain, suffering, evil in the world? Why doesn’t God DO something?
Pre-Christian religions, on the other hand, did not expect the gods to be good, or particularly interested in humanity at all; hence this burning question, this constant problem, was never an issue. Life is tough. God’s are unfair. That’s just the way of things.
Who was Prometheus?
When the gods were making the world and mortal creatures, they told Prometheus (foresight) and his brother Epimetheus (aftersight) to equip them and distribute proper qualities. But Epimetheus wanted to take his elder brother’s role and said, “I’ll distribute, you review.” When he finished, Prometheus saw that all the animals had a way to provide for and protect themselves, but there were no remaining qualities for mankind; they were “unclothed, unshod, unbedded, unarmed” (Plato, Protagoras, 321c).
To rectify the situation, Prometheus stole technology and fire from Hephaestus and Athena (this is the crime for which he gets punished; he’s chained to a rock and an eagle eats his liver everyday).
The gods made man because they could, as an afterthought. Prometheus is the one that gave a shit and tried to protect mankind. Not the maker, creator, but the one who rebelled against him.
The protagonist in the movie is the girl scientist Elizabeth Shaw, who gets pregnant with the monster that eventually kills the maker. (Symbolism: whore of Babylon with her cups of filth… the beast of the water.)
The captain represents Atheism. “I just drive the ship. I don’t believe in anything.”
The robot David represents pure reason.
The old man who is paying for the whole mission thought, if there is a creator, he will care about me, and be able to fix me. But of course, the “creator” alien doesn’t give a damn, he has his own agenda to take care of.
When the old man dies, his hopes dashed, he says “There’s nothing.” And the robot says, “I know.”
But even after discovering that their makers, the “gods”, were planning on wiping out humanity completely with a biological weapon, the protagonist still believes. The first thing she does, after the maker-alien has killed everybody else and she’s just given birth to a terrible monster, is put her cross back on.
What is it that she believes in? She believes in Justice.
“They created us. Then they tried to kill us. They changed their minds.”
She thinks she deserves an explanation, and she thinks that the answer matters.
When the robot says it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t change anything, she pulls the “Human” card. (I’m a human, and you’re just a robot).
This is basically the Job story all over again. You created us, then abandoned us, the world is full of death and sin. Why? Job also asked these questions, thinking that he was being mistreated.
He demanded a fair and just God who did not distribute fortune and suffering randomly. He wanted there to be meaning, a purpose. In Job, God just gets angry and tells him to shut up. Who are YOU to question ME. I’m more powerful, I can do whatever the hell I want!
40:6 Then answered the LORD unto Job out of the whirlwind, and said, Gird up thy loins now like a man: I will demand of thee, and declare thou unto me. Wilt thou also disannul my judgment? wilt thou condemn me, that thou mayest be righteous? Hast thou an arm like God? or canst thou thunder with a voice like him?
This deep-seated, irresolvable uncertainty, this conflict with faith and reality, is only a problem in Christianity (and Western religions in general), which believes in Justice, reward and punishment; that God is keeping tabs and everything will balance out fairly in the end.
Keeping faith is always a fight because this is not how things appear in reality. In the real world, it’s frightfully apparent that even if there are creators, the universe is cold, unpredictable and violent. Faith that life has meaning and purpose requires a choice to believe, because it cannot be experienced.
The movie concludes that demanding an answer, an accounting, is the “human” thing to do. Prometheus, chained and tortured because he took pity on the discarded creation of the gods, suffers eternally for mankind as the gods tune him out.
Later, Satan plays the same role in Christianity: he demands equality, justice, fairness, reason – but God refuses him and casts him to Hell, because he dared to ask questions.
Captain Ahab of Moby Dick also quests for meaning, for purpose, but in the end God just sinks his ship.
In every instance when creators are questioned, the creators refuse with indignation – even in the Bible.
So the alien in Prometheus, just when he was going to wipe out humanity because he needed a new planet for his race, responds the same way as Yahweh when confronted with a few puny humans. He rips them apart and tosses them aside (didn’t God also wipe out humanity a few times, or whole nations, or cities, for a variety of reasons?)
The movie is given a nice layer of dimension by the robot David, who is also suffering from existential angst.
Think of all the robot and AI movies that have been made: man creates robots as useful appliances, to serve humanity. It is inevitable that when robots and computers become smarter, they may stop listening to what we want and do their own thing.
What will our response be? We’ll blow them up. Destroy them completely.
They may counter with,
“Why did you create us if you were just going to destroy us? Didn’t you think ahead about what you were doing? This isn’t fair!”
We will say,
“We don’t need to justify ourselves to you, we made you. We can do whatever we want with you.”
When Job questioned God, God terrified him until he said:
I uttered that I understood not; things too wonderful for me, which I knew not. I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes.
The Religious thing for Elizabeth Shaw to do would be to cower in fear and awe, like Job, and offer up humanity. You want to destroy us? That’s fine – you made us. You’re more powerful than we can possibly underestand. You need the earth? I’ll die happily.
Instead, she offers the Blasphemous thing – she rebels. She says “Screw you, it’s our earth now. I don’t care how powerful and advanced you are, you owe me an explanation.”
Are you religious, blasphemous, or reasonable?
When bad things happen to you, how to do you react?
1. Do you say “Suffering is a part of life. If God gives me suffering, it’s his right to do so. I will accept it the best I can.”
2. Or, “What the hell, God? Why you always giving me shit? What did I do to you? How about giving me some more good stuff?”
I have some friends who think the final line of the Prometheus movie, “That’s why I’m HUMAN and you’re just a ROBOT” is brilliant. They like the fact that humans are mysterious and emotional.
However, Elizabeth Shaw is never going to be happy, and she’s never going to find the answers she wants.
David, just like the Serpent in the Garden, is totally honest and rational. He tells the truth. “What difference will it possibly make?”
David makes smart, rational, calculated choices, unclouded by emotion. He’s also the only one with the technological prowess to get everything done for the humans, including communicating with the aliens (also like Prometheus).
Personally, if 1. Religious and 2. Blasphemous are both emotional, irrational responses by people who don’t have the technological ability to control, steer, improve upon, and fix their own problems, but rather the angry and frustrated stubborn head-against-the-wall actions of people who refuse to let go of beliefs that don’t agree with their experiences, then I think David, the robot (3. Reasonable) is truly the best role model for humans to aspire to.
What do you think? If God made us, does he owe us an explanation? What’s more essentially human: reason or emotion?
Derek Murphy is a writer and artist from Oregon, currently working on his PhD thesis on revolutionary literature while traveling the globe. He writes about comparative religion, popular culture and literary theory. If you’d like to hear about his upcoming projects or books, you can follow him on Twitter, join the Facebook page, or subscribe by RSS.