Great Secular Stories That Follow the Same Arc as the Passion of Jesus

Sacrifice, betrayal, death, and spiritual ascension aren't only found in the Bible, they're essential elements to so many great works of art, from the Matrix to the Lord of the Rings.
March 27, 2016, 1:30pm

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It's Easter Sunday, a holiday when Christians across the globe revisit and retell the story of Jesus's crucifixion and resurrection. FOX tried to cash in on all of that with their broadcast ofThe Passion on Palm Sunday. In terms of quality, it was about as good as you'd imagine a live musical featuring Chris Daughtry as Judas singing Evanescence would be. Ratings were down 42 percent from Grease: Live, FOX's last live musical. The drop could mean people simply think The Walking Dead is a better watch. Or maybe it's just that the Bible's account of Jesus's final days on Earth is getting kind of played out.

I'm not saying that the elements that comprise the Passion story are wack; sacrifice, betrayal, resurrection, and ascension are the essential stuff you need to make up any great story. I'd just prefer to get all of that stuff with the added bonus of aliens or explosions, where the surrounding story is different, but most of the basic concepts are the same.


The following selection of resurrection stories below weren't ripped line-by-line from the scripture like The Passion, but their characters do follow the same narrative arc. While none of them are even close to being as popular or influential as the "reason for the season," I'd take them over seeing Jim Caviezel get flagellated any day.

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

In this 1951 classic, an alien visitor named Klaatu lands on Earth and announces to the world that he comes in peace. Of course, it doesn't work out. He ends up shot, distrusted, and shot again by the humans he's trying to help. But after being put out of commission, the ET is brought back to life. Instead of a holy miracle, Klaatu gets resurrected for a limited time by a domineering robot. But just like Jesus, post-resurrection, he still hopes the best for the humans. Of course, it's all a thinly-veiled threat, because the humans will destroy the world if they don't get their shit together.

RoboCop (1987)

Robocop is very of its time and ahead of its time. There's a lot of 80s camp, but it also features a Detroit ravaged by counterproductive institutions. In other words, its 2016 Michigan with robots. But where corporations and governments can't save the populace, RoboJesus RoboCop can. Alex Murphy is a well-to-do human cop before he gets shot up so badly that it makes Alonzo Harris's gunshot wounds look like boo-boo scratches. It's also worth noting his body is splayed in a crucifix formation as he's taking those bullets.

Murphy is resurrected as a cyborg officer focused on justice, not vengeance. Described by director Paul Verhoeven as an "American Jesus," RoboCop sets out to rid Detroit of sin. But this is the American Jesus, so he does it with violent gunplay instead of forgiveness. RoboCop also walks on top of water at the movie's climax. It's not a display of the power of faith though, since he ends up catching a body in that same scene.


The Matrix (1999)

The bible says nothing about human beings who live naked within wombs as they're "plugged in" to a virtual reality. Yet, it's The Matrix that entrenches itself deeper within biblical mythology than most. Before becoming a wise-cracking grandfather on network television, Laurence Fishburne was Morpheus, whose faith in Neo's messianic destiny parallels John the Baptist's faith in Jesus. Before getting bodied in The Sopranos, Joe Pantoliano was Cypher, the crew's Judas.

Then there's Keanu Reeves, who plays the prophetic savior who beats death in his quest to save humanity. Neo ascends into (virtual) heaven at the end of the film after roaming the Earth. A lot of digital spiritual miracles going on here.

The Green Mile (1999)

Wrongly convicted inmate John Coffey isn't resurrected after his execution—he's still, tragically, very dead. But Coffey does fit the Jesus role in that he's a miracle worker, albeit one who does it simply because he can, not because of any religious testaments. He heals the sick, resurrects the dead, and grants Tom Hanks's character—a death row officer—an unnaturally long lifespan. Unfortunately, it's not enough to get him off death row. So, Hanks has to do his his job and oversee Coffey to the electric chair even though he knows the gentle giant isn't guilty. Hanks basically played Pontius Pilate the same year he played a toy sheriff.

This analogy is actually Dick Gregory approved. During a lecture, the comedian-activist noted Jesus Christ and John Coffey share the same initials (although Stephen King said he got the name from an Emerson College professor), compared Coffey's healing powers to casting away demons, and emphasizes how two prisoners were executed before Coffey (Jesus was hung between two thieves). Gregory also claimed he saw The Green Mile 13 times, a Herculean task for a three-hour film.


Lord of the Rings (2001)

Gandalf had what would've been one of the greatest deaths for a wizard in written history in the famous "You shall not pass" scene, when he falls to his death while fighting a demon. He does this so his companions can survive, which is a literal embodiment of John 15:13: "Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one's life for one's friends."

But through circumstances that are essentially the equivalent of a heavenly video game respawn, Gandalf the Grey returns as Gandalf the White, bathed in heavenly light to lead the forces of good. Thankfully, his return isn't like Michael Jordan and the Wizards; he puts in work in through the following two films.

And after Gandalf does his thing in his godly white and helps defeat Sauron's forces, he doesn't spend time dilly-dallying in post-retirement. He soon departs for the unseen Grey Havens, which could be a allegory for Jesus's ascension to heaven.

Alien 3 (1992)

Ellen Ripley makes a Christ-like sacrifice in Alien 3. After killing the murderous alien, she has to deal with the monster growing inside of her belly. To save others, she voluntarily falls in crucifix formation into a pit of molten lava. And then she's reborn. Instead of in a few days, Ripley comes back 200 years later as a clone in Alien: Resurrection.

All-Star Superman (2005-08)

Superman's decades-long run as the great American hero has multiple parallels to Christ. But the allegory is clearest in All-Star Superman, which is my favorite Superman yarn. In it, Lex Luthor's shenanigans afflict Superman with a cancer-like condition that gives him one year to live. The clearest biblical parallel comes near the end when Superman resurrects after temporarily succumbing to his ailment and defeats Luthor for a final time. However, the emotional apex happens just before at chapter 10, when he's rushing to help humanity and write his last will during what's supposed to be his final full-day alive. Although All-Star writer Grant Morrison is hesitant toward Christ comparisons, he does admit that, "the idea of the Last Will and Testament of Superman. A dying god writing his will," was a reference point. Yes, he uses his super-intelligence to create a miniature Earth to see if the world could survive without him. But he also saves a teenager from suicide and helps cure children's cancer—two compassionate acts that hold no benefit for Superman. The Passion and many other modern-day Christ re-imaginings fail because they focus on the spectacle of the crucifixion, but they don't explore the empathetic act—dying for the good of humankind—at the core of its story. What gives All-Star's parallel its emotional heft is how they home in on the hero's love of people.

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