Released on Easter weekend in 1999, The Matrix suggested a parallel between Neo and Christ, both of whom are resurrected. Neo is referred to throughout the Matrix trilogy as the One, that is, the chosen one, which also describes Christ—a messiah, sent to deliver salvation. References to Christianity proliferate in the films, and the Matrix films are an allegory for the Christian faith and that Neo is a modern-day Jesus. This interpretation is only one of the many possible readings of the films’ symbolism and references. The Matrix trilogy is remarkable for the breadth and depth of its religious references, not just its references to Christianity. Though pervasive and often thorough, none of the religious references build into a cohesive allegory, and many of them appear and disappear quickly. The trilogy refers not only to Christianity but also to Judaism, Eastern religions, Hinduism, and others. Two of the more detailed spiritual frameworks the Matrix films frequently incorporate are Gnosticism and Buddhism.
Though Neo is undoubtedly a messiah figure, the messiah he resembles most is not really a Christian messiah. Christians believe Christ was a sinless man who, through his death and resurrection, brought people salvation from sin. Judeo-Christian scripture traces human sinfulness back to the myth of Eve and the forbidden fruit, pointing to her disobedience of God as the source of that sinfulness. The problem for the humans in The Matrix is ignorance, not sin. They need liberation from their illusions, not necessarily salvation. Furthermore, Neo doesn’t die for others’ sins, but for his own: not coming to terms with his identity. After all, Neo is mostly human, with all the attendant physical needs, and conducts his affairs with incredible violence. His risky goal for Zion and all humanity is to reveal the truth at the risk of losing all people, rather than preserve them in the illusory web of the Matrix. Neo, a liberator rather than a savior, is a Gnostic Christ.
The Gnostics were a loosely connected set of religious dissidents who persevered in various sects throughout history. The Gnostics were originally an offshoot of the Christian church, and we can see how their fundamental beliefs differ from those of Christians through the allegories in The Matrix and The Matrix Reloaded. Gnostics believe that they alone truly understand Christ’s message, and that they alone are an enlightened few. Their name derives from the Greek word gnosis, meaning knowledge. For Gnostics, knowledge is the true basis for spirituality. Rather than blind faith, knowledge and the perpetual quest for knowledge liberate individuals and help them break free from their natural state of bondage to the world. In fact, some early Gnostic sects worshipped the mythical serpent for bringing knowledge to Adam and Eve and allowing them to become fully human. Neo becomes a liberator by coming to understand himself. He discovers faith in himself, not in an all-powerful, unknowable God. “Know Thyself,” says the Oracle’s mantelpiece, and Neo eventually does.
The Gnostic God operates on two levels. The Supreme God knows all but remains remote from human affairs, almost in a state of irrelevance because it is so impossibly unknowable. A lesser god, the Creator God, exists, the son of a virgin who was herself created by the Supreme God. This Creator God sculpted the earth. The Creator God of the Gnostics is called the Demiurge, a Greek word meaning “public craftsman,” and is paralleled in the Matrix films by the Architect. The Demiurge is inherently evil, without compassion or other human emotions except for pride and strict adherence to laws and disciplines. His cold logic often results in massive natural disasters or genocides. He thinks he’s the real creator, and he’s responsible for the painful condition of the world. The Matrix postulates that suffering in the real world is preferable to a life of pleasure in blissful ignorance, and this idea matches the Gnostic life perfectly. Knowledge prevails over blind faith. This overcoming of blindness is explicitly rendered in The Matrix Revolutions when Bane/Smith burns Neo’s eyes, rendering him physically blind.
The Gnostics believe that a select few people have within their bodies remnants of the divine virgin daughter of the Creator God. They believe that by learning about one’s self, one’s world, and one’s spiritual essence one may reveal these divine sparks of original spirit. At the end of The Matrix, Neo actually seems to glow, making his image resonate with both the Christian resurrection story and Gnostic theology. Knowledge of the self is the true faith.
The Matrix itself parallels samsara, an illusory state of reality that is not what it appears. Samsara refers to revolving worlds that develop, reach heights, collapse, are eliminated, and then ultimately are replaced by other worlds. The goal of some Buddhists is to escape from this cyclical pattern of doom and eternal pain, which they believe is possible. Many of the freed humans choose to accept the Buddhist state of karma, which suggests that whatever state they are in, it is the result of their own doing. Their condition is self-created, and this idea emphasizes the importance of choice. Karma allows people to shape their next life. If they choose actions that are virtuous in this world, they’ll be more contented now and in the next life. But if they choose nonvirtuous acts, they get what they deserve. Buddha’s Four Noble Truths suggest that life is suffering, an idea The Matrix supports. Practicing Buddhists of all sects are rigorous meditators, practicing their faith by disciplining their minds. Morpheus trains Neo with the programs to free his mind and realize his potential based on freeing himself from laws. The training is not intended to teach new skills, since these skills can be easily downloaded, but to liberate Neo from the bondage of rules and to free him from the trappings of the world.
The most accessible and most popular elucidation of these beliefs relates to the spoon parable a young boy tells Neo in the Oracle’s waiting room. The story is specifically contrary to Christian belief systems and refers to an old Zen Buddhist koan (paradox) about freeing yourself from the logical mind and entering the “Buddha-mind”:
The wind was flapping a flag at the temple. One monk said the flag was moving, the other monk said it was the wind that was moving. They argued and pondered, but could not come to a conclusion. An elder passed by and they asked him which was moving. “It is neither the flag nor the wind that moves, but your mind.”
When Neo visits the Oracle for the first time, she jokingly gives him a cursory doctor’s exam. Even this action has a mythic dimension, as a certain sect of Buddhism believes that the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama will be proven by a set of markings on his body.
The Matrix trilogy refers knowledgeably to certain aspects of Eastern religions while ignoring or contradicting others. Not many practicing Buddhists would carelessly fire any type of automatic machine gun. Similarly, true Buddhists, practicing proper virtues, have no enemies, though Morpheus clearly tells Neo that not only are the Agents enemies, but since Agents can turn into anyone in the Matrix, everyone is a potential enemy.
No one religion or spiritual discipline forms the backbone of the Matrix trilogy. Instead, parts of many religions are fused into a patchwork quilt of ideas and references that deepen and enrich the films.