Note: What follows is an extremely SPOILER heavy discussion of the film Interstellar. If you have not seen the film, let this serve as a warning that specific plot details will be discussed in this article. Also, this discussion is merely meant to scratch the surface on very complex issues, not be definitive statement on either Interstellar, its themes, or on matters of faith. We do hope it starts a discussion.
People of faith have taken a few on the chin over the years for their belief in a divine creator who has gone away from Earth promising to return eventually, with no set time-table to put everything right. They have been laughed at over the notions of prayer being a one-way form of communication that doesn’t do anything but make the one doing the talking to feel better. People such as Richard Dawkins, Stephen Hawking, and other big name scientists of our modern age have often been leading the charge seeking to settle on things they can prove and not taking anything on faith, even if such faith is grounded in tangible evidences. Anything abstract, such as love, is dismissed as pure unprovable emotionalism, motive for personal gains, or simply chemical reactions.
Interstellar, the latest film from Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight, Inception, Momento), is a rare film that combines large notions of science, and couples it with a touching personal story of one family. Its feet are firmly planted in science, but its applications are reaching towards notions that are more at home in religion, and specifically Christianity, which have often been seen to be at odds with one another. And while the conclusions of Nolan’s film are openly humanistic at its core saying that we are responsible for the miracles that happen in the universe, the tone and tenants of the science portrayed in the film is often embracing the very things humanists laugh at organized religion over.
Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and Salvation of Mankind
In the Christian narrative, Jesus (who is in the very nature God) sacrifices himself so that mankind and all of the creation may be saved from what is destroying it/us. He rises from the dead and then tells his followers that he will be leaving them. He gives them his “Spirit” to guide them until his eventual return. They are to live their lives loving him and caring for others. His Spirit will be there to help them do that to combat what has gone wrong with the world.
In Interstellar, Matthew McConaughey plays Cooper, a father who sacrifices himself to go on a mission to save mankind and all of creation. He leaves this world, promising that he will one day return. In the meantime, his kids (followers?) are to carry out his business to help save others through farming and through science to fix what has gone wrong with the world. He tells his daughter that he is her “ghost” (Spirit?), a memory that will live in her mind that she will recall as she goes forward in her life, spurring her on. He also turns out to be what she thought was a ghost giving her the information needed to carry out the task of saving others, much like the Holy Spirit in Christianity. He also dies in the film, only to be resurrected in a sense to complete his mission and fulfill his promise to return.
In Christianity, prayer is communicating with God. Christians believe that God not only hears our prayers to Him but answers them, even when we can’t really “hear” or “see” His responses. He also doesn’t answer our prayers or respond in a way that we would like. Sometimes bad things continue to happen and it feels as if our prayers are falling on deaf ears. The scriptures say that God hears the cry of the afflicted. Many times perceived silence on on our part regarding God’s lack of answering our prayers, causes people to believe He is not really there to begin with. It’s only after time has passed that people truly see that God was working behind the scenes all the time.
In Interstellar, people on Earth try to record messages (prayers) that are then uploaded to the astronauts on the mission. The astronauts “hear” these messages, but are not always able to answer after a lengthy description of worm-holes, black-holes, etc. not allowing broadcasting to go back towards earth. This leads many on earth to believe their messages aren’t reaching their loved ones. They begin to doubt if their loved one is even still alive. The silence causes doubt, just like perceived unanswered prayer. Its only later that we discover that the messages were heard and action was being taken, even when it took a long time to be felt. Looking back at the end of the film, we see how these things were being answered all along.
Sin, Evil, and the Human Condition
In the scripture, mankind exercises free-will and the consequences are that they lose their connection with the creator and the benefits of a world who had never known sin and rebellion. The effect on this free-will decision has catastrophic effects on mankind, nature, and our relationship to our world. It shortens our life, and causes us to bring its destruction into every situation we experience. We always have the propensity to make the wrong choice and inflict the natural consequences of our choices on others and on our world.
Christopher Nolan shows us a world that is being destroyed. The effects of “sin” is threatening to kill us all off as a natural consequence of our actions and the cyclical nature of the creation. When looking for new world’s to inhabit, the astronauts discuss the data coming from one possible world where renowned physicist Dr. Mann has set up a camp waiting to have people show up and begin again. It is a pure world with no evil, much like Eden in the Bible, but we learn through the course of events in the film that the only evil that exists is what we bring there ourselves. Even the film acknowledges that the human condition is flawed and also in need of redemption, much like the Earth that is slowly dying. In short, we, and creation are in need of a sacrificial savior to set it all right.
In the scriptures, Jesus willingly lays down his life to pay for the penalty of our human condition. Having no such corrupted nature, being in the very nature God, his sacrifice absorbs the destruction sin has unleashed upon mankind and the creation. It kills him. He is resurrected on the 3rd day and nothing is fixed immediately, but the way forward is re-established and he promises to make all things right when he returns. He tells us to share the way we might be saved, called the Gospel, or good news. Ultimately, this will result in the salvation of all who believe the message. The motivation is the love of a Heavenly Father for his creation and the willingness to lay down His own life so that all might be saved.
Interstellar, shows us much the same thing. Cooper willingly saves Anne Hathaway’s character Brand, paying the price of death so that she might live. Falling into a Black Hole (death), Cooper re-emerges a short time later. His sacrifice enabled him to re-establish the way forward for all of mankind and creation when he communicates as his daughter’s “Ghost” (Spirit) to give the answer of how we might be saved (Good news or Gospel). This information leads to the eventual salvation of all involved who are able to believe and respond. The motivation is the love of a father for his children, and for all of the human race.
As you can see, from just skimming the surface of this film and the Christian faith, there are many similarities to what they propose. Nolan has written a beautiful film (along with his brother Jonathan) that tries to ground itself in firm “science” with its ultimate conclusion being that we can save ourselves. When we don’t always know the answer, we learn that love is the great motivator that can be a tangible and quantifiable force despite it being written off often for its emotional center and lack of “hard data”.
Ultimately, the science of what we know is the foundation for a truth we know but can’t always explain. This is also called faith. Here the film places its faith in ourselves. Throughout the film, we see “design” in that “they” are the ones who place the worm-holes in space for us when we needed them. Recorded messages, or prayers, were answered in time, even when those messaging (praying) didn’t feel their words were being heard or answered. Ultimately salvation came through sacrifice based on love in a Universe that has always existed and transcends the rudimentary dimensions we know. Relativity explains a being or entity that is both in our world but not of it.
The funny thing is that this is exactly the same contention of Christianity, and other people of faith, except people of faith use the word God to describe a specific personal entity that is not of our world, nor bound by it but who has entered it with the purpose of saving it. Dawkins and Hawking might dismiss people who believe in such a divine designer behind it all, but the construct they, along with Nolan here, have erected in place of a personal savior is one who looks just like Christianity, and which requires the same faith they laugh at.
The reason that Interstellar touches the heart of all who watch it is that there is perhaps a truth that runs through it that we recognize whether we come to the conclusion that its the universe or science behind it all or an intentional, personal, and loving creator. Namely that love motivates us to love others, even when we don’t have to, and spurs us on to recognize that we carry a destructive nature within us that affects us and the creation and we desperately need salvation that can only be born from sacrifice.
Maybe Interstellar is a big screen attempt for science to explain what can only be explained through the faith of religion: Perfect Love.