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Christopher Nolan

What’s the big deal about facing death if you know you are going to be saved?

Mr. Christopher Nolan has asked us to consider this question so many times it would be impolite of us not to oblige him. His films The Prestige (2006), Inception (2010), and Interstellar (2014) each run an experiment upon the human psyche by subjecting characters to possible death and possible resurrection, influenced by varying degrees of voluntarism. The effect is something we could call “existential horror.” Each of Nolan’s fictional subjects faces the idea and then the reality of dying deliberately in order to live.

In The Prestige, a magician performs a trick with no magic: He has learned a scientific way to replicate himself by walking into a machine that appears to his audience as a display of electricity. The real trick is that the magician must drown one of his two selves offstage in a tank full of water, while the other self gains the wonder of the audience by appearing unharmed in the balcony. Every night the magician willingly dies in the tank, and reappears triumphant for the opportunity to repeat the trick. He knows he will live, but not without the horror of death. To gain the fame he wants, he must “climb into the machine every night not knowing if I’d be the man in the box, or in the prestige.”

Inception has a married couple trapped in a dream world (“dream” being satisfyingly multivalent; the world is perfect except for not being reality). The husband convinces his wife that they must return to the real world, and that the only way to do it is to die in the dream. He dreams up a train, and they lie on the tracks together as it roars toward them. The wife’s view is of the husband; his is of the train. Each must trust the husband’s conviction that this deliberate death is the only way they can truly live.

Interstellar astronauts explore new planetIn Interstellar, a scientist is placed in stasis and sent into space in the hope that he will reach a livable world for humanity before his life-support runs out. The audience does not see him go down to what is likely to be his final sleep, but is there when he awakens. His outpouring of relief reveals the depth of his horror.

Many filmmakers (not to mention writers and artists) have portrayed individuals facing death. Mr. Nolan’s work is singular in that the characters he gives over to death have a real expectation that death is not the end for them. The dreamers and the scientist elect to effectively die as the only route to real or sustainable life. The magician knows for certain that he will live, though dying simultaneously is part of his bargain. But even with this knowledge, each fears and dreads death. 

Why should this concern us? We are going to die, but we will be raised as Christ was raised, the first fruits of them that sleep. We have prayed,

When I tread the verge of Jordan,

Bid my anxious fears subside

Death of death, and Hell’s destruction,

Land me safe on Canaan’s side

But Mr. Nolan’s dying characters remind us why we bother with this prayer, and at what cost we have this promise. The passion of our Lord includes not only His torture and His humiliation. There is no trick for Him is who is truly God and truly man. No man can face death without perceiving its horror. The Man of Sorrows is thoroughly sorrowful, not only for the horrors surrounding his ultimate task, but for the task itself.

Thou Hast Suffered Great Affliction

Any consideration of our Lord’s humanity incites jitters. The Church has had more than her fill of attacks on the divinity of Christ. Hilary of Poitiers, belly aflame against Arian affronts to Christology by way of Trinitarian heresy, argued fiercely against the idea that Jesus felt fear of pain or death. Jesus’ death was His glory, and He went to it freely. Hilary lays out his teaching on Jesus’ anguish in John 12 and in the Synoptic Gethsemane accounts carefully, so as not to offend against the incarnation:

“There was, then, no place for human anxiety and trepidation in that nature, which was more than human. It was superior to the ills of earthly flesh; a body not sprung from earthly elements, although His origin as Son of Man was due to the mystery of the conception by the Holy Ghost. The power of the Most High imparted its power to the body which the Virgin bare from the conception of the Holy Ghost. The animated body derives its conscious existence from association with a soul, which is diffused throughout it, and quickens it to perceive pains inflicted from without. Thus the soul, warned by the happy glow of its own heavenly faith and hope, soars above its own origin in the beginnings of an earthly body, and raises that body to union with itself in thought and spirit, so that it ceases to feel the suffering of that which, all the while, it suffers. Why need we then say more about the nature of the Lord’s body, that of the Son of Man Who came down from heaven? Even earthly bodies can sometimes be made indifferent to the natural necessities of pain and fear.”[1]

Sometimes…. And there is no one in whose life such extraordinary strength is more likely to be manifested than in that of our Lord. But John of Damascus argues, after the passing of the Nicene fathers, that Jesus’ words in Gethsemane reveal a real aversion to death. He cites Hilary’s contemporary, Athanasius, as an advocate of Jesus’ experience of human fear, and characterizes the situation this way:

“All things which have not yet been brought into existence by their Maker have a natural desire of existence, and naturally shun non-existence. God the Word then, having been made Man, had this . . . natural fear and sorrow for death. For there is a natural fear wherewith the soul shrinks from separation from the body, by reason of that close sympathy implanted from the first by the Maker of all things.”[2]

Even if Jesus felt no fear from which we might derive the comfort of shared experience, the church fathers point out that His words and prayers concerning His impending death have much to offer us in addition to their intrinsic efficacy. His expressions demonstrate care for the pain his friends will experience, and mourning over the punishment His enemies will bring upon themselves. He also encourages and teaches us by His refusal to avoid suffering when it is the way of goodness. Even so, Nicene father John Chrysostom meditates on the question of Jesus’ fear:

“As He draws near to the Cross, His human nature appears, a nature that did not wish to die, but cleaved to this present life. He shows that He is not quite without human feelings. For the desire of this present life is not necessarily wrong, any more than hunger. Christ had a body free from sin, but not from natural infirmities. But these attach solely to the dispensation of His humanity, not to His divinity.”[3]

Jesus on the crossSo our Lord goes uncomplaining forth. Verily, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit…. Now is my soul troubled; and what shall I say? Father, save me from this hour: but for this cause came I unto this hour. The Word made flesh tells us what anticipation of death sounds like, even with the assurance of life to come. Mr. Nolan shows us what it looks like. No more than does Jesus, do his dying men find that the necessity of death to a greater life diminishes death’s terrible nature.

Though faith is the assurance of things hoped for, it is neither naturally nor functionally equivalent to knowledge. We trust that God is good and will save us, but we do not understand the immediate mechanisms. We believe that our redemption is dearly won for all, which makes us see that it must be dearly delivered to each. This adds up to some kind of personal crisis for everyman facing death. It is not impiety, because Jesus, sweating his prayers in Gethsemane, is not impious. It is the horror written into existence in the cursed world in which almighty God chose to matriculate as a man. It is the horror that sin’s horrific wages must be paid. Jesus faces His taking possession of the keys of hell and death with the troubled soul of living flesh.

Thank Thee For Thy Groaning, Sighing

The bit of us that can be pious beyond our means is given to a silly idea. If we can just die with enough warning to call our pastor (or at least say our prayers), and in a way that doesn’t hurt too much, it’s really no trouble. For some blessed people this may be true without too much effort. But if it is true for anyone else, it is probably because he has prayed very hard to get to that point. While we have no need to fear death, knowing what God has promised, we also know what it feels like to stand on the water’s edge, strongly inclined to remain dry.

jesus as loveHope does not drive out fear. There is one remove between hope and the end of fear. And hope maketh us not ashamed; because the LOVE of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us…. It is perfect LOVE that casteth out fear… greater LOVE hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. And it all begins with the tribulations of Him who took them up on our behalf. We face death with faith, hope, and love, but the greatest of these has the most power to comfort us. Love incarnate faced existence’s ultimate horror head-on for us so that we may look only into His face when our own death approaches. Jesus lay down in a place from which no one had ever come back to bring us to a place where we may all live. He was the man in the box so that we may ascribe to Him the prestige due His name at His reappearing.

Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints. How much dearer to the saints is the very death of our Lord, Mary’s holy boy-child, divine Jesus of Nazareth. Mr. Nolan resurrects his characters by dutiful science. His films play by the rules, but their game has no soul in this particular point. The Father raises the Son by the deeper magic from before the dawn of time: essential and cosmic justice, atonement, authority, and grace. But the glory of eternity also plays by creation’s divine rules, running its course through dark Gethsemane, where God teaches us with His bitter hour to die like a Man.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.


[1]   On the Trinity X.44

[2]   On the Orthodox Faith III.23

[3]   Homily 67 on the Gospel of John.

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