The [Prophecy] Matrix: End Times Virtuality
Gregg Strawbridge, Ph.D.
Pastor of All Saints’ Presbyterian Church, Lancaster, PA
“What is the Matrix?” “You have to see it for yourself.” “You have to let it all go, Neo, fear, doubt, disbelief — free your mind.”
Indeed, free your mind. The blockbuster films, “The Matrix” and “Matrix Reloaded” are a fanciful twist on the “brain in a vat” plot with powerful and groundbreaking effects. The Matrix is a computer simulated virtual reality that is taken to be reality, whilst the machines are sucking energy from human farms – people in vats. The hero, the Christ-figure, Neo, has powers to overcome the virtual reality of the Matrix. It appears that the second film, Matrix Reloaded, unveils the matrix within a matrix. Who knows where it will hit bottom.
While I think there is some artistic value in the films and the very creative use of cinematography, Christians ought to be alerted to whole the scheme’s presupposition: the truly fictional conception that personal consciousness can result from greater mechanical complexity. Quite like “The Terminator,” Darwinism, “The Thirteenth Floor,” and other science fictions, The Matrix is better fiction than what parades as science. Nonetheless, given the naturalistic-evolutionary assumptions, once again we see on the silver screen that if the organism or computer just had enough byte processing speed with a few nifty programs of “artificial intelligence,” bang! A self-conscious machine would be born. Pure gold for science fiction. The root of all such nonsense is an antiChristian denial that persons are Imago Dei – made in the Image of God.
Of course the conception of a “Matrix” is not new in portraying a virtual reality or a false reality. A similar idea was hinted at in Western Philosophy with Plato's story of the cave, where the shadows are taken as the reality. The cave dwellers are in, not reality, but a kind of sub-reality. Plato seemed to be saying that our reality is the cave-reality and only the world of the eternal “forms” (or formulaes) is real. In the 17th century, René Descartes described the possibility of an evil angel playing tricks deceiving us in our knowledge of the real world. He suggests that the dubious nature of our knowledge of “reality” is a mere dream, a virtuality. Finally, his proof that he really exists rests on his famous, Cogito ergo sum (I think therefore I am.). [Note: this is a poor foundation for escaping the Matrix.] Christian philosopher Bishop George Berkeley argued that reality is in the mind of God and no actual material world exists, only the ideas which we perceive sustained by God. Films like “The Matrix,” “The Thirteenth Floor,” “ExistenZ,” and other sci-fi films represent an “Is this real?” genre of films. All these are represented not only in the West’s quest for knowledge of reality, but in Eastern Philosophy. They call it “Maya,” – illusion – in Vedanta system of the Hindu religion. The experiences of sensation and perception of the world is nothing more than illusion, since after all, reality is one (Brahman).
All of this leads us to the question: Are we in the Matrix? Apart from the above, The Matrix gives a powerful metaphor. I use this as a metaphor for false world views. I ask you to “take the red pill,” which is the moment in the first film in which Neo opts out of the Matrix. He is flushed out of the system to enter reality outside the Matrix. It may be painful, but it will get you the real world.
American Christians need to take the “red pill” and wake up from our “end times” virtuality.
Dr. N.T. Wright, Canon Theologian of Westminster Abbey says,
The American obsession with the second coming of Jesus—especially with distorted interpretations of it—continues unabated. Seen from my side of the Atlantic, the phenomenal success of the Left Behind books appears puzzling, even bizarre. Few in the U.K. hold the belief on which the popular series of novels is based: that there will be a literal “rapture” in which believers will be snatched up to heaven, leaving empty cars crashing on freeways and kids coming home from school only to find that their parents have been taken to be with Jesus while they have been “left behind.” This pseudo-theological version of Home Alone has reportedly frightened many children into some kind of (distorted) faith. . . .What view of the world is sustained, even legitimized, by the Left Behind ideology? How might it be confronted and subverted by genuinely biblical thinking?
“Left Behindism” or Rapture fever is indeed a pseudo-theological version of “Home Alone.” Good one! I agree with Wright’ — however, let us remember, Rev. Dr. Wright, the error of Left Behindism or the “secret Rapture” spawned in British Isles before becoming an epidemic in America. The “secret Rapture” of the Church was never known before the early 19th century. Conceived by a British leader of the Brethren, John Nelson Darby (1800-1882), the American lawyer Cyrus I. Scofield popularized it in the “Scofield Study Bible” (1909).
This doctrine was preached in the evangelistic rallies of D. L. Moody (Moody Bible Institute), Lewis S. Chafer (founder of Philadelphia School of the Bible and Dallas Theological Seminary), and of course, by Billy Graham. With the organization of the state of Israel in 1948, the whole scheme became a best-seller in Hal Lindsey 's (“with C.C. Carlson”), Late Great Planet Earth (1970) (35 million copies). The schematic is well known in many “charts,” such as those in Clarence Larkin’s, Dispensational Truth. First there is the “imminent” secret “Rapture” of the Church which leaves unbelievers “behind,” a 7-year Tribulation commences in which the Antichrist arises to rule the world, the A-man implants 6-6-6 on the lost and the whole deal ends in the battle before the end of the world - Armageddon, and a literal 1,000-year millennium in which Satan will be bound and Jesus Christ will bodily rule from a throne in Jerusalem. At the end of that millennium unbelievers will, at the release of Satan, head off to Jerusalem and try to attack the resurrected Christ and all believers from all ages in resurrection bodies. These, resurrected-glorified saints, incidently, cannot die. I just have to say. I don’t think this last part is a particularly brilliant military strategy. “Hey, I got it, let’s go kill those unkillable people!”
Wright is on target in asking, “What view of the world is sustained, even legitimized, by the Left Behind ideology?” I think the answer is — it perpetuates the conception that our real obedience is longing to be “raptured” out of here. This is an ultra-pietistic way to disobey the fullness of the great commission, making the nations His disciples. Instead of thinking in terms of multi-generational faith, long-term commitments to glorify God in every aspect of life and culture, the agenda is “don’t polish brass on a sinking ship.” Just get people to say these words after me and you’ll have your “Get Out of Tribulation Card.” Do not pass go, do not go through tribulation.
Despite that this is enormously appealing to Americans, it is error. Looking back to popular mythologist, Hal Lindsey (“with C.C. Carlson”) (1970): he-she writes, “We should be living like persons who don’t expect to be around much longer” (p. 145). He builds a case that signs of the end are in the headlines (then) and that “within forty years or so of 1948, all these things could take place. Many scholars who have studied Bible prophecy all their lives believe that this is so” (p. 54). Well, does anybody really know what time it is? “The time is short” (p. 188).
I may be wrong here but, well . . . the world didn’t end in 1988 or 1989. Maybe we are just in the Matrix! Despite what Edgar Whisenant, NASA rocket scientist-turned prophecy teacher predicted, the rapture didn’t happen. The World Bible Society printed 3.2 million copies of Whisenant’s 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Could Be in 1988/On Borrowed Time (1988). Later they justified it because, “people heard the gospel.” I need not belabor the fact that these last days rocket scientists continue to be refuted by reality in spite of the Prophecy Matrix they propagate.
Of course, scholarly dispensationalists, disdain the date-setting fiascos. With indignation, they say how could you possibly lump these guys together as though dispensationalism equals date-setting! Dr. Thomas Ice, Executive Director, of Tim Lahaye’s Pre-Trib Research center chides Gary North for “dominionist propaganda” in linking Whisenant with dispensationalism. North said, “This is all too typical of dispensationalism.”
Ice replies, “Oh no it's not! Date-setting is not typical of dispensationalism in any shape, matter or form.” That’s a new one on me. I must have missed how all the guys were really Scottish covenanters. Ice says, “Dispensationalists do not say that the end is imminent but that it is possible at any-moment.” Of course the doctrinal statement of the church which hosts the article states, “His return is imminent. . .”
Here’s where we have some definition shell-gaming. Ice and others want to hold on to a term which meant for the original dispy’s “near in time.” Webster’s dictionary (1913) says of “imminent,” “Threatening to occur immediately; near at hand; impending.” American Heritage (2000) says, “About to occur; impending: in imminent danger.” The only place “imminent” occurs in English versions of Scripture is 2 Peter 1:14: The very dispensationally-biased NAS says: “knowing that the laying aside of my earthly dwelling is imminent, as also our Lord Jesus Christ has made clear to me.” This refers to Peter’s death. Interestingly, the ASV has the term as “cometh swiftly”; KJV/NKJ - “shortly”; NIV/NRS - “soon.” But, in the redefinition-shell game, “imminent” only means at any time.
Ice objects to date-setting but argues for “stage setting.”
So a dispensationalist sees certain current events as heightening his expectations about the future and can say that if this event or trend leads to specific fulfillment in the tribulation, then a certain current event was the beginning of prophetic fulfillment. However, it is wrong to say that events today fulfill prophecy.
This is truly a distinction without a difference. Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins “give 20 scriptural reasons why they believe we're now living in the last days” in their 1999 book (note the date), Are We Living in the End Times? Among the reasons are the tired propheteer’s list, “reorganization of the state of Israel, technology for the mark of the beast, a trend toward a one-world government, and satellite links that could broadcast to the entire world the two witnesses of Revelation 11.” So, the “end times” events which are “any-moment” are evidence by 20th century technology? I guess I’d just like to know if in 2050 the rapture hasn’t occurred could we use Deuteronomy 18 on these guys?
What of the indignant response to lumping all these guys together in last days madness? Dispensationalism never, ever, ever, ever, no never, date-sets! Well, I’m sorry, brothers. “Take the red pill.” It sounds to me like you guys all believe the same thing, you just don’t agree on the numbers. Or better, you have a plus or minus 40 year variable.
Compare the message of Left Behindism with the true gospel of our King of Kings. The message that inundates our world via the end times Matrix is: “believe in Jesus Christ [by repeating these phrases] and you’ll be raptured and not go through the Tribulation.” Over 50 million books by Tim Lahaye (with Jerry B. Jenkins) say it. Jack and Rexella Van Impe broadcast it. TBN canvases the globe with it. And many respected evangelical institutions, seminaries, and colleges provide the credentials for it. This is simply not the gospel of the Bible.
The short-form of the gospel from the lips of Paul and Silas is "Commit your complete allegiance to the true ruler of the world, Jesus Christ, and you will be delivered from this present calamity and the wrath of God, you and your household" (Acts 16:31). I have amplified the terms “believe,” “Lord” and “saved” to get at what the Philippian (Roman) jailer would have heard in a world of Caesar worship. This synopsis is pregnant with covenantal overtones of familial responsibilities with deep allegiance to Christ. The jailer was not told, “Say these words after me and you’ll be raptured. Oh, but by the way if you’re not raptured then you’ll have a second chance in the Tribulation.” This second chance doctrine is particularly damaging. Shrewd unbelievers who hear “loud and clear” the message of rapture fever should say, “I’ll just wait until it happens and join the ‘Tribulation Force.’”
I encourage you, “Take the red pill.” Flush yourself from The [Prophecy] Matrix.