Christian and other symbolism in the movie Prometheus

  • Question 175, from Ian, United Kingdom

    There’s a lot of discussion about the movie Prometheus at the moment. I was talking to someone who said that the reference to ‘two thousand years’ referred to the crucifixion of Jesus, who was an alien. What do you think about this?

    The following answer contains spoilers

    Prometheus poster

    Having taken almost $300 million at the box office, Prometheus is the latest box office hit directed by Sir Ridley Scott of Alien and Blade Runner fame.

    However, despite its popularity, the film has generated much debate, particularly around the use of religious iconography and themes that seem to be deliberately woven into the storyline.

    The basic gist is that archaeologists discover cave drawings and other relics that purport to be a star map. After journeying to the planet identified in the drawings on board the spaceship Prometheus, the crew discover an alien military base that was wiped out following an accidental release of a bio-weapon some two thousand years before. One surviving member of the alien race – referred to  by fans as the Engineers – has survived and attempts to set course for Earth to destroy it and the crew of Prometheus have to stop him by any means necessary.

    It is the two thousand year time-gap that has caused many people to speculate whether the story is supposed to link in with human history – especially the death of Jesus Christ approximately that length of time ago.

    There is plenty of other religious symbolism, not all of it Christian, thrown into the mix, as the Engineers are credited with causing life to develop on Earth, and are believed to hold the key to human immortality.

    An alien Jesus?

    The speculation regarding the ‘Jesus hypothesis’ as it has been dubbed by fans, has been fuelled by an interview that Ridley Scott gave to Sean O’Connell from the website[1]. Scott was asked: “We had heard it was scripted that the Engineers were targeting our planet for destruction because we had crucified one of their representatives, and that Jesus Christ might have been an alien. Was that ever considered?”

    Scott’s reply suggests it was: “We definitely did, and then we thought it was a little too on the nose. But if you look at it as an ‘our children are misbehaving down there’ scenario, there are moments where it looks like we’ve gone out of control, running around with armour and skirts, which of course would be the Roman Empire. And they were given a long run. A thousand years before their disintegration actually started to happen. And you can say, ‘Lets’ send down one more of our emissaries to see if he can stop it. Guess what? They crucified him.’”

    If Ridley and his fellow creatives did entertain that idea, then they were not being completely original. Suggested explanations for the more unusual elements of the Biblical stories have frequently drifted into science fiction territory. For example, the Aetherius society, founded in the 1950s by followers of UFO contactee George King, believe Jesus was from Venus where he lives as a spirit being.

    Other theories that have been seriously propounded include that Mary was abducted by aliens who implanted an alien-human hybrid in her virgin womb, or that the resurrected Jesus was in a cloned body, which his unique brain pattern had been ‘copied’ into. As strange as this may seem, this idea does explain why the witnesses to the resurrection don’t immediately recognise him.

    In the interview, Scott also cites John Milton’s poem Paradise Lost as an ‘inspiration’, saying: “I always had it in there that the God-like creature that you will see actually is not so nice, and is certainly not God.…if you look at the Engineers, they’re tall and elegant … they are dark angels.”

    So, it appears that Scott is playing with a much wider palette of religious and spiritual ideas. Far from being benevolent, self-sacrificing saviours, the Engineers could be evil. Tying Jesus Christ into this view of the Engineers would be very controversial, which may be one of the reasons Scott rejected the idea.

    Immortal dreams

    While the religious symbolism is rife in the film, the bigger question is about immortality and what kind of ‘eternal life’ could be gained by humans. The central motif is very similar to Blade Runner, where the androids seek to confront their creators to ask why they have been programmed to ‘die’. Except in Prometheus, it is humans asking the questions of their creators.

    The exploratory mission is funded by an extremely elderly rich patron who is seeking to live forever. This is the link to the Prometheus of legend – the titan who stole fire from the gods on Olympus. Finding the secret of immortality would be a similar fire-stealing moment. A short sequence at the start of the film shows the main female character, Elizabeth Shaw dreaming about a conversation with her now dead parents about life after death.

    Shaw wears a cross on a necklace.  A central plot point revolves around her almost losing the talisman at one point in the film. In Christian iconography the empty cross, as opposed to a crucifix, is a symbol of both resurrection and immortality as well as of death and sacrifice.

    Inside the Engineer’s base there is artwork on a wall in a room that seems to be a temple depicting a being in a cruciform pose, their side torn open – not unlike both the titan Prometheus being punished, and also traditional images of Christ on the cross after his side is pierced by the legionaries responsible for his execution.

    One of the deliberately ambiguous themes in Prometheus is the nature of the bio-weapon. It seems to be a responsive nanotechnology tool that can deconstruct and reconstitute biological cells right down to the DNA. Life seems to flow from sacrifice, again a theme found in many religions based on a sacrificial system (Scott cites the Mayans and the Incas), and possibly echoing the Christian idea of death leading through resurrection to immortal life.

    Virgin Birth

    Another part of the film that seems to have Christian overtones includes the ‘birth sequence’ where a barren woman called Elizabeth has her pregnancy announced to her, which parallels with the birth of John the Baptist to Mary’s cousin Elizabeth in Luke’s gospel. This just happens to fall on Christmas Day – surely not an accidental choice by the script-writers. Shaw’s progeny ends up saving her, and by extension the rest of humanity as her attacker would surely have gone on to use a different ship to wipe out humankind.

    So there is plenty of symbolism there if the movie-goer cares to look for it. How much of it is deliberate is hard to tell. Often underlying cultural motifs and themes work their way subconsciously into the stories that film-makers tell. However, maybe the rumoured Prometheus 2 will shed more light on the matter.

    If Scott does a U-turn and the sequel does go down the route of explaining Jesus as an Engineer, whose death resulted in the decision to wipe out the human race, that may be more fanciful than most science fiction fans would think. As one commentator on the Prometheus forum has pointed out: “[It] doesn’t really hold up to ten seconds of scrutiny when you think of what Jesus actually did, though. He never went to Rome, or to any of the other major civilizations of the era that started wars and conquered people. He seemed content to let them do their thing and didn’t care. He appeared to a tiny, obscure tribe in the desert, one of hundreds that had been conquered, who weren’t really giving anyone trouble, to tell them they were practicing monotheism all wrong, when in the bigger picture, they were pretty much the only ones practicing it at all. If the Engineers really wanted to see a more peaceful, loving mankind, it’s hard to believe they would have sent a guy into the desert to reform Judaism, as insignificant as it was to the larger world.” [2]

    That, of course, may be the reason that Ridley Scott said the idea was considered but ultimately rejected. An additional issue is that someone possibly would have noticed if Jesus was an albino giant like the Engineers are in the movie. He would have stood out in the Middle East at that time. Some plot device would have to be developed to explain why he wasn’t stoned on sight as a monster.

    It seems more likely, and sensible, for Scott to continue developing his own mythology regarding the Engineers, without tying it too closely to explanations of the origins of world religions.


    [1], Dialogue: Sir Ridley Scott Explains ‘Prometheus,’ Explores Our Past, and Teases Future ‘Alien’ Stories

    [2] Prometheus forum:

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    1. Simon Jul 15

      I cant help but wonder if parallels could be drawn between Prometheus and Chris de Burgh’s Christmas hit “A Spaceman came Travelling”. What do you think?

    2. dylan May 20

      if you’re going to title this “religious and Christian…”, you should include in your article things beyond Christianity. There is far more to religion than Christianity and it would be nice to find an article on Prometheus that focuses on non-Christian symbols like the style of the alien ship’s unfinished circle appearance and the hand gestures represented by the two ends of the ship.
      It’s possible you have little knowledge on things outside the bubble of Christianity, but then I suggest making it clear it is solely a Christian article.

    3. Jon the freelance theologian May 24

      Hi Dylan

      Thanks for the feedback. I’ve changed the title, although there are some references to other religions in the article, namely Greek pre-Christian myths, and Mayan and Inca religious ideas regarding sacrifice. The article also included some beliefs about Jesus that are found outside Christianity (e.g. Jesus being an alien).

      I wasn’t aware there was any more significance to the alien spaceship other than it was supposed to copy the ‘space-hulk’ found in the movie Alien. The space-hulk was not designed with any religious intent in mind according to The Book of Alien by Paul Scanlon and Michael Gross. It would be interesting to hear more.

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