What are life’s most pressing questions? According to Peter Weyland, head of the Weyland Corporation which is funding an inter-stellar space voyage, they include: “Where do we come from? What is the soul? What happens when we die?” Seeking answers to these questions represents the initial reason behind a trillion-dollar space expedition in the film Prometheus. Millions of theater-goers are encountering these questions this summer for eight to fifteen dollars at their local multiplex. All three questions represent the kind of thought-provoking inquiry that should occupy us in our most introspective moments and amidst our deep conversations with like-minded friends. The answers Prometheus offers represent a cautionary tale, but it does not follow that those who see it must come to similar conclusions. Prometheus, in its quest for God, is looking in the wrong place, searching with the wrong tools, and seeking the right end with a wrong attitude. Fortunately, we need not look to cave paintings to locate an appropriate roadmap to God.
Looking in the Wrong Place
Prometheus tips its hand in the opening, 2001: A Space Odyssey-like creation sequence. An alien craft deposits what appears to be a kind of human on the surface of a water-rich, but otherwise barren, planet. Removing the top of a canister – the top is crafted with a curious design that represents a tree (the tree of life?) – he drinks the contents, convulses, dies, disintegrates, and seeds the planet with the DNA from which all subsequent life springs.
We leap from there to the future where two archeologists, Elizabeth Shaw and Charlie Holloway, are discovering another in a series of cave paintings that depict smaller humans apparently worshipping a large human who is pointing to a signature cluster of stars in the heavens. Shaw has somehow intuited from these cave paintings that the larger god-like humans intend for us to visit them.
The good professors find, in Peter Weyland, a kindred spirit – with deep pockets – who agrees to finance the expedition. They have located the indicated star cluster and are ready to go in search of what they call “The Engineers” (how’s that for a nod to “Intelligent Design”?). They are anxious to meet their Maker.
But no one addresses the question of why the scientists would prefer one ancient text – cave paintings that have been hidden away for thousands of years – to another ancient text – the Bible (for example), which much more explicitly makes claims about God within contexts that can be tested. As the scientists explain their rationale for heading to the stars, they argue that since the star cluster is represented transculturally across time, that coincidence serves as evidence for its veracity. But as C.S. Lewis points out in The Abolition of Man, we have what can only be described as a kind of consistent transcendent morality written in the texts of the great religious documents of the world, transculturally and across time, as proof of the existence of (at the very least) a transcendent intelligence. This similar hypothesis does not figure in to the equation for the crew of Prometheus. Believing Lewis would, of course, undermine the need for a cinematic space voyage.
Searching with the Wrong Tools
Prometheus is a science-fiction film, so it makes sense that the tools of the search would be technological. The use of technology as a method for revealing the transcendent has come under fire not only from theologians, but also from media scholars such as Janice Hocker Rushing, who saw technology as primarily an extension of the male ego and dominance, ill-suited for spiritual quests. Scientific materialism is a poor starting place from which to seek the spiritual, because it begins with the assumption that all that really exists is matter.
The tools of science are wholly adequate for analyzing and describing the material world. They are completely inadequate for understanding the spiritual world. Ceding all claims concerning knowledge to science, we unfairly limit ourselves to the subject matter it is designed to study. And yet, as C.S. Lewis notes in Miracles, an answer might be so ever-present that we miss it by overlooking it: “The Naturalists have been engaged in thinking about Nature. They have not attended to the fact that they were thinking. The moment one attends to this it is obvious that one’s own thinking cannot be merely a natural event and that therefore something other than nature exists. The Supernatural is not remote and abstruse; it is a matter of daily and hourly experience, as intimate as breathing.”
Prometheus attempts to counter-balance the purely scientific materialist approach in the character of Dr. Elizabeth Shaw. In a flashback, she appears to be the child of a medical missionary, she wears a cross around her neck, and she has a very persistent kind of “faith” that is based, she tells a colleague, in what she chooses to believe. But neither technology nor belief as a kind of wishful thinking is a good starting place in a search for God.
If God is who He claims to be in the Bible, we, as creatures, cannot expect that He will submit Himself for scientific examination. Nevertheless, He has left ample evidence of His existence, power, and movement in history for those with eyes to see and ears to hear. Based on what we can know about God, we are justified in taking a Kierkegaardian leap of faith – not a blind leap, but one that engages both reason and belief.
Seeking the Right End With a Wrong Attitude
Rudolf Otto, in The Idea of the Holy, notes that human beings are both drawn to and simultaneously frightened by the idea of a real encounter with God. We are curious about the prospect of meeting our Maker, but terrified should He be the Holy God who is a consuming fire that the Bible explains Him to be. He is Love and He is Judgment – a fascinating and fearful combination. There is nothing wrong with wanting answers to life’s persistent transcendent questions, but we must be careful how we approach God.
As Prometheus notes, we have questions, and they are good questions. God wants us to know who made us, that we have an immortal component called a soul, and that we face judgment and eternal life or death once we pass away. The answers to these questions (and many others as well) are revealed in the Scriptures. But the characters in Prometheus, particularly Peter Weyland, come to the Engineers not as supplicants, but as plaintiffs. Weyland is seeking a way to overcome death; others demand to know why humans were created in the first place. Like many contemporary humans, they act as if God owes them answers and that they will be the ones who sit in judgment on the adequacy of God’s responses.
That the film and the ship the characters travel in are both named Prometheus is apt. In Greek mythology, Prometheus was the titan who, in pride, determined to steal the fire of the gods and is a symbol of the tragic consequences of overreaching. A more instructive example would be found in the book of Job. Feeling wronged by God, Job longs to plead his case and bring accusations before his Maker. But once God appears in a whirlwind beginning in chapter 38, Job immediately recognizes the impassible gulf that exists between Creator and creature, and his demands melt into submission. Humility, not hubris, is the appropriate attitude to bring before the Almighty.
Where to Find God
Even a cursory look at the trailers for Prometheus shows that what the voyagers encounter is not the God of the Bible. Even if these beings are responsible for human life on Earth, they do not represent any kind of immortal, omnipotent God. One of the characters raises the issue that their discovery discounts the existence of God, as if to not find Him on this remote planet is proof of His non-existence. Nothing could be further from the truth. God is not far from us.
The Bible is clear on where we can successfully look for God. We are not to go into the heavens with the ridiculous notion that we can bring God down to us (Romans 10:6-10). The Apostle Paul wrote that we need not grope blindly in search of a God who is reluctant to reveal Himself, “for in Him we live and move and exist” (Acts 17:27-28). Rather, that God has revealed Himself in His creation (Psalm 19:1-2; Romans 1:20), in His Word (Luke 1:67-75), and in His incarnation (John 1:1-4; Colossians 1:13-20), that we might know and obey Him. We need not traverse inter-stellar space in search of Him. He has revealed Himself to us.
Some people have never had an encounter with God. They want to know how they came to be, what is their purpose, and what happens to them when they die. Christians have had encounters with God. They learn of Him through the Scriptures, and many have had direct encounters with Him through miracles or hear Him in that still, small voice in prayer. Philosopher Dallas Willard, in his books Knowing Christ Today and Hearing God, addresses how we can both truly encounter and communicate with God. But before people can know or hear God, they “must believe that He exists and is the rewarder of those who seek Him” (Hebrews 11:6).
Materialists tell us that seeing is believing, but, in a very real sense, believing is seeing. The presuppositions that color the way we explain our experience to each other determine the kind of stories we tell. But, make no mistake, the materialist does this to the same degree as the supernaturalist. Both have presuppositions that precede their encounter with “the evidence.” Evidence never “speaks for itself.” For those who have had real encounters with God, stand up, tell your story, be a witness, and testify to the power of God. You might be just the person some people need to hear from as they continue to search for answers to life's important questions.
Marc T. Newman, Ph.D., is the president of MovieMinistry.com, an organization that provides sermon and teaching illustrations, Bible studies and discussion cards, drawn from popular film, and helps the Church use movies to reach out to others and connect with people. Dr. Newman is an associate professor in the School of Communication and the Arts at Regent University. Requests for media interviews, or reprints of this article, can be made to firstname.lastname@example.org.