Taking the Red Pill: Beyond the Matrix to Real Life
Jewish people have always been dreamers. From the time of Joseph, who earned his living as a dream interpreter in Pharaoh’s court, to the realization of our dreams for a homeland in 1948, we’ve dared to believe in things that seemed inconceivable. But what would you do if you suddenly found out that everything around you—your family, friends, your house—was all a fabrication? Furthermore, let’s say you were given a choice between knowing that it was all a facade or remaining unaware. Which would you choose?
Such is the dilemma posed to Neo, a gifted computer hacker, at the beginning of the popular film The Matrix. Neo has always had a strange feeling that there was something not quite right about the world. He is in search of truth but afraid of its consequences.
When he finds the answers he’s looking for, it’s only the beginning of the story.
The Matrix may appear to be simply a well-done science fiction film, but it contains some compelling parallels and themes for us to consider. It questions what we know as reality, and puts to us a choice: to accept that what we see around us at face value, or to explore life’s bigger, scarier questions, such as…
WHAT IS THE MATRIX?
Through a series of circumstances, Neo is taken to meet Morpheus, an inscrutable character, who tells him:
Morpheus: The Matrix is everywhere.…It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.
Neo: What truth?
Morpheus: That you are a slave, Neo. Like everyone else, you were born into bondage, born inside a prison that you cannot smell, taste or touch. A prison for your mind. Unfortunately, no one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself. This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back.
Morpheus holds out his hands; one contains a blue pill and the other a red. He tells Neo that if he takes the red pill, the truth will be revealed. If he takes the blue, then he’ll return to his normal life, believing whatever he chooses.
Neo is asked to accept that there is such a thing as absolute truth. He, like many of us finds this hard to acknowledge, particularly because the truth is often not what he/we would like it to be. Modern-day Judaism reflects this; everything from atheism to Buddhism (except belief in Jesus) is permissible within the spectrum of Judaism so long as nobody steps on anyone’s toes. Even though Judaism itself is rooted in absolutes, including belief in one God and in an absolute moral code, or law, many Jewish people in today’s pluralistic culture relegate that foundation to the past, preferring to pronounce it as obsolete rather than right or wrong.
We see Neo hesitate, and then choose the red pill. And this is how he finds out that malevolent machines have enslaved humanity and that all he knows to be valid is actually the product of a virtual reality programmed into everyone’s brain so they won’t realize that they are being used for fuel.
An incredible plot? Certainly. And yet the idea that the world is not as it seems is nothing new. The Hebrew Scriptures tell us that everything we see, touch, hear and smell is not ultimate reality. In fact, there is a greater, supernatural reality that is for the most part unseen. The Prophets spoke the words of God: My ways are higher than your ways, and my thoughts are higher than your thoughts.” As Shakespeare wrote, “There are more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” The Matrix portrays millions of people living out their lives with no clue that they are being deceived.
Yet people bear some complicity in their own state. The machines are emblematic of man’s hubris (pride); Morpheus states,
…at some point in the early twenty-first century all of mankind was united in celebration. We marveled at our own magnificence as we gave birth to AI [artificial intelligence]…a singular consciousness that spawned an entire race of machines.…Throughout human history, we have been dependent on machines to survive. Fate, it seems, is not without a sense of irony.
The Bible tells us that since the time of Adam and Eve, our first ancestors, people have striven to assume control of their surroundings rather than acknowledging God’s sovereignty. We have put our trust in our intelligence, our abilities and our strength, often to our own peril.
Neo has always felt that he was in control of his life. Finding out the opposite is so unfathomable and painful that he asks if he can return to the Matrix. Morpheus says no, and then asks, “But if you could, would you really want to?”
This question highlights a conflict we all have on some level. The universality of this conflict is perhaps why the movie is so popular—it brings into focus choices all of us have to make.
REALITY VS. ILLUSION
Neo struggles to free his mind from what he now knows is a lie. He resists because the illusion was much more pleasant. In the Matrix, life was pretty good; he had a good job, a comfortable apartment and plenty of amusement. In what he is beginning to comprehend as the “real” world, things are bleak: humanity is enslaved, few people know what he knows and the comforts and conveniences he previously enjoyed have been traded for a battle against the machines.
The truth is often less pleasant than fiction. Many will take illusion any way they can get it—from getting lost in a fantasy film world to taking drugs—anything to avoid dealing with life’s difficult realities.
Cypher, another character in The Matrix, embodies this dilemma between choosing truth or illusion. He’s been a member of Morpheus’ crew for quite some time, but he’s grown tired of the struggle against the machines, tired of the dreary circumstances, tired of listening to Morpheus.
So Cypher conspires with “agents” of the Matrix, who promise to put Cypher back into the dream world in exchange for Morpheus’ capture. Cypher’s betrayal is revealed in a dramatic scene that takes place inside the Matrix. He sits in a fancy restaurant in front of a thick, perfectly cooked steak with two agents, who ask him:
Agent Smith: Do we have a deal…?
Cypher: You know, I know this steak doesn’t exist. I know that when I put it in my mouth, the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious. After nine years, you know what I realize? Ignorance is bliss.
Morpheus is the one who originally freed Cypher from the illusion of the Matrix, but Cypher would rather trade that freedom for the lie.
Let’s face it: the truth and what we’d like to be truth aren’t always the same thing. Can we really blame Cypher for wanting illusion, when the truth was obviously more unpleasant? Can we really fault people for wanting to feel like Cypher—in control of their own world?
The answer is no, we can’t blame anyone for wanting to be the captain of their own ship—not if there isn’t a better option. We all may as well live in delusion…unless there’s a greater hope to be had, and so we come to another conflict in The Matrix.
HOPE VS. DOUBT
Cypher chose to give up on the idea that anything was going to change. But he had two good reasons to be optimistic. We just observed that the first, his belief in the resistance movement, died out. But his second reason to hope was right in front of him; he just didn’t have the faith to believe in the person of prophecy.
At the beginning of the film, when Morpheus first frees Neo, he tells him:
When the Matrix was first built there was a man born inside that had the ability to change what he wanted, to remake the Matrix as he saw fit. It was he who freed the first of us and taught us the truth: as long as the Matrix exists, the human race will never be free. When he died, the Oracle prophesied his return and envisioned that his coming would hail the destruction of the Matrix, an end to the war and freedom for our people. That is why there are those of us that have spent our entire lives searching the Matrix, looking for him…I believe the search is over.
Morpheus’ belief in “the One” as Neo is called is similar to the Jewish belief in a Messiah, the “Anointed One” who will come and redeem the world. Today, many people explain away the concept of Messiah; they say that instead we are hoping for a messianic “age,” an era of peace, not a person. Others have stopped expecting the Messiah altogether. Cypher mirrors this skepticism. Even though Morpheus is convinced that Neo is the One, doubting Cypher even tries to kill Neo to prove that he’s not:
Cypher: How can he be the One if he’s dead?
Cypher’s attempt to kill Neo is thwarted. However, later in the movie, Neo does die. But then he wakes up and is even stronger, faster and more powerful than he was before. After his resurrection, Neo and the entire crew are even more convinced than ever that he is the One. Interestingly, it actually takes Neo’s death and resurrection to prove his “One-ness.”
Does this sound like someone else who came to our world, who also died and rose again? When Yeshua (Jesus) died, many of his followers felt hopeless, but when he rose again from the dead, Scriptures and history tell us that they believed in him even more fervently. And 2,000 years later, there are still millions who believe that Yeshua is the Messiah of whom our prophets wrote.
The prophets predicted that the Messiah, the Anointed One, would suffer and die as a sacrifice for all of our wrongdoing (Isaiah 53), and that he would come again to usher in a new age of true and lasting peace. That’s why many ultra-orthodox Jews still await the resurrection of the deceased Rebbe Schneerson, whom they believe is Messiah. But those who believe in Jesus know that he has already been resurrected and so they are waiting for the day of his return when he will fulfill these words:
“Sing for joy and be glad, O daughter of Zion; for behold I am coming and I will dwell in your midst,” declares the LORD. “And many nations will join themselves to the LORD in that day and will become My people. Then I will dwell in your midst, and you will know that the LORD of hosts has sent Me to you.” (Zechariah 2:10-11)
It’s interesting that in The Matrix, the last refuge humanity has is a place called “Zion”:
Tank: If the war was over tomorrow, Zion is where the party would be.
Neo: It’s a city?
Tank: The last human city. The only place we have left.…Live long enough you might even see it. This is a very exciting time.
Every person who has been plucked out of the false realism of the Matrix has to decide if he or she is going to hope and believe that the Oracle was right, that the One and Zion are real and that he or she is going to align himself or herself with that reality. The alternative is to do nothing and let humanity perish in their dream world.
THE CHOICE: KNOWING THE PATH VS. WALKING THE PATH
How does this apply to us? Virginia Woolf wrote, “Life is a dream…’tis waking that kills us.” Many of us are living in a kind of matrix, a matrix that tells us that we are in control of our own lives, or a matrix that tells us that some things just cannot be true for us as Jews, such as the idea that Yeshua is the Messiah.
It’s not easy to question our assumptions. Take for example someone like Steve. Steve is Jewish and he has a hunch that Jesus is the Messiah. But he knows that accepting this will affect many of his relationships. His family has raised him not to believe in Jesus. His community has taught him that if there is a Messiah, it certainly isn’t Jesus. For Steve to admit that he has found the truth, implies that everyone else in his sphere should be informed by him of this truth. So Steve is hesitant to move further toward faith in Yeshua. But deep down he knows that truth is truth, whether he believes it or not.
There is so much we don’t know, but we do know that God has not left us in the Matrix alone. The book of Ecclesiastes says that God has, “…set eternity in the hearts of [people]; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end” (Ecclesiastes 3:11).
God has a plan and a purpose for creation that one day will be brought to pass. We can choose to follow him, even though it may involve uncomfortable realizations, or we can continue to ignore that feeling inside us that tells us there is an answer out there that we haven’t considered, an answer that will open up a whole new world.
Toward the end of The Matrix, Morpheus tells Neo, “There is a difference between knowing the path and walking the path.” The difference is belief. God has sent us the One who can save us if we will only trust in him.
So, which pill will you take?