The Theology of the Movie

Warner Brothers, 2005

The movie Constantine, featuring Keanu Reeves, Rachel Weisz, Tilda Swinton, and other notable actors, follows a character, John Constantine, who is a combination of exorcist and demon hunter. The movie character is based on a number of comic books, originally published by DC Comics, under the titles "Hellblazer" (1988-2013, 2016-2018) and "Constantine" (2013-2016). I am unfamliar with the comic books or their mythology and will confine my attention to what is presented in the movie -- as I have done with Star Trek and Star Wars, whose extra-cinematic lore has taken on a life of its own and which I have only addressed because of the promotion of apparently socialist economics in both the Star Trek and Star Wars universes.

The movie Constantine, which was successful at the box office, and reportedly more popular with audiences than with critics, is noteworthy, not just for whatever virtues it may have as story, acting, entertainment, or visually, but for its religious and theological (or perhaps soteriological) themes, principles, and claims. I have enjoyed the movie a lot, on a number of viewings, but my concern is more for the way it presents, or misrepresents, religious issues in a form of public discourse.

A foundational issue in the movie is that John Constantine committed suicide as a child. He had been seeing a frightening supernatural side to the world that is invisible to most people. Since adults could not believe what he was seeing, this drove him to suicide. A key point in the movie is not that he just "tried" suicide, but that he succeeded. He was dead, and in Hell. This lasted only briefly in the visible world, but time goes more slowly in Hell, and his time there seemed substantial.

It is accepted without question in the movie that Constantine is still damned, because of the suicide, and is absolutely destined for Hell when he does die. Since he has been exorcizing demons, this annoys Satan enough that he intends to collect Constantine's soul personally at his death.

However, this principle, so foundational for the movie, is untrue, according to all traditional Christian doctrine. Even if you have died, really died, returning to life resets the salvation clock. An example of this is part of the lore of the Middle Ages that is featured in Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri. In Purgatory, Dante encounters the Roman Emperor Trajan, who is attested as a Christian by no historical source. However, there was a legend that Trajan had been such a good man that God brought him back to life just so he could be saved as a Christian. I don't think that the Catholic Church endorses this story, but Dante liked it. And it does embody the principle in question, which is that, if you are alive, you can believe, repent, and be saved.

John Constantine is alive. Therefore, to deal with his suicide, all he needs to do is believe and repent. Case closed. He just goes to confession -- the Catholic Church is all we see in the movie -- confess, be absolved, and he is set for eternity. A priest will take care of that. He doesn't need a dialogue with the angel Gabriel.

Of course, there would then be no movie. What we get instead is of interest in its own right. His argument to Tilda Swinton (as Gabriel) is that he should be allowed into Heaven because of his good works, fighting the agents of Satan. In some systems, this might be enough. We get the sense in Zoroastrianism that salvation just means being and doing good. Also, in Buddhism, the original idea seems to be that salvation is earned through moral practice, by which one accumulates "merit." It is not clear whether the "Three Refuges" -- the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha -- are some kind of confession of faith, or simply an available and convenient means to the accumulation of merit. There are people who achieve Buddhahood on their own without any knowledge of Siddhartha Gautama -- such a person is a Pratyeka Buddha. This is orthodox doctrine.

Tilda Swinton rejects Constantine's argument because it is simply about his own self-interest. This is a very important point. There is a difference between prudence and what Kant called "good will." If you are good just for the purpose of getting into Heaven and avoiding Hell, this is not morally laudable in comparison to someone who is good just for its own sake, just because the good is good.

However, being good out of prudence does not preclude salvation in Christian doctrine. And that is because salvation operates on a different dimension than moral goodness. They intersect, which is why repentance is necessary for salvation. But you can repent out of fear of Hell. You will just not be a Saint, or get a good seat in Heaven. You will be out in the Heavenly bleachers, while the Saints have the good seats, the luxury boxes, right by God. But you will still see God, and his Bliss, which is the final promise of salvation.

In the movie, what plays out instead is the principle that salvation requires moral selflessness. The Son of Satan, Mammon, has planned to become incarnated through the body of Rachel Weisz so that he can claim and rule the world, in place of his father. Gabriel has betrayed God and is helping Mammon become incarnated. Constantine cannot defeat her. So he commits suicide again, which he expects will summon Satan (a marvelous Peter Stormare. whom we see as the stupid murderer in Fargo), as it does. Brought up to date, Satan burns off Gabriel's wings, rendering her mortal, and he sends Mammon back to Hell.

Satan therefore offers Constantine a favor, which he assumes will be Constantine's own salvation. It isn't. Constantine asks that Rachel Weisz's twin sister, who committed suicide at the beginning of the movie, to escape the plot of Mammon, and consequently had been sent to Hell, be freed from Hell. This is done. Satan then prepares, with relish, to drag Constantine to Hell. However, the selfless act of saving the sister has earned Constantine salvation, and he begins to rise towards Heaven. Rather than allow this defeat, Satan instead restores Constantine to life and health (he has been dying of lung cancer), apprently in the hope that he will end up damning himself again. This seems unlikely, especially when Constantine is now free of the sin of his original suicide.

Rising to Heaven through a selfless act, or just a selfless will, seems like the somewhat heterodox argument of The Great Divorce [1945] by C.S. Lewis. We also see it in the movie What Dreams May Come [1998], where Robbin Williams (1951-2014), after his own death, rescues his wife (Annabella Sciorra) from Hell, where she has fallen simply from a kind of moral autism, because of the trauma of the deaths of all her children and her husband, losing all connection to other people. Awakening her from that state, Williams gets her to agree to be reborn together, hopefully to live less tragic lives.

The personal religion of C.S. Lewis was somewhat idiosyncratic, and it is not clear to me if he really believed that salvation is entirely a matter of moral attitude. The principle of What Dreams May Come, in turn, is not so much a moral attitude but a psychological one, which fits in more with modern "non-judgmental" and "self-realization" psychobabble. Constantine itself is very far from being non-judgmental.

Catholic doctrine, which in this respect is shared by most Christians, is that for salvation you need two things:  Faith and repentance. Repentance is necessary because sin merits damnation. But repentance is not enough. Even repentant, you still merit damnation. The (sensible) judge does not excuse the murderer because he is remorseful or penitent, although that may be a mitigating factor in the sentencing. What more that you need is faith. Thus, Jesus on the Cross has taken upon himself the punishment for your sin. If you believe that Jesus has done this, and that he is the Savior, then you are freed and "washed clean" from sin. Protestants think that is the end of it, you are in Heaven; but Catholic doctrine was that you are not entirely "washed clean" of the "stain of sin," which must be expiated in Purgatory. Many Catholics no longer believe this themselves.

None of that is present in the stories under consideration. Jesus is mentioned in Constantine, but he only figures in an inactive background. He does not occur at all, as I remember, in either The Great Divorce or What Dreams May Come. It would be surprising to see an active use of Christianity in that Hollywood movie, and we don't see it. It is a denuminized and demoralized treatment, far beyond what we get in Constantine. What is surprising, however, is that it does not figure in the C.S. Lewis book. Lewis has forgotten something. No turning away from self will work without Jesus, at least for a Christian.

Recollecting Dante again, we must be reminded that morality, whether prudential or otherwise, is not enough for salvation. Catholic doctrine allows, and Dante supplies examples, of the "virtuous pagans," who are people that were morally good but who did not achieve Christian salvation. Thus, there is a place in Dante's Hell that is not a place of punishment, but instead rather like the Greek idea of the Elysian Fields, where the likes of Socrates and Aristotle, and even the Sultan Saladin of Egypt, live their immortal lives, much as they would have imagined it themselves. Saladin's own moral virtue even overcomes his faith in a different and hostile religion, Islâm.

While Buddhism begins with doctrine that we might construe as prudential, for the accumulation of merit, in the period of the Mahâyâna we get something different. Buddhists were discouraged at the idea that the accumulation of merit could take many kalpas, i.e. millions of years, while meanwhile they are liable to fall into the Hells for sinful behavior. "Buddhism" as psychobabble generally leaves out the Buddhist Hells. Also, Buddhists were bound to reflect that the Compassion of the Buddha would not leave people alone to endure, not just suffering in general, but the possible punishments of the Hells. The result was Pure Land Buddhism, where faith in the Vow of the Buddha Amitâbha would enable one to be reborn in his Pure Land, there to work out salvation untroubled by ordinary life, let alone punishments. This, with variations, became the most popular form of Buddhism in East Asia. Thus, Buddhism tended to transform from a practice of good works, to a religion of faith. Indeed, in Japan, Shinran, who taught a "faith alone" form of Pure Land Buddhism, was accused by later Jesuit missionaries of teaching the same heresy, learned from Satan, as Martin Luther.

The "Spear of Destiny," Kaiserliche Schatzkammer, Hofburg Palace, Vienna
Constantine, therefore, is a movie of religion without faith. It is not necessarily even about a religion of good works, since the key point is not the works themselves, but the moral attitude with which they are undertaken.

One might even say that Constantine is otherwise a movie about religion that is basically magic. The means by which Mammon is supposed to be born into the world are magical. Something must be used to kill Rachel Weisz that bears the blood of Christ. This is the "MacGuffin" of the movie, the "Spear of Desinty," which is supposed to have pierced the side of Jesus on the Cross. The actual spear is a relic that ended up in the hands of the Hapsburgs as Holy Roman Emperors. Kept in the Hofburg Palace in Vienna, the spear is almost certainly a Carolingian forgery, but it was taken seriously enough to have been removed by the Germans during World War II. If it was supposed to ensure victories, it didn't work any better for the Nazis than it had, ultimately, for the Hapsburgs.

Recovered and returned to Vienna after the War, in rumor the actual spear was not returned -- a forgery substituted for the forgery. Thus, in the movie Constantine, the story begins with the spear being discovered under an abandoned Mexican church, wrapped in a Nazi flag. The young Mexican who discovers it is immediately possessed with supernatural powers and an urge to carry the relic to Los Angeles, where it arrives in time for the magical ritual conducted by Tilda Swinton. After her defeat, Keanu Reeves entrusts the spear for safe keeping to Rachel Weisz. Ordinary tourists, however, can see what is certainly the genuine (forged) relic in Vienna.

An exception to the magical undertone of Constantine occurs late in the movie, when Constantine is questioning and, well, torturing the semi-demon Balthazar. Constantine threatens to absolve Balthazar of sin, which will send him to Heaven, where he does not want to go. And so the ritual begins to absolve Balthazar, who gives up and tells Constantine what he wants to know. But it was all a bluff. Balthazar should have known it, but Constantine must finally tell him, that you cannot be absolved without repentance. The ritual alone cannot do the job. It is not just magic.

Quite true, but something else gets left out. In Catholic doctrine, Constantine does not have the power to absolve even a penitant Balthazar. He is not, as far as we know, an ordained priest. The power to confer absolution goes back to St. Peter, who has been given by Christ the power and authority to "bind and loose" both on Earth and in Heaven [Matthew 6:19]. Peter passed on this power by the ritual of ordaining priests, who in turn ordained other priests, and so forth.

Protestants, of course, do not believe this. They reject the existence of a priesthood, and they see absolution as granted directly by Christ to any penitant believer. After a fashion, the Catholic Church goes along. You do not need a priest or absolution to be saved. Belief and repentance are enough. The difference is the weight of the "stain of sin" that one will bear. Dante found those saved in articulo mortis, at the moment of death, waiting on the shore of Purgatory. They will need to wait a long time, and then their trip up through Purgatory will also take a long time. Protestants reject this also, along with the whole theory of the "stain of sin."

Thus the mythology of Constantine continues to play fast and loose with Catholic doctrine. But perhaps if Constantine had indeed been ordained a priest, he would have learned that, living again, he could repent of his suicide and still be saved.

A remaining issue about Constantine would involve the status of the suicides we witness in the movie. Rachel Weisz's twin sister has jumped off a building to her death; and John Constantine has slit his wrists in order to summon Satan. As Weisz is told by her priest, the suicide is a mortal sin and her sister cannot be saved. Constantine simply repeats the sin for which he has felt damned his entire life.

We realize, of course, that in each case there are mitigating and extenuating circumstances. Weisz's sister, who has always been psychologically troubled for the same reasons as was John Constantine, is escaping the plot that she foresees to use her body for the incarnation of Mammon. Death is her only recourse. Because of that, the target of the plot shifts to her sister, the Rachel Weisz whom we see through the movie. Weisz, even with the help of John Constantine, is unable to prevent the final act of the plot. Only Constantine stops it, by summoning Satan.

How would God judge these suicides? Well, if God distinguishes the mens rea from the actus reus, neither Weisz nor Constantine were acting with a "guilty mind." People who sacrifice their lives in battle to save others, or against criminals to save others, do not count as suicides. The suicides in the movie are conformable to those terms.

On other hand, what we might prefer to see is the "mighty hand," ἡ χεὶρ κραταιά [Exodus 3:19], or the "upraised arm," ὁ βραχίων ὑψηλός [Exodus 6:6], of God himself thrust into the events. A proper Angel of the Lord, unlike the faithless Gabriel, perhaps the warrior archangel Michael (played by John Travolta in Michael [1996]), could have straightened things out right away. The spectacular ending of Raiders of the Lost Ark [1981], with God vaporizing Nazis, would have been just the ticket. Of course, part of the premise of the movie Constantine is that God and Satan have a "non-intervention" agreement. This is not Canonical, although the failure of God to set many things right in the world, and allowing Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Roe v. Wade, and others to murder millions of people, could be taken as evidence of such an agreement. In the movie itself, we see that the agreement has already been violated by Mammon and Gabriel.

Be that as it may, if the suicides of the movie were by necessity, we must expect Divine Judgment to rule appropriately.

"Constantine" is not a common name in Catholic or Protestant Christianity. Meeting someone of that name, one would tend to think that they derive from Greece, Russia, or some other Eastern Orthodox country. Since the Roman Emperor Constantine legalized and then adopted Christianity, transforming Roman history, this is more than a little strange and surprising. You would think that many Christians would be named "Constantine," a name that derives from Latin (Constantinus), not from Greek or Russian.

Constantine, right, presents the City, and Justinian, left, presents the Church, to the Virgin Mary and Christ; Sancta Sophia, Constantinople; abbreviations for Μήτηρ Θεοῦ, "Mother of God."
My suspicion is that the name "Constantine" was discouraged in the Catholic Church, with the attitude insensibly (and paradoxically) inherited by Protestants, because of ideological hostilities between the Papacy and the Mediaeval Roman Emperors in Constantinople. The Emperor Constans II even arrested Pope Martin I (649-653, d.655) and exiled him to the Crimea.

Thus, there was only one legitimate Pope Constantine (708-715), the last Mediaeval Pope to visit Constantinople, while the count of Emperors named "Constantine" reached eleven before the Turkish conquest in 1453. The pivotal Emperor Constantine I is not recognized as a saint by the Catholic Church, but Pope Martin is. At the same time, Constantine, and the Emperor Justinian, are both saints in the Greek Orthodox Church. In a small but revealing way, this conflict embodies volumes of Mediaeval religious conflict, especially Papal claims that Lord Acton said stand "on a basis of fraud."

Keanu Reeves, of course, figures in these pages because of his role in the philosophically intriguing movie The Matrix [1999]. More recently we see him in the stylish but ultra-violent John Wick movies [2014, 2017, 2019], which also feature Laurence Fishburne, "Morpheus" in The Matrix. The John Wick movies include Lance Reddick, notable and fondly memorable (for me) from the Fringe science fiction series [2008-2013].

Rachel Weisz had a delightful role in the charmingly absurd, indeed preposterous, movie, The Mummy [1999], where the most memorable line is Weisz, rather the worse for drink, proclaiming, "I am a librarian!" Librarians, after all, are heroes of knowledge. Weisz figures in these pages for having played the martyred philosopher Hypatia in the ill conceived and deceptive movie Agora [2009].


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