I love getting into a long series, especially sci-fi dystopias such as The 100. But since I’m also a theologian, I tend to see elements of theology and faith where others might not. As I watch, I interpret. I enjoy, but I also analyze. Presenting my brief analysis here is what I’m calling “A Theology of the 100.” By that, I’m just laying out what the series suggests about three things: (1) Who God is; (2) who we are; and (3) what the world is like. These are the sorts of big questions that theology addresses (I address these from the perspective of language in The Speaking Trinity & His Worded World). All of this, of course, is my “take” on The 100. It’s not by any means normative. I share it because there are often elements of entertainment that go unnoticed, things that (I would imagine) the creators would like people to see. Maybe some of that will come out here.
Why The 100?
Why this show? Well, I liked it. (Were you expecting something more?) But it also had breadth and depth (spanning 7 seasons) that seemed extraordinary to me. It was rich, I think, and by that I simply mean it was loaded with associations to religion, philosophy, and some intricacies of language. It wasn’t, in other words, “thrown together.” It was was intentionally and artistically composed. I enjoyed the language, the cultures, the character development, and the themes.
Language. Because I’m a writer, I have to add that the script was beautifully written as well, with a storyline that not only had fascinating breadth (spanning different people groups, character journeys, and even planets) but also believable depth. There are some statements embedded in the drama that still stay with me:
- “First we survive; then we find our humanity.”
- Yu gonplei ste odon. (“Your fight is over.”)
- “In peace, may you leave this shore. In love, may you find the next. Safe passage on your travels, until our final journey to the ground. May we meet again.”
There are others that I simply want to yell in public (but I don’t, because no one would understand me, and I’m an introvert anyway):
- “The great wanheda . . .”
- Jus drein jus daun! (“Blood must have blood!”)
- “Death to the Primes!”
Culture. The heritage of the people groups and the characters who emerged from them were textured well, from the rough-and-tumble “Grounders” with their “blood must have blood” mantra to the white-clad “shepherd followers” in search of abstract, communal peace that transcends individual concern.
Character development. However, my favorite aspect of the show was its character development. And John Murphy has to get the character-development-of-the-year-award. When the show started, I hated the guy. And I’m sure that’s exactly what the creators wanted people to do. The hate lingered for several seasons. But just when you thought he was a completely self-centered, revenge-seeking “cockroach” (as he was often called), his character was slowly softened by his relationship with Emori. By the end of the series, I felt more attached to him than to other characters, which is ridiculous when you consider where he started. Such a story of redemption!
Themes. That, I would say, is the theme of the whole series: redemption. This is actually the word Octavia is forced to yell in her mental war with Pike (whom she’d killed) late in the series. Forgiveness isn’t good enough, Pike tells her; she needs redemption, a deep opportunity to show internal change of the soul. And redemption is a powerful theme, spanning nearly every great work of literature I can think of. It deals with big questions. What makes a person “good”? Given that answer, how do “bad” people change? Is someone ever too far gone to come back to the light? Who gets to make decisions about whether a person lives or dies? And if they make the wrong decision, what do they have to do to convince themselves and others that they aren’t a lost cause, that they can still “find their humanity,” as some of the characters put it?
All in all, I found the series gripping for those reasons, not to mention its cinematography and creative plot line. What I most enjoyed was watching each character take shape, forming a personality and heritage of their own, established through patterns of choices.
What The 100 Says about Who God Is
Now, let’s get to the theology. What does the show say about who God is? Some people might say, “Nothing. It doesn’t say anything about God. In fact, it consistently points out the hypocrisy and simple-minded fideism that organized religion is (sadly) known for.” In one sense, that’s true. The show is biased in presenting any organized (that word is important, since “unorganized” or subjected faith is not usually attacked) faith as a misguided attempt to understand the world. Think of the flame-keeper and the tribal belief that “the Commander” possessed the minds of all previous commanders. From the outside, it looks like a valid religion. But on the inside, it’s actually just AI being swapped out from each old Commander and placed into the new Commander’s central nervous system (or something like that; I’m not a scientist). Or consider the Primes. They’re seen as gods because they’re immortal, but they’re only immortal because they steal bodies when they grow old and (again through AI) upload their consciousness into a new body. Organized religion is consistently portrayed as a farce. That’s not too surprising to me. Organized religion, especially Christianity, is easy for people to stab at. But I find it’s hardly ever represented fairly, with the complexity and earnestness it deserves. But that’s another topic.
Still, that’s not all The 100 says about who God is. Early on in the show, a few of the characters need to make decisions that will cost hundreds of innocent lives. When they make these decisions, they say that they “hope there is a forgiving God.” God is set out as a mysterious, invisible, forgiveness-granting cloud. He’s somewhere beyond the horizon of the present, never seen, and only looked to when circumstances are dire. This is what many people call a “God of the gaps.” Basically, people come up with all the questions they can’t answer, and then they say that God must be those things. God is a concept that fills in the gaps. Of course, the more gaps you think you’re filling in, the less relevant God seems. This results in a universe that is practically void of God. There’s no point in prayer or worship unless you’re in a near-death encounter. And even then, the idea of belief in God is suspect. Bellamy’s encounter with the “shepherd followers” at the end of the series is a case in point. Note the animosity he faces from the other characters.
At the end of the series, God seems to be virtually replaced by higher level intelligent beings who are looking for creatures on various planets to “transcend” their base desire for self-interest and focus on the good of the many. Transcending seems to require relinquishing the body. It’s hard to miss the references to Platonic dualism and Manichaeism (the belief that good and evil are equal powers at war with each other, and the body belongs to the evil sphere, pulling down the spirit).
So, what, in sum, does The 100 say about who God is? It’s really nothing novel in our time. It says essentially that God is either (1) nonexistent, (2) unknowable, or (3) practically irrelevant to real life. Of course, I disagree with all of these points. There are scads or arguments for God’s existence, but I’ve written one focused on one of the most common things we have, something you’re relying on right now: language. I also believe that God is knowable because he reveals himself in all the things that surround us (Ps. 19:1–4; Rom. 1:20) and through Scripture. I also believe God is fundamental to our everyday life, which is why I wrote Finding God in the Ordinary.
Many who are reading this article probably disagree with me on many levels. And I’m not trying to get into a debate here. All I’m noting is that you should see where you stand in relation to the entertainment you experience. Entertainment does far more for us when we process it and compare it to what we believe, rather than simply consuming it. How does the theology presented in The 100 compare with your own? (And if you say you don’t have a theology, I’ll disagree with you there. Everyone has a theology. Even not believing in God is a kind of theology.)
What The 100 Says about Who We Are
What about people? What does The 100 say about who we are? Start by noting that theology controls anthropology. What you believe (or don’t believe) about God governs what you believe (or don’t believe) about who people are. If The 100 suggests God is nonexistent, unknowable, or practically irrelevant, then that sets up the series to put humans in full control of reality. Humans decide who lives and who dies, who is righteous and who is wicked. Any concept of “salvation” comes not through God but through self. That’s why there are constant references to being able to forgive yourself. If God is out of the picture, then the only one to ask for forgiveness from is you. The show portrays the universe as essentially human-centered.
What are the effects? If there’s no God or higher authority to appeal to, then you end up with . . . war. Lots of it. Every people group vies for its own values and morals that serve the individual within that group, which explains why there’s so much turmoil and bloodshed. The only people group who attempts not to appeal to individual values is the shepherd followers, who (ironically) follow an egoistic and maniacal mastermind (who also, by the way, has a serious god complex himself, even worse that than of the Primes).
Like other shows such as Glitch, The 100 puts a huge amount of weight on consciousness. What gives a person uniqueness or identity? Memories and experiences stored in the mind. That’s the premise for the Primes taking over new human bodies (voluntarily sacrificed to them through a disturbing religion) and then uploading their consciousness (through a “mind drive” AI) to the new body. Consciousness is key; that’s what defines a person.
Towards the end of the series, when a majority of the characters “transcend,” their consciousness is what joins the higher beings, not their bodies. Note again the Platonic dualism. It’s not the body that’s important; it’s the mind.
All of this, once again, flies in the face of what I believe about who people are. I believe, first of all, that humans are made in the image of God (Gen. 1:26). All the good and beautiful things we do (love, compassion, grace, forgiveness, self-sacrifice, music, art, culture) reflect something of the nature of our maker. This offers an explanation (though I know skeptics would start sharp-shooting here) as to where our values come from. For characters in The 100 who seem to be morally upright and have a genuine concerns for others (Marcus is a good example), there’s no explanation for where these values come from and why they exist. Why not just follow the selfish mantra of the Grounders, “Blood must have blood”? Why not take what you want and suppress the weak in the process? (Think of Alexa’s claim that love is weakness.) There’s no answer provided, just as many people don’t have an answer for this in real life. Why do people have values like this that go beyond self-concern? It’s just assumed, I think, that this is part of who people are. But that’s never been a satisfying answer for me.
I also believe that people image God in their spirit and body. Our bodies aren’t a base form that’s just waiting to dissolve so that our consciousness can live on. Bodies are good. They were created as good. And death, though I know how fairytale it sounds, is not the end of bodies. I believe that we will be resurrected one day and live on not just in our consciousness, but in a new, invincible body.
But my basic belief about who people are is this: we are creatures built for communion, first with the God who made us and second with the people around us. We are made for others. That’s one of the beliefs that stands behind my last book, The Book of Giving. We are made in the image of a God who gives himself to himself (the Father, Son, and Spirit eternally giving themselves to each other in love and glory), gives himself to us, and gives us to each other. Being a human is learning to be a giver. And that makes perfect sense if we’re made in the image of a giving God.
There are times in The 100 when a noble character comes close to this, such as when Marcus makes the sacrificial decision to give his life so that others might be saved (even after he’s been given a new, younger body by his lover). Bellamy, in the end, gives himself for his belief that violence and individualism are not the way to live. He’s convinced, after a long and hard journey up a snow-covered mountain, that love for all mankind should always come above love for any one person. Love, I believe, is self-giving. So, I was appreciative of the characters who made decisions like this and reflected a nobler view of humanity (despite the fact that The 100 didn’t offer a corresponding theology).
What The 100 Says about What the World Is Like
What about the world? What does The 100 say about what the world is like? Harsh. Self-destructive (mainly because of the malice of humanity). Severe. A mute but terrifyingly powerful landscape on which humanity plays and falls. It also portrays the world as mysterious, which I can certainly appreciate. I believe in a God whom I will never be able to understand fully, and his world reflects not only his character (again, see Ps. 19:1–4 and Rom. 1:20) but the depth of who he is. Even the simplest things around us have an element of mystery to them.
And yet I also believe the world isn’t mute. There’s a sort of speech, a sort of revelation, that emerges from the world around us. The world isn’t a neutral landscape, in other words. It’s an environment steeped in the presence and character of God. Everything in the world reveals something about who God is. Rocks reflect the stability of God, his faithfulness. Rushing water reflects the life-giving nature of God. Growing plants reflect God’s love of process and maturation. Human relationships reflect the God who is three persons. Everything around us has something to say about who God is.
In The 100, the world is mostly passive. It sits beneath us and gets ravaged by nuclear warfare. It turns hostile at times (such as during the eclipse on the planet Sanctum), but that’s portrayed as part of its nature, a harsh naturalism. For the most part, the world (or worlds) are just landscapes, places on which the drama of the characters is worked out. That’s in contrast to how I see the world. And it was good for me to notice this once again.
Why a Theology?
Let me end with this. Why write up a theology of a popular dystopian sci-fi? Because what we believe and what others believe will clash. That clashing is not negative. It’s a learning opportunity. We either learn more about what we believe or more about what others believe. But the learning is always present, if we want it to be.
Writing up a theology for a popular series is my attempt to learn. It shows me how I differ from other creative types, and the effect that my values have on my own life and thought. It also reminds me that no one is neutral. Everyone has a perspective. That doesn’t mean that everything is relative. I believe in objective truth. But it does mean that no one can come to you with a piece of creative work and say, “This has nothing of me in it; it’s just a work of art.” There is always perspective, because having a perspective is part of what it means to be a person. We can’t get away from that. Viewing and appreciating art is often about comparing and contrasting our perspectives with those that we encounter in others.
I wrote up this theology of The 100 because I need to be reminded of my perspective, to see the perspective of other people, and to process my convictions about those three fundamental questions every day: who is God? Who am I? What is the world like?
You could write up a theology for this show that would be very different from mine. And I would read it. Because it would be another opportunity to learn about someone else’s perspective.