Imagine you are trapped in a cave. You have been here all your life. Your head is locked in place with straps, facing a screen. On that screen is projected a series of images, provided with sound effects. You have never left your chair. This is the only life you have ever known. For you, what appears on that screen is reality.
These images and the voices that speak for them are put there by group of puppeteers hidden behind a screen, tending the fire that backlights their puppets, projecting shadows on the wall. One day you are set free, and you turn to see the trick that has been played on you. At first you are in denial, and do not understand what you are seeing. The light hurts your eyes. Then you find the way out. You leave the cave into open sunlight. If the firelight hurt, this is blinding. It takes a long time for your eyes to adjust, but eventually you come to see the real world.
Would you go back to free the others? What if you had to be strapped back in the chair while you convinced them? What if they had been told this before, if it was a standard rumor passed around the cave, always rejected out of hand? You left behind that life watching shadows dance, and have forgotten how to interpret them. What if they call you a fool, because you know longer understand the only world they have ever known?
Would you go back?
This story is drawn from Plato’s Republic. He believes that life is like this, that the majority of people are concerned with a world that is fading, finite, only half-real. It is the path of the philosopher to escape that world and learn about the eternal things, the higher, better reality beyond this world of shadows. Humanity, he says, has a problem. We need to brought out into the light, but we violently resist those who would bring us. How then can we hope to be delivered?
If you’ve ever watched The Matrix, something similar is going on. All of humanity is trapped in a giant computer simulation. We think we live in the late nineties, but in reality it’s two centuries later, and the robots have us all plugged into this illusion to keep us quiet while use our bodies as batteries. The science is a bit off, but just roll with it.
In this story, there are people who have escaped the Matrix and live in a hidden society—Zion. Zion sends certain people back, people who willingly plug themselves back into the Matrix so they can help others escape. But in doing this, they must be willing to sacrifice their own lives. The machines that created this illusion and keep it running are quite capable of killing anyone plugged in, and so a trip back could turn deadly.
This idea in classical Western philosophy and modern pop culture is mirrored in Eastern philosophy as well. Mahayana Buddhism—the more dominant of the three main schools of Buddhism—is centered around a character called the bodhisattva.
This world is a world of unsatisfied desires and therefore suffering, and by pursuing a certain path we can achieve a state of enlightenment wherein we no longer crave what cannot obtain. This is nirvana. In Theravada Buddhism, one of the other two schools, you reach nirvana and that’s it. You’ve escaped the cycle of death and rebirth and no longer suffer. But in Mahayana, the goal is to become a person who has achieved nirvana, or come incredibly close, but stays in this world to help others become enlightened as well. Such a person is called a bodhisattva.
C.S. Lewis wrote about a dying-and-rising god present in mythologies throughout the world. He suggested that this character was universal because there was an element of truth to it, some hidden knowledge in the human soul that such a person must exist. That person, it turned out, was Jesus. This mythical archetype was, in a way, a foretaste of the Gospel.
In Plato’s philosopher who returns to the cave, there likely to die, and in the heroes of The Matrix and the bodhisattvas of Mahayana Buddhism, we see this repeated pattern of the freed or enlightened one who returns to suffer with his people. This person offers salvation to those who would otherwise be too blind to recognize the predicament they were in, much less be capable of escape.
Jesus Christ was the Son of God. He was perfect in every way, and perfectly happy. He had no need to suffer the way we do. Despite this, he took on flesh and walked among us. He knew starvation, ridicule, heartbreak, weariness, loneliness, rootlessness—every form of suffering or temptation common to man. To save mankind, the people made in his image, he went into the prison we had created for ourselves and lived among the prisoners, telling us of the kingdom of God, offering freedom. For this, we killed him. But then he overcame death.
The story of Christ parallels the others, but the depths of the descent are more profound. It would be as if a man who had never been in Plato’s cave, only heard of it, chose to go down to rescue the people. Not only did he go down, but when he knew it meant his death, he did not run away. It’s as if someone who had never been in the Matrix had themselves outfitted with plugs and inserted in, risking a death they would never otherwise have to face. It’s not as if a man became enlightened and returned as a bodhisattva to help us all, but as if nirvana itself, enlightenment as a person rather than a state, descended into the world of illusion and suffering to lead us all back out.
It is this image of Christ we see a distant echo of in these three stories. But both the echo and the reality have a lesson for those of us who were born in the cave. Christ has come to set us free, but that is not a license to escape. We are not here on earth biding our time until the chariot sweeps us away.
Take up your cross and follow him.
Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing and teaching them.
Return to your brothers in chains, those trapped in the wickedness of their own hearts, in the blindness of a dark world, go back and show them the light. Though they reject you, though they cast you out, though they mock and crucify you, do not leave them alone. Do not let them perish in darkness. Share the Gospel. Show them the Way. Set them free as you have been set free, risking all as Christ risked all.
“If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.”