Undercurrents: Dr Who and the Human Longing for a Messiah

“Do you wanna come with me? Because if you do, I have to warn you… it won’t be quiet, it won’t be calm, it won’t be safe. But I’ll tell you what it will be – the trip of a lifetime!”

I thrilled with these words as a teenager. Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor Who invited the audience to join him on his adventures through time and space, in the trailers for the long running science fiction show’s 2005 return.

We all long for purpose, for an adventure to be part of. And the adventures of the Doctor and Rose, Billie Piper’s everyday shop assistant from London who joined in his travels in the TARDIS, spoke to my longings for something more.

A better way of living

In Christopher Eccleston’s final episode, The Parting of the Ways, the Doctor sends Rose home to protect her from the Daleks. Rose is distraught. She tells her mum, “It was a better life. And I don’t mean all the travelling and seeing aliens and spaceships and things. That don’t matter. The Doctor showed me a better way of living your life. You know he showed you too. That you don’t just give up. You don’t just let things happen. You make a stand. You say no. You have the guts to do what’s right when everyone else just runs away.”

We hunger for justice, to be able to stand up for what’s right. If you’re a Doctor Who fan, I suspect that you find a similar resonance – it’s not just the exciting adventures with Daleks and Cybermen that appeal, but the character of the Doctor, the values that the show stands for.

The lonely god

The Doctor is a brilliant hero – a lonely god, a madman in a box. He is paradoxically both a scientist and a messiah-figure. He (or sometimes she) appeals both to our desire for something rationally believable. The show is science fiction, not out-and-out fantasy – it at least gestures towards grounding its flights of imagination in scientific possibility.

But the Doctor also appeals to our longing for a rescuer, a messiah. The Doctor uses his brain rather than brawn. The Doctor makes a stand, but gives enemies a chance to turn back from their schemes. He is willing to forgive his enemies and lay down his life for his friends. Sound familiar at all?

As much as I love the Doctor as a character, he is only a fictional hero. But what if everything we find appealing in the Doctor is a signpost to a real hero, a true messiah?

A better Time Lord?

Two thousand years ago, someone else asked, “do you wanna come with me?” Jesus of Nazareth called ordinary fishermen to leave their nets and “Come, follow me”.  Like the Doctor, he didn’t promise a life that would be calm or safe. But he did promise life – spiritual life, a life of meaning and purpose, in harmony with God.

If you’re not familiar with the Gospels, you might be surprised at the Jesus you discover there. Like the Doctor, he seems to take command of whatever situation he finds himself in, always finding a way to escape the traps of the religious leaders and turn the tables on them. No mild-mannered hippy urging people to simply be nice, the Biblical Jesus is quick-witted, funny and caustic.

Like the Doctor, Jesus invites us to a life of not giving up, of standing up for what’s right, even if it meant being killed by the unjust and the powerful – just as he was himself when he died on the Cross.

Regeneration and resurrection

In The Parting of the Ways, Rose found a way to get back to the Doctor. She looks into the heart of the TARDIS, directly into the time-space vortex. And for a brief moment, she gained the power of a goddess. Glowing with energy, Rose scattered the Daleks to dust and restored her friend Captain Jack from death to life.

But this power was too much for any human to bear. Only by the Doctor absorbing the energies of the time vortex, giving up his own life, could she be saved.

The Doctor died – and yet was reborn, regenerating into a new body (that of David Tennant, no less!), as is his ability as a Time Lord, though the Doctor’s ultimate origins have been revealed in recent stories to be even more mysterious.

Jesus’ story doesn’t end with the Cross.  The astonishing claim of the Gospels, of the New Testament writings, is that Jesus rose from the dead. This is the extraordinary proof for Jesus’ extraordinary claim to be the Son of God, the promised Messiah.

‘Of God’s party without knowing it’?

What’s more, the amazingly appealing values of the Doctor – caring for the weak and oppressed, the use of violence as a last resort, self-sacrifice, forgiveness – are remarkably Christian values. As Tom Holland brilliantly describes in his work of history Dominion, we take these values so much for granted because our Western culture stands so much in the shadow of Christianity, but there isn’t anything inevitable or obvious about them.

The scientific rationalism that is the default worldview of Doctor Who is unable to ground these values, to give a foundation that can nourish them and make sense of them. If the universe is only the product of impersonal scientific laws plus chance plus time, then there’s no ultimate meaning, no reason to see the Doctor’s values as any more true or valid than the racial purity of the Daleks or egotistic power-seeking of the Master.

Of course, atheists can share these values derived from Christianity. Atheist writers like Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat put their own humanistic spin on the Christ-like imagery that tends to accumulate around the Doctor. Note for example how it’s Rose, the ‘ordinary’ shop worker from London, who becomes the Bad Wolf with god-like powers, not the Doctor. When the Doctor encounters a being that may just be the devil himself in The Satan Pit, he says of Rose that ‘if there’s one thing I believe in, it’s her’. And after building up the mythos of the Doctor as someone who had ‘put a lot of work into the universe’, Steven Moffat tried shifting the emphasis of the Doctor from being a ‘lonely god’ to a ‘madman in a box’.

But if Christian poet John Milton’s sympathetic Satan in Paradise Lost made Milton ‘of the devil’s party without knowing it’, then perhaps the Christ-like heroism of the Doctor makes writers like Davies and Moffat ‘of God’s party without knowing it’. For all the Doctor’s rationalism, with David Tennant’s Doctor cheekily saying of the Easter story in Planet of the Dead what really happened was…” before being cut off, he lives in a way that isn’t perfect, but is remarkably and wonderfully Christ-like.

Making your story a good one

We all need a story to live by. But is the story of Jesus any more real, any more substantial than the story of Doctor Who?

A story invented by BBC scriptwriters might not have the pedigree of a world religion, but it doesn’t have the body count of Christianity’s complex history, either. Why not write our own script, whether as a humanist or Buddhist or Jedi or Harry Potter fan, or whatever other story we might choose to follow? As Matt Smith’s Doctor said in The Big Bang, “we’re all stories in the end, just make it a good one, eh?”

But I think we know deep down that truth does matter. It’s not enough for Doctor Who to be a good story; it’s not good enough for Christianity either. For a story to give us a meaning big enough to live by, it needs to be true.

Mad, bad or (Time) Lord?

The historical evidence for the story of Jesus is remarkably robust: the Gospels aren’t myths set ‘a long time ago, far far away’, but in specific time and place, based on the testimony of eyewitnesses to the events. Something happened to give the early church extraordinary confidence that Jesus was God, risen from the dead.

Having studied the Gospels carefully and considered their historical context, I’m convinced that the only explanation is that these things really happened, just as the Gospel accounts say.

Why Doctor Who fans should follow Jesus

So the way I see it, if you’re a Doctor Who fan, then you should become a Christian for three main reasons:

One, because Jesus is the reality that your love of the Doctor points towards.

If you love the Doctor, if you want a hero to inspire you, to forgive you, to help you become better and make the world better, don’t just settle for a fictional character. Discover the reality of Jesus, who is in so many ways the template for the Doctor’s heroism.

Two, because Christianity best gives a foundation and grounding to the moral intuitions that the Doctor embodies.

If you know in your bones that the justice and love and forgiveness that we see in the Doctor aren’t just a subjective perspective or evolved human consensus, then you need a better explanation for your moral intuitions than atheism or materialism can offer. If you aspire to live like the Doctor, then there’s no better foundation than knowing that the ultimate ground of reality being a God of love: Father, Son and Holy Spirit in eternal loving unity.

Three, you should become a Christian because Christianity is objectively true.

Jesus really lived, died and rose from the dead. Why not investigate this for yourself? Read the Gospels, look into the historical data. If you’re willing to allow the possibility, I believe you’ll discover that Jesus is the real Time Lord who stepped onto planet Earth in real space-time history. And like Timothy Latimer said of the Doctor in The Family of Blood, Jesus is the one who ‘sits at the heart of the sun and sees the turn of the universe – and he’s wonderful’.

Do you wanna come with Jesus?

So how about it? Jesus: do you wanna follow him? Being his disciple won’t be quiet, won’t be calm, won’t be safe. Jesus regenerates us, transforming us not externally like the Doctor, but on the inside, making us new people who can live new forgiven lives of love and courage. Being Jesus’ companion means working to heal the world of danger and injustice and burnt toast.

Following Jesus is better than the trip of a lifetime – it’s the start of eternal life adventuring with him forever.