“Cross”-examining the Biblical Witness in War for the Planet of the Apes

Editor's Note: With today's issue, Sightings launches a new thematic series on the relationships between religion and science fiction—both terms broadly understood

By Audrey D. Thompson|October 19, 2017

Editor's Note: With today's issue, Sightings launches a new thematic series on the relationships between religion and science fictionboth terms broadly understood. Our first installment in this series comes from returning Sightings contributor Audrey D. Thompson ("Love Your Enemies: Moral Absurdity or Genius?"), whom we are very excited to welcome back! Please be warned that this column does contain spoilers for the Matt Reeves-directed film War for the Planet of the Apes, which was in theaters over the summer and is scheduled for its home media release on DVD and Blu-ray on October 24th.

Science fiction can make up aliens and create mythical places where unknown languages are spoken, but, according to famed sci-fi writer Octavia Butler, it cannot make up the essential human character that is critical to every great story. That’s exactly what one reviewer identified as the strength of the summer blockbuster War for the Planet of the Apes—a great science fiction movie about evolving apes that is essentially “a mirror to what human beings are like in 2017.” Whether this is true or not is debatable; and yet, after seeing the film, there is little doubt that War intends to say something about humanity. The message, however, is so heavily laden with biblical imagery that it may possibly want to say something about what Christianity is like in 2017 as well.

Ultimately, this is a story about war. On one side is a brigade of human soldiers led by “The Colonel,” with the mission to stop the spread of a virus that makes humans mute while coincidentally accelerating the intelligence of apes. On the other side is the growing colony of advanced apes led by Caesar. Initially, the apes want only to retreat further into the woods to avoid contact with humans, but they are drawn into battle by a surprise attack ordered by the Colonel that kills Caesar’s wife and son. Overcome with grief, Caesar leaves his flock and sets out on a personal quest for vengeance, which soon becomes political when Caesar arrives at the American military base and discovers that legions of less advanced apes have been slaughtered and enslaved. Upon seeing this, he declares, “This is war!”—a declaration already made by the Colonel who characterized it as not just war, but “Holy War!”

The concept of holy war goes back to the Old Testament and, according to John Howard Yoder, refers to a certain kind of defensive strategy in wars that the Israelites were forced to fight, resulting primarily from their obedience to God, not their use of military might for self-determination or domination. Always militarily weaker than their combatants, God’s people were commanded to trust their defense to God’s providential control, such that in holy wars “the victory is credited not to the prowess of the swordsmen or the wisdom of generals, but to the help of YHWH.” Yoder sees this as being representative of what the biblical witness claims as God’s way of operating in “the real world of empires and armies and markets.” 

Yet, in the reel world of War, the Colonel’s holy war is portrayed as a Darwinian rogue operation to annihilate the ape species and sacrifice any humans infected with the virus (including his own son). On the contrary, it is Caesar and his outmatched volunteer militia who appear willing to accept defeat rather than resort to evil, and it is they who triumph as a result, when the Colonel is infected with the virus and an avalanche destroys the entire human army. If this were the only inconsistency, it might make sense to conclude that the holy war reference in the film is unrelated to the biblical usage. However, the Colonel wears a Catholic crucifix around his neck alongside his military-issued dog tags; the Greek letters “AΩ” (Alpha-Omega) are stamped on his soldiers’ helmets; the American flag has been altered with a cross affixed to it; and the battlefield is covered with erected crosses bearing the bodies of executed ape combatants.

Along with these blatant displays of New Testament symbols, there are other, subtle allusions to the Old Testament. Caesar appears more like Moses than his biblical namesake, particularly in the way he leads his flock through the wilderness to find safe harbor for the apes to live without fear of extinction. In another scene that is quite reminiscent of Caleb and Joshua in the Exodus story, two apes return to tell Caesar about their discovery of newfound land. Though Caesar brings his followers to this promising land, he, like Moses, dies before entering with them—possibly punishment for allowing his desire for vengeance to detract attention from the more important mission to lead the apes.      

Cultural critic bell hooks would say that most audiences will overlook these connections in order “to reserve for the arena of moviemaking a certain sense of magic.” She claims that the magical experience of the big screen—with its crosscutting, cinematography, and computer-generated imagery (CGI)—can make us forget that movies are filmmakers’ “conscious manipulation of representations.” Films, then, are not simply banal forms of entertainment, but rather carefully crafted images designed intentionally to place certain ideas on viewers’ socio-politico-ideological map. As such, we may need to ask: what might War possibly intend to convey by its calculated representation of symbols drawn from the biblical witness? 

One possibility is that War is a metaphorical battle of the testaments, pitting the Colonel’s version of a New Testament worldview against Caesar’s Old Testament disposition. Given the providential triumph of the apes over the AΩ troops, it is no wonder some critics see the film’s message as anti-Christian. Another possibility goes back to Yoder’s work, which links the holy war tradition to the cross of Christ to show Jesus’ political action as a continuation of the Israelites’ defensive strategy. The basic premise is, “[the] relationship between the obedience of God’s people and the triumph of God’s cause is not a relationship of cause and effect but one of cross and resurrection.” Yoder makes the point that misunderstandings of triumph “which lead to war have their origins in the Christian camp.” He argues, “[the] roots of the crusading mentality are not ‘secular’ in the modern sense, nor are they rooted in the mores of pagan religions. They constitute a deformation of the biblical faith.” Yoder’s cross-examination reveals that moderns confuse the triumph of God (determined only by faithfulness) with a tangible triumph that can be manipulated in a “violent, state-oriented, military way.” That the Colonel is portrayed as opting for the latter, despite adorning himself with the Christian cross, is obvious. That War intentionally constructed this representation to critique a worldview that aligns Christianity with the state, however, is open to interpretation.

Viewers will ultimately have to decide whether this is simply science fiction, or anti-Christian, or an implicit critique of the government’s appropriation of Christianity to serve political ends—and, in the end, render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s.


- hooks, bell. Outlaw Culture: Resisting Representations. Routledge, 1994.

- Tallerico, Brian. “War for the Planet of the Apes.” RogerEbert.com. July 14, 2017.

- Yoder, John Howard. The Politics of Jesus. Second edition. Eerdmans, 1994.

Image: Woody Harrelson as "The Colonel" in War for the Planet of the Apes (20th Century Fox)

Author, Audrey D. Thompson, graduated with a PhD in homiletics from Princeton Theological Seminary. She is an Assistant Teaching Professor of English at Pennsylvania State University Erie—The Behrend College, where she teaches courses in rhetoric and composition, African American studies, and women's studies.

SIGHTINGS is edited by Brett Colasacco (AB’07, MDiv’10), a PhD candidate in Religion, Literature, and Visual Culture at the University of Chicago Divinity School. Sign up here to receive SIGHTINGS via email. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter.