In a recent episode of Dr. Who, the Doctor finds himself standing between a star-sized monster and a planet full of terrified people about to become its prey. The monster feeds off its worshippers’ memories and emotions, depriving them of their most precious joys, griefs and experiences; it literally sucks the colour from their lives. In return for a frequent offering of emotions and life stories, the monster refrained from destroying them utterly, but this year the offering has failed and now the Doctor is the only thing standing between the people and their murderously hungry god. He doesn’t really have a plan at first, but as he begins to speak his mind, a plan forms:
(Thanks to YouTube user Crimson Lining for posting the video – don’t sue us BBC).
From the Doctor’s language, it’s quite possible that the writers intended this to be a criticism of all religions, including Christianity. But that would be ironic, given how unmistakably religious – and (in Christian eyes at least) how unmistakably Christ-like – the Doctor’s actions and words here are.
Consumed by love for the people behind him, the Doctor decides to feed himself to the monster in their stead. And he has so many memories, and so much knowledge of so many fantastic things, that he hopes the monster will be broken from within by consuming him; he claims to contain knowledge “that will make parasite gods blaze.”
Compare that image to this one from St. Cyril of Jerusalem, writing in the 4th century, where Death is described as a monster hiding in the Jordan River, that Christ destroys by baptism (a symbol of His death and resurrection):
“According to Job, there was in the waters the dragon that draweth up Jordan into his mouth. Since, therefore, it was necessary to break the heads of the dragon in pieces, He went down and bound the strong one in the waters, that we might receive power to tread upon serpents and scorpions. The beast was great and terrible. No fishing-vessel was able to carry one scale of his tail: destruction ran before him, ravaging all that met him.The Life encountered him, that the mouth of Death might henceforth be stopped, and all we that are saved might say, O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” (Catechetical Lecture 3.11, On Baptism)
In this image, like the scared worshippers behind the Doctor, we were helpless and prone before the great and terrible beast of Death. But when Christ desired to save us, He didn’t send “an archangel, an angel, or a cherubim or a prophet” – He came to Earth as a man, and stood before the monster Himself. He allowed it to eat Him, and bury Him in its dark belly along with eons of human dead. But because He was Life itself, He could not die, and Death was forced to vomit up all the dead of ancient times. St. Cyril said elsewhere:
‘[Christ’s] body therefore was made a bait to death that the dragon, hoping to devour it, might disgorge those also who had been already devoured. For Death prevailed and devoured; and again, God wiped away every tear from off every face. (Catechetical Lecture 12.15)
Exactly like the Doctor, Christ feeds Himself to the monster and breaks it open from within. This image of Christ as bait to the dragon of death seems (lamentably) to have faded from modern talk about Christianity. For ancient Christians and their modern descendants, the Cross is where God who is Life slays Sin which is Death. The Death from which man is saved isn’t God’s anger or His oppression; St. Athanasius said that God saw man’s death from sin as monstrous and unfitting (even though it was an inevitable consequence of human wickedness). “It was impossible,” he said, “that God should leave man to be carried off by corruption, because it would be unfitting and unworthy of Himself.” (De Inc. 2.1) And so, precisely like the Doctor, unwilling to let the innocents behind him die at the parasite god’s hands, Christ put Himself in Death’s way by dying Himself as a human, and so breaking death’s hold on the human race forever.
The Doctor also strikes a more crushing blow to the parasite god’s power: he reveals it for what it is.
“Oh, you like to think you’re a god. You’re not a god, you’re just a parasite, eaten out with jealousy and envy and longing for the lives of others. You feed on them, on the memory of love and loss and birth and death and joy and sorrow!”
The Doctor shows the people that their god was nothing more than a vampire, feeding off their most precious possessions. The Doctor thought the people deserved better than slavery to a god whose only concern was the satisfaction of its own selfish lusts. Christ’s message is strikingly similar: “… a hireling, he who is not the shepherd, one who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees; and the wolf catches the sheep and scatters them. The hireling flees because he is a hireling and does not care about the sheep. I am the good shepherd; and I know My sheep, and am known by My own. As the Father knows Me, even so I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep. ” (Jn 10:11-15)
Of course, while the Doctor’s message seems to be simply, “Don’t worship parasites”, Christ’s message is more complex: “Don’t worship parasites – they will suck you dry to feed themselves. Instead, worship Me: I will die in order to feed YOU.”
“The bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world.” (John 6:51)
The Doctor is a secular humanist hero, but in many ways, he reflects the same face that all heroes (religious or not) have borne for centuries. It can’t be for nothing that even despite the vast philosophical gap that lies between theists and humanists, at bottom we value many of the same things: truth, nobility and self-sacrifice.