There are spoilers ahead in this article, so if you haven’t played through the entire Mass Effect trilogy and don’t want anything spoiled, stop reading! I mean, you have had since 2007 (12 years!) to experience the original trilogy, so hopefully I won’t be spoiling anything. Of course, if you don’t care about spoilers, you can continue reading.
Anyway, I hope to cover several Christ figures in some video games in the future, which in this article I will be covering Commander Shepard from the original Mass Effect trilogy. A little information about the trope of Christ figures first: These are protagonists who symbolise Christ whether it be in some form of a resurrection story, being the saviour of all mankind, and/or being the only way in which all can be saved, as well as other characteristics. Christ figures appear across other mediums, such as film and literature.
With Mass Effect in particular, as previously mentioned, the Christ figure is Commander Shepard—the space battle genius who seems to be the only one, along with his team, taking the threat of the Reapers seriously.
Before we start, take note that this article is not going to be an in-depth analysis of Shepard in each individual game, but rather Shephard as a whole. Also, keep in mind that the point is not whether BioWare was intentional with making Shepard a Christ figure. A character set as a Christ figure is often unintentional in film, literature, and video games. I also will not be examining Shepard’s character since the gamer has the option of making him moralistic through the Paragon path or antagonistic through the Renegade path, but rather the role he plays in his “salvation story,” as it were.
The Only Way
In the opening dialogue of ME1 (Mass Effect 1), the game opens right away with a Christ symbol. It opens with a conversation between Captain Anderson and Councilor Udina as Shepard stares out a window aboard the SSV Normandy (at least I think it’s the Normandy; it’s difficult to tell).
Depending on the psych profile you choose for Shepard, they are having a conversation about Shepard’s strengths and weaknesses based on his past and basic demeanour. During the conversation, Udina asks, “Is this the kind of person we want protecting the galaxy?” Anderson responds, “That’s the only kind of person who can protect the galaxy.”
What is the context of this conversation? We’re never told. It can’t be about the threat of the Reapers since no one, not even Shepard, were aware of the threat until a much later point after the incident on Eden Prime. They could be discussing Shepard’s qualifications as Commander aboard the Normandy. However, this is unlikely because he’s simply a Commander. Why anyone would expect a mere Commander to be the saviour of the galaxy makes no sense.
I think they were discussing his qualifications on being a Spectre (which is short for Special Tactics and Reconnaissance). You find out early in ME1 that Shepard is being considered as the first Human Spectre and there’s even a Turian Spectre on board, named Nilus, to observe Shepard in combat on their supposedly routine mission. The Turian Spectre’s presence justifies the crew’s suspicion of the mission since it makes no sense for a Spectre to be on board for a supposedly easy, routine mission.
However, this still doesn’t quite answer the question, at least in full, as to why Anderson and Udina believe Shepard to be the only kind of person who can protect the galaxy. There are plenty of other Spectres of all species who work arduously to protect the galaxy. So, what makes Shepard so special in their minds? It could be as simple as their human bias. Either way, they’re being rather dogmatic about it.
Now, it’s necessary I digress for a little bit about dogma. A dogma is “a principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true” (source). “Dogma” tends to have a negative connotation to it these days—that it’s completely contradictory to logic and reasoning. Dogma certainly can contradict logic and reasoning since all things can be perverted with our fallen human will, but logic and reasoning itself can be perverted and misused as well. Contrary to popular belief, logic is not sovereign; it can be twisted and perverted by sinful human creatures. Nevertheless, dogma is laid down as being incontrovertibly true, but it can also have logic to it.
Christianity is full of dogmas, after all. If dogmas were incontrovertibly false, then we would not be able to trust the tenets of our religion. Indeed, no one would be able to trust their own dogmas. To say dogma is inherently false is a dogma in and of itself.
So, what dogma do Udina and Anderson list? That Shepard is the only kind of person who can protect the galaxy. He is the only way.
Who else do we know of as being the only way? Jesus Christ. It is a dogma (something as incontrovertibly true) Christ claimed of Himself. “I am the way, the true, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6). It is also a dogma the apostles repeated and taught, “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). This is a dogmatic statement Jesus and the apostles—and we after them—lay down as incontrovertibly true; and it is a true dogma since Jesus, as God the Son, is sovereign. This is why we can rightly say Christianity is the one true religion, which is entirely countercultural to the religious pluralism inherent in our Western society.
Here is the similarity between Christ and Shepard I am getting at: Jesus Christ is the only way we can be saved from sin—He is the only one who can give us salvation. As a Christ figure, Commander Shepard is the only one who can protect and save the galaxy.
Jesus Christ saves all who believe in Him by His life, death on the cross, and resurrection from the grave. Whether you believe Commander Shepard saved the galaxy depends on whether or not you believe the Indoctrination Theory. I’m not going to dive into this theory in this article, but feel free to watch the video in the hyperlink by The Game Theorists. Or you can wait till the end of this article, where I have embedded the video (as well as the original video).
One obvious Christ figure component of Shepard is his last name: Shepard, which is an alternative spelling of “Shepherd” as a surname. Jesus is the Good Shepherd, and we play as the protagonist, the Good Shepard.
The God Complex of Sovereign (The Reapers)
Before I continue with Shepard, something else worth discussing is the ME1 primary antagonist: Sovereign. Also, as a reminder, the Reapers are ancient, sentient AIs with technology vastly superior to any species’ in the galaxy. Keep in mind that Sovereign is representative of all the Reapers since, according to Mass Effect canon, the Reapers are all of one mind; there is no single leader. Not even Saren, despite appearances in the first game; he is merely their indoctrinated puppet.
While Shepard is the Christ figure in Mass Effect, Sovereign (i.e. the Reapers), I argue, are the Satan figure with a God complex. After all, Satan himself has a God complex. The best we’re given of Satan and his fall is from Isaiah 14:12-20:
“How you are fallen from heaven, O Day Star, son of Dawn! How you are cut down to the ground, you who laid the nations low! You said in your heart, ‘I will ascend to heaven; above the stars of God I will set my throne on high; I will sit on the mount of assembly in the far reaches of the north; I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High.’ But you are brought down to Sheol, to the far reaches of the pit. Those who see you will stare at you and ponder over you: ‘Is this the man who made the earth tremble, who shook kingdoms, who made the world like a desert and overthrew its cities, who did not let his prisoners go home?'”
Satan desired to rise above God; he wanted to become God himself. Yet, as we know, his efforts were a colossal failure, especially when Christ conquered sin, death, and Satan in His death and resurrection.
Satan has a God complex. Sovereign—the Reapers—also have a God complex. While they do not call themselves God, or gods, their God complex is indicative in the language they use as well as how they view themselves in relation to organic life. We see this especially in Sovereign, who is speaking on behalf of all the Reapers.
In ME1, Shepard and his team have their first conversation with a Reaper during their mission on Vermire to stop Saren from creating a Krogan army under the indoctrination of the Reapers. When they come across the Reaper, they think it’s a VI (virtual intelligence). The conversation that takes place between Sovereign and Shepard is one of my favourite dialogues throughout the entire trilogy (due to its literary aspect), and it is rather dark with some quite cumbersome news as to the nature of the Reapers.
Sovereign initiates the conversation, saying, “Rudimentary creatures of blood and flesh, you touch my mind, fumbling in ignorance, incapable of understanding.” This sounds a lot like sovereignty, doesn’t it? Well, as it just so happens, the Reaper says, “There is a realm of existence so far beyond your own you cannot even imagine it. I am beyond your comprehension. I am Sovereign.” There you have it.
I don’t think what he says here is merely an identification of his name as a single unit of the Reapers. I believe it is evident he is speaking on what the Reapers believe to be true about themselves (i.e. the Reapers’ dogma). With this statement, it is clear the Reapers believe they embody sovereignty. The Reapers are quit full of themselves.
Sovereign expresses this embodiment by saying, “Organic life is nothing but a genetic mutation—an accident. Your lives are measured in years and decades. You wither and die. We are eternal, the pinnacle of evolution and existence. Before us, you are nothing. Your extinction is inevitable. We are the end of everything.”
Here, we see the Alpha and Omega concept of God within the Reapers’ dogma. Scripture testifies God to be the Alpha and Omega—the beginning and end of all things (Revelation 22:12-13). In case you don’t know, Alpha and Omega symbolise the beginning and end because alpha (Α α) is the first letter of the Greek alphabet (which the entire New Testament was written in) and omega (Ω ω) is the last letter.
God created all things in the beginning, the current heavens and earth will end, and God will create a new heaven and new earth. This sovereignty is what the Reapers claim for themselves. According to their dogma, they were uncreated, just as God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit are uncreated. Yet Sovereign conveniently leaves out the fact that they were created. They were created by the Leviathans and rebelled against their creators for complex reasons I won’t get into here (we don’t find this out until ME3), much like we were created by God the Creator and rebelled against Him.
We also see a hint of predestination within the Reapers’ God complex. Sovereign says, “Your civilisation is based on the technology of the Mass Relays—our technology. By using it, your civilisation develops along the paths we desire. We impose order on the chaos of organic life. You exist because we allow it, and you will end because we demand it.”
This is quite similar to the Calvinistic double predestination false doctrine. Five-point/four-point Calvinists believe that because God is sovereign, He not only chooses who is saved but also chooses who is damned. I won’t spend much time dismantling their false doctrine here, but it should suffice to say that while this is a logical conclusion, it is not how Scripture speaks on predestination. Scripture only speaks on election/predestination in salvific terms, not damnation terms. Predestination serves as a comfort for Christians, not as a cause for doubt and not as a further condemnation for unbelievers. Double predestination is much closer to Islam than it is to Christianity.
The Calvinistic similarity is that according to Sovereign, organic life is predestined to be damned. The idea of double predestination is that God chooses those who are damned and saved, and you have no control over which fate God chose for you. If you’re chosen to be saved, you can never be damned (the “once saved always saved” false doctrine); conversely, if you’re chosen to be damned, you can never be saved. If you’re chosen to be saved, God will guide you on that path and you can tell by your fruits of repentance (essentially another works righteousness theology); if you’re chosen to be damned, God will guide you on that path and there is nothing you can do about it.
Even if you claim to be Christian, believe in Christ, and are baptised, this Calvinist doctrine says you can never be sure if you’re saved because you could still be chosen for damnation, even if your faith does produce a lot of good fruit. Hopefully you can see how legalistic and despairing this doctrine is.
In the same way, according to Sovereign, the Reapers guide all organic life to their inevitable damnation, at least those civilisations that are advanced enough. If a species is not advanced enough—if it is still extremely primitive—it is spared, or chosen to be saved.
We live and die because God allows it; this much is true, but not in a despairing double predestination sense. Similarly, the Reapers allow organic life to live because they allow it, and organic life is destroyed because they demand it. They have all power; nothing can stop them. Yet Shepard, the Christ figure, is determined to stop them. In an act of desperation, he yells at Sovereign, “You’re not even alive! Not really. You’re just a machine, and machines can be broken!” Sovereign then remarks, “Your words are as empty as your future. I am the Vanguard of your destruction. This exchange is over…”
The questions the gamer is left with are: Is there hope? Can Shepard stop Sovereign? Can he stop the Reapers? In this life, we are all doomed to die because we rebelled against the Creator, but we have the gift of God of eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 6:23). We will all die, but Christ defeated sin, death, and the Devil on the cross. In Baptism, we die to sin and are made alive to Christ (Romans 6:3-11).
We know that Satan, in spite of his God complex, has been defeated and will be fully defeated upon Christ’s glorious return. Can Shepard, the Christ figure, defeat the sovereign Reapers with their God complex? At the end of the trilogy, does he actually defeat them? Again, this depends on whether or not you believe the Indoctrination Theory.
The Resurrection of Shepard
Now, the most obvious Christ aspect of Shepard is his resurrection, so it shouldn’t take too long to unravel. Shepard dies while fighting the enemy and is resurrected through the Lazarus Project run by the Illusive Man and under the instruction of Miranda Lawson. Similarly, Christ dies fighting the enemy of sin, death, and the Devil, and God the Father vindicates Him by raising Him from the dead (Romans 6:4).
The only difference is that Shepard is resurrected by a morally questionable paramilitary group called Cerberus while Christ is resurrected by God the Father. But the point of interest is not who resurrected them, but rather the fact that they were both resurrected.
If you’re familiar with Mass Effect, you know Shepard was brought back from the dead through the Lazarus Project. I don’t know what it is about video games and sci-fi movies that call any project remotely related to bringing the dead to life or elongating human mortality with “Lazarus” in the title. It’s not surprising, since Jesus brought His cousin Lazarus back to life (John 11:1-44), but seriously, can’t they come up with a name that’s more original? Why not something like “Project Alpha” to symbolise a new beginning? Even “Project Genesis” would be good.
Okay, I’m venting now. Moving on, Shepard dies at the start of ME2 and is brought back to life after two years of reconstruction through the Lazarus Project run by Cerberus. Were it not for Cerberus’ efforts to bring Shepard back to life, he would not have gone on to save the entire galaxy by defeating the Collectors and later the Reapers at the end of the trilogy. Similarly, if God the Father did not raise Christ from the dead, then we would not be saved from sin, death, and the Devil.
It’s not enough that Christ died; He also had to be raised. If Christ was never resurrected, then Christianity would be the biggest sham in human history. What good is Christ’s death if He was not also resurrected? St. Paul covers this in great detail (1 Corinthians 15). Thankfully, it is not a sham. Christ was resurrected from the dead, saving all who believe in Him from sin, death, and the Devil.
What other aspects of Shepard do you see as a Christ figure? Have I missed anything? What other Christ figures do you see in video games that you’d like me to discuss? Feel free to discuss in the comments. (If I’ve offended any Calvinists, please refrain from arguing in the comments since online arguing is seldom helpful. This is not the venue to prove your doctrine.)
In the meantime: Fear, love, and trust in God above all things, and game boldly.