Tomorrow, I’m giving a presentation on “The Theology of Death Note” in one of my classes. I was reluctant to choose Death Note, because a lot of people have already written about its connections to Christianity (including Casey here at BtT, just a couple weeks ago). I wanted to write about something new… but I also wanted to wrestle with some themes from Death Note, and I knew my classmates could benefit from wrestling with them, too. So here I am, fresh from re-watching the show. Hopefully I’ll be able to stir a few new thoughts.
There are many Christian themes and symbols throughout Death Note. But as I watch, these things seem secondary. I just keep comparing Kira, or Light, to the true God. To me, it is clear that Kira is not worthy of worship. So he gives a great opportunity to remember why God is worthy of all power, all glory, and all worship.
First, a quick summary of Death Note, in case you’re new to the anime world:
A bored teenage genius, Yagami Light, picks up a notebook that a bored shinigami (Japanese death spirit/god) dropped. He learns that he can kill anyone just by writing their name in the notebook. At first, he’s not sure what to think. But before long, he decides he could do a lot of good by killing off the evil people in the world. He sets out to create the perfect world, free of evil people. People dub him “Kira,” apparently from the English word “killer.” The world’s greatest detective, L, spearheads the investigation into Kira’s powers and identity.
Yagami Light tries to become God…
When Light first picks up the Death Note that Ryuk—a shinigami—dropped, he’s skeptical. “The human whose name is written in this notebook shall die”? That sounds about as real as those annoying chain emails. But he’s curious… so he tests it on a criminal who is holding a school hostage, and the criminal dies. Later, he tests it on another man, one who is assaulting a woman. That man dies as well.
Light struggles with the fact that he just killed two men… or at least, he struggles with it for a few minutes. As he talks himself through it, he takes a different perspective:
I’ve always thought about this: The world is rotten! And that rotten people should die! Someone, someone must do it. Even if it means sacrificing one’s conscience and life! Things can’t stay like this! Even if someone else had picked up the Death Note, would they be able to erase unwanted people from the world? No way! But I can… I can do it! In fact, only I can do it! And I will… with the Death Note! I’ll change the world!
Using the Death Note to kill evil people, to make the world a safer and better place… Light’s logic makes sense, even if we don’t all agree with it. The world is rotten. It does need saving. The evil must be destroyed. But that’s only part of the solution.
Light’s arrogance is striking: “Only I can do it… I’ll change the world!” He sees himself as the appointed savior, the only one with the mindset, intellectual ability, and moral orientation to eradicate evil and change the world. But he doesn’t stop there. He wants to be glorified for his work:
I want people to know of my existence, that there’s someone out there passing righteous judgment on the wicked!
He plans to kill off the worst criminals through the notebook’s default cause of death, heart attacks—and thus make his hand in it clear. The less despicable evildoers will die off slowly, through diseases and accidents. He explains this to Ryuk: “And I would create a new world of earnest, kind humans.”
Ryuk points out what may be obvious to many viewers: “Then you’d be the only one left with a bad personality.”
Light’s response is frightening in its sincerity:
Huh? What are you saying? Ryuk, I’m probably the best, most diligent honor student in Japan. And I will become the god of this new world!
Yikes. The worst part? At this point, Light really sees himself as that good honor student. His nastier side hasn’t shown much, except in his first evil laugh of the series. He doesn’t see his own bad personality—only the faults in everyone else. He’s fooled even himself with his good guy act, and with the power of the Death Note, he thinks he’s not only a good guy, but the good guy.
And people follow him. First, there’s Misa, who admires Kira because he killed the man who killed her parents and would have gotten away with it. She then falls in love with Light, and becomes doubly worshipful. Light tells her, in an arrogant, perverted echo of Christ, “If you love me, you will obey me.” Since she sees him as a savior and God, she acts accordingly. Light adds that if she does certain things to serve him, he will love her. She tries to earn his love—which, in great contrast to the true Christ and true God, is not unconditional. In fact, it’s not even conditional. He won’t love her no matter what she does.
The other notable one is Mikami, who appears later in the anime. He worships Kira and calls him “god” more than anyone else does. His main reason is that Kira seems to think a lot like him and agree with his ideology: “There will always be those who have no reason to exist. No, whose very existence is a threat to others. And the older they are, the less hope I have to reform them. They can only be deleted” (episode 32). He wants a god who is a more powerful version of himself, and he seems to get it… for a time.
… but he is only human.
Since Light sees himself as a god, his definition of an evil person includes those who oppose him. When he deems it necessary, he kills policemen, FBI agents, and others who threaten to hinder his mission. Even those who support him are disposable in his mind, and he’ll kill them if it seems the most effective (and least annoying) way to carry out his plans. He is manipulative, cold, and ruthless… And he firmly believes that he can create a new, better world simply by killing people.
The show seems to say that humans shouldn’t play god. No one has the right to judge people’s morality and worth on such a level. Ultimately, a human is just a human, no matter how smart they are or what power they hold. When Light falls apart at the end, he is shown to be, as Near says, nothing but “a crazed serial killer.”
There is a rightful Creator, Judge, and Savior.
Light and his followers recognize that the world needs a god, so they form and worship a human one with supernatural power to kill. I can sympathize with them, but a god whose only power is to kill cannot create, and if he saves anyone, it’s only temporary and one-dimensional.
God will wipe out evil. Light had that part right. And unlike Light, God is righteous, and so are his judgments. But justice is only a part of who God is—he is also a God of mercy, love, and life. So his approach is very different.
First, God is patient. The Bible often points out that he is slow to anger—even though his anger is righteous. David writes:
The Lord is compassionate and gracious,
slow to anger, abounding in love.
He will not always accuse,
nor will he harbor his anger forever;
he does not treat us as our sins deserve
or repay us according to our iniquities.
Most of us are familiar with Jonah’s story. But did you know that he didn’t want to go to Nineveh because he knew God was “slow to anger,” and that if the Ninevites repented, God would withhold punishment (Jonah 4:2)? With that attitude, I’m pretty sure Jonah would be a huge Kira fan—he’d rather wipe out thousands of evil people, instead of giving them a chance to turn to God.
That doesn’t mean God doesn’t get angry. It just means he gives plenty of time and warning before pouring out his wrath. So at another point in history, when the phrase “slow to anger” is mentioned in a prophecy against Assyria (represented by its capital, Nineveh), which had been tormenting his people Israel, the “anger” part is elaborated on in unpleasant detail. Here are the first couple verses:
The Lord is a jealous and avenging God;
the Lord takes vengeance and is filled with wrath.
The Lord takes vengeance on his foes
and vents his wrath against his enemies.
The Lord is slow to anger but great in power;
the Lord will not leave the guilty unpunished.
His way is in the whirlwind and the storm,
and clouds are the dust of his feet.
The link above takes you to the first full chapter. The message: you may think you’ve gotten away with hurting God’s people, but retribution is on the way—as well as restoration for Israel. You had your chance to do things right, and you didn’t.
And that’s just short-term, localized judgement. When the Lord Jesus Christ returns to reign, he will destroy the powers of this world (1 Corinthians 15:24). He’ll judge the living and the dead—those who seemed to get away with their cruelties during life will pay for it, and those who have suffered for their righteousness will receive their reward (2 Timothy 4:1; Isaiah 11:3-4).
God doesn’t just destroy. He is Creator. He created the earth from nothing, and he continues to create. When he establishes a new heaven and earth, it won’t be by simply extinguishing evil. He will make things new, and he will live among us. Revelation 21:1-8 gives a picture of this. Instead of trying to summarize it or quote the whole thing, I’ll just leave that link for you.
The righteous will have it good. The wicked will suffer.
The members of those two categories aren’t set yet. Even the worst sinner may repent, confess that Jesus is Lord, and believe that God raised him from the dead—and be saved from sin and death. Jesus took the punishment our works deserved, and those who believe are justified as righteous through our faith in him. We are redeemed from sin’s power and from the punishment our sins deserve. And we are reconciled to God—we have peace with him and access to his grace (Romans 5:1-2; 2 Cor 5:19).
God works on a global level, yes, but also an individual level. He gives us new life in every sense of the world. Spiritually, we are dead to sin and alive to life in Christ (Romans 6)—we are made new, and are being made new. I think these verses give a taste of what makes Christ so amazing, especially as we continue to contrast him with Light:
17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. 21 God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
“Reconciliation” means the restoration of a relationship. God seeks to restore the relationship between himself and humanity, both on an individual and global level. He doesn’t ask for much in return, but a relationship is a two-way street. Those who do not want to be reconciled to God on his terms won’t be forced to—if they’d rather be his enemy and go to hell, that’s their choice. Eventually, all who have chosen to side against God will be taken out of the way, and he will finish reconciling the entire world to himself. But for now, the offer stands. Those of us who are being made new already join Christ in urging you to come to God.
It’s not just spiritual. Physically, we will be resurrected with new, eternal bodies, to match the eternal kingdom we’ll live in. Just as Jesus rose from the dead, so will all who belong to him (1 Corinthians 15:20-23).
God is a life-giver, not a life-taker, and that makes him a far superior savior. Where Light both rules by death and is himself subject to death, Christ defeats death, and will deal the final blow against death in the end.
When I compare Light to God, another contrast strikes me: God acts in love and truth, while Light acts in hatred, manipulation, and deceit. God promises that believers will rule with Christ in an imperishable kingdom, and I have no reason to doubt him.
Light, on the other hand, as a track record of manipulative lies. He promises Misa he’ll love her if she obeys him. Nope. He also promises her that she’ll rule with him over his new world, but he doesn’t have any intention of that, and even if he did, she’s already traded away most of her lifespan, so it wouldn’t last long. He promises another girl the same thing… and then kills her. Light has no interest in relationships outside of his personal benefit. He values his family a little more than most people, but he considers even them to be disposable by the end. In fact, he gives his father temporary ownership of a Death Note and encourages him to use it—which affects his father’s soul, since a human who uses the Death Note can go to neither Heaven nor Hell. Ultimately, Light “needs” people for three things: as tools to establish his “perfect” world, worshiping him, and as “good, earnest people” to populate his “perfect” world.
God doesn’t need us. He was God before he created us, and his relationship with the trinity within himself was plenty. He created us and delights in us, and he invites us to delight in him—in fact, he’s made us so giving glory to him is in our best interests. And he uses us in his plans to communicate, create, and redeem. But he doesn’t need us—he just includes us out of love.
Light kills his enemies because they threaten or disgust him. God cannot be threatened. If someone tries to threaten him or his people, he disposes of them at his leisure—or, in many cases, confronts them and gets them on his side (as with Saul/Paul). God hates sin, but, out of love, he doesn’t kill people who have sinned without giving them a way out first.
Sometimes, I take God for granted. I forget what I know about his incredible nature until it’s contrasted with others’ visions of “redemption” or “deity,” like in Death Note. I’m thankful for this opportunity to worship God for his justice, mercy, love, and great power.
A few relevant links:
A new world is coming. God isn’t as hasty about bringing as Light is. Last week, I wrote about how I’ve learned to respond when the world feels strangled by sin and death. I didn’t plan this post as a follow-up, but I guess it ended up this way.
Casey (Cutesceneaddict) compared being on L’s task force to being Christ’s disciples a couple weeks ago.
Back in the summer, Lady_TeresaChristina wrote about Christian worldview in Death Note‘s first episode.
Seriously, just Google Death Note and Christianity, or at least click the “Death Note” tag below and see the posts TWWK’s linked to in his “Something More” posts. There’s so much more than I could (or even should) write about in my own posts.