Death Note is no stranger to Christian symbolism—and ingenious detective L may be the centerpiece of it all. From his name (which is homonymous with the Hebrew word for God—El) and triune identity, to his miraculous ability to solve unsolvable crimes, L encompasses a variety of imagery pertaining to the Christian God and Jesus Christ.
Depending upon his incarnation (manga, anime, or light novel—all of which are slightly different in his portrayal), L’s numerous allusions to Christendom vary:
- The anime, for example, parallels L’s impending death with numerous references to Christ’s crucifixion, including Christ’s isolation in the Garden of Gethsemane, his washing of Judas’ feet, his “sweating drops of blood,” and his foreknowledge of these events.
- The light novels portray L as though God-sent from heaven itself, stating that his initial “L” stands for “Lost One” (literal interpretation being one who heaven has sent to earth on a mission) and “Last One” (there will never be another as great as L: a homage to “I am the First and the Last”—Revelation 22:13).
- L’s manga incarnation is perhaps his least morally-grounded, but even so portrays certain Christ-like initiative—discipleship (his task force) and sacrifice (his willingness to die for the cause of the case), for example.
Most Christ figures are archetyped because of their allusive deeds, and while L works sleuthing miracles, tests his followers’ faith, and sacrifices his life for a world-wide cause (later to be “resurrected” through his heir, Near), L also—perhaps more-so—parallels Christ with his mere existence. His mysterious identity and perfect track record inspires hatred and distrust in some and loyalty and faith in others, in much the same way that Christ’s advent divided the religious crowd of the day (John 7:43). Physically, L is unattractive, like Christ (Isaiah 53:2). The light novels poetically suggest that L’s back is bent beneath the weight of the world’s crimes, and that his sugar cravings resulted from humanity’s bitterness; these allusions reference the manner in which Christ carried the world’s sins (1 Peter 2:24).
The whole of L’s Christ-figurism extends beyond himself, however. Light, L’s archenemy (who L none-the-less offers a second chance to via friendship), symbolizes a slew of biblical villains (in chronological order no less), beginning with fallen man, Lucifer, Judas, and ending with the Anti-Christ. To get a full appreciation and understanding of L’s scope as a Christ archetype, Light must also be examined in a similar manner, particularly by studying how L and Light’s respective allegories interact.
- Between the Panels: Disciples of e(L) – A look at L’s similarities to Christ via discipleship, as well as how L’s “loyalty tests” of his followers mimic God’s trials of our Faith and His ultimate provision.
- Meek, Weak, or Chic – In the Death Note anime adaptation, L displays great meekness—a trait synonymous with Christ—when faced with his death, as he chooses to submit to Light in order to ultimately overthrow him.
- Light’s Favorite Word – While not about L, specifically, this article offers insight into Light’s parallels to Lucifer, which strengthens L’s own imagery as a Christ figure.
- Death Note Symbolism – Wikipedia’s official entry page about the various symbols used in Death Note’s narrative, many of which originate in Christianity (including L’s similarities to Christ).
How L Falls Short as a Christ Figure:
- L is typically involved in cases for the mere thrill, whereas Christ clearly had a mission for the Greater Good (Luke 19:10); in the manga, L is blatant about the fact that he doesn’t pursue crime out of a sense of justice, but rather for the sake of his own entertainment.
- L self-admits to breaking the law and doing all manner of illegalities to get the answers he needs. While these deviant methods could be paralleled to Christ’s fulfilling of Old Testament Law, L’s “end-justifies-the-means” mentality gives him a very grey sense of morality—something Christ was, oppositely, very black and white about (Revelation 3:15).
- L planned to die, but did not expect to, whereas Christ knew his death was the climactic moment of his earthly mission (Mark 10:45).
- L’s motto, “an eye for an eye,” completely contradicts Christ’s teachings of returning love for hate (Matthew 5:38-48); it’s interesting to note, though, that L’s anime adaptation shows a transition from retaliation to humility before his death (perhaps, on a symbolic level, to reflect Christ’s perfect fulfillment of Old Testament law).
- L, like any mortal Christ figure, is ultimately a fallible human being. His primary vices are arrogance, selfishness, and laziness. He also has no conscience when it comes to manipulating others for his ends.
Author’s Note: Death Note’s spirituality is something I’ve studied at length. I’d be happy to discuss its symbolism, as well as answer any questions you may have. Please talk it up in the comments!