I first watched Neon Genesis Evangelion as an 18 year old, new to the anime medium. Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, I was just enthralled by all the large-scale combat between the angels and the Eva units. With the series dropping on Netflix, I decided to re-watch the series in 2020. Let me tell you, now as a Dad in his thirties, my focus shifted from the action toward the themes of depression and acceptance, instead, as well as to the heavy use of Christian symbolism. This got me to wondering something—what’s the deal with the name of the series? So, I decided to dive further into the meaning behind the name and what I found was interesting.
Neon is one of the basic elements of the periodic table of elements. However, that’s not the “neon” being described in the title of the series. This iteration of neon is akin to the English language prefix neo. Both the prefix and this “neon” have their roots in the classical Greek word “neos.” Neos generally translates into English as new, fresh, or recent. We see this prefix used in English in words such as neonatal (location of new birth), neoliberalism (modern liberalism), or Neolithic (literal meaning “New Stone Age”).
So, from a literal word root perspective, the first word in the title can basically be inferred to mean “new.”
Genesis is a bit of a loaded term. Christians and Jews will recognize it as the first book of the Pentateuch or the first of the “Books of Moses” in the Bible. From a Biblical perspective, it is the beginning.
Merriam-Webster defines “genesis” as, “the origin or coming into being of something.” The genesis is the origin or beginning point of something. In the Biblical sense, that’s the beginning of all things as well as the beginning of scriptural canon. In a cultural context, the SEGA Mega Drive was branded as SEGA Genesis in the United States, as Sega of America wanted to convey in the name that the console was a “new beginning” for gaming.
From a title perspective, it appears that “genesis” in the title has something to do with a beginning or origin point. So far, we have “new beginning” as a general translation of the title.
Evangelion is a difficult word as it does not exactly have a direct translation. In the English language, its roots are similar to the Christian terms, evangelical or evangelism. Both of these words as well, as “evangelion” itself, have their roots in the classical Greek word euangelion. In most modern translations of the Bible, this has been transliterated into classic English as the word “Gospel.” In it’s classical definition, euangelion means “to bring good news.” In a very literal breakdown of the classical Greek word, euangelion is broken into the the two parts: “good” (eu-) and “messenger” (ángelos). This form of the word generally shifts from a meaning of good messenger to good message or news.
What becomes interesting then is that the term used throughout the series as applied to the biological-mech fusions that are used to defeat the angels is “Good News.” The angels in the series are, in a sense, being defeated by good news.
How does it apply to the anime?
Now I know what you are thinking: “That’s a real fine name you got there; however, how does this very specific name apply to the anime?!?” Let’s dive in.
The plot of the series is about a group of teenagers who pilot humanoid-machine hybrids (cyborgs) known as Evangelions. Each of these teens are literally piloting “good news,” employing the Evangelion units to defeat monsters known as “angels” that are trying to destroy the world. Simultaneously, much of the series involves the various characters dealing with their own personal struggles, with a major focus on depression. The series ends with a new beginning for Shinji and Asuka after the Third Impact and implementation of the Human Instrumentality Project.
In essence, the plot lends itself to a series of new beginnings (Neon Genesis). There are simple new beginnings, such as when Shinji or Asuka arrive in Tokyo-3. There are also incredibly complex new beginnings, such as the End of Evangelion film, where the world is remolded with Shinji and Asuka serving as the proverbial Adam and Eve.
In another more literal sense, the “good news” of world peace is provided through the advent of a different new beginning from Human Instrumentality. As all sense of self is taken from humanity through instrumentality, peace is achieved in a new, united beginning. While it is debatable if this beginning truly is good, it is in fact, a “Neon Genesis.”
Professor of Media Analysis, Mick Broderick, wrote a detailed analysis of the series and came to a conclusion that the series serves, in many ways, as a retelling of the Book of Genesis. He writes, “Anno’s project [Neon Genesis Evangelion] is a postmodernist retelling of the Genesis myth, as his series title implies—Neon Genesis Evangelion. It is a new myth of origin, complete with its own deluge, Armageddon, apocalypse and transcendence.”
However, there’s another school of thought on the title of the series. Hideaki Anno has said on a few different occasions that part of why he pulled in the Christian and Jewish mysticism symbolism was because he thought it was unique and interesting. While the name may derive a meaning from an analysis of the series’ plot, there is also a very distinct possibility that the true reason this series was named Neon Genesis Evangelion was purely because Hideki Anno thought the name was neat.
How do Christians respond?
For non-Christians, the title and the series symbolism can provide entertaining and educational value, but for Christians, we may be called to respond: What do we do with Neon Genesis Evangelion?
Now, I could post a barrage of links of various thought-pieces across the internet about the series. Instead, though, I want to bring us back to the beginning. What is this series really about and what’s in that name?
There are flashes of religious symbolism across Evangelion. Names of beings and entities derived from Jewish, Gnostic, Christian, and Islamic mysticism are scattered throughout. Crosses are commonly shown, and the topic of the soul as a separate entity from the body is discussed. However, the series has little or nothing to say about the nature or reality of God or Christ. Instead, it’s a very human narrative that focuses heavily on the depression of its main character, and with a human solution on solving the suffering caused by humanity. In many ways, this is the reason behind the Human Instrumentality Project, which again is a means whereby all the souls of humanity are merged into one and combined into a single, physical being.
Instead of having individuality, there would be sameness.
Instead of unique consciousness, there would be oneness.
The Bible embraces notions of unity, but rejects notions of sameness. Never is that more clear than in 1 Corinthians 12, where the apostle Paul discusses that idea of the church being united as the body of Christ. However, in doing so, he rejects the idea that individuals have the same purpose, instead uplifting the unique characteristics that make us different. I have different spiritual gifts and talents than you and you have different spiritual gifts and talents than your neighbor. Some of us are gifted teachers, other brilliant public speakers, and others are good cooks. Each of those unique characteristics are important and make us who we are. The Lord loves us as we are.
A similar emphasis on individuality finds its way into the end of the Evangelion series, which finds Shinji rejecting the concept of instrumentality. While all others appear ready and willing to join into one, united consciousness, Shinji desires to remain unique. Despite his flaws, despite his pain, despite his depression, Shinji recognizes that he is loved and deserves said love.
In a way, there is good news in the series in the form of Shinji’s eventual recognition that he deserves love as well as the individuals recognizing their desire for unity. Well, good news depending on your perspective.
With that in mind, consider these concluding points in deciding how to respond to the series as a Christian:
- While recognizing that there is much symbolism throughout the the show that partly reflects the Christian faith, Christians should also acknowledge that said symbolism is mostly meaningless in that it does nothing to really explain what we believe. It is mostly window dressing.
- Accept this story as a human narrative about human experiences trying to seek the divine to deal with their own problems. While on the surface, the story portrays humans protecting the world from monsters with their own monstrous, giant cyborgs, a deeper thematic dive reveals the truth of how depression terrorizes individuals and the challenges and ways one may respond to it.
- Take away the idea that depression is real and a support system is important.
- Unity is important and good, but is distinct from sameness, an idea that can easily find its way into churches and church culture We must embrace our uniqueness.
- Christ’s Good News is better than any good news of Neon Genesis Evangelion. The oneness of Human Instrumentality pales in comparison to unity in Christ.
But don’t just take my word for it. There are layers upon layers in Neon Genesis Evangelion and two people may watch it and glean wildly different things from the series. Watch it yourself and feel free to comment below on how you feel Christians should approach this landmark show.