Prophets, Precogs, and the Purposes of God

[I wrote this article back in 2002 for the now-defunct UK website Facing the Challenge. Reposted here, with minor edits, for posterity.]

Minority ReportWhat would you do if you were accused of a murder you had not committed… yet?

So runs the tagline for Minority Report, the latest action-thriller-cum-futuristic-noir from director Steven Spielberg. Intriguing though the question may be, it is by no means the only conundrum raised by this equally entertaining and thought-provoking film. As The Matrix did to a lesser degree, Minority Report touches on a host of age-old ethical and metaphysical puzzles — some raised explicitly, others apparent only on later reflection — but in an imaginative, contemporary, and stylish manner.

Are we free to determine our futures or are we destined by fate? If you know in advance that someone will perform a certain action at a certain time, can that person then be acting freely? Could it ever be just to punish a person for a crime they didn’t commit, yet surely would have committed had others not intervened to prevent it? Is a crimeless society thereby a virtuous one? When are privacy and freedom more valuable than safety? Where does justice end and vengeance begin? Is it ever justifiable to treat human beings (even abnormal ones) as means rather than ends?

Such questions have been pondered by thinkers from a wide range of religious and secular standpoints. For Christians eager to communicate the faith to their contemporaries, however, Minority Report is also a goldmine of imagery and illustrations for communicating biblical themes imaginatively and relevantly. For example, is mere intent to sin a sufficient basis for moral judgement and punishment (cf. Matthew 5:27-30)? Are we bad by nature or by nurture — and either way, why should we be thought responsible for our actions (and to whom)? When a society turns away from God, does it inevitably end up deifying something or someone else? What kind of a ‘god’ can be harnessed and exploited by man (cf. Isaiah 44:14-17; Daniel 4:34-35)? Can anyone but God know the future (cf. Isaiah 41:21-23; 44:7)?

Although the film appears commendably non-committal about many of the issues it raises, it seems (without giving too much away to those yet to see it) that Spielberg cannot help showing his hand when it comes to the central question of determinism. The moral of the tale, if there is one, is that I am the ultimate determiner of my future: as W. E. Henley famously put it, “I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.” Against the backdrop of a society with a predominantly mechanistic view of the world (“science has stolen all our miracles,” laments one character), Minority Report ultimately repudiates fatalism in its closing scenes. Nevertheless, appealing though it may be, this is a profoundly humanistic vision and quite at odds with the biblical picture of a universe in which God is sovereign over the destinies of His creatures (Isaiah 46:9-10; Proverbs 16:9; Romans 9:22-24). We might ask: is a picture of human history determined by an uncoordinated mass of billions of fallible, self-interested, relatively impotent organisms more reassuring than a picture of human history sovereignly directed by an all-knowing, all-good, all-powerful Creator who loves and cares for His creation?

Particularly provocative are the ‘eye’ metaphors, both visual and verbal, spread liberally throughout the film. The precogs have the power to see the future, yet are pathetically blind to the present. The protagonist is forced to risk losing his own power of sight in order to evade the eyes of others. In the future, we are warned, the eyes will truly become the windows of the soul, being the means by which people are identified and known (cf. Matthew 6:22-23). Moreover, the state will have its own myriad eyes, peering down on every street and poised to penetrate any home, making it practically omniscient. The justification for this intrusion is ostensibly that of protection: but compare this vision of governmental security solely through fear and judgement with the biblical picture of God’s providential care (Psalm 139:1-4, 15-16; Matthew 10:29-30). Consider too the disconcerting depiction of future advertising in Minority Report: by becoming so personalised, the hi-tech billboards are paradoxically found to be utterly impersonal — their ‘special knowledge’ of each consumer only serves to emphasise with irony the fact that they treat their targets as objects and care little for them as persons.

No doubt there are further elements of Minority Report offering fruitful material for Christian communicators. In the remainder of this article, however, I would like to draw attention to a subtle incoherence in the storyline of the film that can lead us to a striking comparison with the biblical narrative of God’s redemptive plan (albeit with crucial dissimilarities, as we might expect).

One of the most admirable features of the film is the way in which it presents us with a seemingly plausible series of events that on closer analysis turns out to be quite paradoxical. Let me begin by briefly reviewing the basic plot line. (As the newsreaders say: if you don’t want to see the score, look away now.) In the year 2054, the Department of Precrime in Washington, D.C. possesses technology that enables the law-enforcement services to predict murders before they are committed and thus to intervene and prevent their occurrence in the first place (not to mention arrest and incarcerate the would-be murderers). This technology, designed to channel the psychic powers of three ‘precognizant’ children, provides crucial details of the impending crime: the names of the perpetrator and the victim, the date and time of the murder, plus sketchy visual details of its location and circumstances. The unit chief, John Anderton, has unswerving confidence in the reliability and value of the revolutionary precrime system — until, that is, the day it calmly spits out his name as a future killer, along with the name of a victim whom he has never met and about whom he knows nothing. The central portion of the film subsequently involves his desperate attempts both to avoid arrest by his colleagues and to track down this future ‘victim’ so as to demonstrate his innocence.

Now here is the perplexing thing about this course of events. Throughout the 36 hours leading up to his predicted crime, Anderton is guided in his decisions by the information he has received from the precrime system. However, the system does not purport to determine the future, only to accurately predict it; thus, the information it provides is based on events that (if the system is correct) have yet to occur — indeed, events that will be determined in part by Anderton’s own decisions. Consequently, there is a vicious circularity at work: the reason Anderton acts as he does is because the precrime system gave him the information that it did; yet the reason the precrime system gave him the information that it did is presumably because Anderton acts as he does! In short, the protagonist of Minority Report is like a dog chasing its tail, with no external direction or purpose. In Anderton’s waking nightmare, events just happen because they happen: period.

Strange as it may seem, there is an intriguing parallel here with the biblical storyline. In Minority Report, we’re presented with (1) a future killing of an innocent person; (2) reliable predictions of the details of that murder based on prescient visions; and (3) a central character who lives a period of their life according to these predictions. Yet this is precisely what we find in what the Old and New Testaments have to say about the life and death of Jesus Christ. Various details of the victim’s identity and manner of death were predicted well in advance of the event by the Old Testament counterparts of the ‘precogs’: David, Isaiah, Micah, and Zechariah (Psalm 22; Isaiah 7:14, 11:1-5, 52:13-53:12; Micah 5:2; Zechariah 11-13). Moreover, we are told that Jesus conducted his three-year ministry with these predictions in view and actively guiding him (Matthew 26:54, 56; Mark 14:49; Luke 18:31, 22:37, 24:44; John 19:28).

There are, of course, two significant differences. First of all, in Minority Report, the one guided by the predictions is the killer and his goal is to preserve his life; in the Gospels, however, the one guided by the predictions is the victim and his goal is to sacrifice his life. Secondly, as we have seen, there is no external direction or purpose in the foreseen events of Anderton’s life; yet the events of Christ’s life and death are not merely foreseen, but foreordained as part of an overarching divine plan (Acts 2:22-24, 4:27-28; Ephesians 1:11, 3:8-11). Thus, the prophecies of the Old Testament and the actions of Jesus are not dependent on each other, resulting a futile circularity, but are both grounded in the eternal redemptive purposes of God. It is God’s overarching plan that gives meaning to the events of Christ’s life — and thereby to our own lives. Undoubtedly there are philosophical mysteries here that are no less inscrutable than the abilities of Spielberg’s precogs (cf. Romans 11:33-36); but few would dispute that the visions of God’s prophets offer a far greater hope and comfort about the future (Isaiah 35:5-7, 42:6-7).

One Response to Prophets, Precogs, and the Purposes of God

  1. Michael Shuman

    Enjoyed this article! I think another movie which is ripe for philosophizing is Interstellar. The ending got me puzzling about whether what happened was even coherent. Could it be that a B-theory of time would be implied by the events? The relativity aspects were interesting too. Not sure if there is as many things analogous to the Bible, though, except Christ saved those from prior to his coming perhaps.