Review of “The Man from Earth” – Treatment of Christians Considered

The Man from Earth is the final story written by the famous science fiction author Jerome Bixby. Probably best known for his episodes of the original Star Trek – though that is by no means his best work – he was truly one of the luminaries of the science fiction field. [1]

I have mixed feelings about his final story, which was filmed as a movie and is available on NetFlix as a streaming movie. Be warned, this ‘review’ is an analysis and will contain major spoilers. Stop reading and go watch the movie first if you have interest in seeing it without having the plot ruined.

Plot Summary

The story is of a man named John Oldman (well soon see that this is a pun) who, though seemingly still young, has decided to quit as a professor after only 10 years in the role. His friends all show up to both help him move out and try to talk him out of it, or at least understand why he’d give up a career he clearly enjoys. As the discussion goes along, he finally breaks down and tells them a remarkable story that in the end shakes all of them up. It would seem that our hero is not young at all, but is actually a Cro-Magnon man that just happened to have a perfectly attuned physiology that will never age.

The setup is fascinating because you have just the right mix of skeptics from various fields that all try their best to shoot holes in his story, yet John has ready answers for all of his amazing claims. At first they attempt to break his story down using science, but soon find that while his story is improbable, that it does not lie outside the realm of possibility.

The Historical Jesus

The climax of the story is reached when John finally reveals that he was Jesus Christ. This comes as a serious emotional challenge to one of the friends visiting him as she is a committed Christian. This revelation, of course, devastates her faith and nearly destroys her life. While the others are not as devastated as the Christian lady, only two of the visiting friends handle John’s fantastic claims well. So to save his friends from more truth than they can handle (and especially the poor little Christian lady) he finally ‘admits’ he made the whole thing up. 

But we, the audience at home, soon see that he didn’t make any of it up and he was telling the truth all along. But since the skeptics do not know this they are all able to go home and go back to their mundane lives in peace.

One man in the group is a bit less skeptical then the rest and he finds it marvelous that perhaps the laws of nature are not as confining as he thought they were. He decides to believe our Cro-Magnon hero, though he refuses to force him into a final admission because he’d rather just believe on faith. The other non-skeptic is a woman in love with John and eventually they drive off into the sunset together to start a new life that they know will end with him leaving her once she gets to old for him to avoid being detected.

The acting in the movie is well done and the story is fascinating and profoundly thought provoking. It also scared the beegeebies out of me. And here is why:

Secular Liberalism and Christianity

The most troubling point of the story is where our hero admits he’s Jesus Christ. His story is that he, centuries before, had met the Buddha. John admits that the Buddha is the most amazing man he had ever met. (Secular Liberals like Buddha it would appear.) John learned directly from Buddha. Centuries later, John decided to help out the poor misguided Jews by trying to teach them the teachings of Buddha. He taught them that there was one greater than he was (Buddha) but they mixed up the message and thought he was claiming to be the Son of God instead. Then John’s teachings riled people up so much that they crucified him. Using his knowledge of meditation from Buddha, he slowed his body down until it seemed dead. They then buried him in the tomb and he healed and came back out. (Swoon theory!) He tried to leave town but some of his followers saw him and it started a massive rumor about him having been resurrected. He tried to correct them, but having been impacted by this miracle of the return from the dead, they wouldn’t listen to him. Christianity then emerged as a twisted view of the original (and correct) teachings of Buddha based on this unfortunate incident.

I have no doubt whatsoever that we are getting to the heart of Jerome Bixby’s own feelings about Christianity in this part of the story. And that is why this part scares me so much.

Bigotry Towards Christians is Now Socially Accepted

For almost the entire movie, the ‘skeptics’ hang together, working against our hero to try to punch holes in his story. Only when he gets to his story of being Jesus does the Christian woman find herself frightfully alone. The other skeptics easily, and rather completely, turn on her, shooting holes in the Christian story and (in my opinion) gleefully agreeing with our hero that Christianity is a twisted version of Christ’s original teachings. This is the only part of the story where the skeptics almost entirely agree with our hero, though they do not accept that he personally was Jesus. Our lone Christian finds her faith shattered and her life devastated, yet the skeptics – all really the voice of Jerome Bixby – pile it on without the slightest concern for her well-being. This questionable behavior continues for quite a while until finally, as mentioned above, the poor little Christian lady breaks into tears. Only at this point does John finally back off smashing her life apart. The skeptics (i.e. Jerome Bixby), of course, never recant a word.

The Christian woman is hardly a Bible thumping fundamentalist either. She is essentially a liberal Christian – though a believing one. God is no mere metaphor to her and Jesus is in some sense really and truly God. But she does not take the Bible literally and does not believe it is infallible. She is portrayed as intelligent and capable right up until her faith is put on trial. Then there is something pathetic about her compared to the other skeptics. She desperately clings to her religion, unable to face reality head on like our other skeptics are able to do (on this point at least) since they don’t believe in God.

The spirit of meanness she is subjected to by the others made my heart ache. At first I tried to shrug this off as ‘it’s just fiction’ and ‘she’s not real.’ But I finally had to admit that the bigotry she faces was our new reality.

I don’t think I realized before this movie just how far bigotry towards Christians and their beliefs has solidified as part of secular liberal culture. Yes, I knew that the media portrays fundamentalist Christians in a negative light with just perhaps a bit too much glee, but I honestly did not know that even a liberal Christian like this woman has long since come to be derided by secularists.

But the thing that bothered me the most was the fact that people no longer see the characters in this movie for what they are: bigots. Instead it seems natural to have all these secular skeptics suddenly dog pile the lone Christian and temporarily turn their skepticism jointly on her cherished beliefs without regard for her feelings. Or even without regard for all the facts.

The Historical Story of Jesus

There is something else interesting about this movie that I think Jerome Bixby seems to have missed entirely. He accidently made a movie that shows why we should take the Gospel’s seriously. Consider how Bixby finally has to get around the story of Jesus found in the Bible. As I mentioned in this previous post, Christians have been shoring up their research surrounding the historical Jesus for quite a while. The best – and to be frank, only – defense against this scholarship has been to basically deny the story lock-stock-and-barrel. There really is no good way to take the Gospels and take them seriously as ‘mostly historical’ yet deny the resurrection of Jesus. [2]

The story of Jesus in the Bible really is the best ancient historical account of anyone ever. No one else in ancient history even comes close. If Mark really does date back to within 1 to 4 decades of the death of Jesus – and there is pretty good reason to believe this – then we have eye witness accounts of the resurrection of Jesus too close to the event to foist off as 100% mere myth that took centuries to develop later.

And Bixby seems to understand this. His movie very cleverly – and deftly – comes up with a way to address all of this Christian scholarship. For example, how do skeptics address the empty tomb? Why didn’t non-Christians of that time just take out the body of Jesus from the tomb and show it to people? Bixby’s solution? Jesus had never actually died.

Now how exactly did Jesus get past the guards? Bixby’s answer? There weren’t any. That’s a later myth. Well then how did Jesus – having just been killed on the cross by some of the most expert killers (the Romans) ever – manage to survive in the first place? Bixby’s answer? He was an expert in meditation having been taught by Buddha himself.

How do we explain why the disciples thought he was a gloriously resurrected person when in fact an accidental survival of the cross would actually leave a rather pathetic being on the verge of death? Bixby’s answer? Jesus happened to be a Cro-Magnon man that had extreme healing abilities.

And how about the fact that myth doesn’t normally start up quickly? How does Bixby explain why Christians – who thought they saw a man return from the – go to their graves and allow themselves to be butchered because of what they had seen? Bixby’s answer? Something miraculous actually did happen. Jesus did, in a sense, rise from the dead. It was all a misunderstanding, but that at least explains how an uber-myth like this grew so much more rapidly then would be normally expected.

The fact is that Bixby really has addressed the problems that skeptics about the Bible struggle to address. But he did so using pure fiction and even he knows it. But doesn’t that sort of leave an open question? How do we fill in these holes without a work of fiction?

The Matter of the Skeptics

And how does Bixby justify his ‘skeptics’ — remember, they don’t even believe our hero is really a fast healing caveman – as being so sure of their views of Jesus and Christianity minus the fictional answers Bixby’s offering? How could they (i.e. Jerome Bixby) possibly justify their (his) all but certain knowledge that the modern Christian Church is a twisted version of what Jesus really taught based on what documents we actually have about Jesus (i.e. the New Testament)?

Conclusions

This movie really drove home to me that it is now socially acceptable to treat Christians with contempt for their literal beliefs in a resurrected Jesus and that non-Christians won’t see it as bigotry any more. Indeed, most likely even most Christians have grown so used to it that they won’t see it as bigotry any more either. Even just a decade or two ago even non-Christians would have cringed at how the Christian was treated in this movie. But now it just seems normal to revel in the devastation of a sincere person’s Christian faith. We are in a new era.

But this movie also makes it obvious that this bigotry is rationally unjustified. (Can one rationally justify bigotry?) Christians may not have proof of their version of the story, but nor do their critics have proof of theirs or even a really good counter explanation.

I am not sure how to rate this movie nor do I know if I should recommend it to M* readers. On Netflix, I rated it 5 stars for about 10 minutes, then changed my mind and rated it 1 star for the next 10 minutes. Ultimately, I removed my rating all together. I normally do not recommend movies that I feel promote out right bigotry towards a minority group like this movie does. Yet, there is no denying it’s an intriguing well written story and one that has two important, albeit unintentional,  messages for Christians everywhere.

Notes

[1] For those that enjoy Science Fiction stories, Bixby wrote “It’s a Good Life” which is a SF hall of fame story.

[2] My experience is that theologically liberal individuals have no issues with taking everything they like in the Gospels as historical fact and everything they don’t like as myth and rumor that was made up decades later by people that never even knew Jesus. Usually this alternatives from verse to verse.

12 thoughts on “Review of “The Man from Earth” – Treatment of Christians Considered

  1. Good review and it sounds like a fun movie to me actually… as long as you don’t take it seriously. The thing that bothers me is when people actually take this stuff seriously. My cousin was reading the Da Vinchi Code and she doesn’t really believe in God (at best case she might hedge) and she says of it, “It makes a lot of good points about Christianity”. It’s strange because it seems this book does the same thing.

    In both books, Christian antagonists substitute what they would consider scriptural fabrications with their own fabrications to reason away whatever the scriptures attest to.

    I would slightly disagree with this whole concept that the story of Jesus must be true because it could not be so easily made up in such a short period of time. All you have to do is look at the story that came out of Afghanistan with Bin Laden’s death and the way skeptical reporters wrote about about how Bin Laden died with a “boom-boom double tap headshot”. It was first class myth building that combined video game elements with a single piece of speculation (Bin Laden was reportedly killed). Now I’m not saying he’s not dead of course. But there was this entire myth that originated within such a short period of time, even among people who are prone to be skeptical.

    I think among believers, who are already looking for something, and who don’t have various people getting all the facts out, it’s pretty easy to construct an opinion that much of the story was embellished and fabricated, by even well meaning people.

    I just grab at Bin Laden because it was the most recent, but surely there are hundreds of examples like this. Ultimately, I’m inclined to take the skeptics side of things when it comes to presenting the facts — that we just can’t be sure in evaluating anything about the real Christ by typical historical measures as we don’t have anything directly from him that I’m aware of.

    I’m perfectly comfortable saying you ultimately have to read about him, and put your faith in his words and receive a testimony through the Holy Ghost. If that’s what the people had to do in even his own time, we have at least as much a burden today.

    And one final thought to a long comment… a companion argument to your accurate suggestion that ridiculing belief is devastating is an argument I would make that focusing so much on the observed, historical (to scientific/historical standards that is) veracity of Christ is detrimental to a key thing we have to learn in this life. I think by talking so much about historical evidence of Christ, inadvertently run the risk of denying the opportunity of others to come to know things by the Holy Ghost.

    It happens too much in the LDS church already, where people go through life on sort of a cultural understanding of things but really don’t develop a strong relationship of receiving personal revelation by the Holy Ghost, the ministering of Angels, etc. Outside of the church, this seems to be so much more common. It’s a kind of stubborn believe in and out of the church that does not have at its heart personal revelation from God (the rock of our salvation).

    I hope I’m not seen as saying apologetics from a historian/archeological perspective is not good to do, but it seems we lose one of the most importance lessons for us to learn in life if we actually rely on it.

  2. Reading this post made me very sad. Bruce, you are depressing me with all of the sad, skeptical stories you are telling us all about. I can’t help but think of the great and spacious building and all of the people who mock and scorn people who follow the Way in the last days.

    Anyway, don’t worry, I’ll get over it. :)

  3. Secular liberals like Buddha? That’s a strange thing to pop up in the middle of the review. I must know different secular liberals than you.

    Maybe I’m remembering the movie wrong, but I thought they were trying to make the point that major Christian religions had corrupted and misinterpreted Christ’s teachings, not that Christianity itself was corrupt. Maybe I’m desensitized, but as a Christian I have a hard time feeling attacked when most of the laws I have to follow were passed by Christians who were influenced by by their religion. My kids use textbooks that are heavily influenced by a Christians that decided what is best for kids to learn. The leaders of my country make decisions about going to war after consulting with a Christian God, etc. We aren’t the poor harmless picked-on minority that just wants to leave everyone alone and be left alone. I had a hard time getting upset about the BOM musical as well.

    Anyway, I don’t see any reason to defend the movie too much, I thought it was a decent movie for the budget, a couple of the actors weren’t great and the reveal was a bit obvious early on.

  4. “I think by talking so much about historical evidence of Christ, inadvertently run the risk of denying the opportunity of others to come to know things by the Holy Ghost.”

    If we are being completely honest with ourselves, then I agree this is what it boils down to. It would appear that God does not wish to be found through proofs. Religions that don’t accept this are setting themselves up for a fall of sorts.

  5. jjohnsen,

    I see your point. But that just makes it all the stranger to me. So instead of picking on a small helpless minority, he’s picking on a large capable minority. Doesn’t seem like it makes much of a difference morally. He still managed to make all his characters uncompassionate towards (within the fictional setting) the one and only helpless little Christian woman until she breaks down.

    And is that the moral dividing line here? If a minority can get one of their members elected to the presidency it’s okay to therefore behave this way towards them? Or is the moral dividing line that if that minority has considerable (mostly positive) influence on society then it’s okay to represent them in a fictional negative light like this?

  6. I don’t know if you’re still reading responses to your post but…

    About this movie… I loved it.

    I love the theory or idea behind it. A man that has survived for 14,000 years. What was life like for him? When did he realize he was different? What did he do about it? How would he view the world? How would that change over time? I LOVE THAT…

    Now, regarding the movies ‘explanation’ of Christianity…

    I AM a Christian. I firmly believe that Jesus is The Christ… So, why am I not offended or bothered by the movie? Because it’s fiction. I watched Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief with my daughters. I liked that movie as well. I wasn’t offended by the way the movie portrayed Zeus and company as being ‘real.’ I wasn’t offended by the Harry Potter movies. Why not? Because they’re fiction; make believe…

    I honestly believe it’s as simple as that…

  7. Hi Tim,

    I do appreciate your comment.

    However, I am perplexed by it. Since the original post isn’t about being offended at a fictional view of Jesus at all, I’m not sure why you thought it was.

    You might want to re-read the post a bit more carefully. The topic is something else entirely. Hint: it’s about what we can learn about the author’s view *about people that believe in Jesus* by deconstructing his fiction and whether or not those views are prejudice or justified.

  8. Pingback: “The Man from Earth” – Treatment of Christians Considered « Coolmusings

  9. what i havent heard mentioned and which i think is very interesting given how the plot plays out, is that in the begininning of the movie when pressed about whether he believes in god, the main character in a roundabout way says “no”, or at the very least admits he is essentially agnostic. Didnt pay much attention to it at the time, but when its later revealed that he is jesus it comes into focus as a damning comment on christianity and on religion as a whole. the savior of the christian faith not believing in God…more than anything i feel that speaks to the authors feeling about the christian faith.

  10. My problem with the film is first that those arguments do not hold to critical thinking. One remark is even outright lie.
    Secondly it tries to promote Buddhism which is considerably inferior to the Catholic faith as we know it today.
    Finally it is a cheap choice of controversy.

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