“And [God] said, Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.”
So begins the biblical story of the Binding of Isaac. This passage has no doubt challenged well-meaning Sunday School teachers for decades. It remains, nevertheless, a fixture of not only Christian teaching and preaching, but it lingers in the popular imagination outside of church as well. This story might be aptly called a “true myth” of the kind described by JRR Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. After all, the thematic core of the story crops up time and again, the notion that you might have to sacrifice someone you love intimately if the situation demands it. Despite its moral ambiguity, this “true myth” is exceedingly popular and manifests in many incarnations. It has appeared in recent novels, movies, television, and even video games. In my experience, congregants typically wonder why God would command Abraham to kill his son, but perhaps even more haunting is the question of Abraham’s perspective. What goes through the mind of a parent tasked with such a command?
I have recently been thinking of the Binding of Isaac, as not long ago I concluded the award-winning video game The Last of Us. Released in 2013, the game depicts a scenario where society collapsed after a mutated strain of the Cordyceps fungus begins infecting humans and transforming them into violent, marauding husks. It bears superficial connections to zombie horror (a genre that seems to be reaching critical mass), but its primary focus is on retelling the story of Abraham and Isaac. In many ways, it is a companion to Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer-prize winning novel The Road, both of which are contemporary iterations of this “true myth” in Genesis.
In The Last of Us, the player character is Joel, a middle-aged man who has been hardened by tragedy and the difficulties of survival in this new world. In the game’s harrowing first few minutes, he tragically loses his daughter Sarah in the first outbreak of the disease, gunned down by a soldier who was afraid she was infected. The story then jumps forward twenty years, and we find Joel has become a hollow, bitter, and violent man. He has seen civilization collapse and humanity reduced to warring pockets of the starved and desperate. Joel’s name is therefore fitting, for his prophet namesake asked of old, “Has anything like this ever happened in your days, or in the days of your ancestors?” (Joel 1:2). Such an unprecedented disaster has wrought only twenty years of sorrow. “Wake up,” the prophet exhorts, “and weep” (1:5). The prophetic Joel describes a plague that has invaded like an army “vast beyond counting, with teeth like the teeth of a lion” (1:6). One could be excused for interpreting the following description of the pestilence as the game’s “infected”:
They gallop just like steeds.
With a clatter as of chariots
They bound on the hilltops…
Like an enormous horde
Arrayed for battle…
They do not get hurt.
They rush up the wall,
They dash about in the city;
They climb into the houses…
By way of the windows (2:5, 9)
Witnessing such a catastrophe turns Joel into a cruel and merciless “survivor,” losing his humanity in the process, and losing his family and friends too. “I got nothing but nightmares from those years,” Joel’s brother Tommy says to him when in the game’s middle section they meet for the first time in years. “You survived because of me!” Joel shouts angrily. “It wasn’t worth it,” Tommy responds. The depths to which one must go to survive end up compromising the survivor to his very core, and though Joel’s body might survive his soul is dead.
Time and again, the game’s main theme is rammed home: while the infected are terrible, the true villains of the present world are people, and that includes Joel himself. He routinely justifies his violent behavior by declaring himself a “survivor,” but the reality is that there are no more good people. As Bill, one of the game’s minor characters says, “You know, as bad as those [infected] are, at least they’re predictable. It’s the normal people that scare me.” In developing this theme, The Last of Us does a finer job of illustrating the effects of original sin than many a catechism or theology class. The people of The Last of Us seem to be irredeemable. Not necessarily because they are wicked, but because their desperation has made them inhuman. There is nothing left to save.
In The Road, the chief inspiration for The Last of Us, the protagonist is known only as “the man.” And, like Joel, he endured the loss of someone close (his wife) and has become a mistrusting and violent survivor. The Road‘s setting is similar to The Last of Us, but instead of a fungal virus, an unnamed disaster (presumably a comet or meteor) has destroyed civilization and through the chaos the human race has been reduced to marauding bands of cannibals. The story is of the man and his son, the boy, traveling across the countryside in search of safety.
From the outset of the story, it is clear that the man is dying. No specifics are given, but the reader witnesses him crouching on the ground and coughing up blood, cursing God. He cries out while there, “Will I see you at last? Have you a neck by which to throttle you? …Damn you eternally have you a soul? Oh God.” His impending death leaves him uncertain with what to do with his son. The only inhabitants left on earth are roaming bands of cannibals, and should they be captured, the man and boy would be subject to unimaginable tortures and inhumanity before being slowly harvested and eaten. The man knows he cannot leave his son behind without him, and he knows that he must eventually kill his son to save him from such a gruesome fate. Time and again the problem arises, “Can you do it? When the time comes? Can you?” Like Abraham, his journey will end with the sacrifice of his only child.
The boy, on the other hand, is represented as having almost divine goodness. The man sees his son as divine, as a gift—just as Isaac was. He says to himself about the boy, “If he is not the word of God God never spoke.” The boy is the last remaining glimmer of God’s faithfulness. “On this road, there are no godspoke men,” says the narrator. Instead, all the man has left is his son, who is his “warrant,” his “world entire,” and “all that stood between him and death.” Just as Isaac was a gift in Abraham’s old age, a promise for a future that seemed impossible, so the boy is the man’s reason for living, even when all else seems lost.
But despite the gloomy surroundings, the boy is resolute in adhering to good moral behavior, to “carrying the fire.” Both characters speak often of “carrying the fire,” an ambiguous phrase that seems to refer to goodness. They are good because they will not stoop to cannibalism, they will not do something objectively wrong. “Because we’re the good guys,” the boy says, “And we’re carrying the fire.” The man agrees. The fire is even somehow embodied by the boy, as the man calls him “God’s own firedrake.” They take the fire with them everywhere they go, and so they take God with them. After all, fire is a recurring motif in the Bible, often representing something divine. Moses, when he meets God, is confronted by fire: “The LORD appeared unto him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush.” In the desert, the Israelites are accompanied in the darkness by a flame. In the famous duel between Elijah and the prophets of Baal, God burns up a sacrifice with a whirlwind of flames, and Elijah says, “the God that answereth by fire, let him be God.” In these instances, flame represents, in a variety of ways, God’s enduring presence. Through the boy and the fire he carries, there is hope. In addition to fire as God’s presence and faithfulness, fire is also seen as purgative. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians, those who are saved “will be saved, but only as through fire.” Fire is salvific, a hope represented by the boy. So, too, is this hope revealed in The Last of Us.
In The Last of Us, the ray of hope is introduced with Ellie, the game’s second major character. A fourteen-year-old girl, Ellie is immune to the Cordyceps strain. Her immunity offers hope for a cure, a vaccine that might prevent the world from sliding into its inevitable ruin. Ellie, like the boy, is carrying the fire. The first part of her name, El, is one of the Hebrew words for God. Ellie, though, probably comes from Greek. It is itself a diminutive form—usually shortened from Ellen or Helen, names that mean “torch” or “light” or “sun-ray.” Ellie carries the fire—she is the fire herself. She is a sign of hope for the lost future.
Against his initial wishes, Joel is forced into shepherding Ellie across the country to find the Fireflies (more light and fire imagery), a group of resistance fighters committed to saving humanity and restoring the race to its former glory. Initially aloof and uncaring, Joel tries to keep Ellie at a distance, as she reminds him too much of his daughter. He doesn’t want to care about Ellie because caring about her will only lead to hurt. When Ellie pries into his life, Joel rages at her, “You have no idea what loss is.” Ellie replies that, “I’m not her, you know.” That is Joel’s greatest fear, to come to care for someone again and then lose her.
But the fact of the matter is that Ellie too has lost, and she needs Joel as much as he needs her. Over the course of the game their bond strengthens and Joel allows himself to love Ellie. He begins to soften simply by observing some of Ellie’s eccentric and lighthearted behavior, saying with affection, “You’re a weird kid.” But as time passes he grows to care for her and wants to keep her in his life. “Ellie, someday I’ll teach you how to play guitar,” he says, looking to a future beyond their dire situation. He allows himself to even speak of his daughter again, to use her name, to look at her picture, and not try to bury his pain. “I can’t imagine losing someone you love like that,” Ellie says to him, “I’m sorry.” To which Joel responds simply, “That’s okay, Ellie.” Like in The Road, the bond between Joel and Ellie becomes so strong that even with the devastating surroundings, and even with the terrible pain in Joel’s life, it is okay. As the man thinks in McCarthy’s novel, “If I were God, I would have made the world just so and no different.”
Thus far, The Last of Us stays true to the storytelling conventions of its genre, and it is similar to both the Binding of Isaac and to The Road. But it is the end of the game that turns everything on its head. Abraham and the man know that they must kill their sons when they arrive to the top of the mountain. But Joel has yet to receive this terrible revelation.
When Joel finally succeeds and brings Ellie to the Fireflies, he learns the shocking truth. In order to reverse engineer a vaccine for the Cordyceps fungus, they’ll need to perform fatal surgery on Ellie’s brain. Joel cannot accept this. In a controversial and jarring scene, Joel charges into the operating room and murders the head doctor—perhaps the last brain surgeon left on earth—and rescues Ellie from the Fireflies. He drives her far away from their hideout and then, when she wakes up from her medically induced slumber, he lies to her about what happened. “Turns out, there’s a lot more like you, Ellie,” he says, “they’ve stopped looking for a cure.”
It is here that the greatest contrast between these stories arise. In the Binding of Isaac, The Road, and The Last of Us, the child lives. As he is dying, McCarthy’s protagonist decides that he can’t kill his son. He says, “I thought I could hold my dead son in my arms but I cant.” He has no reason to believe in his safety, but he has faith. “You’re going to be lucky,” he says, “I know you are.” Isaac, the boy, and Ellie all survive, but the difference is in the knowledge and actions of the parents. Abraham and the man know what they must do, but they have faith and God provides a substitute. But Joel does not know what would be required, and when he reaches the top of the hospital—the top of Mount Moriah—he does not allow Ellie to be sacrificed. He kills the doctors and takes her away. There is no substitute, and so there is no salvation.
This ending gave rise to polarized responses from those who played it. Paul Tassi wrote for Forbes that sacrificing Ellie was “the “right thing to do. It’s what the hero would do. It’s not what Joel does.” Joel is not a hero, he only seems like it because he is the player character and we assume, by default, that we are playing as the hero. The scene is made even more potent because the player must do what Joel wants in spite of their own wishes. Standing atop the mountain, everyone playing the game must kill someone they do not wish to. Like Abraham, the command comes from without, not within. The doctor is sacrificed so that Joel can keep Ellie. However, many felt empathy for Joel’s plight. Russ Frushtick argued on Polygon that only this ending was fitting. “As a player, you may not have made the same decision,” he writes, “but you’re not the one on the road…. You’re not the one that just spent a quiet moment staring out at a herd of giraffe with the one person you’ve truly come to love in the last 20 years. No, that’s Joel. And for Joel, choosing Ellie over humanity was really no choice at all.”
When it comes down to the choice between one’s child and the fate of the entire world, then the world can burn. People—who are wicked, violent, and dangerous, the note the The Last of Us repeatedly strikes—are not worth the life of one innocent person, even if that person (like Ellie) might be willing to die for them. It is only when Joel fully regains his humanity and loves someone again that he decides to damn all of humanity rather than suffer such loss a second time. In coming to love Ellie, he redeems a part of himself that had long since been deadened through violence and the struggle to survive. But in redeeming his own soul he decides he must condemn the human race to a future of fear, struggle, and possible extinction. What does it profit a main to gain the world but lose his soul?
Is there any redemption to be found in a story like this? Joel’s humanity may have been rekindled, but he still lied to Ellie about what happened. And were she to ever learn the truth, Tassi writes, it would ruin her. A similar problem besets the end of The Road. The man does not kill his son, and another man and his family find him and accept him into their own, promising to take care of him. But, many readers worried, the world is still ruined. Everything is still destroyed. Is there really any safety? Could there really be any salvation in such a story? The Binding of Isaac likewise leaves that ambiguous. Why is God mollified after Abraham almost kills Isaac? And why did he even ask for this sacrifice to begin with? All three stories are beset with moral ambiguity.
But there is one other incarnation of this “true myth” that unambiguously provides salvific answers—Christ’s incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection. Christ’s Passion is the completion, the fulfillment, of these stories. Only in the Gospels is there universal salvation beyond the act of sacrifice. God the Father takes God the Son to the top of the mountain—to Calvary—with full knowledge of what must happen. The Son knows, too, as he related in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Not my will, but yours be done.”
The depths of this loss and this sacrifice are captured expertly by both The Road and The Last of Us, and both stories show the near impossibility for any ordinary man or woman to willingly suffer it. But in the Christian story, no mere human can. Only the Father can abide his Son’s sacrifice for such an irredeemable people, and only through Christ’s sacrifice could the irredeemable be redeemed. Even had Ellie died, humanity would have stayed the same—they would have remained violent, brutal, bloodthirsty. There is no guarantee her sacrifice would ever have changed anything at all; perhaps humanity had already descended too far into the depths of moral depravity to ever return. It is not so for God the Son. His sacrifice does not save the body, it saves the soul.
Such stories of parental sacrifice—The Road, The Last of Us, and many others—are variations on this “true myth.” These stories find their completion in Christ’s sacrifice, and there is found the redemption that is missing in the others. As Lewis wrote, Christ’s death is “a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened…”