Searching for God in Twelve Monkeys

Tom Pullyblank

Fall, 2001


“…5 billion people will die from a deadly virus in 1997…
…the survivors will abandon the surface of the planet…
…once again the animals will rule the surface of the world…”
--Excerpted from interview with clinically diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic,
April 12, 1990, Baltimore County Hospital


So begins Terry Gilliam’s 1994 film Twelve Monkeys, with what seems an absurd prediction from a man named James Cole who claims to have traveled from the future to gather information about—but not to stop—the near destruction of the human race. Is Cole a paranoid schizophrenic? Dr. Katherine Railly’s diagnosis seems reasonable from her perspective. She sees Cole regress into childish joy when he hears the music of his youth. She knows he is an extremely violent man, an inmate in what he claims to be his present and the murderer of a homeless man in Dr. Railly’s. She knows he has nightmares of witnessing as a child his own death as an adult. And, of course, she’s heard his story of having survived the near destruction of the human race.

Cole’s psychological struggles are severe; so severe that towards the end of the film Cole himself questions whether the time travel and viral epidemic stories are real events or the disturbing inner fictions of his own deeply troubled mind. Cole tells Dr. Railly as the film nears its climax, “I want to become a whole person again. I want this to be the present. I want to stay here. In this time. With you.” Then, falling in love with Cole and desperately hoping against a growing body of evidence that his prophecy is indeed false, Dr. Railly accompanies him to the airport, bound for the Florida Keys to wait out the course of events, to live or die together.

But in the airport Cole and Dr. Railly learn that Cole’s prediction is anything but absurd. Disguised from the police, armed with a revolver and determined now to reverse history and live with Dr. Railly in her present, Cole is shot dead by Philadelphia police—just as he described it—as he runs through the airport in pursuit of the scientist who will release the virus in seven cities throughout the world. Also disguised, Dr. Railly kneels beside the dying Cole and takes his bloody hand in hers as he touches her face. She looks up in horror at the death of a man she’s grown to love, her eyes wide with the realization that the prediction she once dismissed as paranoid is now all too real. She looks up, and catches the eye of a boy, the young James Cole, who—just as he described it—had witnessed the whole scene.

James Cole cannot reverse time, cannot stop the evil deed that one human being has already committed, cannot undo the predetermined fate of his own tragic death as he himself, young James, witnesses it. How does Cole manage the knowledge that five billion human beings will die in a matter of months? How does he manage the exact and precise foreknowledge of his own death in a heroic yet impossible attempt to stop the release of the virus? Psychology gives us a credible explanation of Cole’s mental condition in Dr. Railly’s diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia and in Cole’s own denial of reality as he enjoys Fats Domino and Louis Armstrong and pines for the sun and sand of the Florida Keys. Science fiction gives us a reasonable explanation of how a man could and why a man would travel through time and be able to witness his own death. But there are other questions that neither psychology nor science fiction can answer. How could a catastrophe like the death of five billion people happen? Does God interact with the world and with individual human beings? If so, why didn’t God stop the epidemic from happening? Is God present at all in this frightening story? Difficult questions, perhaps without satisfactory answers, yet ones that can be addressed, with the courage to approach them and with faith in the significance of our investigation, from the perspective of Christian theology.

I begin with the virus. To believe in God as Creator is to believe that God created everything, including the virus that killed five billion people. Even though the virus was released by human agency, it was created by God. How can this be? How can God include in the created order an organism (organisms when we consider other real-life diseases like smallpox, AIDS and the bubonic plague) that is so destructive of humanity? A current trend in theology, expressed most forcefully by process theologians, is to argue that God and creation are co-existent, that God did not create the world at all. But to avoid the question is not satisfactory, and there are other theologians who correctly believe it a question worth asking.

One of them is Robert Cummings Neville, the foremost contemporary advocate of creation theology. Following Tertullian and Augustine, Neville argues that God created everything that exists ex nihilo. Furthermore, expanding upon Irenaeus and Augustine, Neville argues that everything in existence contains within its nature the essential (so far as it relates to itself) and conditional (so far as it relates to God and to others) features of beauty and goodness. (Neville, pp. 25-35). This is equally true of human beings, giraffes, tomato worms and deadly viruses. All things are created by God “…with form, with ongoing components connecting the thing with other things, with actual existential status, and with value…[T]hings are created for their loveliness.” This is true even of the deadly virus: “…it is lovely—ultimately, absolutely and ontologically lovely—because it is the result of God’s creating.” (ibid., p. 48).

Why, then, do we humans see a deadly virus as ugly, destructive, evil? Neville’s answer is that we, in our sinful nature, have become impious. “Piety” Neville defines as “respect for the integrity and powers of nature as expressed in creation.” (ibid., p. 66). He continues with words that could equally well apply to the virus in Twelve Monkeys:

Morally, the forms of justice place an order of value priority on things. It is entirely just that a society invest resources in fighting disease, supposing that other needs are also being given proper attention. But from the aesthetic point of view of piety, the human organism as such has a grandeur, the HIV retrovirus has a grandeur, and the destruction of the human organism by the virus in the disease process of AIDS has a grandeur. Not to reverence God creating in the AIDS virus is impiety, though that reverence is not at all required by morality.” (ibid., p. 67).

Note that Neville follows Paul Tillich’s distinction between God’s ontological nature—the infinite Ground of Being, unknown and unknowable to humankind—and humankind’s limited cosmological perspective. Note also that, in Twelve Monkeys, the Nobel prize winning virologist who has isolated and studied the deadly virus, and for whom the antagonist works, is the only one in the film with a Nevillian sense of piety.

Why, then, did God allow this virus to be released? The current theological answer is that God had nothing to do with it, that God either does not or cannot interfere with the free will of humanity to thrive or destroy itself if it wishes, that the man with access to a virus like this one can make up his own mind whether to keep it safely bottled up in a laboratory or to release it upon an unsuspecting humanity. Langdon Gilkey writes that: “Theologians have been less and less able or willing to say blandly that God wills, intends, or even affects whatever happens, including ‘evil’ actions and events. Apparently, to deny human freedom and to saddle God with evil (e.g., the rise to power of Adolph Hitler) runs counter to all that we believe about ourselves, history and God.” (Musser and Price, eds., p. 207). This is true. But to say that God does not act in the world denies the theological beliefs of a large portion of the population. Many people do indeed affirm that God makes things happen or allows things to happen. In the context of Twelve Monkeys, then, Gilkey’s analysis raises another, more disturbing question: would God want the virus released? In the film, the answer given by the scientist is an emphatic yes.

To set the apocalyptic mood for the scientist’s act, Twelve Monkeys twice paraphrases the warning of Revelation 15:7, once in a lecture given by Dr. Railly on the “Cassandra complex,” a lecture which the scientist attended, and again by a frightening Philadelphia street preacher: “Then one of the four living creatures gave to the seven angels seven golden bowls [“vials” in the film] with the wrath of God, who lives forever and ever.” Like creation ex nihilo, the idea that the world will end in a specific place and at a specific time is an old and recurring one. Unlike creation ex nihilo, the twin ideas of God’s wrath and a violent eschaton are rejected as false by mainstream God-is-love theologians. Paul Tillich, for example, writes that those estranged from God may indeed see God as “the threat of ultimate destruction.” (Tillich, II, p. 77). But this is so only in estrangement: “the acceptance of forgiveness can transform the image of the wrathful God into the ultimately valid image of the God of love.” (Tillich., p. 78). Process theologians would agree, although the details—the imprisonment of the individual in his or her past, oppressive social systems, the “wedge of novelty” in personal choice for or against sin—make for a more nuanced model of transformation than that of simply accepting God’s forgiveness. The God-is-love principle is held as true by the majority of theologians and thus rules, but in an age of nuclear weapons, biological warfare and fundamentalist terrorism, the problem of why a man or group of men would invoke God’s name to unleash such a cataclysm is one that must be addressed.

An important and instructive red herring in the film is that James Cole—and later, Dr. Railly—suspects that the virus was released by Jeffrey Goines, son of the pious Nobel prize winning virologist. Cole’s suspicions seem valid. Goines is the leader of a radical animal rights group known as the Army of the Twelve Monkeys. He has a history of terrorism, including releasing poisonous snakes into the United States Senate and conducting a “human hunt” on Wall Street. He bases his terrorism on a critique of scientists, including his father, who test drugs and cosmetics on animals. Finally, as Cole and Railly discover just before they go to the airport, Goines is planning another terrorist act. If the Army of the Twelve Monkeys had offered a theological foundation for its critique, it would be based on interpreting the Genesis account of creation as man having dominion rather than domination over the natural world. It would also be a justified critique, shared by Calvin B. DeWitt and other adherents of ecological theology. (See McGrath, pp. 303-4). But would it justify the release of so deadly a virus? It’s the rare theologian who would answer yes, of course, but in the end neither does Jeffrey Goines. What he does do is liberate from captivity the animals of the Philadelphia zoo, a crime with which some theologians might quietly sympathize.

But if God were angry with the way we humans treat animals, God would be even more angry with the way we treat each other. We see plenty of examples of this in the film. When James Cole visits our present for the first time he is forcefully admitted into a Baltimore mental hospital, a filthy, violent place that he and all but the most insane of his fellow inmates hate. The police beat Cole while interrogating him. The streets of Philadelphia on which Cole and Dr. Railly search for clues are teeming with the forgotten flotsam and jetsam of the cruel urban world. In the post-epidemic world Cole is a prisoner, and underground life is as gloomy and disrespected as it is above ground forty years before. There is a Biblical precedent, of course, for the near-destruction of the human race in the hope that we’ll do better the second time around, and the scientist, however estranged, was following this precedent and thus, from his perspective, following God’s will. As the scientist uncorked the first of the seven vials in the Philadelphia airport, his thoughts might well have turned from the warning of Revelation to God’s words just before the Flood : “I will wipe mankind, whom I have created, from the face of the earth…for I am grieved that I have created them.” (Genesis 6:7, NIV translation).

So far, this is, at best, a discouraging picture of God. Karl Rahner might try to console us by telling us that we are dust (something James Cole would understand, as we’ll see later) and that God has some mysterious plan in this abyss of horror for the survivors of the epidemic. But in the midst of so much death these words wouldn’t help much. If encouragement is to be found—and Rahner’s theology provides some of the best of it—we must turn from the macrocosm to the microcosm, from the catastrophe of the viral epidemic to James Cole’s relationship with God in a world fighting for survival.

First, Drs. Neville, Tillich and Suchoki provide a theological diagnosis of Cole’s troubles to match the psychological one offered by Dr. Railly. All three would affirm that Cole begins the film distant from God. Tillich would say that Cole is filled with anxiety derived from his clear understanding of his own finitude. Tillich writes:

As an ontological quality, anxiety is as omnipresent as is finitude. Anxiety is independent of any special object which might produce it; it is dependent only on the threat of non-being—which is identical with finitude. In this sense it has been said rightly that the object of anxiety is “nothingness”—and nothingness is not an “object.” Objects are feared. A danger, a pain, an enemy, may be feared, but fear can be conquered by action. Anxiety cannot, for no finite being can conquer its finitude. Anxiety is always present, although often it is latent. Therefore, it can become manifest at any and every moment, even in situations where nothing is to be feared. (Tillich, v. I, p. 191).

Cole saw himself die. He knows in his deepest being and through dreaming how he will die. He cannot consciously face this knowledge and doesn’t realize the depth of it until he and Dr. Railly are in the airport. This most extreme anxiety is what distances Cole from God. (see also ibid., v. II, pp. 66-75).

Neville would diagnose Cole with breaking the covenant with God. As a murderer Cole breaks the covenant ideal of righteousness as justice. By not respecting the virus and other living creatures Cole breaks the covenant ideal of piety. By failing to respect the “finality of historical existence and…one’s contingent but actual position in it” Cole breaks the covenant ideal of faith. Finally, by falling into despair and not believing that God has a plan for he and his fellow survivors Cole breaks the covenant ideal of fundamental hope. (see Neville, pp. 56-58 and 63-73; quote on p. 57). But in all this Cole is different only by degree from the rest of us. Drawing from the Genesis creation narrative, especially from the myth of Adam and Eve, Neville argues that sin is an inescapable part of human nature.

Dr. Suchoki would agree, to a point, but her diagnosis would be based on a close examination of Cole’s relationships with other people, with society and with God. God is in Cole’s life, according to Suchoki and other process theologians, as an “initial aim” or, in other words, as God’s preconscious touch. But Cole doesn’t see God, and given the circumstances of his life—as witness to his own death, in the experience of the viral epidemic, with survival as his top priority and as a prisoner—this is no surprise. (see Suchoki, pp. 39-40). In Cole’s experience the world is unjust, sinful and hopeless. Process theology would insist that God is in that world, no matter how unjust, sinful and seemingly hopeless it may be. God is there, offering Cole a lure to a better life in God’s primordial nature and suffering as Cole suffers in God’s consequent nature. But, to use another metaphor, the prism through which James Cole should see God lets no light through. (Suchoki, p. 41). Moreover, Cole’s life is filled with death. He knows the catastrophe is about to happen. In his dreams he experiences a literal and extreme example of the Platonic and process idea of “perpetual perishing,” which gives him insecurity and fear that are similar to Tillich’s anxiety. The result in the process model is also similar to Tillich’s anxiety as Cole moves further and further away from God.

Thankfully, a distant, uncaring God and a man distant from God isn’t the whole story. Along with a theological diagnosis there is a theological cure that we can see James Cole following throughout the second half of the film. Cole never reaches the place where he sees God fully present in his life and in society, but he does see glimpses of the edge of God, which is the best that most of us can hope for.

First, Cole bites the process lure as he recognizes the importance of his relationship with Dr. Railly. As mentioned above, just before they go to the airport Cole tells Dr. Railly, “I want to become a whole person again. I want this to be the present. I want to stay here. In this time. With you.” Cole sees hope in this relationship for the repair of all his troubles. Like so many of us, Cole sees God most clearly in his love for another human being. So too is God revealed to Cole in his rediscovered appreciation for the music of his youth and for nature. When he hears Fats Domino sing “Blueberry Hill” or Louis Armstrong sing “Wonderful World,” Cole is taken back to the innocent days of his childhood, to a time before the epidemic when life was simpler and more joyful. And in a scene during which Cole is running from the police, he stops in the middle of a bog, starts jumping up and down, and screams “I love this world! The frogs! The spiders! I love this world!” Neville, too, would use these examples as evidence that Cole was slowly and simply repenting (turning around) and reestablishing his covenant with God, even though that repentance was cut short by Cole’s death.

More important for process theologians is Cole’s pursuit of justice. He begins Twelve Monkeys not wanting to stop the epidemic and not believing that he can, but by the end of   the film he is pursuing the scientist with a gun, determined to shoot him down before he can release the virus. Why the change of heart? There are several plot twists dealing with time travel that spur Cole into action, but the primary motivation for his act is his love for Dr. Railly and, by extension, his growing love for humanity. In his new appreciation for life he begins to see the world as a better place, with or without the fact that five billion lives will soon perish. He wants to save this world. He wants to save the lives of five billion people, including his own and Dr. Railly’s. He wants to redress evil, to restore the well-being of the world. (Suchoki, p. 74).

Cole cannot do that, of course, because he cannot break the divinely ordered laws of nature and reverse the course of history, just as neither he nor God could make a square circle or make two plus two equal five. But we learn from Cole’s final visit to the future that his actions have had an effect. The information he gathered is enough to help scientists begin to isolate the virus. Once they do that, presumably through other visits to the past, they can study it and find an antidote that will allow people to return to the surface of the earth. In process terms, Cole has achieved “objective immortality.” His actions live on through the present and the future; he has become a hero. (ibid., pp. 55-57).

Suchoki sums up the process point of view when she writes, “The edges of God are tragedy; the depths of God are joy, beauty, life.” (ibid., p. 112). But is this so? Can the depths of God really be plumbed, by either a theologian or a hero? Both Paul Tillich and Karl Rahner would ask this question, living as they did through the most destructive of human centuries and recognizing as they do the underlying mystery of the divine. This is not to say that neither Tillich nor Rahner would have a cure for James Cole. Tillich would commend James Cole’s courage that “accepts and overcomes the anxiety of categorical finitude” and leads him to take action against his predetermined fate. (Tillich, I, p. 209). So clearly aware of his finitude, Cole could have chosen to sit back and do nothing, could have disregarded the approaching cataclysm and spent the next few weeks with Dr. Railly in hedonistic denial on the beaches of the Florida Keys. But he chose to act, even though that action is bound for failure. In acting Cole faced head on the most difficult existential question that a man could face.

And he faced it with hope. Like Suchoki and Neville, Karl Rahner would appreciate James Cole seeing God in love and in life. Like Tillich, Rahner would appreciate Cole’s courage to act. Cole, given the contours of his life, would understand Rahner’s injunction that we are all dust. He would understand Rahner’s explanation that “This judgment…must be endured and experienced in tears, in the experience of nothingness and of death, in evil and in dying, in the bitterness of internal and external limitations.” (Rahner, p. 95). And given his rediscovery of love and life he probably would agree with Rahner that we can work through our dust-ness, can accept the mystery of God and arrive at a place of hope, freedom and transcendence. Maybe it was when he kissed Dr. Railly for the first time that James Cole experienced a moment of transcendence; maybe it was when he heard Fats Domino for the first time since childhood or when he jumped and screamed in the bog. Whenever it happened it was also most likely the first time that Cole felt such transcendence, a feeling described perfectly by Rahner: “Suddenly, unexpectedly, and without any warning, there will come upon us what we had always hoped for, the fullness of life caught up in one moment of decision, the expression of freedom in its final perfection.” (ibid., p. 111). James Cole felt that moment, but only for a moment. In the end he died, followed soon thereafter by five billion others, and the virus lived to keep humanity underground for at least forty years.

We can search for God’s presence in Twelve Monkeys, just as we can search for God’s presence in any of the all too real catastrophes that the human race has endured over the millenia and continues to endure today. We can search, but in the end all we catch are glimpses that reveal only the edges of God, which, contrary to Suchoki’s claim, are all we can know. Beauty is there, to be sure, as are joy and life. But they exist intermixed with tragedy, death and sorrow, not deeper than them but right there on the same level with them, sometimes so close that we can barely tell which is which. The depths of God and God’s true hand in human affairs remain hidden, ineffable, if experienced at all by a human being than only for a brief moment. Once that moment is over we are left, like Job before the whirlwind, like a dying James Cole in the corridor, humbled and often confused, silent before the mystery of the divine.


Works Consulted

McGrath, Alister. Christian Theology: An Introduction. Oxford: 2001.

Musser, Donald W. and Joseph L. Price, eds. A New Handbook of Christian Theology. Nashville: 1992

Neville, Robert Cummings. A Theology Primer. Albany, NY: 1991.

Rahner, Karl. The Content of Faith: The Best of Karl Rahner’s Theological Writings. New York: 1999.

Suchoki, Marjorie Hewitt. God, Christ, Church: A Practical Guide to Process Theology. New York: 1999.

Tillich, Paul. Systematic Theology. Chicago: 1951, 1957.