Meaning in Life, Inevitability of Death, and the Prospect of Salvation in the Film Knowing

by Marc T. Newman [critic]

Warning: In order to adequately explore the spiritual themes in the film Knowing, this analysis contains major plot spoilers.

Are we a great cosmic accident, or is there a purpose to life on this planet? This question informs debate in college philosophy classrooms, school board schisms over evolution, deathbed discussions, and is the central controversy in the latest film from director Alex Proyas, Knowing. Adapted from the story by Ryne Douglas Pearson, Knowing follows the spiritual awakening of John Koestler, an MIT scientist drowning in drink and disbelief after the apparently meaningless death of his beloved wife in a hotel fire. In an unfinished dream home, he struggles to parent his precocious and often combative son, Caleb. At work, he poses questions to his students about determinism and randomness, indicating, in an unguarded moment, that he no longer believes that life has meaning.

At a fiftieth anniversary celebration at Caleb’s school, local dignitaries unearth a time capsule, containing letters from students predicting what the future might hold. Amid the pictures of flying cars, Caleb receives a curious envelope. It holds neither a picture nor an essay, but a sheet of paper covered with a seemingly random sequence of numbers. Puzzled, Caleb shows the letter to his father, who later determines that these numbers represent the date, and body count, of every major world disaster over the last fifty years. The letter creates a crisis of meaning for John, because three dates in the sequence have yet to arrive, but they will, very shortly.

What makes Knowing noteworthy is not its theological precision (more on that below), but its ability to get people thinking, and talking, about one of the most momentous events in the history of Earth: its end. As the West moves toward a post-Christian understanding of the world, it is unsurprising that people – like John Koestler – should experience an unsettling crisis of meaning. And, like those in the film, after initially rejecting faith we might look for answers in unlikely places. But if there is a determined end to this world, how can knowing about it affect the way we live today? As Christians, we should be able to provide responses to the kind of questions Knowing raises.

A Crisis of Meaning

When we first meet John Koestler, he is having a barbecue with his son. Along with the hot dogs, John has set up his telescope so that Caleb can see the rings of Saturn. As Caleb quizzes his dad about the possibility of life on other planets, John tells him that as far as we know, we are alone. Later that evening, John recognizes that his assessment has upset his son, who is clinging to a hope that someday he will be reunited with his mother in heaven. John tries to comfort his son, but Caleb knows that his dad does not really believe in an afterlife.

Later, while giving a lecture about determinism and randomness at MIT, John has his students tell him what they know about the universe. Plucking the sun off of a model of the solar system, John tosses it to a male student and says, “Tell me something you know about the sun.” The student initially replies, “It’s hot.” As the classroom laughter subsides, he goes on to state a number of scientific facts about the sun. John notes how the earth is the perfect distance from the sun, enabling it to support life. Then John shifts course, and says that other people argue that the universe is nothing more than a random chance, ultimately refuting any notion about true meaning.

The discussion that John sets off is important – probably one of the key questions of our age: Do we live in a purposive natural and supernatural world filled with real meaning, or is meaning merely a corporate illusion crafted by deluded humans who, themselves, are nothing more than the product of random chance and matter? The scenes that follow try to provide an answer to that question, but also raise a host of others.

Gnostics and Knowing

Knowing comes down squarely on the side of a meaningful universe. Where it fudges is in determining the source of that meaning. Uncomfortable with providing (or even alluding to) an authoritative answer, Knowing offers a smorgasbord of options: Gnostic, New Age, or Christian. The director has crafted strategic ambiguity into the narrative of the film. Anyone looking for meaning is bound to find it.

When Caleb is given the number list, the page appears, to the uninitiated, to be a meaningless series of hand-written digits. But under the methodical, scientifically-trained eyes of John Koestler, a pattern begins to emerge. By analyzing the numbers and their sequence, John is able to reconstruct the message, and, in doing so, creates context for the remaining numbers. “Prophecy” is the word that John uses to describe his findings. John has in his hands an instrument that unerringly tells the future.

At first, John’s colleagues write him off as a numerologist, arguing that throughout history people have been able to discern “codes” in just about any document. But when the next event comes to pass precisely when and where it was predicted, and with the predetermined number of victims, even the most hardened skeptic softens. If only our own skeptical culture could have the same response to the prophetic accuracy of the Scriptures.

As John ferrets out the secret knowledge contained in the list, Caleb and young Lucinda Embry (a new acquaintance) are apparently being stalked by “the whispering people,” mysterious beings that appear, as if from nowhere, imparting messages to the children. In one dramatic scene, Caleb is given a desperate vision of a coming apocalypse. The remaining date on the list draws near, John discovers more clues, the children’s connection to the whispering people tightens, and the need for everyone to know the truth becomes insistent.

Ultimately, John calls his father – a Protestant pastor – to tell him about the prophecy he has uncovered. In an uncharacteristic move for a Hollywood film, John’s dad is way ahead of him. John pleads with his father to move to safety from the coming catastrophe, but his father asks whether leaving will keep him safe. John admits that he is unsure (we learn later that he knows his advice to be futile), but that they have to try. Rev. Koestler tells John that he isn’t going anywhere, saying that, “I’m ready whenever the good Lord calls me. Are you?”

The film never addresses what it is that the pastor is ready for, or that John should be. But Christians know that John’s dad is prepared to meet his Maker, and he wants to make sure that John is as well. Clearly some kind of cataclysmic event is imminent, but is it just a devastating, yet random, act of nature, or does it represent some kind of divine judgment? Will anyone be saved? If so, by whom? John doesn’t know, but he needs to find out.

An End or The End?

As the final date approaches, John uncovers a message in the list that tells him where people must go to be saved. But when he arrives, he gets the Hollywood version of Matthew 22:14: “many are called, but few are chosen.” John arrives at the predetermined location to find Caleb and Lucinda already there. Accompanying them are the four whispering people, who have shed their outer human appearance to be revealed as luminous beings. Behind them, a giant wheel-within-wheel vehicle straight out of Ezekiel awaits. Though John received the call, apparently only Caleb and Lucinda are chosen to leave. Somehow John gains understanding – how, we are not sure – and sends the children off, now knowing that this life is not all there is, and that they will be together in the future. The children enter this chariot of fire and lift off into the sky.

The climax of Knowing delivers an apocalyptic vision that looks, startlingly, like something right out of the Bible. John drives back into town to be with his father. As they hug, a solar event drives superheated gases straight toward the earth, which ignites like a match head. We view the destruction from many vantage points. The message is driven home: nothing is spared. 2 Peter 3:10 describes it this way, “But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, in which the heavens will pass away with a roar and the elements will be destroyed with intense heat, and the earth and its works will be burned up.” Just as God used clouds and rain to destroy the Earth in a flood, who is to say whether He will use the sun as the source of destruction at the end of days? Regardless of the answer, Knowing delivers a frightening glimpse of one artist’s view.

Dealing with the Fallout

It is ironic that a film titled Knowing is so adept at revealing significant questions, but not in answering them. This is the mark of good cinema. Movies work their magic best when they evoke from us ideas and feelings that might otherwise remain buried. They begin conversations, and leave it to the viewers to debate the implications and come to conclusions. Over the past few decades, film has asked a host of questions that rightly should be coming from the Church.

William Rockett notes that “When a culture’s religion begins to deny the irrational and the demonic and to exalt the rational and intellectual abstraction, people will turn to alternative sources to restore the sense of the magical that is vital to their attaining a sense of the possibility of transcendence.” He argues that since Western pulpits have largely abandoned preaching about transcendent issues, people have flocked instead to the cinema. Films such as Knowing feed their desire to confront ultimate issues.

People intuitively know that our world is meaningful. And even if we cannot know when this world will end, we all recognize that, relatively soon, it will end for each of us. Death is the ultimate philosophical and theological problem. How can we make it out alive? Are we, each of us, really ready when the good Lord calls?

Knowing represents an opportunity to talk about the existence of God, the nature of prophecy, the source of human meaning, the end of the world, and the means of salvation. Biblical theology can provide answers to questions that cinema can only raise. For example, films such as Knowing would not resonate with audiences if there were not an innate interest in knowing the future. But the answers are not to be found in Gnostic secrets or occult fortune telling. Instead, Christians can point to inerrant prophets who spoke from God. The fictional sop that somehow angels or aliens will rescue a handful of children who will try again on other planets is cold comfort to those who remain to bear the incinerating heat of a dying world. The Bible offers no such minimal hope. Its promise is infinitely greater. Instead of sending angels down to fetch a chosen few, the Son of God descended to purchase, with His own precious blood, the salvation of anyone who would believe. And instead of the terrifying image of a dissolving planet as our end as offered by Knowing, the Scriptures describe a new heaven and a new earth that will go on forever (Rev. 21:1).

Films can set up the questions, but the answers must come from Christians willing to engage. In its opening weekend, Knowing racked up over $24 million at the box office. Already, over 3 million people have seen the film and are considering its content. Watching your world annihilated sticks with people, at least for a little while. So after the movie, raise issues and listen to answers. And don’t be afraid to speak up about what you know. ExileStreet

copyright 2008 Marc T. Newman

Marc T. Newman, Ph.D. is founder of and is an associate professor in the School of Communication and the Arts at Regent University. Requests for media interviews, or reprints of this article, can be made to

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