Volume 47 - Issue 2

Love, Hope, Faith: Christopher Nolan and the Apostle Paul in Dialogue

By EJ Davila


This article examines Christopher Nolan’s three most recent films, Interstellar (2014), Dunkirk (2017), and Tenet (2020), through the lens of Christianity’s preeminent theological virtues: love, hope, and faith, respectively. In dialogue with the apostle Paul, I argue that Nolan takes Paul’s cruciform theology of virtue (consisting of vertical and horizontal relationships) and intentionally flattens it to the purely horizontal, resulting in a presentation of these virtues that, while emotive, ultimately strips them of their significance.

Few filmmakers have reached the commercial, critical, and cultish fame of Christopher Nolan. As of August 2021, Nolan’s twelve directorial films have grossed nearly $5 billion at the box office,1 two of his films (Memento and The Dark Knight) are preserved in the United States’ National Film Registry2 (for films deemed “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant”)3 and six of his films (Memento, Batman Begins, The Prestige, The Dark Knight, Inception, The Dark Knight Rises, and Interstellar) are listed on IMDB’s user-voted top-250 films of all time.4 Without a doubt, then, Nolan is one of the most important and innovative filmmakers of the last two decades; so much so that in an age of reboots and sequels, Nolan’s original works continue to garner positive reviews, draw audiences to the theater, and incite philosophical conversations on the nature of time.

Indeed, if we asked someone to summarize Nolan’s filmography with a single word, they would probably answer time. Time, after all, features in several of Nolan’s biggest films. Memento’s nonlinear narrative oscillates between future and past before arriving at the middle of the story. Inception takes us into a dream within a dream within a dream, with each level of the dream operating at a different pace. Interstellar features the relativity of time and the transcendent nature of love (and gravity). Dunkirk intertwines three distinctive timelines. Tenet introduces inverted entropy, enabling characters to interact with one another as they move backwards and forwards through time.

While time may be the most apparent theme that ties Nolan’s films together, his most recent three films, Interstellar (2014), Dunkirk (2017), and Tenet (2020), share another focus, namely, a thematic examination of three Christian virtues: love, hope, and faith, respectively. In this informal trilogy, Nolan, who was raised Catholic, presents a secular analogue to these Christian virtues, reshaping them for a culture that is becoming increasingly less Christian and less theistic. The result is three narratives in which God is displaced by humanity, which serves as both giver and recipient of the examined virtues. Nolan’s reconfiguration makes his films more palatable for wider audiences, but it also threatens to undercut Nolan’s very presentation of virtue and humanity. In what follows, then, I examine each film in dialogue with the apostle Paul, noting how Nolan’s anthropological vision of love, hope, and faith lacks a coherent theological foundation and thereby fails to offer a compelling exposition of these preeminent virtues.

1. Interstellar: Love That Transcends Time and Space

In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul extols the virtue of love: “love is patient, love is kind, … love never fails…. And now these three things remain: faith, hope, love. But the greatest of these is love” (vv. 4, 8, 13).5 Christopher Nolan would likely agree. Of the three films I examine, it is the first, Interstellar, that most clearly evinces a thematic virtue, namely, the transcendent power of love.

Set in the near future, Interstellar presents an increasingly inhospitable Earth, ravaged by generations of neglect and exploitation. In an attempt to find a new home, a remnant of NASA scientists launch the aptly named Lazarus missions, sending a group of scientists through a wormhole with the task of evaluating twelve distant planets on their viability for human life. When three of these planets are deemed potentially hospitable, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey)—a former NASA engineer—and a crew of NASA scientists embark on an interstellar journey to confirm the viability of these planets and to thereby ensure humanity’s post-Earth survival.

The cosmic scope of Interstellar weaves together themes of mystery and exploration, allowing Nolan to imbue the film with a palpable supernatural aura evocative of the Christian tradition.6 Akin to the Holy Spirit, for instance, a “ghost” directs Cooper to NASA’s secret base by communicating to him via gravity in the bedroom of his daughter, Murph (Mackenzie Foy). Moreover, as NASA acknowledges, the wormhole which enables their intergalactic travel is not a naturally occurring phenomenon; “they”—unidentifiable but seemingly benevolent beings—placed it there, inviting the audience to ponder the existence of a compassionate “other” who intervenes on humanity’s behalf.

At its core, however, Interstellar is not so much about space exploration or even human survival; it is about love, exemplified primarily in the relationship between Cooper and his daughter, Murph. Indeed, Cooper’s main impetus for participating in the perilous, intergalactic trek is not his concern for the human race but his love for his children and his desire to secure a world in which he can grow old with them. Cooper articulates this in his farewell to his daughter: “I love you, Murph. Forever. And I’m coming back.”7

But Cooper’s promise proves difficult to keep. After a mishap on Miller’s planet—a water planet whose approximation to a supermassive black hole slows the passage of time—twenty-plus years pass on Earth in what feels like a few hours to Cooper; thus, when Cooper reviews two decades of video communication from Earth, he discovers that his children are now as old as he is and that they no longer believe he will return home.

Having created a void—temporal, spatial, and relational—between Cooper and Murph, Nolan presents the film’s grand exposition of love: with limited fuel, the crew must choose which of the two remaining planets they will visit. Dr. Brand (Anne Hathaway) petitions for Edmunds’s planet, but Cooper, wary of her judgement, questions her subjectivity. In response, Dr. Brand confesses her love for Edmunds and cautions against dogmatic scientism: “maybe we’ve spent too long trying to figure all this with theory.” Cooper attempts to re-ground the discussion in reason: “You’re a scientist, Brand.” But Dr. Brand is insistent:

I am. So listen to me when I tell you that love isn’t something we invented—it’s observable, powerful. Why shouldn’t it mean something? … Maybe it means more—something we can’t understand, yet. Maybe it’s some evidence, some artifact of higher dimensions that we can’t perceive…. Love is the one thing we’re capable of perceiving that transcends dimensions of time and space. Maybe we should trust that, even if we can’t yet understand it.

Here, Dr. Brand sounds much like the apostle Paul. Love, she says, transcends time and space and binds us together inexplicable ways. Moreover, love is not merely a human construct. It “isn’t something we invented.” Rather, love breaks in from the outside, and is, perhaps, “some artifact of high dimensions” calling out from the great beyond.

Dr. Brand’s exposition of love hints towards the film’s climax and thematic resolution. Following a bout with the antagonistic Dr. Mann (a not-so-subtle character name), Cooper and Dr. Brand manage to retake control of their damaged spacecraft, the Endurance, but now they are being drawn into the gravitational pull of Gargantua, a supermassive black hole. Critically low on fuel, Cooper uses Gargantua’s gravitational pull to slingshot the Endurance toward the last viable planet, Edmunds’s planet, while Cooper detaches himself to ensure that Dr. Brand can escape Gargantua’s pull and complete the mission. Cooper’s sacrifice is not in vain. Gargantua swallows him up, but the black hole does not macerate him upon entry; rather, “they” intervene once again and save Cooper by constructing a tesseract—an infinite, five-dimensional tunnel that allows Cooper to communicate with his daughter via her bedroom bookshelf at any point in time. Once Cooper realizes that he is the “ghost” of Murph’s childhood, he relays her the necessary quantum data to ensure humanity’s survival beyond the deterioration of Earth. In doing so, Nolan’s primary theme crescendos with a father’s love transcending time and space to save his daughter and, by extension, all humanity. For Cooper, then, Dr. Brand was not simply pontificating when she professed, “Love is the one thing we’re capable of perceiving that transcends dimensions of time and space.” Rather, she was prophesying what was to come, for in the end, love indeed triumphs, proving Paul’s succinct phrase true: “Love never fails.”

At this point, Nolan and Paul seem to be humming the same tune on the transcendent power of love, but when we listen closely, we hear the dissonance. To begin, Paul envisions love first and foremost as a divine activity. That is not to say that love is always one directional (i.e., God to human or vice versa), but that the love people share with one another is always predicated upon God’s love for humanity.8 Paul may not articulate this theology of love as concisely as 1 John 4:10: “This is love. Not that we loved God, but rather that God loved us and gave his son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” Nevertheless, Paul reaches the same conclusion. In his letter to the Romans, for instance, Paul declares the priority of God’s love as manifested in the redemptive death of the Messiah: “God demonstrated his love for us, for while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8). Within the wider context of Romans—and indeed the wider context of Paul’s epistolary corpus—Paul conceptualizes humanity as enslaved to the powers of Sin and Death, incapable of effecting its own liberation.9 And yet at the moment when all hope was lost and humanity was “dead in transgressions and sins” (Eph 2:1), God intervened “because of the great love with which he loved us” (Eph 2:4).

For Paul, then, love necessarily begins with the vertical: love descends from heaven in the act of a Father sending his Son to effect salvation and reconciliation. But love is not merely a vertical act. There is a horizontal element as well when love multiplies through the Son—the true image of God and man (Rom 5:12–21; Col 1:15–20)—and into the community, the people of God, enabling them to be a people of charity and compassion. For Paul, this horizontal outpouring of love is inextricable from the fundamental identity of the church; for as recipients of God’s transformative love, the church must manifest this same sacrificial love in its daily, communal activity lest love be reduced to an intangible idea divorced from God’s redemptive purpose. It is for this reason that Paul frequently exhorts the church to be characterized by love: to “do everything in love” (1 Cor 16:14), “to owe no one anything, except love to another” (Rom 13:8; cf. Gal 5:12–13), and to “clothe yourselves with love” (Col 3:14).10

Paul, then, conceptualizes love as a cruciform image of vertical (God and human) and horizontal (human and human) relationships.11 Nolan appears to follow suit, imbuing Interstellar with images that evoke the Christian tradition: Earth’s reversion to dust, the “ghost,” the benevolent “they,” Dr. Brand’s exposition of love, the booming church organ in Hans Zimmer’s score,12 Cooper’s sacrifice. But at the climax of the story, Nolan dismantles the vertical love from the outside and reveals that, in the end, it was humanity all along. Cooper articulates this revelation in the tesseract: “We brought ourselves here.” “We’re the bridge.” “Don’t you get it yet, Tars? ‘They’ aren’t ‘beings’ … they’re us … trying to help … just like I tried to help Murph.” Thus, the “ghost” which conjures images of the Holy Spirit is actually Cooper. The enigmatic “they” so evocative of the inbreaking love of God is actually a future incarnation of humanity. And both Dr. Brand’s exposition of love, which echoes Paul’s similar exaltation, and Cooper’s sacrifice, which is so redolent of Jesus’ self-giving, are both diluted from emblematic manifestations of divine love to dignified images of human effort.

By moving in this direction, Nolan has ensnared himself. He wants to preserve love as the consummate virtue (as in the Christian tradition; cf. 1 Cor 13:13; Gal 5:22–23), but he has not provided a theological justification for doing so. That is, if love simply is—a purely anthropological, horizontal phenomenon—what appeal can be made for its preeminence? Perhaps Nolan anticipates this challenge and responds via Dr. Brand’s petition, “Why shouldn’t it mean something?” But Dr. Brand’s appeal is hardly persuasive. Indeed, by begging the question, Nolan shows that his conception of love, as anthropological as it is, demands a leap of faith.13

Love is the one thing we’re capable of perceiving that transcends dimensions of time and space. Maybe we should trust that, even if we can’t yet understand it. (Dr. Brand, in Interstellar)

I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints … to know the love of Christ which transcends knowledge. (Eph 3:18–19)

2. Dunkirk: Hope for Deliverance

Nolan’s first historical drama, Dunkirk recounts the week leading up to the Dunkirk evacuation—sometimes called the “Miracle of Dunkirk”—climaxing with the civilian-helmed rescue of British soldiers from the eponymous French coastal town. Although the film is constrained by the historicity of the Dunkirk evacuation, Nolan still imbues the story with his characteristic emphasis on time, presenting Dunkirk as an interweaving of three distinctive timelines: (1) “The Mole” timeline tracks Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), a young, taciturn British soldier who attempts to escape Dunkirk the week leading up to the evacuation. (2) “The Sea” timeline follows Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) and the crew of his yacht, Moonstone, as they travel to Dunkirk on the day of the evacuation. (3) “The Air” timeline focuses on Farrier (Tom Hardy), a Spitfire pilot whose aerial deftness proves salvific in the final hour before the evacuation commences.

If Interstellar unambiguously explores the virtue of love, Dunkirk similarly examines the virtue of hope. This emphasis is made explicit in the opening title cards:

The enemy have driven the British and French armies to the sea.

Trapped at Dunkirk, they await their fate.

Hoping for deliverance.

For a miracle.14

Hope is necessarily experienced in the absence of and the anticipation for some greater fulfillment: food for the hungry, direction for the lost, or, as in Dunkirk, home for the forsaken. Naturally, then, Dunkirk approaches hope from the negative, inviting the audience to experience and meditate on the depravity of war and its accompanying hopelessness.

We encounter this hopelessness at the inception of the film: As the aforementioned title cards exposit the perilous situation, pamphlets which read “WE SURROUND YOU” fall from the sky like parodic pieces of manna. Here, Hans Zimmer’s score introduces the ticking of a clock—a sound which permeates the score—signaling that time is a scarce resource. Moreover, death is so common that Tommy is unfazed by the sight of Gibson (Aneurin Bernard) burying a soldier; in fact, Tommy helps Gibson with the hasty interment and quickly enlists his new acquaintance in his deception to sneak aboard a departing ship.

Comparable to his approach in Interstellar, Nolan imbues Dunkirk with what could be considered biblical imagery, much of which compounds the mounting hopelessness. The opening title cards refer to the German forces as “the enemy,” stripping them of their historical identity and clothing them as a cosmic adversary. The enemy repeatedly descends from the sky like demonic persecutors, dive-bombing the stationary soldiers. Dunkirk, the land upon which the enemy encroaches, is a mass of rising smoke, appearing like hell on earth, or perhaps more accurately, a purgatorial limbo. And the waters of Dunkirk—like the indomitable sea which threatens to dismember the boats of Jonah (Jonah 1:4–16) and the disciples (Mark 4:35–41)—swallow up every vessel that endeavors to escape, coercing Tommy and his compatriots back the beach.

The Dunkirk coast is so demoralizing, so hopeless, that one soldier drowns himself to exit the interminable torment. Similarly, when the Shivering Soldier (Cillian Murphy), the first soldier to board Mr. Dawson’s yacht, discovers that they are traveling to Dunkirk, he shouts at Mr. Dawson, “I’m not going back!” and in his panic, deals a fatal blow to George (Barry Keoghan), a seventeen-year-old boy. When we meet the same Shivering Soldier at an earlier point in “The Mole” timeline, he is composed and decisive as he exhorts Tommy and Alex (Harry Styles), “You have to stay calm…. Don’t panic…. We’re heading back to the beach.” The horrors at Dunkirk, however, have degraded his resolve in only a few days.

As the title cards indicate, then, the apparent futility of escape beckons for a miracle of deliverance. Just such a miracle occurs at the climax of the film, for just when all hope seems lost, an armada of civilian-helmed boats capable of navigating the shallow beachfront arrives to transport forsaken soldiers back home. Their triumphant arrival is threatened when a Stuka dive-bomber begins its descent, but a fuel-less Farrier glides in with angelic grace, guns down the Stuka, and ensures the evacuation’s success.

With Tommy and Alex safely arriving in England, the Dunkirk evacuation is a success, and Nolan’s vision of hope is realized. Before expositing Nolan’s views, however, it may be more advantageous to note Paul’s theology of hope so as to show how the two approaches differ.

For Paul, hope, as with love, is predominantly a vertical relationship. That is, humanity’s hope is rightly oriented and rooted in God’s salvific activity, hence Paul’s salutation: “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus according to the command of God our savior and Christ Jesus our hope” (1 Tim 1:1). Accordingly, to be estranged from God is to be hopeless: “You were at that time without Christ, excluded from citizenship of Israel, strangers of the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world” (Eph 2:12).

Such hope is not abstract or self-indulgent; rather, Paul’s hope stands in the Jewish tradition that looks forward with fervent expectation to a time of redemption, resurrection, and restoration.15 For Paul and the early church, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus modify these expectations while preserving the essential hope: an age will come when God will deliver his people from all forms of suffering, raise his people to new life, and restore creation to its perfected state. Again, this hope is not a form of abstract escapism to the “spiritual,” it is confident anticipation that God has not forsaken his covenantal promises. Accordingly, Paul can endure—and encourage his churches to endure—all manners of suffering because he trusts that God’s salvific work, though inaugurated in the present, will be fully realized at some indeterminate point of the future, in a manner that is both continuous and discontinuous with the present experience.

We see this hope expressed, once again, in Paul’s letter to the Romans:

Not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that the suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us. (Rom 5:3–5)

This passage immediately precedes the previously quoted text, “God demonstrated his love for us, for while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8), and reveals how, for Paul, love produces much more than theological musings. Love, rather, produces an orientation of endurance and expectation that radically transforms the believing community to persevere in its worship and ministry despite various toils and snares. Such perseverance is possible precisely because it does not depend on the fallibility of humans but on the union of Christ and the church and on the God who raises the dead. That is, if the church is the body of Christ, as Paul frequently affirms (Rom 12:4–5; 1 Cor 10:17; 12:27; Eph 4:15–16; Col 1:24), it will suffer as Christ’s body suffered and will also be restored as Christ body was restored. Thus, while suffering may be inevitable, so is restoration, in this age or the next. Paul articulates this point in 2 Corinthians, a letter that lays bare Paul’s frequent sufferings and shortcomings:

But we felt that we had received the sentence of death so that we would not rely on ourselves, but rather upon the God who raises the dead, who delivered us from such a deadly peril and will continue to deliver us. On him we have set our hope, and he will continue to deliver us. (2 Cor 1:9–10; cf. 1 Thess 4:13–14)

Here and elsewhere in the letter Paul makes it clear that he perseveres not of his own power, but of his belief in the “God who raises the dead.” In doing so, Paul invites the Corinthians to see his sufferings not as a weakness, but as a mark of his fidelity and hope through which Christ’s power is on full display.16

As with love, then, Paul predicates hope on the God who works through Jesus Christ, enabling Paul to look horizontally (his ministry to others) because he is simultaneously looking vertically (evoking again a cruciform image). In Dunkirk, however, Nolan follows the same pattern as Interstellar by flattening the vertical aspect in favor of a purely horizontal manifestation of hope, showing that salvation does not come from above, but rather when we look to one another or even in ourselves.17

Nolan confirmed this interpretation in an interview with Time:

We live in an era where the virtue of individuality is very much overstated. The idea of communal responsibility and communal heroism and what can be achieved through community is unfashionable. Dunkirk is a very emotional story for me because it represents what’s being lost.18

And Mr. Dawson articulates the same point in response to the Shivering Soldier’s demand to forego the trip to Dunkirk: “We have a job to do.”19

At its core, then, Dunkirk is story of human triumph. Yes, “the enemy” is human too, but by excising their identity from the narrative, Nolan is able to accentuate the perseverance of the central characters against a nameless, faceless, and quasi-mythological adversary. Accordingly, Dunkirk shows that hopelessness may be evoked by the “other,” but hope should be directed toward one another.

All of this is not to say that Dunkirk is superficial. The film’s emotional force lies in the fact that it is a true, historical event, and a recent one at that. Accordingly, Dunkirk invites us to remember our past and thus inspires us to be better by risking our own lives in service of others, a point with which Paul would no doubt agree. But as with Interstellar, by the time the story ends, we must ask “Why?” Why trust one’s neighbor when it is one’s neighbor who incited the war to begin with? Why put one’s hope in something as mercurial as the human race? And for what exactly are we hoping? Peace? Love? Life? By screening out the vertical, Nolan has left us stranded, staring at the horizon, unsure of what is to come.

Until, in God’s good time … The New World, with all its power and might steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old. (Tommy, reading Winston Churchill’s speech in Dunkirk)20

For I consider the sufferings of the present age not worthy to be compared to the coming glory which is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revelation of the children of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope, because this same creation will be set free from its slavery to decay for the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning and laboring together until now. Not only that, but we ourselves who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, are groaning inwardly as we await adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. (Rom 8:18–24)

3. Tenet: Faith and Fatalism

The relationship between Tenet and the final theological virtue, faith, is more opaque than the relationship between Interstellar and love or Dunkirk and hope, but a gentle inquiry reveals it nonetheless. Indeed, this relationship is perceptible, though subtle, before the film even begins as the title of the film, Tenet—a word which denotes a principle or belief, particularly a religious one—prompts the audience to ponder the role of faith within the forthcoming narrative.21

Matters get more complicated, however, when we delve into Tenet’s labyrinthine plot. The film follows the charismatic Protagonist (John David Washington), a CIA operative, involved in a covert organization, Tenet, whose mission is to prevent “World War Three.” A relatively straightforward idea, Nolan complicates matters by suffusing the narrative with his characteristic manipulation of time: Tenet possesses objects with “inverted entropy,” a property which causes the objects to move backwards in time. Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh), a Russian oligarch, controls several “turnstiles,” machines capable of inverting those who pass through, enabling them to move backwards in time in order to share future information and to “intervene” with the past. Armed with turnstiles and communication from the future, Sator intends to collect the nine pieces of the inversion algorithm in order to effectively end the world by completely reversing time at the behest of future generations for whom Earth has become inhospitable. Accordingly, the Protagonist must navigate the world of elite arms-dealers and master the complexities of overlapping timelines en route to saving humanity from complete annihilation via time reversal.

As with the previously examined films, Tenet contains what could be interpreted as biblical imagery: Following the title card, Tenet, the Protagonist is “born again” when he awakes from a medically induced coma, brought on by what he thought was a suicide pill, with the following greeting, “Welcome to the afterlife,” signaling the radical new world he enters in partnership with Tenet. Throughout the film, the Protagonist evinces a willingness to sacrifice himself for others: after securing the target, he risks his life to save the civilians in the opera house; on several occasions he antagonizes the formidable Sator in order to protect Sator’s wife, Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), despite their tenuous relationship. Nolan himself commented on this aspect of the Protagonist character, noting that he and Washington were “looking for an aspect of selflessness to the character,” for “some degree of spirituality” or “a generosity of spirit.”22 Similarly, Neil (Robert Pattinson) displays the same selflessness when, at the film’s denouement, he reenters the hypocenter, knowing that it leads to his death and the Protagonist’s survival. So, while subtler than Interstellar or Dunkirk, Tenet seems to consciously evince the Christian tradition.

More perceptible perhaps is the film’s discussion of free will, a controversial theological topic among differing Christian traditions which, to simplify the matter greatly, centers on the relationship between the concept of God’s omniscience and humanity’s culpability in accepting or rejecting God’s means of atonement. Generally speaking, the Calvinist tradition has emphasized a version of predestination in which God’s sovereignly elects individuals irrespective of their volition to accept God’s grace, whereas the Arminian tradition has argued that God’s election is predicated upon God’s foreknowledge of which individuals, if given the opportunity, would accept God’s grace. Both sides agree that God foreordains the elect and directs history in accordance with God’s will, but the latter tradition accommodates the ostensible phenomenon of free will into the equation; after all, free will, as a lived experience, seems to be an inextricable aspect of the human identity which forces us to question to what extent we are actors compelled to play our parts as written and to what extent we are improvising our roles.23

Tenet wrestles with these same questions. Once the Protagonist is tutored on the nature of inversion, he asks “What about free will?” The scientist, Barbara (Clémence Poésy), responds, “Don’t try to understand it. Feel it.” Despite Barbara’s petition, the film continues to exposit the nature of inversion and its relationship with free will. Later, the Protagonist asks Neil what would happen to Kat in the present if Sator killed her in the past. Neil responds that it’s impossible to know, to which the Protagonist asks an unscientific question: “What do you believe?” Neil’s answer, “What’s happened’s happened,” becomes the fatalistic mantra of the film, an appeal to the immutable nature of the past, present, and the future.

Like many theologians, however, Nolan recognizes that dispensing of free will may devolve into the remittance of personal accountability, and so he nuances the free will discussion at the film’s conclusion. As Neil is preparing to reenter the hypocenter, the Protagonist asks him, “But can we change things? If we do it differently?” Neil responds, “What’s happened’s happened. Which is an expression of faith in the mechanics of the world, not an excuse to do nothing.” The Protagonist asks if this is “fate,” to which Neil answers, “Reality.”

Here Nolan is attempting to solve the dilemma on the basis of faith, but Nolan’s definition of faith is quite different from that of the apostle Paul and thus complicates his solution. In a move that should seem familiar by now, Nolan collapses the vertical aspect of Paul’s theology of faith into the horizontal, creating an anthropological imitation of Paul’s worldview.

As with love and hope, faith for Paul is a cruciform virtue for which the vertical necessarily precedes and intersects with the horizontal. We see this in Paul’s exposition of justification—God’s designation of righteousness.24 In his letter to the Romans, Paul writes:

The righteousness of God is through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who believe. There is no distinction, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified freely by his grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, whom God presented as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, received by faith. (Rom 3:22–25; cf. Gal 2:15–16)25

Here Paul plainly states that sinfulness is a universal condition (“all have sinned”) for which humanity has no remedy. That is, humanity is wholly unrighteous and is thus incapable of self-designating righteousness. If humanity is to be liberated from the powers of Sin and Death, it needs God—through the Messiah—to intervene and set things right. Justification, then, cannot be achieved with human effort; it is granted solely through the church’s faith—its recognition and reception—of divine activity, a point Paul similarly articulates in his letter to the Ephesians: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith. And this is not of your own doing. It is God’s gift—not by works, so that no one can boast” (Eph 2:8–9; cf. 1 Cor 2:4–5). For Paul, then, redemptive faith cannot be directed horizontally; it must be oriented vertically toward the intercession of God through the life, death, and resurrection of the Messiah. That said, Paul’s conception of faith is no mere intellectual exercise. As with love and hope, the vertical necessarily pours into the horizontal as faith manifests in the church’s faithfulness to God and neighbor, transforming and enabling the believing community to bear the fruit of love, joy, peace, etc. (Gal 5:22–23).

For Paul, then, the church must believe in something or someone outside of itself. Humanity is too depraved to act as its own savior and must be rescued by the inbreaking love of the God via the God-man Jesus. To do the unimaginable and substitute faith in God for faith in humanity—those who have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory (Rom 3:23)—is to eliminate faith altogether and to recapitulate the idolatry which has beleaguered humanity from time immemorial. And yet this is exactly what Nolan does in Tenet.

Throughout Tenet, the Protagonist is kept in the dark concerning the inner machinations of Tenet. Everyone around him, Neil, Priya (Dimple Kapadia), Ives (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), and Sator, are more informed about the nature of Tenet, inversion, and the looming threat surrounding the algorithm. Sator mocks the Protagonist’s ignorance at the film’s climax, “You fight for a cause you barely understand…. Your faith is blind. You’re a fanatic.” He then posits his own apotheotic role as humanity’s savior by claiming he is creating a new world and is perhaps “a god of sorts.” The Protagonist retorts that Sator does not believe in God or “anything outside your own experience,” adding that without belief “you’re not human. You’re a madman.”

This climactic dialogue exposits Nolan’s views on faith. On the one hand, he censures Sator’s self-deification as untenable and inhuman. Faith in something grander, he argues, is an essential aspect of the human identity. On the other hand, however, undercuts his first point by failing to provide a substantial entity in which one should believe. In fact, it seems as if Nolan contradicts himself here, for whereas he vilifies Sator’s ambition, it is the Protagonist himself who becomes the object of faith when Neil reveals that the Protagonist is the mastermind behind Tenet and has thus been orchestrating the events of the film. The Protagonist explicates this point in the film’s final scene: “I realized I wasn’t working for you. We’ve both been working for me. I’m the protagonist.” With this epiphany, the Protagonist asserts himself as mastermind of the operation and demonstrates that his participation in Tenet is no longer “blind faith,” it is a recognition of his own centrality.

To be sure, Nolan retains an aspect of verticality in Neil’s exhortation that “reality” is “an expression of faith in the mechanics of the world,” but this appeal to the deterministic laws of physics is vacuous in that these laws bend to the algorithm formulated by the anonymous, future scientist, and it is the Protagonist’s manipulation of inversion via the Tenet operation that effects humanity’s salvation. Nolan thus wants to dehumanize Sator’s lack of belief outside of himself (“The rest is belief, and I don’t have it”) while also asserting that humanity acts as its own deliverance. Accordingly, like the palindromic structure of Tenet’s plot, Nolan’s conception of faith folds in on itself.

What’s happened’s happened. Which is an expression of faith in the mechanics of the world, not an excuse to do nothing. (Neil, in Tenet)

The life I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me. (Gal 2:20)26

4. Conclusion

In this article, I have examined Christopher Nolan’s three most recent films, Interstellar, Dunkirk, and Tenet, through the lens of the preeminent theological virtues of love, hope, and faith, respectively. In each case, I have demonstrated that Nolan takes Paul’s cruciform (vertical and horizontal) theology of virtue and flattens it to the purely horizontal; thus, whereas Paul understands love as the sacrificial descent of the Son, hope as anticipation of God’s restoration of all creation, and faith as the transformative reception of God’s grace, Nolan makes humanity the giver and recipient of these virtues, so that in each film humanity effects its own salvation.

At this point, it is necessary to ask whether this argument is unfair or not. After all, film as a medium is about visual storytelling, and one could hardly expect every film that touches on love, hope, and faith to somehow exhibit the cruciform theology of virtue that we see in Paul. For this reason, what I have attempted to show is not that Nolan’s films simply have an impoverished view of virtue, but that Nolan has intentionally coopted the imagery and language of Christian virtue and reshaped it in order to elicit a particular response from his audience. Lest a reader think I am too critical here, Nolan confirmed as much when questioned on the role of Christianity in his films:

I think the influence of Christianity in my films in mostly cultural in terms of my upbringing. You know I was raised Catholic…. I would say that Christianity is just a cultural influence as it is for so many people growing up in the Western culture.27

Nolan, then, is not endeavoring to create “Christian” films, but neither is he willing to surrender the preeminent virtues. Nolan understands their evocative power, and so he incorporates them via secularization, crafting exceptional films that provoke us to love, inspire us to hope, and encourage us to believe. But by screening God out of the picture, the theological elements of the films, while emotive, are exposed as a veneer, a white-washed tomb that upon inspection, promises more than it delivers.

For something more substantial, the church must return again and again to the words of the apostle Paul, who reorients us back to God and calls us to become a cruciform people of love, hope, and faith.

[1] “Christopher Nolan,” The Numbers, accessed August 10, 2021,

[2] “Complete National Film Registry Listing,” Library of Congress, accessed August 10, 2021,

[3] “About this Collection,” Library of Congress, accessed August 10, 2021,

[4] “Top Rated Movies,” IMDB, accessed August 10, 2021,

[5] All translations, unless otherwise noted, are my own.

[6] Unlike Dunkirk and Tenet, Interstellar was co-written by Christopher Nolan’s brother, Jonathan Nolan. Since Christopher Nolan wrote the final draft and is the director of the project, all references to “Nolan” refer to him.

[7] This is the first articulation of “love” in the film.

[8] Commenting on the 1 Corinthians 13 exposition of love, Dunn notes, “It is hard to doubt that Paul in thus describing love had in mind the love of God in Christ.” James D. G. Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 596.

[9] On the personification of Sin and Death, see Beverly Roberts Gaventa, “The Cosmic Power of Sin in Paul’s Letter to the Romans: Toward a Widescreen Edition,” Int 58 (2004): 229–40. On p. 231, Gaventa notes, “In Romans in particular, sin is Sin—not a lower-case transgression … but an upper-case Power that enslaves humankind.”

[10] As these three citations indicate, love for Paul is not merely a quality or an emotion; it is an activity. Similarly, when Paul writes the famous passage “Love is patient, love is kind; it is not jealous …” (1 Cor 13:4), he uses verbs, not adjectives, to describe the movement of love. On this point, Garland writes: “Love is dynamic and active, not something static. [Paul] is not talking about some inner feeling or emotion. Love is not conveyed by words; it has to be shown. It can be defined only by what it does and does not do.” David E. Garland, 1 Corinthians, BECNT (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 616.

[11] By “cruciform” I mean “in the form of the cross.” In what follows, I frequently refer to the intersection of the vertical and horizontal planes of love, hope, and faith as resembling that of the cross, where these virtues find their fullest expression and telos. The vertical plane designates the relationship between God and humanity; the horizontal is that between human and human. I often refer to God’s activity through Jesus as “vertical,” but in doing so I do not intend to screen out the horizontal nature of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection, for as the God-man, Jesus is at the very center of the cruciform intersection and thus perfects both the vertical and horizontal. Still, I refer to this activity primarily as “vertical” because it is an act of divine intervention that cannot be effected by humanity alone.

[12] The church organ featured in Zimmer’s Oscar-nominated original score was Zimmer’s first choice: the “1926 four-manual Harrison & Harrison organ in London’s 12th-century Temple Church.” Jon Burlingame, “Hans Zimmer’s Interstellar Adventure: Composer Unveils Secrets of Organ, Choir, Orchestra in Nolan Film,” Film Music Society, 6 November 2014,

[13] As the juxtaposed quotes below testify, it is this leap of faith that, despite their irreconcilable differences, gives Nolan and the apostle Paul a common ground on which to stand, namely, the transcendent and ineffable nature of love.

[14] Similarly, the Dunkirk trailer features the following title card: “Hope is a weapon.” Warner Bros. Pictures, “Dunkirk—Trailer 1,” YouTube video, 14 December 2016,

[15] On the hope of Israel, see N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, Christian Origins and the Question of God 1 (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1994), 280–338.

[16] On this point, Timothy B. Savage concludes: “The Apostle guides us to the paradoxical … conclusion that it is only in cruciform sufferings like his that the Lord can perform his powerful work, introducing glory into an age of darkness, salvation into a world of despair, a new age within the old and life and power to more and more people” (Power through Weakness: Paul’s Understanding of the Christian Ministry in 2 Corinthians, SNTSMS 86 [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996], 189). For more on Paul’s views of suffering, see Savage, Power through Weakness, esp. 164–86; Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle, 482–87; Scott J. Hafemann, “Suffering,” DPL 919–21; and Brian J. Tabb, “Paul and Seneca on Suffering,” in Paul and Seneca in Dialogue, ed. David E. Briones and Joseph Dodson, Ancient Philosophical Commentary on the Pauline Writings (Leiden: Brill, 2017), 88–108.

[17] The visual rejoinder to this point is that Farrier’s timely intervention occurs “from above,” but this does not upend the claim that Farrier is one aspect of the planned Dunkirk evacuation. Still, it is notable that Farrier’s descent from the sky and capture by “the enemy” evokes the scriptural narrative of Jesus’ incarnation and death, though certainly colored by the film’s anthropological lens.

[18] Eliza Berman, “Christopher Nolan: Dunkirk Is My Most Experimental Film since Memento,” Time, 19 July 2017,

[19] Mr. Dawson embodies the selfless, communal responsibility Nolan wants to inspire. This explains why Nolan has the character depart without the Navy, despite being requisitioned. Mr. Dawson’s heroism is more apparent without the Navy aboard directing the mission.

[20] Churchill’s personal religious beliefs aside, it is interesting that Nolan chooses to end the film with a quote so evocative of Christian eschatology. It is unlikely that Paul would dissent with anything in this brief quote, although, as the subsequent quote from Romans shows, he would have much to add.

[21] The other significance of the Tenet title is the central location of “TENET” in the Sator Square, a five-word Latin palindrome that consists of the words SATOR, ROTAS, OPERA, AREPO, and TENET, all of which appear in the film. Moreover, the Sator Square is reflected in Tenet’s palindromic plot structure.

[22] Writers Bloc Presents, “Writers Bloc Presents: Christopher Nolan, Tom Shone and Kenneth Branagh,” YouTube video, 2 December 2020,

[23] No doubt this simplification will draw the ire of some theologians, but for the purpose of this paper, this brief outline is all that can be offered. For a survey of views on elections, see Chad Owen Brand, ed., Perspectives on Election (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2006).

[24] That God initiates and sustains the relationship between God and humanity is paramount to Paul’s theology of faith. On this point, Dunn notes, “This, then, is what Paul meant by justification by faith, by faith alone. It was a profound conception of the relation between God and humankind—a relation of utter dependence, of unconditional trust. Human dependence on divine grace had to be unqualified or else it was not Abraham’s faith, the faith through which God could work his own work.” Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle, 379. Though he disagrees with Dunn’s understanding of “justification” in Paul, Moo likewise emphasizes God’s initiation of the divine-human relationship: “Justification by faith is the anthropological reflex of Paul’s basic conviction that what God has done in Christ for sinful human beings is entirely a matter of grace.” Douglas J. Moo, Romans, 2nd ed., NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018), 100. For a historic overview on the oft-contentious doctrine of “justification,” see Alister E. McGrath, Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification, 4th ed. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2020).

[25] On the translation “faithfulness of Jesus Christ,” I follow N. T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, Christian Origins and the Question of God 4 (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2013), 529: “‘The faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah’ is, in the person of this one representative figure, ‘the faithfulness’ that God required from Israel if the promise was to be valid for the whole world, as always promised. This ‘faithfulness’, it turns out, is a synecdochic reference to Jesus’ death, seen as ‘the faithfulness of Israel to God’s saving plan’ on the one hand and also as ‘the faithfulness of Israel’s God to his covenant promise and purpose’ on the other.” This translation in no way rejects the role of faith as personal belief, as made clear in verse 25 (“received by faith”).

[26] The disparity between Nolan and Paul is perhaps most apparent in these final juxtaposed quotes. Unlike Interstellar and Dunkirk where the orientation of love and hope are delegated to the narrative, Tenet includes an explicit recipient of one’s faith, namely, “the mechanics of the world.” For Paul, as Galatians unambiguously affirms, God alone is a worthy recipient of faith.

[27] Writers Bloc Presents, “Writers Bloc Presents: Christopher Nolan, Tom Shone and Kenneth Branagh,” YouTube video, 2 December 2020,

EJ Davila

EJ Davila is the youth pastor at Eastwood Baptist Church in Gatesville, Texas, and is a copyeditor at Wipf and Stock Publishing.

Other Articles in this Issue

Syncretism—the blending of two or more religious paradigms—threatens Christian witness around the world...

Mark 2:26 has presented itself as a difficult textual and historical problem for interpreters...

Paul’s instruction in Romans 13:1–7 can be applied to Christian voting behavior in the West...

This article is a response to Robert Golding’s recent essay, “Making Sense of Hell,” in which he contends for the logic of eternal punishment on the basis of a progressive and asymptotic conception of sin and sinners in hell...

There is a widespread belief that Paul understood his Gentile mission as the brief final chapter of salvation-history, preceding—or even triggering—the imminent return of Jesus...