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You Can Enjoy Soul; it is Not Heresy

Anytime a film or TV show takes on the subject of the afterlife, I inevitably run into Christian friends or acquaintances either refusing to watch or making accusations of heresy. Pixar recently released its latest animated feature Soul, a film about a middle school band teacher who tragically dies right before getting his big break as a professional jazz musician and finds himself en route to “The Great Beyond.” Like The Good Place, Upload, or What Dreams May Come, I once again heard Christians offering complaints varying from, “It’s funny, but its depiction of the afterlife is unbiblical” to “don’t watch Soul and certainly don’t let your kids see it—it is heresy.” This is not the first Pixar film to explore post-death existence. The majority of Coco takes place in the Land of the Dead, but perhaps that film received fewer complaints from conservative Christians because it borrowed its setting from Mexican folklore making it feel more obviously fictional. That last point, that Soul is fiction, though it may seem painfully obvious, is the reason I heartily enjoyed Soul and would encourage you to feel free to enjoy it too.

… no one, particularly Christians, should be afraid of Soul or any other film that delves into the philosophical or metaphysical.

Don’t get me wrong. Soul’s depiction of the afterlife certainly doesn’t seem to take its cues from the Bible. I would argue, however, that the Bible says very little about life after death aside from a handful of verses (Luke 23:39-43; Phil. 1:21-24; 2 Cor. 5:6-8). What Scripture does promise is a future resurrection from the dead that coincides with the return of Jesus (Acts 24:15; 1 Cor. 15:52) and the establishment of a renewed heaven and earth (Isa. 65:17-25; Rev. 21). In other words, the Bible has much more to say about life after life after death than post-death existence—Soul only deals in the latter. 

One of the few descriptions of the afterlife comes from Jesus’ proclamation to the criminal beside him on the cross, “today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). And full disclosure: we never really get to see the afterlife proper—“The Great Beyond”—in Soul. We only see people preparing to enter the Great Beyond and the process by which people’s souls are developed for life on earth in “The Great Before.” Additionally Soul presents us with a higher plane of consciousness called “The Zone” which is really just a manifestation of a person’s passion or pleasure in a task. I will say that these otherworldly places, at least to me, were far from paradise. Post-death and pre-life existence in Soul was far more sterile and dull than I expected and both left me feeling unsettled. While I enjoyed the film, I found the film’s weakest moments to be those set in the “afterlife.” That said, given how little the Bible describes life after death, I think it is probably ok to indulge in fictional depictions. And we certainly shouldn’t expect a Pixar film to present life, death, or final judgment in a manner consistent with any established Christian teaching. What we can expect from a Pixar film is to laugh and to feel deeply, two experiences Soul provides in ample measure. 

So here are three reasons you can enjoy Soul despite its vision of pre- and post-death existence that you might find troubling:

  1. Soul’s world is fictional and doesn’t claim to depict reality. In that sense Soul’s depiction of the afterlife isn’t all that different from Lord of the Rings or Thor. While the universe of Soul might seem a lot more similar to our own than that of other popular fiction, we must remember that the universe of Soul is not our own and never claims to be. The goal of the film isn’t to convince you of a particular understanding of the human soul and its ultimate end. It’s a fabricated universe deliberately designed to tell a compelling story. If the film makes any philosophical or metaphysical claims about the afterlife, they are hypothetical at best. If Soul were a nonfiction book or sermon titled “This Is What Happens When You Die,” then we could rightly call it heresy but it is neither.
  2. There is a really life-giving lesson at the heart of Soul. Even if everyone at Pixar actually believed that there is a Great Beyond where souls go when people’s bodies die, getting hung up on this doesn’t mesh with the Bible and misses the message the film ultimately communicates. The moral of Soul is actually quite similar to an important lesson found in the Bible.

    Mild spoiler ahead, but I was struck by how similar its message is to that of Ecclesiastes which says, “Absolute futility. . . . Everything is futile” (Eccl. 1:2, CSB). The writer of Ecclesiastes who identifies as “The Teacher” (Eccl. 1:1, CSB), is not claiming that all we do is meaningless. The Hebrew word for “futile” is hevel and it literally means mist or vapor. When the Teacher says that all kinds of activities that we value are hevel—things like marriage, work, and seeking pleasure—that doesn’t mean that they are worthless. It means they are short-lived. They are temporary. So rather than telling us not to bother with these things, Ecclesiastes actually encourages us to consider how we engage these activities meaningfully. Reflecting on how these activities are vapor this side of eternity encourages us to consider how we might engage in them in a way that honors God and promotes the good of our neighbors.

    Without getting into more spoiler territory, Soul’s depiction of “The Zone” presents us with a very similar lesson, challenging us not to become so obsessed with that which is ephemeral that we hurt ourselves or the people around us. Instead Soul challenges us to make the most of this one “wild and precious life.”
  3. Soul provides a wonderful opportunity for important conversations. For the record, I can see how some parents would not want their kids to watch the film because they might find its depiction of the afterlife unsettling or confusing. Soul doesn’t mention God, and its depiction of embodiment is odd, to say the least. I personally did not watch the film with my kids. I wanted to check it out for myself first. I can understand why other parents might think differently, but now that I have seen it, I don’t think I would have a problem with my kids watching it alongside me. Soul has the potential to spark important questions about life and death—questions that I want to be open and willing to confront and address with my older children. When and if we watch the film together, I will ask them what they think about its depiction of life after death and the division of soul and body. At the very least, those are conversations we are much less likely to have if we were to watch Trolls: World Tour or The Lego Movie.

Soul isn’t going to be everyone’s jam, and it certainly isn’t, in my opinion, the best Pixar film to date. I do think, however, that it is a good film with a life-giving message for those who are willing to engage the film on its own terms. If you are a parent reading this, I would encourage you not to just take my word for it. You know your children better than anyone else, so do your own research and investigate the film yourself before you decide whether it is appropriate for your children. That said, I firmly believe that no one, particularly Christians, should be afraid of Soul or any other film that delves into the philosophical or metaphysical. The conversations Soul might produce among your friends or family are ones we avoid all too often. We all want to make the most of our lives and will all face death one day, so whether you check out Soul or not, I hope you will determine not to live in fear of it or other media like it. 

Executive Editor at Penguin Random House. Author of Know Thy Gamer: A Parent's Guide to Video Games and founder of Love Thy Nerd.

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