In a previous post I reflected on the awful depiction of a Korean pastor as one of the contestants in Netflix’s mega-hit Squid Game. In that post I explored the idea that Player 244 represented the view many Koreans have of Christians, especially pastors, as untrustworthy and greedy.
But that isn’t to say Squid Game is completely without Christian themes or imagery. In fact, fans have been poring over each episode, dissecting the various allusions to religious ideas, many of them explicitly Christian. [Warning: bucketloads of spoilers to follow]
I’m not in any way suggesting Hwang Dong-hyuk, the creator of Squid Game, intends the show to convey a Christian message, but he appears to have been shaped somewhat by Christian symbols and ideas. Here are a few of them:
The Alpha and the Omega
The show begins with Seong Gi-hun being recruited to the game by a man he initially mistakes as a Christian evangelist. He repels the stranger by saying he’s from a long line of Buddhists, but the recruiter assures him it has nothing to do with religion.
Gi-hun is whisked away to a new world where he meets another contestant, an elderly man named Oh Il-nam, with whom he develops a special bond. It has been speculated by the show’s fans that Il-nam and Gi-hun might represent the Old Testament God and the New Testament Christ. The main clue they point to are the characters’ numbers in the game. Il-nam is 001, the first player, while Gi-hun is 456, the last player to enter the game, making them the first and the last, the alpha and omega.
Indeed, in several scenes they switch jackets for various reasons, which leads to them wearing both numbers, 001 and 456. They are both the first and the last. That can’t be purely coincidental, can it?
In another scene, Il-nam, frail and unwell, makes an impassioned speech from the top of the bunk beds to the other contestants below. He’s like Moses’ God looking down from Mount Sinai berating the masses for their ungodly behavior.
Both Il-nam and Gi-hun are two of the more sympathetic characters in the drama. Il-nam is gentle and kindly, while Gi-hun, despite initially appearing to be a failure at life, is shown to be a man of great compassion and scruples. Indeed, it is by playing the game that Gi-hun is forced to draw upon the values that he wasn’t aware he possessed – generosity, honesty, and kindness.
Ultimately, it is revealed that Il-nam is not just an elderly pauper, but the mastermind behind the whole thing, a billionaire who decides to enter his own game as a player. And Gi-hun, while reluctantly resorting to deception in a game of marbles against Il-nam, becomes the game’s eventual winner, doing so without violence or cruelty. Indeed, he even refuses to execute his final rival Cho Sang-woo, a Judas figure who betrays him and various other characters throughout the games. Like Judas, Sang-Woo, overwhelmed by remorse or a sense of failure, commits suicide at the end.
It should be noted that the similarities between God the Father and Il-nam, and Jesus and Gi-hun, can’t be stretched too far. Il-nam has created a cruel and callous game in which he and fellow billionares capriciously wager on the suffering of others for their own pleasure. While Gi-hun, as mentioned earlier, is a complete failure as a father, a son, and a human being prior to entering the game, he discovers his better side by playing the game. In that respect, he doesn’t resemble Jesus at all.
But Hwang Dong-hyuk doesn’t seem shy about loading the drama with Christian symbolism, including the other possibility that the North Korean refugee Kang Sae-byeok is a kind of Mary Magdalene character.
The Suffering Servant
In the final challenge, Gi-hun is stabbed through the hand, a not-too-subtle allusion to Christ’s suffering on the cross. He emerges as the ultimate victor of the games and is rewarded handsomely with a fantastical sum of money for his efforts (about $38 million in U.S. dollars). When he is returned to the streets of Seoul, he is dumped on a sidewalk at the feet of a street evangelist who lays his sign, “Jesus Saves” next to him.
But Gi-hun can’t bring himself to enjoy his prize money. It cost too many people too much for him to take any pleasure from it. He can’t use any of it for himself. He is suffering, burdened by the sins of others and overcome by compassion for those who lost their lives. During this part of the show, Gi-hun begins to physically resemble Jesus, growing a beard and long hair.
Ultimately, he is summoned by the billionare Il-nam to a meeting on the top floor of a Seoul skyscraper. It’s like the throne room of God, high above the world, looking down on those who suffer below. But Il-nam is dying of a brain tumor. He is confined to a hospital bed by the window. He wants to see Gi-hun before he dies to find out why he hasn’t spent any of his prize money.
In this conversation, Il-nam compares Gi-hun to his own son (told ya), but they have very different outlooks on the world. Il-nam sees the mass of humanity as dispensible and corrupt, evidenced by the way he uses poor people as his playthings in the squid game. He looks down on a homeless man slumped against a wall on the icy sidewalk and wagers Gi-hun that he will still be there when the clock reaches midnight. Il-nam believes no one will help the frozen pauper. It is Christmas Eve and he’ll be dead by Christmas Day. Gi-hun takes the wager. He believes there is still goodness in the human soul. But as the minutes tick by, passersby step around the homeless man, ignoring his plight.
It might be that Squid Games‘ creator, Hwang Dong-hyuk see the Old Testament God as capricious and judgmental, willing a homeless man to suffer through the night. Maybe he was thinking of God’s treatment of Job, from whom everything was taken. And maybe Hwang Dong-hyuk sees Jesus as bringing a kinder, more loving type of religion. Even still, it is Il-nam, not the homeless man, who dies on the stroke of midnight. The frozen man is helped by a passerby, and rescued by a patrol car. Gi-hun wins the bet, and Il-nam dies on Christmas Day.
The Second Coming
After this fateful encounter, Gi-hun makes some rather dramatic decisions. He ensures that Sae-byeok’s younger brother and San-woo’s mother are financially secure, and prepares to fly to America to see his daughter. But, rather bizarrely, he also has his hair cut and colored bright red. His appearance is transformed. He looks like a whole new person. In this, he resembles the risen Christ, unrecognisable even to his friends.
But at the last minute, as he is walking down the airbridge to board his flight to the USA, he decides he can’t leave. He must stay and try to end the squid games and stop those who would otherwise agree to play them. He must end the cruelty and suffering. Squid Game concludes with a resolute Gi-hun striding back toward the terminal, intent on fulfilling his mission.
Hwang Dong-hyuk has said he has no plans for a second season of Squid Game, but if he does make one it will no doubt be about the second coming of Seong Gi-hun.
Sin and Salvation
According to Hwang, Squid Game isn’t about religion. It’s about captitalism. He has said, “I wanted to write a story that was an allegory or fable about modern capitalist society, something that depicts an extreme competition, somewhat like the extreme competition of life. But I wanted it to use the kind of characters we’ve all met in real life.”
That would make Squid Game not only the most pointed critique of capitalism this century, but also it’s most popular. It is also a very South Korean perspective on capitalism. By all accounts, South Korean culture is very competitive and stressful. It is a small country with a large population (50 million) and the pressure to succeed at school and in the workforce is incredibly high, even toxic. Hwang says,
“[Because we are] cut off from the continent of Asia by North Korea, we have developed an island mentality. Some of that stress is carried over in the way that we are always preparing for the next crisis. In some ways it is a motivator. It helps us ask what more should be done. But such competition also has side-effects.”
Hwang is talking about what Christians call sin, not just the odd individual wrong choice, but the state of humanity, a kind of stuckness, an inherent brokenness that we all share. He blames capitalism, but behind the stress and competition he refers to are deeper forms of sin — fear, greed, selfishness. Hwang is suggesting South Korean society is in the grip of forces beyond its control. Breaking free from the slavish obedience to commercial success and extreme competitiveness appears to be impossible.
South Koreans are looking for a savior.
For the poor people who enter the squid game, their ‘savior’ is the huge piggy-bank of money suspended from the roof of their dormitory. But that prize is only available to the one who best embodies the besetting sins of greed and competitiveness from which they need to be freed. In fact, after winning the prize, Gi-hun realises all that cash doesn’t set you free at all, much less make you happy. Money is a false god and a pathetic savior.
We can only speculate as to whether his plan to put an end to squid game will bring Gi-hun a sense of fulfilment and purpose. But we can be sure that Hwang Dong-hyuk doesn’t think a glass orb full of Korean won is the answer to his country’s woes. Maybe he doesn’t think the second coming of Jesus will help either. But I just hope there are some Korean Christians who can speak into this desire to be rescued and reveal that Christ could be exactly what their nation needs.