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Christian Symbolism in Disney's 'The Lion King'

I've always been curious about movies, especially interested in how they create characters that resonate emotionally with the audience.

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Comparing fictional characters to Jesus is common in studies and fan discussions. Any heroic character who sacrifices their life to save something else, especially if the character is a young or middle-aged man, especially if they die spread out as if crucified, can be compared to Jesus. Superman, Neo from The Matrix, Harry Potter, and many other protagonists have been compared to Jesus. But I'm going to go one step crazier and talk about a cartoon lion.

Simba has a lot of obvious similarities with Jesus, and his father Mufasa to God the Father in the Bible, and Scar to Satan. Not sure what I'm talking about? And how do other characters fit into this? Well...

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In the Bible, John the Baptist is like Jesus' guru. He was a wandering prophet and spiritual teacher. As his name suggests, he is credited in Christianity as having first practiced baptism as Christians today practice it. He's remembered for his wisdom, but he was seen by people of the time as somewhat eccentric. Sound familiar?

Our monkey friend isn't subtle about doing things that bear obvious resemblance to modern spiritual practices from Eastern religion, such as sitting in the lotus position. He uses leaves blown from the wind for divination, to see that Simba is alive. He is clearly designed to resemble African shamans.

But the most important things he does are decidedly Christian. He baptizes Simba as a baby, and proudly shows him to the world. This is essentially the role John the Baptist plays in the story of Jesus' life. He baptizes Jesus, teaches him, and tells others to believe in him. Rafiki is the first one to have "faith" in the fact that Simba is alive, and to have faith in his eventual return.

Interesting fact: Messiah/Christ means "anointed one", and Simba is literally anointed (with mango juice or whatever) on the forehead by Rafiki when born, symbolizing his special destiny.

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Monarchy has been the longest-lasting form of government in history. What people wanted was not always to elect their own leaders, but to have a ruler who was divinely willed to be in power. This message is all over the place in The Lion King. Lions are destined to be at the top of the hierarchy of animals because that is part of the balance of nature.

Similarly, Jews prophesied that a righteous king would help them defeat their enemies. Hope for a divinely-backed king is a recurring theme in the Bible. Kings like David and Solomon were great heroes among the Jews, and Jews living under Roman rule were nostalgic for an era when they were led by one of their own, instead of a foreign king.

Indeed, one of the bits of evidence modern Jews use to argue against the idea that Jesus was their Messiah was that the Messiah was supposed to be a king, and Jesus never showed any interest in secular power or politics, his "render to Caesar that which is Caesar's" being a kind of "Feh!" to the idea of secular politics. Nonetheless, Jesus is regarded by Christians as the "King of Kings", and as king of the Kingdom of Heaven, he is ruler above and beyond the power of even the greatest secular world leaders.

Christianity believed in the divine right of kings for centuries, it's why we get the King Arthur legends, for example. When a kingdom is in peril, a hero-king like King David is the remedy. It's appealing because it boils complex political kerfluffles into simple tales of good and evil. Similarly, Hamlet, on which the story of The Lion King is based, boiled complex political intrigue in England into a fictional story with a clear good guy (Hamlet) and a clear bad guy (Claudius).

The Lion King is odd in that it was written in a democracy, where kings are considered a useless relic of a less-enlightened past. But, it surprisingly changes very little from old European folk tales. It has the same messages; the right man on the throne vs. the wrong one is life-and-death, good times and bountiful harvests are a sign that the king is rightly placed on the throne by God, starvation and ruin for the kingdom are a sign that the king is wicked, a pretender who schemed his way onto the throne, stealing it from the "true" king.

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One could criticize the God of the Bible and Mufasa for the same reasons: both appear indifferent to all the suffering in nature. Mufasa justifies the lions preying on antelope (and other animals) as "we are all connected in the great circle of life". But that divine order of things sure as heck makes it more convenient to be a lion than a gazelle, does it not?

Similarly, God in the Bible tells us that "the wages of sin is death", so that all of our suffering and our inevitable deaths were caused by sin. Not even our own sin, but that of humanity's ancestors, Adam and Eve. In both cases, you have a flawed rationalization for the suffering inherent in nature as "that's the way it is, get used to it".

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This is where the similarities get a little more precise. In the Synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John) we get an incomplete story of Jesus' life. He is introduced as a baby, events surrounding his birth are told, and there is an incident of Jesus astonishing wise men with his knowledge of the scriptures at age 13. But most of what you hear about Jesus happens when he is 30 to 33, the years when he preaches, after which he is killed.

Similarly, Simba is shown as a baby, unhappy political circumstances follow his birth, and he is forced as a child to flee into exile by Scar, returning as an adult. The movie montages his adolescence and early adulthood. It's not known exactly how old he is when he returns to the Pride Lands, but he is clearly an adult by then. He also comes to resemble his deceased father so much that other characters mistake him for him. This is like when Jesus actually is his father, and says he is not here to do his own will, but the will of his father, God.

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The Temptation of Christ is an important story in the Gospel narrative that tells Christians what temptations are necessary to shun, how to avoid evil by following Jesus' example. Wikipedia says, "The desert was seen as outside the bounds of society and as the home of demons such as Azazel (Leviticus 16:10). Gundry states that the desert is likely an allusion to the wilderness through which the Israelites wandered during the Exodus, and more specifically to Moses."

In The Lion King, the desert is similarly the edge of lion "civilization", beyond which is a jungle, where he must adapt to "foreign" customs. He eats insects instead of meat. He gets to live a more peaceful life, but avoids responsibility to challenge Scar and take back the throne.

The temptation for Simba is twofold. On the one hand (paw?) he fears that he was partially responsible for his father's death, and should never return home for the shame. Aside from that "stick" there is the carrot keeping him in that jungle; friendship, and an easier life — once he gets used to eating bugs. While the devil tempts Jesus with kingdoms, Simba is actually tempted by a relaxed life that does not come with the responsibility of ruling a kingdom, or the duty to avenge his father. But similarly, both are tested by periods of temptation before they return to their followers to claim their places as leaders.

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"He's alive! And I show him to you." Rafiki says this about Mufasa, who is believed to be dead. Rafiki has faith in Mufasa. In this way, it is Mufasa, rather than Simba, who is more like Jesus. That faith is sincere, causing Simba to believe in something that sounds impossible, a resurrection. But whereas Simba can only contact Mufasa's spirit temporarily, the faith of a Christian believes that the spirit of Christ is always in everyone's heart. But both Jesus and Simba act as models of faith. Simba's faith pushes him to cross the desert, challenge and defeat his uncle, and do a lot of off-screen irrigation projects presumably.

Jesus prays a lot in the Bible. Why would he pray, if he really is the Son of God? That's something many have wondered about. He prays as a message, as an example. A good father does not simply tell us what to do and command obedience, he also shows us how to live by example. That's why Jesus prays. He's on a mission to teach others to pray. So both Simba and Jesus act as models for faith, which in turn inspires other people to have faith in them.

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  • Mufasa resembles Aslan, a lion in C.S. Lewis' The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, which resembles Jesus in doing miracles, inspiring the heroes of the book, and sacrificing himself to defeat a great evil. However, instead of physically returning from death like Aslan, Mufasa spiritually inspires his son to defeat Scar.
  • Scar is much like the Christian devil. Both were the right-hand man (or lion) of the person they betrayed, and both did so out of jealousy and a desire to rule their own kingdom. In Paradise Lost, Lucifer is quoted as saying "It is better to rule in Hell than to serve in heaven." Similarly, Scar in The Lion King cannot accept not being the ruler of the Pride Lands, so he plots to murder his brother. This also resembles the story of Cain and Abel, when Cain killed his brother Abel out of jealousy that Abel was more favored by God. Like the Christian Satan, Scar is a tempter, a trickster, using lies to manipulate Simba and other characters.
  • The elephant graveyard, especially during Scar's song "Be Prepared" resembles hell. It's described as "beyond our borders" much like how Gehenna (the word translated as "hell" often in the Bible) referred to a place outside the edge of the city of Jerusalem where trash was burned.
  • Jesus and Simba both are sent on a mission to do the will of their father, not their own will.
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Conclusion

So what do you think? I think when you look at it more closely, there are a lot of religious themes and symbols in The Lion King. But what I like is that they're subtle and not overt. It's not trying to preach about faith the way a Veggie Tales movie might. But faith is an important central theme in the story. Simba's triumph is a triumph of faith; he learns to believe in his father's spirit, and in himself. This inspires change when he returns to power, inspires others to follow him as king. Lions were a symbol of royalty in the middle ages, because it was believed that animals bowed to a lion in the wild the way people bow to kings (this was probably just a case of lowering horns for defense, but the idea stuck around). But they're not just a symbol of royalty, but also of faith; lions, real and metaphorical, show up a lot in the Bible. (Read more on that here.)

Thanks for reading!

© 2017 Rachael Lefler

Comments

Tiffany on July 27, 2019:

I just watched the remake and couldn't help walking away thinking this movie in some ways portray the life of Jesus (The Lion of Judah). It is most Simba to the river and tells Simba that he is his father. Then cut to the the voice of Mufasa basically saying "this is my son in whom I am well pleased" ( Matthew 3:17). This scene was followed by the song Spirit whose final lyrics speak to being "one with the Great I AM". What do you think of the 2019 remake?

Real is Real on November 13, 2017:

Simba is Israel returning to their promised land to take back their place as kings. Mufasa is Christ who had to die for israels wrong doing. (Simba did something he was told not to do. Sin.) The monkey, (I think) is John the Baptist. (The revelator of prophesy.) scar is Esau. Jacobs EVIL BROTHER! (The oppressor that seeks to kill Israel-simba)

The warthog & the other un-clean animal is Christianity that causes simba to forget who he really is! The water is the Bible. If blacks look hard enough, (study hard) we can learn(see ourselves) who the Bible says we really are! Kings!!! We must remember and go back to we once used to be. Followers of the law!! Thanks Disney!!

Poppy from Enoshima, Japan on November 01, 2017:

I thought was based on Shakespeare's Hamlet, though you do make some good points.

melvinmdo on May 24, 2017:

Fun facts

Muhammad Ameen Sheikh from Lahore, Pakistan on January 25, 2017:

Never thought about it in this way.....come to think of it I did realize the in Kung Fu Panda 2, they did copy the story of Prophet Musa, the way his mother put him in a basket to save him, the same thing happened in the Kung Fu Panda 2 story

zahidnet24 on January 25, 2017:

thanks