Shin Megami Tensei V’s Theology of Absence
God is dead, and Shin Megami Tensei V invites you to his post-apocalyptic funeral.
That’s not a metaphor. In the 2021 JRPG, designed by Atlus for the Nintendo Switch, God really is dead, and his shekinah glory is unraveling as a result, leaving modern-day Tokyo vulnerable to a cosmic battle between warring factions interested in the holy throne. The protagonist, who stumbles into a netherworld called Da’at and fuses with the proto-fiend to become a powerful and forbidden being known as a Nahobino, must ultimately take the throne himself and determine the fate of humanity.
Sound ridiculous? Good. Irreverence and syncretism are hallmarks of the series.
This is made clear in the broader plot, which stitches together the vaguest of concepts from Christianity into a fever dream of Paradise Lost fanfiction: the God of Law has separated holy beings from their Knowledge, reducing them to demons, and Satan has tempted them to reclaim that Knowledge once more. In the resulting Armageddon, God dies, Tokyo is devastated and becomes the post-apocalyptic netherworld of Da’at, and the real war for the holy throne begins.
It is made clear, too, in the sheer absurdity that suffuses the series. Demons flirt; it is possible to fight with Mothman on a crumbling bridge in an abandoned Tokyo ward; the long-haired protagonist can introduce himself to potential demon allies with a “hair-etic” pun. In a world where one of the most beloved and popular demons is an affectionate but occasionally homicidal snow fairy named Jack Frost, a war between demons and angels over the throne of God is the least nonsensical element on offer.
In other words, no one comes to this game seeking theological guidance or depth.
And yet the stubborn refusal of the game to invest its subjects with any real theological significance draws the shape of what is missing. In a game that draws deeply on Judeo-Christian concepts and ideas and repurposes them for sheer entertainment value, the absence of Christ compels notice.
The animating structure of the game borrows liberally from Judeo-Christian beliefs. The God of Law, if dead in SMTV, is at least present as an animating idea: his shekinah glory protects a recreated Tokyo, and his angels, equipped with flaming swords, seek to uphold his rule in his absence.
Satan is here, too, as one of the narrative’s driving forces: first as a horned bestial demon and later as a celestial mecha-angel. The virgin Mary also makes a cameo, depending on the path chosen by the protagonist. Styled “Maria,” she appears in the game’s final dungeon complete with iconographic halo, referenced as “The Compassionate Queen” and calling herself “the holy mother.”
But her son is nowhere to be found. There is no Christ.
There are doubtless reasons for this restraint. The series, as a general rule, has historically skirted the inclusion of certain key religious figures, perhaps as a polite attempt to avoid controversy or offense—though such a choice, in a game that prompts fisticuffs with the Fair Mother and casts Shiva as a superboss, seems arbitrary at best.
Perhaps the presence of a savior-god is simply of scarce use to a narrative that desires to portray God only as a tyrant interested in squashing free will. Players who approach the series with no particular religious context might find the omission irrelevant or even unnoticeable. But SMTV offers a much more surreal experience for the believer who sees, in barren and faded Da’at, what Christian virtue looks like divorced from its source.
What the game reveals, with unsentimental efficiency, is that righteousness stripped of love spares no thought for forgiveness and compassion. Divorced from mercy and grace, zeal for God can become monstrosity and forces from others a devotion to God that springs not from affection but fear of punishment.
SMTV doesn’t even other bother disguising this as a metaphor. Abdiel, the archangel of God—a servant most wholly devoted to obeying his word—ultimately defies the law in her zeal to preserve it and becomes, on some paths, an abomination that must be slaughtered.
And in a scene roundly mocked by fans for its on-the-nose melodrama, the insecure high school influencer Ichiro Dazai transforms from a nervous teenager struggling with his parents’ divorce into a sneering crusader for the faith: dropping his baseball cap alongside his innocence, he loses his smile, slicks back his hair, and, in his devotion to God, becomes willing to murder his friends and call it righteousness.
Divorced from its salvific context in the game, devotion to God produces not kindness, compassion, or generosity, but fear, hatred, suspicion, and anger. Law without love in Da’at heralds not freedom, but cruelty. This might be a lesson for the faithful even in ordinary times, but these are not ordinary times, and so the in-game brutishness of those who contend for the faith resonates with particular meaning as the church emerges from a pandemic to face an era that continues to be defined by deeply felt political discourse and polarizing disagreements.
As modern churches face calls for racial reckoning and reconciliation, congregations split over questions about gender identity and sexual orientation, and sexual abuse scandals rock multiple denominations, the church must live in and respond from the tension between law and grace. SMTV serves as a haunting reminder in the background of what can result when grace is abandoned in that equation, of how the rottenest of fruit can grow from the holiest of intentions.
Of course, SMTV is hardly breaking new ground in this regard.
In the long history of games that meditate on the sacred and the profane, JRPGs as a genre are populated by a cadre of demented pseudo-popes, murderous angels, and unloving, tyrannical deities creatively derived from the Judeo-Christian tradition. That the protagonist must exist in a universe overseen by an unloving god—and must eventually overthrow that god—is a feature, not a bug. What differentiates SMTV in this regard is its refusal to offer a meaningful balm for the wound.
Sure, most JRPG protagonists bear the burden of cosmic meaning-making and inevitably face the vacuum of divine love, but they receive something in return: a cool sword, a girlfriend who turns into a cool sword, or the power of friendship. Accompanied by a cool sword.
But SMTV offers up many of these things only to take them away.
Yes, the protagonist has friends and allies—and eventually he’ll have to murder a few of them, or watch others die for the cause, as he proceeds to the throne. And sure, there’s an oasis of compassion and warmth in the game called the Fairy Village, populated by a mix of thoroughly decent demons and humans—but even this bastion of goodness can be eradicated when the protagonist reshapes the world. On the paths where it continues to exist, eternal power struggles imperil its survival. Robert Frost claims in a poem that “nothing gold can stay.” In SMTV, nothing borne of love can either.
The end credits of the game emphasize this bleakness with a striking visual: the protagonist, having seized the holy throne and inherited the power to reshape the world to his desires, walks forward in his forbidden form through an empty galaxy alone.
As the melancholy closing theme progresses, the discordant church bells—a striking aural embodiment of the clanging cymbals of 1 Corinthians 13:1—gradually overwhelm the melody, which grows darker and more dissonant. Both visual and song capture a profound loneliness: the bleak isolation of the cycle of human striving, untouched by enduring affection.
In Revelations of Divine Love, Julian of Norwich writes, “And this is the knowledge of which we are most ignorant; for many men and women believe that God is almighty and has power to do everything, that he is all wisdom and knows how to do everything, but that he is all love and is willing to do everything—there they stop.”
The game leaves it up to the player to determine if God is, indeed, almighty or wise. It is possible in SMTV to choose a path that secures the throne for God’s anticipated return, to acknowledge his deity as beneficial. But even this path engages in the drawing-back that Julian describes. There is no sense that God is love, that indeed he will do anything for those he loves—or that following God requires or inspires love in any sense. And in the absence of traditional comforts offered by the genre, the world that emerges from such a foundation appears dark indeed.
For all its irreverence and demented charm, and for all that it insists to the player and itself that faith and religion are not subjects to be approached with any great seriousness, SMTV’s emphasis on the law-and-obedience aspect of Judeo-Christian belief sketches a bleak and striking image of Christianity: a body of faith grown cold without the blood that enlivens it. Centered on a belief in God’s power but not his love, faith in Da’at exercises itself in wrath and arrogance, worships with sword and death.
For those who do not participate in the Christian faith tradition, of course, none of this much matters. God’s death and Christ’s absence in the SMTV narrative function like the addition or deletion of any other figure in a creative mythology that repurposes demons and deities like dolls to be reanimated, or left behind, in service of the narrative.
But for the believing Christian who plunges into the dark and violent world of the game, the absence of Christ takes on the shape of something more—what Richard Beck refers to in Hunting Magic Eels as the Ache: “the contours of the space that God once held in our hearts and minds.” It is impossible to encounter the performance of murderous, self-righteous faith in Da’at without contemplating that such faith is a natural consequence of the choice, as Beck asserts, “[to sideline] the Love that moves the stars,” and without wondering how the modern believer might take care to avoid such a fate. God is dead in SMTV. But the haunting reminder that the series sketches out for the Christian is that, in the absence of holy love, that scarcely matters at all.