A story like Death Note doesn’t come around too often. It’s one of the rare anime that makes a unique impact on the medium itself.
The premise of the show piques curiosity: one of the death gods has dropped his Death Note (a notebook that enables the wielder to determine who dies) into the human world for fun, where it’s picked up by an intelligent high school student named Light. Upon understanding how the Death Note works (the basics being simply writing someone’s name, picturing their face, and specifying the manner of death), Light sees his obtaining of the Death Note as a sign that he should be the one to cleanse the world of evil, thus creating a sort of “heaven” where Light himself is the god and judge of all. The equally-intelligent detective, L, realizes that the sudden and unexplained deaths can’t be coincidental, and makes it his mission to stop the mysterious “mass murderer.”
It’s a very interesting plot, indeed, opening up a ton of philosophical and theological discussion points–no doubt one of the reasons Death Note has attracted so many viewers.
However, before diving into Death Note’s philosophy, we must ask ourselves an important question: How do we initially view Light? As the protagonist? Antagonist? Do we agree with Light–that he’s doing the righteous thing by using the Death Note to eliminate the evil in the world? Should the world be glad that the Death Note fell into the hands of someone using it for “good,” and does that make Light’s judgement just? Or does L hold the moral high ground by trying to stop him? Who’s the antagonist and protagonist here?
I think the answer is determined largely based on one’s personal view of theology.
If there’s no one true God in the Death Note universe, then based on the morality argument discussed in philosophy, there is no definitive “good” or “bad.” Meaning, without a universal standard of what’s good and bad, all of Light’s actions and ideals are permissible. His ideas of “righteousness,” doing “good,” and taking matters into his own hands by killing those he deems “evil” are all acceptable and “right,” since he deems it as “right” and the only opposition comes from other humans who deem it as “wrong.”
If there’s no God, then everyone gets to create their own standard of what’s good and bad, right and wrong, holy and unholy (if there is such a thing as holiness without God). We become the “gods” of our own “worlds,” just as Light proclaims himself as the “god of the new world.” Without God in the picture, L can be perceived as the antagonist of the story. Why stop someone who decides that ridding the world of those who cause harm to others is the best way to use the Death Note? The Death Note fell into Light’s hands, so he gets to make the rules because he wields it, right?
However, we are all universally aware as humans of the concept of good and bad, whether we’re directly contemplating it or not. There are things we want to avoid because they’re bad, and there are things we long for because they’re good. Even the ability to think about and comprehend the concepts of good and bad testify of a higher power and intelligence. Otherwise, where would the ideas of right and wrong even come from?
This may be the conscious or subconscious reason why most of us watching the show end up agreeing with L. If we’re aware of concepts like good and bad, which therefore lead us to believe that something higher than ourselves creates these standards, then it makes sense why we would eventually see Light as the antagonist. As Light claims that his definition of “good” is what everyone should agree with and abide by, we are forced to ask ourselves, “What makes him worthy of being judge?” This, then, begs the question: “What makes anyone worthy to be judge?”
To take the position that there is no God may cause a dilemma. If the only thing that determines what’s good and bad is individual human decision and opinion, then we have to eliminate morality, since morality would be nothing but a human invention. This, then, would mean that there’s nothing wrong with Light doing what he thinks is correct. If you didn’t like what he was doing, you would have no moral basis to stop him, other than the fact that you didn’t like what he was doing. Without a universal moral truth, everyone becomes their own moral truth.
Light’s mindset is very similar to Adam and Eve’s in Genesis 3:5. They disobeyed God by eating the fruit of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, desiring to become like God instead of united with God.
We can see Light’s way of thinking as the cause of our own disconnection from God–the idea that we want to know (or think we know) everything better than God, and that we should therefore be our own gods. This mindset leads us to believe that we don’t need God and that we can be the judges of everyone, including ourselves.
Even as Christians who believe in God, it’s possible to see ourselves in Light. Do we look at others with judgement, knowing that we have it all “right” and that everyone else should go by exactly what we think and believe? Do we pridefully self-appoint ourselves to change other people’s beliefs and standards to match up with our own? Even towards our own Christian brothers and sisters of differing denominations, do we think we’re doing it all right and they’re doing it all wrong? Do we become the antagonistic Light of Christianity as we sit on the judgement seat of our own doctrine and belief systems?
Jesus tells us to love others, as He loves us. As followers of Jesus, we believe that God is in us; Jesus abides in God, and therefore as we abide in Jesus and Jesus in us, we abide in God (John 15). And since God is love–“Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love” (1 John 4:8)–then we have the pure essence of love inside of us.
And if love does not insist on having its own way–if it is not arrogant, rude, or boastful (1 Corinthians 13)–then truly having the Holy Spirit inside of us means that being the ultimate judge is not our job. Instead, love should be foremost to everything else in the Christian life: “And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.” (1 Corinthians 13:2)
Jesus didn’t come to make us judges and know-it-alls. He didn’t come to make us like Light in Death Note–someone who wants to be his own god of the world. Jesus came to reverse that. He came to unite us with God and His love, making us children of the one true God and “lights” of the world. (Matt. 5:14)
“Brothers and sisters, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against a brother or sister or judges them speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you—who are you to judge your neighbor?” – James 4:11-12