Divine Trials and Good Works: Navigating Theological Themes in Netflix’s Manifest

By Meaghan Green, GUG Contributor

This article was edited to Geeks Under Grace standards, and the personal opinions of this author are not necessarily that of Geeks Under Grace.

A mother, father, and son stand together

Can the popular Netflix series, Manifest, ease tensions surrounding a foundational theological debate? 

Manifest warrants thoughtful theological reconsideration, especially in its plot culmination. I believe it provides an alternative interpretation of grace through faith, shedding light on the role of good works in our ability to acknowledge and understand our salvation.

In his letters, Paul is adamant that our salvation cannot be achieved by the law: “So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.” It’s faith in Christ’s sacrifice, by grace, that we can call ourselves saved. Yet, in James chapter 2, we get a more nuanced approach and the unequivocal statement that “faith without works is dead.” The writer explains belief is meaningless without a demonstration of works. The implication perhaps is: What kind of Christian can express faith without proving it?

I think many contemporary Christians land somewhere near the idea that faith enables us to do good works, and the works themselves become evidence of our faith. This interpretation rings most true to me, but I’ve often struggled to understand exactly what it means to walk this concept out in daily life. What comes first, faith or actions? Are my good works mostly for the benefit of others? Where does grace actually begin? 

The following contains spoilers for all four seasons of Manifest.

Originally running on NBC for three seasons, Manifest follows the lives of brother and sister team Ben and Michaela Stone (Josh Dallas and Melissa Roxburgh) and 189 other passengers who find themselves aboard flight 828, which disappears mid-flight for five and a half years. Upon finally landing in New York, the passengers – unknowingly back from the dead – begin to experience supernatural visions that lead them to right wrongs both personally and in the world at large. 

The show was abruptly canceled in 2021 before it was revealed who, or what, was behind these “callings.” Subsequently, fans created a wildfire social media campaign in an attempt to save Manifest. Miraculously, it worked.

Netflix completed the series, and we learn that the callings were meant to prepare each passenger to face a sort of judgment day on behalf of the whole world. Unsurprisingly, the more well-known Manifest became, the more questions arose about its alignment, or lack thereof, with Christian values.

The verse Romans 8:28, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who[a] have been called according to his purpose,” was a touchstone for the show’s moral themes since its first episode, but Manifest certainly didn’t stick to Christian symbolism. The story is a mythological conglomeration, sampling from an array of belief systems including Egyptian lore, esoterism, and biblical themes alike. This alone seems to have been enough to turn off many Christian viewers, never mind that the divine consciousness is referred to as “she” amongst other nonconventional depictions.

Looking at today’s cultural landscape, it’s no wonder the show’s mystery captivated such a diverse audience. But has this mythological cross-pollination contaminated Manifest’s potential to convey a message of any real spiritual value? In light of Paul’s proclamation that he became all things to all people, I propose Manifest deserves a serious theological second glance, particularly concerning its plot culmination, which I believe offers an additional interpretation of grace through faith and the role good works play in our ability to recognize our salvation. 

It’s important to note the show does not depict a Christ-like figure – at least not in a traditional way – which we know is the basis of our salvation. Therefore, I want to emphasize that my interpretation functions under the assumption of Christ’s sacrifice, and is not necessarily intended by Manifest’s creators, nor does it operate literally within the world of Manifest. I’m looking at the show for its essential theme, flowing beneath the surface of its various cultural symbols and connecting it, if I can, to biblical themes. 

The callings the characters experience in Manifest illustrate a remarkable parallel to the way the Holy Spirit works biblically, albeit with some exaggeration. These callings are intuitive puzzle pieces of signs, visions, and coincidences that draw the passengers together to accomplish great feats, from saving each others’ lives to solving grievous government corruption and even unraveling a child trafficking ring. The show’s heroes accomplish every type of sacrificial good work Christians strive for, with the supernatural guidance and protection of the callings. 

Ostensibly, the callings reflect Ephesians 2:10 – “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” Towards the end of the series, it’s revealed the passengers were taken into “the glow” during their five-year hiatus, which is the timeless realm of the divine consciousness. While in the glow, the passengers experienced all of the future actions they’d fulfill. The callings themselves were the memories of these actions resurfacing. Of course, some passengers chose not to answer every – or even any – of the callings, preserving free will.

A wedding veil

Moreover, sometimes these callings led the passengers to deeply personal breakthroughs and favor, for no other reason than to encourage and, dare I say, “bless,” an individual character. When Michaela marries love interest Zeke Landon, the callings ensure her brother stumbles upon their deceased mother’s lost wedding veil, displayed in the window of a random thrift store. Finding the missing veil doesn’t save anyone or contribute largely to the greater good, but it’s enough to let Michaela know her grief isn’t overlooked. The callings seem to reflect a divine entity that not only cares for the needs of the characters but also delights in the details of their lives.

If the callings may be seen as a fictional illustration of the Holy Spirit and its work within us, how exactly does this relate to a renewed biblical understanding of the role good works play in our justification, which is by grace through faith alone? 

The characters discover that on June 2, 2024, they will be put on a divine trial, determining if they live or die, and subsequently, if the world is destroyed along with them. Most of the remaining passengers band together and scramble to complete every calling they receive in the months leading up to what they’ve dubbed their “death date,” hoping every good deed, no matter how small, will tip the scales of judgment in their favor. 

About halfway through watching the finale episode for the first time, I was inclined to pause the show and look up the verses in Revelation about the remnant’s victory over the adversary. They read: 

Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Messiah. For the accuser of our brothers and sisters, who accuses them before our God day and night, has been hurled down. They triumphed over him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death.” (Revelation 12:10-11, NIV)

A dark shadowy figure in a plane

In the last half of the episode, the passengers’ final trial takes place on flight 828 once more, where they are forced to face their shame – or exoneration – while a foreboding, shadowy accusor bares down on them, determined to condemn the plane and the world. As passengers begin to disintegrate into ash, we quickly learn it’s because they have adopted the belief that they don’t deserve to live.

As it turns out, the passengers’ justification during their divine trial had nothing to do with how many callings, or good works, they were able to fulfill, but everything to do with their own perceived guilt and unworthiness. 

This is exemplified in all the passengers in some way but becomes particularly apparent when Saanvi (Parveen Kaur), who completed many callings, nearly condemns herself to death because of an inability to forgive herself. It was only when Ben reminded her of the good testimony that she had built that she was convinced otherwise. Two rather villainous characters receive acquittance at the last second when they offer each other grace, alleviating their guilty self-images, despite completing very few callings. 

The scene culminates in a moment of dire confrontation where the passengers collectively stand before the shadowy judge on behalf of themselves and the world below. The characters do seem to conflate this dark figure with the divine entity behind the callings, though we know, of course, that the accusor in Revelation has nothing to do with God. 

Nonetheless, this moment is a striking illustration of the remnant’s triumph over the adversary. Ben and Michaela take the lead, standing in front of the passengers as they recite every calling they completed. This bolsters everyone’s faith as they gain on the accusor until it is cast out.

Now, I’m not suggesting we can forgive each others’ sins. While “The Blood of the Lamb” is not explicit in the show, it’s a given for us. We are responsible for reminding each other of who we already are in the body of Christ. We should be mirrors of grace for our brothers and sisters when the accusor holds up a mirror of judgment. 

How many of us strive to allow the Holy Spirit to show us daily the righteousness that’s already been given to us? Or do we look in the mirror and inadvertently condemn ourselves because we can’t recognize the grace we’re clothed in? 

A man speaks to a woman

This brings new light to the idea that the saints overcome, in part, by the word of their testimony. In Manifest, the callings were never part of the passengers’ justification before God, nor were these good works simply external evidence of the passengers’ faith on display for others. 

The callings were not penance, but rather a series of grace-filled, divinely orchestrated opportunities meant to gradually reveal each character’s justification, up until the appointed time of judgment, when the passengers, by faith, were strong enough to stand up to the accusor.

I believe Manifest brings to life the image of salvation Paul paints throughout Romans chapter 8, which I encourage you to read after finishing this article. We know if we walk by the Spirit, we have no condemnation in Christ. We know “the creation waits in eager anticipation for the children of God to be revealed.” The specific work of the Holy Spirit is to reveal to us the righteousness we now have in Christ, guiding us to do good works befitting our individual and collective identity in the Church. 

In season 4, episode 11, Ben asks Michaela if she’s ever wondered why God chose them to lead the passengers, and why God gave her the callings first. He says, “Maybe it’s because you needed shaking out of your shame-spiral the most.” We all need shaking.

Just as the Israelites struggled to shed the mindset of slavery after they were freed from Egypt, so do we struggle to see past the trauma and squalor we are born into. God cares for us too much not to train us up in the ways of sons and daughters, leading us to be empowered, and never condemned, by the good works He has laid out for us.

Those good works might also prove our faith to others, but really, they are ultimately designed and assigned by God to strengthen our own identity and self-acceptance in Christ. That is what enables us to recognize and receive our own salvation. 

About the Author

Meaghan has a master’s degree in English Literature and is a working artist in the Chicago area. In her spare time, she enjoys reading and watching fantasy and supernatural content.

This article was edited to Geeks Under Grace standards, and the personal opinions of this author are not necessarily that of Geeks Under Grace.

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