Squid Game’s Hidden Slam of Christianity, Uncovered

By Paul Thomas Zenki

The counter-Christian game within the counter-capitalist game …

Note: Spoilers out the wazoo

The 2021 Korean mini-series Squid Game may be the most pointed critique of capitalism this century has yet produced. It’s certainly the most popular.

In the squidverse, a handful of pointlessly wealthy, cartoonishly decadent patriarchs lord it over a caste of faceless middle-managers who eke out a secure but meager living by riding herd on a desperate underclass fighting tooth and nail in the all-but-vain hope of escaping their squalid, exhausting, soul-crushing plight before they die, all for the benefit of their de facto masters who could just as easily share the excess wealth they can’t even find a way to spend anymore. Sound familiar? It’s an allegory that’s riveting audiences the world over.

But concealed within this blazingly obvious metaphor lurks an equally blunt critique of Korea’s second most popular religion, Christianity. Clues to this subtext are scattered throughout the screenplay, but piecing them together requires some work from the viewer.

Christianity on the surface

Now, if you think you’ve noticed Squid Game’s criticism of the Christian religion, think again. Yes, there are overt slams you can’t miss, but a second symbolic layer hides beneath. So let’s first take a look at the top level.

Four Christian characters appear in the miniseries:

  • Player 244, a pastor whose habit of praying out loud helps no one, least of all himself, and even endangers his teammates by squandering their precious time;
  • A nun in the orphanage where Sae-byeok’s little brother Cheol is cared for physically but denied a true family;
  • Ji-Yeong’s father (who doesn’t actually appear in the show but is discussed) who abused her, then murdered her mother while praying;
  • A street preacher who sees Seong Gi-hun thrown out of a car onto the street and removes his blindfold but otherwise does nothing to help him.

Overall, it’s a feckless bunch at best, downright evil at worst. Even those who make an effort to help their fellows still miss the mark, failing to provide what’s truly needed.

But the scenes with these characters only take potshots at Christians, at people. Below the surface, Squid Game wrestles with the religion itself, with its core dogma. Or more accurately, Christianity confronts Korea’s most popular religion, Buddhism, and is found wanting.

The symbolic game

In the final episode of the miniseries, player 001, Oh Il-nam, confronts winning player 456, Seong Gi-hun, on Christmas Eve just prior to midnight, on the 7th floor of the Sky Building. Having been summoned to the Sky, Seong comes face to face with someone he had formerly known as a strange, impoverished, seemingly weak and socially rejected man whom, he discovers, was master of the game all along, having descended from his paradise by choice to take the form of a humble player. Although he appeared to have lost his life, Oh was never in any danger and was destined to return to his idyllic abode.

Obviously, Oh is a Christ figure. But unlike Christian apologetics which tends to focus on Jesus’ mercy and sacrifice, Squid Game shines the spotlight on his privilege and distance, on his failure to change anyone’s circumstances while they are alive. Or all but a tiny few, at least, whom he helps while walking among them for a time.

So if Oh is Jesus, who is Seong? Having gained access to the fortune, Seong opts to turn his back on it, to continue living as an ordinary person. He is the bodhisattva, the Buddhist ideal who chooses not to enter nirvana but instead remain in samsara — the world of pain and suffering, the cycle of life and death — in order to be of use to others.

Bas relief stone carving of a man with a serene expression, wearing a crown, and holding up his left hand with the tips of the thumb and index finger pressed together
Bodhisattva carving, Anyangam Temple, Seoul, Korea (photo by Eggmoon)

From their lofty position above the city, Oh offers Seong one final wager. As always, the Jesus figure can only offer an individual choice, a gamble between heaven and hell, all or nothing, paradise or punishment. He sees the world below him as essentially sinful and corrupted, full of evil people with only a handful of souls meriting salvation. He is stingy with his wealth, living a life of luxury which is open to a lucky few.

The bodhisattva figure, on the other hand, does not fail to see the squalor in the world, but neither is he blind to the good, and he believes that anyone has the potential to become a good person. In the end, the bodhisattva wins his bet with Jesus, as a kind soul comes to the aid of the homeless man lying in the icy street beneath them.

Rather than indulge himself in the wealth he has won a second time, Seong decides against a life of financial, physical, and emotional comfort in the US, and instead provides security and the love of family to a widow and an orphan, and vows to do what he can to oppose the work of evil men in the land where he was born. In so doing, he dodges the pitfall of the gods of Buddhist and Hindu tradition, the temptation to laziness, arrogance, and aloofness which causes them eventually to be reincarnated as base life forms, such as ants.

In the squidverse, the brand of salvation offered by Christianity may indeed be welcomed by those who receive it, but it does nothing to improve the world, and in the long run may not even be of any real benefit to the saved. The path of the Buddhist bodhisattva, on the other hand, helps not only those individuals who receive blessings directly but also contributes to a more just and harmonious society. In the end, refusing the grand prize, turning one’s back on paradise, turns out to be the most noble choice a player can make.

Header image: Korean Easter eggs (photo by Piotr Konieczny)

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Paul Thomas Zenki is an essayist, ghostwriter, copywriter, marketer, songwriter, and consultant living in Athens, GA.