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How ‘Avatar’ Taps into Gen Z’s Core Longings

When the original Avatar released in 2009, journalists observed a phenomenon they called “Post-Avatar Depression,” in which moviegoers were devastated with lingering longings for Pandora’s fantasy world.

After the 2022 sequel, Avatar: The Way of the Water, I noticed thousands of TikTok videos focused on helping viewers “reality shift” to Pandora. These videos were created and viewed primarily by my generation, Gen Z. The comments were full of young people wishing they could leave Earth behind.

Inconsolable Longings

Gen Z wrestles with inconsolable longings. Christians know that these longings, however twisted by sin, provide opportunities to point restless souls toward their ultimate satisfaction in God.

Daniel Strange calls this approach “subversive fulfillment”—showing where the gospel both confronts and connects with our culture’s desires. In paying attention to Gen Z’s reaction to Avatar, Christians can be ready to show them where the gospel offers a better answer to their longings than what they find in the most beautifully realized CGI fantasy world.

With sequels planned into the 2030s, Avatar will be a significant cinematic brand for Gen Z from our childhood into our adulthood. Here are three longings that make the franchise so resonant with my generation.

1. My generation wants to escape from their bodies.

In the first Avatar film, we meet Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic ex-Marine. On a military operation infiltrating Pandora, Sully connects his mind to a lab-grown Na’vi body, which functions as an alternate-world avatar for him (hence the franchise’s name). With his taller, stronger Na’vi body, Sully grows to loathe every minute he spends back in his crippled human body. In a triumphant moment at the end of the movie, he leaves behind his human body entirely, permanently connecting his mind to his Na’vi body.

My generation has a similarly fraught relationship with the body. Many of my peers are eager to escape from the bodies they were born with into something they feel better reflects their “true selves.” This manifests in various ways. With gender dysphoria, some feel trapped in a body that doesn’t match their gender (as they perceive it). With body dysmorphia, some feel like their bodies must match the photoshopped and filtered physiques of social media influencers. Either way, they starve, alter, and mutilate their bodies in search of their true selves. But these efforts will never satisfy their deeper longings.

In Christian theology, the body is a gift intentionally and lovingly crafted by God (Ps. 139:13). God, not our fickle imaginations, gets to decide what our bodies are meant to be. But our bodies are also ravaged by the results of sin in a fallen world. As we watch our bodies break and fail, the effects of sin unnaturally create tension between our bodies and our minds.

As Christians, we can empathize with Gen Z’s frustrations with their bodies. Yet the hope of the gospel isn’t an escape from our original bodies into alien ones but a restoration of the good bodies God has already given us.

The hope of the gospel isn’t an escape from our original bodies into alien ones but a restoration of the good bodies God has already given us.

Christians are united—body and soul—to Christ’s death and resurrection, meaning our bodies will one day look like his. Our true selves can only be found in unity with Christ. The hope the gospel offers my generation is that our bodies will be glorified, freed from the ravages of sin, and made perfectly harmonious with our minds. Until then, we steward and care for our bodies, recognizing the goodness of God’s original design for them and knowing they aren’t accidents or mistakes

2. My generation wants to escape from our planet.

The most striking part of the Avatar films is the gorgeously rendered world of Pandora’s glowing, shimmering, unspoiled nature. The Na’vi revere their planet as a benevolent mother goddess. It’s no coincidence Avatar’s core conflict is the protection of this pristine, Edenic world from the abuses of human invaders.

Sully says of Earth, “There’s no green there. . . . They killed their Mother.” If he doesn’t protect Pandora, the humans will similarly exploit and plunder it until there’s nothing left. His words echo the despair of Nietzsche’s Madman: “God is dead. . . . And we have killed him.” The Na’vi are noble protectors of nature, while humans are destroyers of every good and beautiful thing—even their own deities.

This plot isn’t new. It’s the same back-to-nature Romanticism of Thoreau, Emerson, and movies like Dances with Wolves or Pocahontas. Human longing for unspoiled paradise is as old as the fall. But Pandora’s Edenic aesthetic is especially appealing to a Gen Z audience given our growing environmental anxiety.

Gen Z is filled with dread over the state of our planet. In a recent study of young people across 10 countries, 59 percent reported being extremely worried about climate change. They feel they’ve been betrayed by their governments and their parents, who recklessly plundered the planet and left them to deal with the consequences. Viral TikToks made by and for Gen Z declare climate change will reduce all the world’s beauty into an apocalyptic wasteland. Every good deed seems wasted, doomed to be undone.

Christianity acknowledges that human sin has cursed the earth. But God is sovereign. We did kill God—but only because Christ willingly laid down his life. And through his death and resurrection, all creation is redeemed.

In Revelation 21:5, God declares over our hurting world, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Romans 8:21 says creation will one day “be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” The gospel declares to my despairing generation that God reigns as Judge over all evil—including the evil inflicted on the creatures and landscapes he created—and that one day he’ll set all things right.

The solution isn’t to escape into an alien world but to stay present in this one. In light of Christ’s death and resurrection, the church can invite my generation to wait in expectant hope for Christ’s return and to do good works now, knowing our labor in Christ isn’t in vain.

3. My generation wants to escape from loneliness.

What ultimately convinces Sully to defect from Earth’s military is the community he finds among the Na’vi people. They welcome him into their culture, their customs, and their language.

The Na’vi live in idyllic tribal unity, greeting each other by saying, “I see you.” This has the connotation of fully understanding the other through the eyes of love. However, their love isn’t unconditional. Sully’s acceptance in the Na’vi hinges on his ability to act like a Na’vi; he must change himself by his own effort.

The church can invite my generation to wait in expectant hope for Christ’s return and to do good works now, knowing our labor in Christ isn’t in vain.

My generation is facing a loneliness epidemic. Most of our relationships are maintained largely over social media, where we only display curated versions of ourselves. We remain physically isolated from each other, longing to be fully seen and loved apart from avatar facades. Gen Z hunts for that kind of closeness and acceptance purportedly found in identity groups like the LGBT+ community that promise to see us and fully love us as we are, within a “found family.” But communities like this are still rife with division and can only unite people insofar as they work to fit in.

The gospel tells a different story. While we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Rom. 5:8)—fully knowing us and fully loving us. In his death, he broke down the barriers between himself and us, bringing us into an invincible union that our failures cannot shake. This is the union we were created for; no human substitute can satisfy.

By the Holy Spirit’s power, rather than our human effort, we’re transformed to walk in his ways. Through our identity in Christ, we’re welcomed into the family of God. Our welcome isn’t contingent on our performance or manufactured facades but on the flawless performance of Christ.

My generation thinks this level of belonging is only possible in a fantasy like Avatar—and so they try to escape. But as we show Gen Z where the gospel connects with their deepest longings, we invite them into an infinitely better story.


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