The Gospel of Stephen King
Is this a vampire from Stephen King’s “Salem’s Lot” movie or a character from one of the author’s "sermons"? Both, pastors say.
June 2nd, 2012
10:00 PM ET

The Gospel of Stephen King

By John Blake, CNN

(CNN) - When the horror novelist Stephen King was once asked why he wrote such gross stories, he said he did it because he had the heart of a small boy - which he kept in a jar on his desk.

With his beady eyes and I-just-killed-the-cat grin, King looks and sounds like a horror novelist. But when the Rev. Paul F.M. Zahl read several of King’s novels, he learned something new about the author: There’s a lot of faith behind his fright.

Zahl says some of the most stirring affirmations of Christian faith can be found in the chilling stories of King. The horror master has been preaching sermons to millions of readers for years, only most of King’s fans don’t know it, he says.

“People tend to think that Stephen King is anti-religious because he is a horror writer, but that’s completely mistaken,” says Zahl, a retired Episcopal priest who has written about King’s religious sensibility for Christianity Today magazine. “Several of his books are parables of grace in action.”

Want to read a powerful meditation on Jesus’ sacrificial love? Check out how King links the death of the mammoth death row inmate John Coffey (note the initials, J.C.) to Jesus’ crucifixion in “The Green Mile.” King’s “Storm of the Century” is a creepy retelling of Jesus’ eerie encounter with the demon called “Legion” in the  Gospel of Mark’s fifth chapter. And King’s epic apocalyptic novel, “The Stand,” reads like a contemporary retelling of the Book of Revelation, with a little Exodus thrown in, Zahl says.

Zahl’s claim about King's faith may sound ludicrous. King, who just released his latest novel, “The Wind Through the Keyhole,” has written at least 50 horror novels such as “Carrie” and “Misery.”

Yet there is an actual body of literature devoted to King’s religious sensibility. Several pastors and authors say King displays a sophisticated grasp of theology in his books, and his stories are stuffed with biblical references and story lines taken straight from the Bible.

“If God brought lawsuits, Stephen King would face a charge of plagiarism,” says J.M. Rawbone, an English horror novelist who has written an essay about the Christian themes in “The Stand.”

King, whose publicist did not answer a request for an interview, has talked about his faith before. He describes himself as a Christian on his website and elsewhere has said he was raised as a “hard-nosed” Methodist taught to believe in the Antichrist.

Some of his literary influences are Christian authors. In one interview, King said he was shaped by C.S. Lewis, author of “The Chronicles of Narnia,” and J.R.R. Tolkien, author of “The Lord of the Rings.” Both Lewis and Tolkien were devout Christians who layered their fiction with Christian themes.

“I’ve always tried to contrast that bright, white light of real goodness or Godliness against evil,” he said in a 1988 interview. “I’m not a proselytizer, and I hate organized religion. I think it’s one of the roots of real evil that’s in the world. If you really unmask Satan, you’ll probably find that he’s wearing a turnaround collar.”

The best way, though, to understand King’s faith is not through his words, but through his stories. There are at least three biblical themes that run through them.

A child shall lead them

Every horror writer seems to write a vampire story eventually, and King is no exception. “Salem’s Lot” is one of King’s most popular novels. It depicts a vampire’s attempt to colonize a modern-day New England town.

Traditional vampire stories are loaded with Christian symbolism, but King inserts another biblical theme into “Salem’s Lot” that would reoccur in many of his books.

It comes in a scene showing a standoff between a priest and vampire. Father Callahan tries to protect a teenage boy with him by brandishing a cross. The vampire dares the priest to toss the cross away and face him on faith alone.

Father Callahan hesitates, his faith long diluted by alcohol and skepticism. The vampire wrenches the cross from the priest’s hands, while the boy escapes and becomes one of the vampire’s most formidable enemies.

When the Rev. David Squyres read this passage from “Salem’s Lot,” one of Jesus’ most popular sayings flashed before him: “… Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

In the moral universe of King, children get God better than the adults, Squyres says.

“The vampire humiliates the priest because the priest doesn’t have real faith, but the kid has real faith,” says Squyres, pastor of the Palms Baptist Church near Palm Springs, California.

“The priest represents the Pharisees. They believe in relics. But the children, and the teenager, have a simple faith. They don’t put their trust in institutions. They trust in the Lord,” says Squyres, who has written about King’s Christian sensibility at his website, "talkstephenking."

Many of King’s most popular novels are filled with young heroines driven by faith. It’s a reflection of a famous passage from the Book of Isaiah in the Old Testament: “And a little child shall lead them.”

In “The Talisman” and “It,” King features adolescent heroes who risk their lives battling evil, according to Marylaine Block, who wrote about King’s religious sensibility in an essay called "Something Wicked This Way Comes."

“In both novels, the adults are incapable of understanding the evil that is about to envelop and destroy their world. They see the signs, but choose not to understand them. Only the children know what is happening, and know that it is up to them to save the people they care about,” she wrote.

God can be cruel

King’s most explicit Christian novel is “Desperation,” which features another adolescent hero driven by faith. The boy, David, is converted by a miracle and prays to God for help. King depicts his faith without irony and with reverence.

“Desperation,” though, contains an unusual description of God that reveals some heavy theology from King, several pastors say. During the bloody climax of the story, a character tells the boy that God is “cruel.”

That line caught the attention of Zahl, the Episcopal priest. It speaks to what he calls “the answerable sovereignty of God.”

Zahl says King is depicting a side of God that’s woven into the Bible. It is not the God whose eye is on the sparrow, but the Holy Other, incomprehensible, the one who allowed Job to suffer.

It’s the same side of God that the narrator in “The Green Mile” reflects on when he reminisces about the death of the innocent John Coffey, the Christ-like figure who never hurt anyone, but perished while a villainous guard lived on.

Zahl points to this passage from ”The Green Mile”:

“Yet this same God sacrificed John Coffey, who tried only to do good in his blind way, as savagely as an Old Testament prophet ever sacrificed a defenseless lamb. ...  If it happens, God lets it happen, and when we say, ‘I don’t understand,’ God replies, ‘I don’t care.’ ”

Zahl says King can say things about God in books that pastors can’t say in the pulpit. In King’s novels, people often suffer while doing good.

“Americans generally want to hear that everything is really terrific all the time,” Zahl says. “Americans want to control and manage everything, and they’re eager for anything that pumps them up. When you preach a message from the Bible that life is much more difficult, and there’s a huge amount of suffering, those messages don’t always go down well.”

'God chose the weak things'

As a teenager, King used to collect scrapbooks filled with newspaper clippings detailing the crimes of serial killers, says Stanley Wiater, co-author of “The Complete Stephen King Universe: A Guide to the Worlds of Stephen King.”

King's mother grew so concerned that one day she asked him why he kept the scrapbook.

Wiater says King answered with: “I think there’s evil out there. I want to know what it is, so when it comes, I can recognize it and get out of the way.”

In King’s books, characters can’t avoid evil. They have to confront it, but they often don’t fit the conventional definition of heroes.

“The Stand,” another explicitly Christian novel, illustrates this pattern. A plague has wiped out mankind, and a group of unarmed survivors are dispatched via a vision from God to confront a satanic figure called the Darkman.

The group seems to have no chance. One is an elderly, genial professor; another a deaf mute, and a third figure is a genial man with the mental capacity of a child. Against them: the Darkman’s ruthless army, which literally crucified its foes.

The makeup of the group underscores another popular religious theme in King’s work that’s reflected in this line from the apostle Paul in the first Book of Corinthians: “God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.”

Zahl, the Episcopal priest, says so many heroes in King’s books are broken people: physically frail, alcoholic, disabled and lonely. Even the evil people are rendered with compassion.

“King understands grace at a deep level,” says Zahl, author of  "Grace in Practice." “He typically concentrates on the marginalized and the outsiders who ultimately carry the day. God often does his work where people are the most messed up.”

King may have converted Zahl, but the priest and others admit there’s a risk invoking the horror novelist in the pulpit.

When Zahl mentions King in church, he says many listeners think first of books they want to keep away from teenagers.

Still, there are secret converts.

“Half of the other people in the congregation have read Stephen King, though they may not want to shout it out to the world,” he says. “They know what I’m talking about. They come up later and they say I’m really thrilled that you know about him.”

The doubters shouldn’t be surprised that King’s stories contain religious themes, says Rawbone, the English horror novelist and author of "Bunker."

The Bible is filled with terror: demons, ghosts, floods wiping out mankind and the rising of the dead.

“Good horror examines the struggle between good and evil,” he says. “The Bible is the history of that struggle.

“The Bible is in many ways the ultimate horror novel.”

- CNN Writer

Filed under: Belief • Bible • Books • Celebrity • Christianity • Jesus • Movies

soundoff (1,461 Responses)
  1. bridgetlausch

    Ah, the oracle. I praise him highly. His faith is as mine and this is good. Thought does take form, does it not? And for the dogen in my mind I truly thank him.

    June 3, 2012 at 1:45 am |
  2. Tripster McGillicutty

    I didn't realize that there were so many Christians trying to enrich themselves through bizarre interpretations of someone else's work.

    What chapter of the Bible is "Thou Shalt Be A Literary Parasite" in?

    June 3, 2012 at 1:45 am |
  3. unk

    He's a hack.

    June 3, 2012 at 1:37 am |
    • tallulah13

      Sometimes. Sometimes he's an amazing author. The best way to tell the difference is to actually read the books.

      June 3, 2012 at 1:39 am |
    • Dani

      The Stand, The Shining & It, is evidence he's not a hack.

      June 3, 2012 at 3:33 am |
  4. GC1CEO

    Nice to see somebody else actually understands Stephen King's books.

    June 3, 2012 at 1:32 am |
  5. edsr of Dallas

    Now we know why they refer to residents of Maine as "maniacs".

    June 3, 2012 at 1:31 am |
  6. Markus

    It would be good to remember H.P. Lovecraft's influence on Stephen King, and what Lovecraft thought of gods. Anyway, good stories are older than any written ones, including the Babylonian ones developed into the Bible.

    June 3, 2012 at 1:31 am |
    • yeahright

      There are no gods of man. Only the Elder Gods and the Old Ones.

      June 3, 2012 at 1:48 am |
  7. jesselcairns

    "When the horror novelist Stephen King was once asked why he wrote such gross stories, he said he did it because he had the heart of a small boy – which he kept in a jar on his desk."

    AAAHHHH! Actually, that was Robert Bloch, author of "Psycho," and it was a story King told many times in interviews in the 1980's. Jesus, is it too much to ask for journalists to actually research their stories these days? Come on, you're CNN. Get it together.

    June 3, 2012 at 1:29 am |
  8. Scott Allen

    "The Bible is the ultimate horror novel." That's an interesting statement. In one way, I wonder if that was meant derisively, but in another way it's true for some, but not for others. The end of the Bible separates mankind into two separate groups, one belong to God and go to everlasting life. The others...no words exist to describe the horror that is in store for them.

    June 3, 2012 at 1:27 am |
    • tallulah13

      There is, of course, not a single shred of evidence to indicate that anything other than the termination of existence awaits any of us after death.

      June 3, 2012 at 1:33 am |
    • Nah

      tallulah: "There is, of course, not a single shred of evidence to indicate that anything other than the termination of existence awaits any of us after death."


      When you make categorical statements like "not a single shred of evidence" it tends to show that you're (a) dogmatic, (b) misinformed, and (c) know nothing about history, philosophy or science.

      Perhaps you might want to brush up on some logic.

      June 3, 2012 at 1:51 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Why don't you produce the evidence that you seem to think exists, dear? Or is that just too difficult? Was it easier to just claim tally was wrong without any real argument?

      June 3, 2012 at 1:56 am |
    • Calling Your Bluff

      Actually Nah, tallulah is quite correct. Science, philosophy and history have not produced any scrap of evidence to indicate that death is anything other than the termination of all function. That has nothing to do with dogma (atheists do not have dogma). You cannot claim she is misinformed because you cannot provide any credible information to the contrary – though we would greatly enjoy watching you try.

      So you made some empty condescending pronouncements. Now it is time to support your words. Provide the history, philosophy, and science that proves death is not just termination. Fix the misinformation. Reveal the dogma. Go for it.

      It's evidence time, and we are about to see the same old dance – either he is going to provide ridiculous unsupported gibberish, or he is going to vanish without a trace. I'm betting on gibberish.

      June 3, 2012 at 2:05 am |
    • tallulah13

      I stand by what I said, Nah. History shows no proof of any god. Philosophy is a matter of opinion, and science has shown that the universe functions very well without supernatural influence. I follow evidence, and while I readily admit that I am opinionated, I make every effort to base my opinions on fact, not what I want personally to believe.

      June 3, 2012 at 2:17 am |
    • Calling Your Bluff

      I bet wrong. He went for "vanish".

      June 3, 2012 at 2:46 am |
    • Follower of Christ

      Creation is proof that there is a living God. To say you need more proof than the proof that is right in front of your face clearly shows that you are blind. Science is made up of more theory than proof, and i am not quick to believe any mortal/finite man saying he found the answers to the universe which is infinite. Look at the engineering of this world, everything in it, and everything outside of it. Anyone who has the balls to deny the Creator, and give His credit to coincidence simply denys life. Anyone who denys life does not belong to the Creator and is therfore cursed. All who are cursed may God have mercy on you on that day. Remember its never to late to turn to God, do it while He is still allowing you to live. And remember this quote "I would rather live my life as if there is a God and die to find out there isn't, than live my life as if there isn't and die to find out there is.” Romans 1:20 "For ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities–his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse for not knowing God." I pray that God opens your eyes and blesses you.

      June 3, 2012 at 10:11 am |
    • Paul

      Answer this, Follower of Christ, and I deny you the oft used escape clause that is used by believes of Creation: Have faith!. God created the universe for man and man has been created on this Earth. Why are stars still dying and seeding the universe with the materials that will create other stars and other worlds? Why are there billions of galaxies inhabiting the known universe and within those billions of stars all of which are being born and dying. Why are worlds being created within he solar systems of those stars? Why is it that within 4 billion years that the Andromeda galaxy will collide with our Milky Way? Is this some grand plan that God has put into motion. Why then would God set into motion such a complex system just for the sake of creating the cosmos for one creature? If man is the physical perfection of God whey does man need one orifice from which to breath and eat which, in turn, makes it very easy to choke to death. Other creatures on this planet have separate orifices just for breathing and eating. It would seem, Follow of Christ, that the creator has a lot more to answer for than simply "having faith" in his so-called grand plan when his ultimate creation has already been made. No, Sir, we evolutionists owe you creationists no such explanation. It is time that you people of religion start answering the tough questions that you have been escaping and side stepping through pseudo science and half truths. Using Kirk Cameron description that God created a banana just for man to hold onto is so far from fact that you have made yourselves a joke.

      June 3, 2012 at 11:18 am |
    • Bill Deacon

      You eat through your nose?

      June 4, 2012 at 5:04 pm |
  9. Roberts The Vile

    Any news network that talks casually about religion and politics, as well as speculating famous peoples relationship with them, have made a declaration that they are just full-blown stupid.

    June 3, 2012 at 1:25 am |
    • Tripster McGillicutty

      If you are going to comment on the stupidity of others, it really helps to not write so badly.

      June 3, 2012 at 1:30 am |
  10. ipmutt

    I never come to this media outlet foranything regarding faith. Nor should you. Read the books. See for yourselves. No not go to left wing anti christian media for input here. The bias makes it unreliable

    June 3, 2012 at 1:18 am |
    • shep

      But Mormons aren't christian. What's your point?

      June 3, 2012 at 1:22 am |
    • rtbrno65

      Bias towards what?

      June 3, 2012 at 10:56 am |
  11. DrewNumberTwo

    Considering the number of stories in the Bible and the number of stories that King wrote, wouldn't it be more surprising if no similarities could be found?

    June 3, 2012 at 1:12 am |
  12. shep

    Didn't Stephen King write the Book of Mormon?

    June 3, 2012 at 1:10 am |
    • Jess

      If he had, there'd probably be a lot more Mormons.

      June 3, 2012 at 1:42 am |
    • Father Bob

      While Stephen King will never will the Nobel for literature, he is far too talented to have created chloroform in print.

      June 3, 2012 at 1:54 am |
  13. Hepptone

    Shouldn't somebody ask the man what he believes rather than errantly speculate and broadcast widely?

    June 3, 2012 at 1:07 am |
    • ZaneTheTenor

      Literature is open to interpretation by anyone. Never in the article does it say that "this is what King himself believes."

      June 3, 2012 at 1:29 am |
    • aaahsko

      Stephen King didn't return requests for an interview.. Who needs to speculate about what a man believes when you can read his books?

      June 3, 2012 at 10:47 pm |
  14. brad

    I love how ANYONE that makes a joke about Obama, or disagrees with him or any of his policies is a racist.. gotta love it!

    June 3, 2012 at 12:58 am |
    • Smarterest Human

      Well, when you refer to the color of his skin, you ARE a racist. That's the definition of it. Duh!

      June 3, 2012 at 1:05 am |
      • todaysnews

        Are you kidding?... If referring to a person's skin color, makes one a racist, then the Democrats and the Left are the biggest racists. Obama's whole election was based on his race, and the fact that he was and is a liberal leftist. His "skin color" has been used as a protective shield by the mainstream media, against any scrutiny, criticism of his policies, ideology, or governance, at the risk of being called a racist. There were many fine candidates on the right who were African-American, who were called traitors, Uncle Toms, house slaves, by those on the left, referring to these people as individuals who apparently did not remember that they were black. Sounds pretty racial to me. I personally think that Obama's election was more about his left wing ideology than his "skin color" because if it had only been about "skin color" then the POTUS candidates on the right who were black, would have had just as good a chance to become the POTUS, as Obama did.

        July 19, 2013 at 1:28 pm |
    • bob

      if you see lightning through your bedroom window and hear thunder, odds are its either raining or will be soon. does this happen ALL of the time? no. but most. it's the safe bet.

      June 3, 2012 at 1:21 am |
  15. Katie

    I've managed to struggle partway through one of Stephen King's books and they are GARBAGE. I cannot believe that people read his trash. For some idiot to say that they have spiritual meaning is ridiculous.

    June 3, 2012 at 12:58 am |
    • Gregory

      Like you said, you didn't read the book. So, how would you know?

      June 3, 2012 at 1:12 am |
    • Sara M.

      I understand King isn't for everyone, but do you not like the genre in general...? How do you feel about the Twilight books as opposed to King's vampire books?

      June 3, 2012 at 1:18 am |
    • 666667

      But I bet you loved the movie Shawshank Redemption....based on one of his novellas

      June 3, 2012 at 1:23 am |
    • bob

      if you struggled through half of one of his books, there is another book you might consider "hooked on phonics"...

      you shouldnt judge a book by it's cover and you shouldnt judge an author by half of one book. king has written 70 books and some are VERY different from others. You obviously think you know it all but so do most fools.

      June 3, 2012 at 1:27 am |
    • tallulah13

      I'm not a fan of horror, but I have found that many of King's books transcend the genre. Some of them aren't the best, but The Stand is probably one of the most compelling books I have ever read. It's also quite religious, but one doesn't need to believe in god to appreciate a well-told tale with characters written with humanity, integrity and honor.

      Perhaps, Katie, the book you read was one of his less stellar efforts, but one book doesn't begin to cover a career that has spanned 35 years. Then again as Sara said, KIng's books aren't for everyone. You are certainly welcome to your opinion, but there are millions of readers who don't agree with you.

      June 3, 2012 at 1:29 am |
    • Suki

      I read half of your comment and I think you're an idiot.

      June 3, 2012 at 2:21 am |
  16. Glynne1964

    I'm a BIG fan of Stephen King. I've read all his books & seen all the movies-except for the remakes...NO THANKS!
    Stephen writes about what many write about, the battle between good & evil. It's just his stories take the "whistle in the graveyard" approach as I like to call it. Yes, there are parallels, but that is life on this earth. Good vs. evil, life vs. death, love vs. hate, dark vs. light, hero vs. villan, predator vs. prey...etc.
    Keep telling these stories Stephen! I love a good story. I also have to smile when I see him do a cameo in his movies. 😉

    June 3, 2012 at 12:57 am |
  17. Mike R

    The Bible and some of Stephen Kings books help me distinguish that good and evil exists in the premeditated choices that people make. Stories like these helped me recognize the "good" within people; not the 2-dementional stereotypical characters that we tend to see in moviesand associate as "bad guys" (dark eyes and a goatee); that is just movie makeup that plays on the social consciences of that era. Thank you, god, for all these books that you continue to inspire. The Bible is truely an evolutionary tool that helps us solve problems by looking at the good and bad side of all things; but the wise choice is entirely up to us.

    June 3, 2012 at 12:57 am |
    • Joshande3

      Well said

      June 3, 2012 at 1:50 am |
  18. OMG

    When will the Jews behind CNN ever stop bashing Christianity for God's sake?!

    June 3, 2012 at 12:56 am |
    • Smarterest Human


      June 3, 2012 at 1:06 am |
    • WTH

      And when will the bigots stops posting ignorant comments?

      June 3, 2012 at 1:10 am |
    • Tripster McGillicutty

      How did you get that out of a creampuff article on Christian undercurrents in Stephen King? That's really way out there!

      June 3, 2012 at 1:13 am |
    • jesselcairns

      Well, your spelling was correction, but your punctuation was off. Try harder next time, okay?

      June 3, 2012 at 1:33 am |
    • aergern

      You are a moron. You just dislike Jewish folks. Guess what ... without the old testament and the one central Jew that the new testament is built around ... you'd have nothing. And you my friend ARE nothing.

      June 3, 2012 at 1:39 am |
    • HomieDaClown


      June 3, 2012 at 2:00 am |
    • Suki

      When did Ted Turner convert to Judaism?

      June 3, 2012 at 2:14 am |
  19. Smarterest Human

    Religion is bunk.

    June 3, 2012 at 12:55 am |
  20. Pastapharian

    I have over Stephen King for decades. His novels are clear stories of good vs evil, or tests of character, morality, etc. Sorry Thumpers, you don't get to claim that anything with these simple elements is biblical. They could be traced to ancient stories and themes of many religions or other works of mythology. King makes no secret of his disdain for organized religion, the bible' etc. Get over yourselves. Seriously.

    June 3, 2012 at 12:54 am |
    • Pastapharian

      I have LOVED* Stephen King for decades... Stupid autocorrect! Lol

      June 3, 2012 at 12:55 am |
    • Glynne1964

      Agrred! I hope just tells the writer, "Thanks for the FREE press!" Writes & sells more books...laughing all the way to the bank! I'm right there with him about "organized religion". If I want to find a hypocrite, I'd go to a church. (If I offend...sorry, but walk a mile or 2 in my shoes THEN judge). Yet in The Stand especially he seemed to have a sort of reverence to good & evil. Like he knows we have both in the world & both are powerful.

      June 3, 2012 at 1:03 am |
    • ZaneTheTenor

      Saying that something has a Christian parallel does not necessarily make a piece of literature Christian, and I don't think that's what this article is saying. Also, the Bible has basic elements of good vs. evil, and for the purpose of a sermon (ie a pastoral message meant to convey some sort of spiritual lesson), having a good modern day example of Christian symbolism is always a fun tool to use to keep a congregation interested.
      I don't mind the criticism of organized religion, but I don't see how this article is upholding that ideal. It never claims that King's works ONLY apply to Christian ideas....

      June 3, 2012 at 1:35 am |
    • rtbrno65

      I've seen this done with "The Simpsons" also. Religion is struggling to keep itself alive so it gloms itself onto pop culture to try to stay relevant.

      June 3, 2012 at 11:00 am |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.