The Christian foundations of Metallica // James Hetfield's struggle against temptation

Temptation has been a staple of James Hetfield's songwriting since the 1990s. Beginning with his rejection of his upbringing in Christian Science and the tragic death of his bandmate Cliff Burton, Hetfield's exploration of Christian themes shows a profound struggle with the passions

The Christian foundations of Metallica // James Hetfield's struggle against temptation
Metallica lead singer James Hetfield in the 1990s.

The internationally renowned heavy metal band Metallica, which has been active since 1981, recently dropped the third track from their upcoming album 72 Seasons. It is entitled If Darkness Had a Son and so far has had over six million views on YouTube.

James Hetfield, Metallica's lead singer and rhythm guitarist, is accredited for writing the track alongside drummer and long-time creative collaborator Lars Ulrich and lead soloist Kirk Hammett. The lyrics, however, are characteristically Hetfield’s, not least all the opening refrain: "Temptation!" The theme of struggling against temptation has been a staple of his songwriting ever since the mid-90s. This is when his lyrics took on a more existential tone from the work on their previous albums. The latter dealt in their own way with despair, loss and angst—songs like Fade to Black, One, and Dyer’s Eve, are examples; but they also addressed characteristically "metal" themes like war (For Whom the Bell Tolls, Master of Puppets, Disposable Heroes, Don’t Tread On Me), and apocalyptic motifs (The Four Horsemen, Jump in the Fire). In short, anything that pertained to the genres of military, horror, and fantasy storytelling that could be discerned in the respective oeuvres of the band’s predecessors like Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden.

Hetfield’s life has been affected by two very tragic losses. The first was that of his mother Cynthia (née Bassett) in February 1980, several years after her divorce from Hetfield’s father. Both parents were strict Christian Scientists; in other words, they belonged to the Church of Christ, Scientist that was founded in the nineteenth century in New England, USA by Mary Baker Eddy, and whose beliefs can be characterised as opposition to any form of medical intervention to heal illnesses. As a result of their adherence to Christian Scientism, Hetfield’s mother succumbed to cancer when James was only sixteen. He went on to form Metallica a year later with drummer Ulrich and lead guitarist Dave Mustaine (who would later go on to form the band Megadeth); eventually discovering the quintessential bass player in Cliff Burton. But Cliff perished in a bus accident during the band’s tour for their third album, Master of Puppets. He was replaced by Jason Newstead in the late 80s. Jason remained with the band through to the early 2000s (their current bass player is Rob Trujillo).

The death of Cliff left a terrible mark on the rest of the band, who found recluse in the drug and alcohol abuse that can be an unfortunate feature of the Rock n’ Roll lifestyle. Their follow up to Master of Puppets, 1988’s …And Justice for All, was their darkest and heaviest album. It was followed by their commercially successful self-titled album—dubbed the "Black" album because of its dark cover—in 1991 that sold millions of copies worldwide (and even featured a romantic ballad, Metallica's best-known song, Nothing Else Matters).

Metallica live at the O2 in 2017, with Hetfield at front left.

After years of touring, the band returned to the studio in the mid-90s to produce their heavy rock and blues-laden Load album, which, while not as much of a commercial success as their previous offering, still topped the charts and heralded the beginning of their more personal or existential phase. Hetfield’s lyrics have since then dealt with themes involving the pain and sorrow caused of giving in to one’s desires—what we would call in Christian parlance the “passions”—and to the temptations that exacerbate these. The first verse is self-referential; he describes himself as a “beast” shouting for what it “yearns.” He uses the language of “fire” and “burning” to describe his desire, which cannot be satiated as it is a “never-ending quenchless craving.” For the misbehaviour this "beast" causes, he remains "unforgiven"—a title given to no less than three Metallica songs recorded over a twenty-year period of the band’s forty-two year history: The Unforgiven in 1991, Unforgiven II in 1997, and Unforgiven III in 2008.

These are all essentially Christian themes, remnants of Hetfield’s upbringing that he struggled to integrate because of the hardships that the particular form of Christianity he was exposed to caused him (Christian Scientism is rather fundamentalist); along with the death of his mother as a result of those hardships. Hetfield’s references to positive aspects of Christianity, like forgiveness, are referred to yet they cannot be actualised. Only temptation, leading to burning desire, prevails. The chorus is telling: “If darkness had a son, here I am / Temptation is his father / If darkness had a son, here I am / I bathe in holy water / Temptation, leave me be!”

Here there is an identification of temptation (and the burning desire it incites) with darkness, with Hetfield construing himself as darkness’ “son.” But this is not what he truly wants. His desire is not to be afflicted by the “quenchless craving,” but to “bathe in holy water.” Holy water is in fact blessed by clergy in traditional Christian Churches to drive away the demons that cause temptation and to become a repository of the presence of the grace of the Holy Spirit, of God himself. One usually dips their fingers into holy water before crossing themselves as they enter a Roman Catholic church or is blessed with this water by clergy during the Roman Catholic feast of Pentecost. In Orthodox Christian churches, on the feast of the Theophany on the 6th of January—which commemorates the baptism of Christ in the Jordan river—holy water is sprinkled on the congregation and subsequently in the homes of the faithful. It is precisely the grace offered by holy water that can help us to overcome temptation. Hetfield seeks this so profoundly that he wishes to “bathe” in this water. Finally, he shouts at the end of the chorus, “Temptation, leave me be!”

Subsequent verses address similar themes, with temptation being equated with "nightmares searching for infiltration" and a return to a "heathen harvest"—an evocative image of the pagan dimension to the sort of self-indulgence that temptation brings. This track was dropped on the 2nd of March, just after Christians belonging to the Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican traditions celebrated the first Sunday of Lent. This is a period marked by increased fasting from the objects of our desire—the latter comprising various passions (hunger, etc.)—in order to overcome temptation—in imitation of Christ’s resistance to the devil’s temptations in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11) celebrated on that same first Sunday of Lent in the Catholic tradition. The seeming co-incidence of the period in which the song was released—namely during Lent—prompts one to question whether this was done deliberately. Indeed, Metallica has already released two other singles from their new 72 Seasons album (Lux Aeterna and Screaming Suicide in November 2022 and February of this year, respectively), which is not scheduled for its debut in full until the 14th of April, five days after Easter 2023. Neither of these other songs, however, are thematically linked to Lent.

Christ in the Wilderness by Ivan Kramskoi (1872)

Traditional Christian approaches to the Passions, Temptation, and Sin

As mentioned, Christians are called to put up a resistance against temptation during Lent so that the passions might be overcome. It is worth exploring the theological reasons for this undertaking in greater depth. The Christian testimony, especially found in the ascetical literature of Western and Byzantine Christendom, is that all human beings struggle with their passions. The passions are the natural desires that can overwhelm us when we become attached to objects that stimulate these. This in turn inflates our egos and selfishness, to our own detriment and to the detriment of others. The passions, from the Greek word pathē, are thus something that we suffer or that causes us to suffer. The Fathers of the Church addressed these passions as exacerbated by demonic temptation and as leading us to sin. (It is interesting to note that the struggle against the passions, though interpreted differently, can also be found in the ascetical literature of the major world religions: Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam.)

The paradox, however, is that the passions are part of our body-soul make-up that, when properly oriented, assist our progress on the journey towards God. For example, anger against sin is a good thing, and properly oriented lust can be tempered as love that leads to desire for God. But the corruption of the passions by the fall (see Genesis chapters 2-3, which is explored below) means that, without God’s help, the passions are almost always directed by our fallen will to be self-seeking and oriented. This leads to idolatry of the creature—i.e. the “me,” the “I”—over and against the creator and other people: for when we indiscriminately indulge in our passions for our own pleasure and at the expense of our neighbour, we cannot possibly accommodate in a loving and self-sacrificial way those for whom Jesus also died on the cross (namely, everyone); to say nothing of God himself, who is driven away from our minds and hearts by this behaviour.

To reiterate: the passions are natural to us and are thus part of God’s design. The problem is not with the experience of pleasure that they afford, which is a gift from above: but with their indiscriminate and selfish abuse that leads to sin. Part of the Christian journey, then, involves actively struggling against the passions with God’s help that we might be made by his grace into the image and likeness of his Son, Jesus Christ. By carrying our cross (of the passions), in imitation of Jesus carrying his literal cross to Calvary (for according to some Church Fathers, as the divine Son of God the Father, the passions of Jesus' human nature were always properly oriented and he was thus without sin), this struggle will lead us away from selfishness towards selflessness, from love of self to love of God and neighbour, for “on these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:40).

Traditional Christian churches therefore teach that it is within the ecclesial context that the passions can be overcome by God’s grace. For it is precisely in such a context that one receives help through the sacraments to undertake the ascetic struggle against them. Lent is a perfect example of a season in the Christian calendar when this struggle is intensified: for its forty-day period culminates on Good Friday and Easter Sunday where we commemorate—and, some would say, participate in—Christ’s crucifixion, death, and resurrection. During Lent Christians imitate Christ fasting in the wilderness by either abstaining from something they are attached to, or by adhering to a prescribed dietary fast. In the first case something we might usually enjoy is abstained from, and in the latter case a natural passion, like hunger, is tempered—and in both cases the "self" is inhibited to make room for God and neighbour in a way that assimilates us, gradually, to Jesus’ self-sacrifice on the cross. Thus, selfishness is overcome in a spirit of self-sacrifice, making us "ready" to participate in Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice of his life on the cross that leads to renewal, resurrection, and eternal life.

The Crucified Christ by Viktor Vasnetsov (1896)

There are those within the Church who face the passions, and there are those who don’t. There are those outside the Church who don’t face the passions, and there are those that do. It is striking to find in Metallica’s lyrics attempts to address these issues, albeit not from a Christian perspective. Given what we have already said about Hetfield’s teenage trauma at losing his mother, and later his friend Cliff, it makes sense that his first explicit engagement with these themes began around the time of the Load era, when the songwriter reached his mid-30s. To be sure, there has been no dearth of such content since then. The first single from Metallica’s 2016 album Hardwired …to Self-Destruct was entitled Halo on Fire. The image of the halo was appropriated by the earliest Christians from pagan representations of the sun god to signify that, in the first instance, Jesus Christ, and in the second, his saints, are holy—and thereby to shift the emphasis away from solar worship to Jesus and his saints. But here Hetfield inverts its significance with the chorus: “Halo on fire / The midnight knows it well / Fast is desire / Creates another hell / I fear to turn out the light / For the darkness won’t go away / Fast is desire / Turn out the light / Halo on fire.”

That we are weakest at night, that this is the time when desire can quickly overwhelm us to "create another hell," resonates with Christian approaches towards the passions that we are more susceptible to in the evenings when the body and mind are weak; in other words, when we can put up less of a fight. That desire, when not properly directed but misdirected by passionate attachment, engenders "hell" for us is a very astute observation by Hetfield. He relates this hell to a burning halo, but a nuance that is missed here is that fire also has positive connotations in the Christian tradition. According to the Philokalic and mystical traditions of Catholicism and Orthodoxy, the charism of the burning heart is said to be experienced by those within whom the Holy Spirit dwells emphatically, leading—in the case of the saints—to an experience of God as transcendent fire and light. This is described as the beatific vision in Catholicism or the Taboric light in Orthodoxy. (This warmth is not limited to the two so-called “lungs of the Church,” Catholicism and Orthodoxy; John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, is famously said to have experienced it also.) The halos of the saints are on fire indeed, but this is a positive experience of salvation, of eternal life. Hell, in these mystical strands of Church tradition, is experienced as a very different kind of fire—inducing pain and torment—by those who have not tried to overcome the passions in this life within the ecclesial context, in other words without the assistance—and at the initiative of—God’s grace mediated through prayer and the sacraments. The midnight knows this kind of fire well; and it is indeed fuelled by quick desire.

Until it Sleeps and Hieronymus Bosch

The most stunning engagement with these themes—reflecting Hetfield’s own inner struggle—is Until it Sleeps, the lead single from Metallica’s Load album. As he sings in the chorus:

"So tear me open, pour me out
There’s things inside that scream and shout
And the pain still hates me
So hold me, until it sleeps."

The music video for the song was produced by Samuel Bayer, an award-winning cinematographer and commercial and video director whose credits include Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit, Ozzy Osbourne’s Mama I’m Coming Home and dozens of other top artists. His videos are marked by a the melancholic aesthetic of the 1990s, but this particular video is special in that it integrates the band members into dramatisations inspired by the paintings of the Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch. Born in Brabant in the middle of Renaissance (c. 1450), little is known of Bosch’s life except that he came from a family of painters; that he was married to one Aleyt Goyaerts van den Meerven c. 1480, and that he died in 1516. A Roman Catholic funeral mass was held for him in a church dedicated to St John on the 9th of August of that year.

Obviously, Bayer saw something in the lyrical composition of Until it Sleeps that he felt could be overlayed with imagery taken from and inspired by Bosch’s paintings, that are in turn inspired by scenes from the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. The three paintings that influenced the video include the fall of Adam and Eve from paradisal Eden which is depicted on the left panel of The Haywain Triptych, completed c. 1516.

The Haywain Triptych. Photo: Hieronymous Bosch

The second is Ecce Homo, “Behold the man,” which refers to the words uttered by the governor of Judea Pontius Pilate as he exhibited the semi-naked and scourged Christ to the people of Israel. In the painting these words appear next to Pilate’s face (he is to Christ's right) as a sort of speech bubble, to which the crowd responds with “Crucify him,” or Crucifige Eum. In the image below, one can see that this is actually written in the space between the crowd and the elevated figures, i.e. Jesus, and Pilate who wears the triangular red hat, along with the latter’s coterie.

Bosch's Ecce Homo.

The third is from The Garden of Earthly Delights triptych, specifically the human eating monster from the third panel which depicts Hell. As in the panel, the monster is seen in the video consuming humans whole—but in the painting it excretes the people it devours into a bowl at the base of its golden throne. This creature has often been referred to as the “Prince of Hell” by Bosch’s interpreters. All three are oil paintings using various pigments on oak wooden panels.

The Garden of Earthly Delights

The very first scene of the music video shows a bright red apple from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil with a serpent curling around its branch. In Genesis chapter 2, when Adam was created by God and placed in the garden of Eden, the only ordinance given to him was not to partake of the fruit of this tree, “for when you eat from it you will certainly die” (Gen 2:17). Eve is created after Adam and presumably the ordinance applied to her also. This image is of course inspired by the left panel of The Haywain Triptych. The clip moves between the image of the tree of knowledge, which has the face of a woman (an actress is playing the tree), and characters inspired by the crowd that jeers at Christ in Ecce Homo. These include a man with a crown, a bearded individual that looks like Pilate, and a hooded man with one eye.

A large fish drops into a sumptuous fruit-laden bowl held by the hooded man, indicating decadence. Flashing between these scenes and the band’s drummer, who is also dressed pompously with a feathered scarf—yet obviously in a state of suffering—the song’s intro begins with Hetfield, with eyes closed and head raised, singing, “Where do I take this pain of mine?” A crucifix is clearly shown above his head, which is emblematic of pain. It is embedded into a large back panel with a curved middle section. On the squared sides on the left and right of the panel are two lit candles and, beneath them, two human skulls, symbolising death.

More figures from Ecce Homo are shown as the lead singer continues, “I run but it stays right by my side,” and drummer Ulrich and lead guitarist Hammett are shown in states of pain and agitation. As the heavy chorus begins, bass player Newstead is shown thrashing about in the dirt at the base of the panel marked with the crucifix as Hetfield uses dramatic hand gestures to push away that which haunts him: “So tear me open, pour me out / There’s things inside that scream and shout / And the pain still hates me / So hold me, until it sleeps.”

The lyrics intimate possession by entities that scream and shout within—demons—causing a pain that “hates” the vocalist whose desire is nevertheless to be held, “until it sleeps.” The “it” here has been interpreted as the cancer that tragically took Hetfield’s mother’s life, but a literal interpretation of the film clip which features the snake from the garden of Eden, a golden serpent-woman, and girls dressed as red devils (not to mention the “Prince of Hell” from The Garden of Earthly Delights) yields a far more sinister result: that it is the devil and his demons that are causing this hate-induced-pain. This is amenable with the Christian teaching that the devil or Satan—originally an archangel—fell from his place in heaven because of his jealousy and hatred of human beings; he is the one who tempts us to sin via the passions and our misdirected will.

There is brief respite as the chorus ends and Newstead is now shown laying prone on the ground, with Hammett tied to a cross inscribed on its inverse bar with the Latin words Vexo Crucio, Sui Iactantia or Lactantia, which has no suitable translation into English (something to do with "vexing of the cross" and "boasting"). As the next verse begins, Hetfield is seated on a throne encircled by thorned vines. A woman in the form of a golden serpent is shown who will later gesticulate, and demonstrate affliction, during the next chorus. The serpent is of course associated by Christians with the devil. It appears at the beginning of the music video slithering on the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Genesis 3:1-7 depicts the serpent tempting Eve to disobey the commandment not to eat from the tree’s fruit, beguiling her by insinuating that God had lied, for “God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen 3:5). This imagery will later be taken up by the music video, but it will depict Eve tempted by a zoo-anthropomorphic devil which has a human body and the head of a donkey, symbolising the folly of the evil one because of the donkey’s ancient association with stupidity.

In any case, at this juncture Hetfield sings, “Just like the curse, just like the stray / You feed it once and now it stays.” This can be interpreted in the light of the Christian teaching on the passions. When the objects of our desire that we know can lead us to sin are fed by passionate attachment, which can involve either thinking about them or acting them out, they become reality, they stay. (And the former, i.e. the thoughts, if not curtailed through asceticism or repented of in the confessional, will inevitably lead to the latter, to action.) There are degrees of severity here: many thoughts pass through our minds, and we can ignore them without committing any sin. But when one enters into a "dalliance" with a thought that will inevitably cause pain to ourselves or others, we have the beginnings of sinful behaviour that can become a reality and that we can become addicted to if we were to act it out. (Roman Catholicism would distinguish between the former as a venial sin and the latter as a mortal sin.)

The serpent-woman in the video is herself writhing in the dirt—which stains us, like sin—and which is the proper place for the devil, since, as God says in Genesis 3:14 after he discovers his beguiling of Adam and Eve,

“Cursed are you above all livestock
   and all wild animals!
You will crawl on your belly
   and you will eat dust
   all the days of your life.”

This is obviously not be interpreted as God literally cursing snakes, but the former archangel who is made earthbound by his insidious behaviour, cf. St Paul’s reference to Satan’s kingdom as "in the air" which causes people to gratify “the cravings of our flesh and following … desires and thoughts” (Ephesians 2:3). As the second chorus unfolds in Bayer’s video, Hetfield suffers on his thorny throne—perhaps a symbol of pride—while a reddish "tree-woman" leaves marks on the body of the pompously-decked Ulrich, and Newstead, now out of the dirt, wipes mud all over his arms, face, and torso. These are very powerful images that, when considered in conjunction with the lyrics, become poignant: “So tear me open but beware / There’s things inside without a care / And the dirt still stains me / So wash me, until I’m clean.”

Hetfield acknowledges the inner passions, exacerbated in the video by devils and demons, and that he is still stained by sin (see Newstead’s muddy body) and trapped by it (see the thorny throne). His desire is to be “washed clean” as he acknowledges that the passions also affect his neighbour: “It grips you so hold me / It stains you so hold me (yeah) / It hates you so hold me (yeah) / It holds you so hold me / Until it sleeps (until it sleeps) / Until it sleeps.” Another problem with the passions leading to sin is that they cause a domino effect that can only be overcome by repentance, confession-forgiveness, asceticism and love; by acknowledging that we have sinned, after which one can receive forgiveness from God via confession or reconciliation, wherein we are truly forgiven and are given the grace and strength to strive against our passions so that we can make things right with our neighbour in a spirit of self-sacrifice. Otherwise, the cycle of the passions—from pleasure, to pain, and back again, causing even more pain—will inevitably continue; all that we can hope for is to be held “until it/they sleep.” The difference for a Christian is that, while it is inevitable that we will fall into the same bad habits again and again, there is always the chance to start over, for a fresh start. Or, to put it another way, a chance for renewal and resurrection.

The second verse initiates the most potent biblical imagery in the song.

So tell me why you’ve chosen me?
Don’t want your grip, don’t want your greed
Don’t want it

I’ll tear me open make you gone
No more can you hurt anyone
And the fear still shakes me
So hold me, until it sleeps

As the end of the second post-chorus fades, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil raises its arms, the right one above Eve who covers her breasts with her right arm and her groin with her left, thereby indicating the shame of nakedness which, according to Genesis 3:7, both Adam and Eve experienced after they partook of the fruit. (Before this, they “were both naked, and they felt no shame” (Gen 2:25)). There is a dark medieval town in the background, and Hetfield’s reflection—with the crucifix-background from earlier in the video—appears in a mirror stained with incomprehensible writing. Adam then appears to the right of the tree of knowledge wearing a loin cloth and with his right arm signalling the tree, around the upper trunk of which the serpent is coiled. Hetfield, crouching in the mirror’s reflection, looks up and sings, “So tell me why you’ve chosen me?” after which Eve is shown. She is swallowed by darkness, but dim yellow flashes of light reveal her to be holding the forbidden fruit while the donkey headed Satan stands behind her with his arms resting on her shoulders. The scene then changes to show both Adam and Eve, who were heretofore motionless, turning their heads and directing their gaze towards the tree as Eve reaches up to take the forbidden fruit. It is important to note that, like the other figures from Bosch’s paintings in the video—with the exception of Jesus who appears in its latter half—Adam and Eve are pale as death; signifying the state of death they are about to introduce into the world through sin. (See Romans 6:23, “For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”)

This is a very potent dramatisation of the early verses of Genesis, without of course including the discourse between God and Adam from the text. In the scriptural passage, the devil, in the form of a serpent, tricks Eve into disobeying God’s commandment against partaking of the fruit of the tree of knowledge by beguiling her with the promise that it will give her a certain kind of knowledge that will ‘make her like God’ (Gen 3:4-5). That this "knowledge" relates to the passions, specifically sexual intimacy or lust, is picked up by biblical commentators such as Victor P. Hamilton, Ivan Engell and Robert Gordis who point out that Adam and Eve’s realisation of their nakedness implies as much. But the way the forbidden fruit is itself described also points to the inducement of passionate desire at the behest of the devil’s temptation:

When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realised they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves. (Gen 3:6-7).

Eve and Adam are together culpable for this act of disobedience, since her husband was “with her”—the point is that the fruit was “good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom” applying to both of them. Desirability and pleasure are, as we have seen, motivating factors and goals in the cultivation of passionate attachment: but before one jumps to the presumption that here scripture teaches against sexual intimacy, it is best to remember the interpretations of certain Church Fathers (like Irenaeus of Lyons and Gregory of Nazianzus) who affirmed that Adam and Eve would have been permitted this intimacy by God once they had become spiritually mature enough to not let their attachment to pleasure completely obscure their awareness of presence of God—and each another—in their lives. That they became selfish and prideful after being discovered by God in the garden is made clear when Adam accuses Eve of giving him the fruit instead of accepting the blame for his own actions (Gen 3:12). Here is the beginning of selfishness in the world which is an outcome of unregulated passionate attachment to the objects of our desire and which Christ—as the new Adam—came to overturn with his obedience to God the Father in self-sacrificially and compassionately dying for us all on the cross, through which he defeated death forever. And, as we have said above, this is what we try to imitate during Lent.

Hetfield continues: “Don’t want your grip, don’t want your greed.” And as he sings this verse there is a close-up of the lead singer gripping his own throat and of Eve being gripped by Satan. The message is clear: Eve, and the singer as her spiritual "descendent," is in the grips of the devil and his greed; a greed manifested in the devil’s temptation of Adam and Eve to satiate his jealousy, and of their own greed manifested in their desire for the apple. Hetfield them exclaims “Don’t want it!” as a violent wind sweeps through the garden of Eden. Adam and Eve stand still as the latter holds and gazes at the apple while Satan, in the grips of fear, runs past the screen in terror. God, who has not yet appeared in the music video, has nevertheless come to pass judgment on the scene. At this stage Hetfield tears his singlet and defiantly sings, “I’ll tear me open make you gone / No more can you hurt anyone / And the fear still shakes me / So hold me, until it sleeps.” Ulrich, until now tortured by the red tree woman—and at this juncture it clearly makes sense that she is a manifestation of the tree of knowledge—stands courageously with his head held high but, as Hetfield reminds, fear still shakes him, and he still desires to be held…

The next post-chorus begins with depictions of the Ecce Homo, showing Jesus wearing a crown of thorns and held by Pilate and his coterie as the former is jeered at by the menacing crowd. The video then cuts to the tree in the garden and its branches falling as Eve sways and Adam recoils: they try to protect themselves from the rushing wind while the mocking of Jesus continues. Hetfield here becomes emphatic: “It grips you so hold me / It stains you so hold me / It hates you so hold me (yeah)/ It holds you / Holds you, Holds you / Until it sleeps (until it sleeps) / Until it sleeps (until it sleeps, until it sleeps).” Here the intensity of the passion of anger leading to violence is demonstrated by showing it directed against the Son of God, Jesus—whom we said above has properly oriented passions and is thus without sin—but nevertheless he truly suffered for us via his “passion.” The intersection of the Genesis 2-3 scenes inspired by The Haywain Triptych with Ecce Homo here is remarkable. This is because Adam’s just suffering on account of his disobedience is a scriptural antitype of the unjust suffering of the obedient Son of Man (ben Adam in Hebrew), whom Jesus identifies himself as in the Gospels. Christ is therefore the New Adam who is here voluntarily suffering the passion—the external blows levelled against him—as a consequence of the internal passions that Adam, our spiritual progenitor, succumbed to, thus unleashing sin and death upon the world; the sin now being committed against Jesus and the death reflected in the pale faces of the aggressors. St Paul makes this connection clear:

For if, by the trespass of the one man [Adam], death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ! (Romans 5:17)

As the song’s title repeats at the end of the post-chorus, the “Prince of Hell” from the third panel of Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights is shown surrounded by indifferent, pale-faced humans. Presumably they are all in Hell as the “Prince” devours demons, two of which dance at its feet. Three more are shown dancing behind the writhing golden serpent, and the red-tree woman returns to assail Ulrich once more, painting marks on his flesh as Hetfield is again shown seated on his thorny throne. This all occurs as Hammett’s guitar solo, which is playing as these scenes flicker back and forth, reaches its crescendo as Hetfield implores: “I don’t want it / I don’t want it / Want it, want it, want it, no woah-oh!”

The prince of Hell from The Garden of Earthly Delights. 

The final chorus then enters into full swing with a heavier, faster tempo, showing the band neatly dressed and playing their instruments in the reflection of the stained mirror: “So tear me open but beware / There’s things inside without a care /And the dirt still stains me /So wash me, ‘til I’m clean!” As they play, the jeering crowd begins to throw fruit at Jesus, and the video moves back and forth between the band playing the chorus to Jesus’ suffering. As Hetfield sings the last verses of the chorus “I’ll tear me open make you gone / No more can you hurt anyone”—with the latter verse lengthened in the form of an entreaty—Jesus’ feet are shown on the cross, with two hands caressing them. The clip continues with “And the fear still shakes me / So hold me, until it sleeps,” as the scenes oscillate between Jesus having fruit thrown at him, the band playing, and again to Jesus’ feet. The video then ends with the band members back in their places of torment (the throne, the tree woman, etc), Adam and Eve in a state of fallenness, various figures from Bosch’s Ecce Homo, and finally, the Virgin Mary weeping at and caressing Jesus’ feet. Over these images can be heard, repeatedly and growing ever-softer, “Until it sleeps, until it sleeps / Until it sleeps, until it sleeps.”

Type and antitype

The scriptures, both the Old and New Testaments, explore the type-antitype relationship between Jesus Christ and many Old Testament figures (Abel, Isaac, Moses), the best example of which is that between Adam and Christ insofar as Adam, considered in a multivalent manner as the first literal human being, the first to experience God directly, or as symbolising all human beings, is redeemed on all of these levels by Christ, the Son of Man (Adam) and Son of God. It is because he is the latter that has taken on flesh—or humanity—that Jesus, the new Adam, can succeed where the first Adam failed. If the first Adam failed by passionate disobedience which introduced sin and death into the world, the latter succeeds through obedience to God the Father even unto death via his “passion.” Entering willingly and self-sacrificially into the consequences of the first Adam’s sin—the fallen state of the world leading to death—the new Adam cannot be held by death but is victorious over it with his resurrection on the third day. Within this new Adam, therefore, and on account of his properly oriented will—which is both divine and human and thus orients the passions properly in the light of God’s intention for them in an utterly loving and self-sacrificial way—death and sin have been annihilated. The fact that we still die at the end of our lives is of no consequence to this, for if we are “in Christ,” that is, in his body, the Church, and participate in its prayer life, sacraments, and ascetical rhythms (like Lent) while we are alive, we continue to live eternally “with Christ” in the next life. In other words, Christ’s love for us, and our love for him, conquers death.

There is additional symmetry between the wood of the tree of knowledge that vexed the first Adam and led him to passionate and sinful pride, and the wood of the tree of the cross of the new Adam that is the means through which he selflessly and lovingly conquers death. It is absolutely striking to find this imagery represented in Metallica’s Until it Sleeps, especially in the final scenes of the music video that splices the Bosch-inspired images of Adam and Eve in paradise and Jesus being mocked—together with an extension of the latter that shows the Lord fixed to the cross, with his mother Mary—interpreted by the Church as the new Eve for her obedience to God’s will—weeping at his feet. Here, as we have seen, the passions that Hetfield sings about, that afflict him and that he desperately wishes to tear out of himself, are inaugurated by Adam and Eve in paradise at the behest of the devil. But they are also inflicted upon Jesus during his own “passion,” as well as to his mother who agonises for him. These passions, therefore, lead to a real experience of the demonic; of the oppressive and consuming Hell that afflicts the band members and is magnified by the presence of Hell’s “Prince.”

The Resurrection of Christ (right wing of the Isenheim Altarpiece)

What the video clip doesn’t explicitly show, but merely hints at, is that the new Adam is the agent that overthrows the kingdom of the devil and the negative hold of the passions via his own willing passion and crucifixion. The proof of this is the resurrection, which we never see in Until it Sleeps. Neither is it depicted explicitly in the Bosch paintings chosen by Bayer for the video. Thus, despite the striving of the band—especially its lead singer—to be released from the passions, the best they can do—and this is no small feat—is to go through this struggle and to arrive at the foot of the cross, where Jesus, the new Adam, has given up his life to overthrow evil and to reorient us towards God. His mother, the new Eve, weeps for him—experiencing her own passion in a sense—but Until it Sleeps closes this story with tragedy, making the entire narrative depicted therein a catastrophe, which is not the Christian testimony. On the other hand, the Christian testimony is, as J. R. R. Tolkien termed it, an eu-catastrophe, for the protagonist of the story, Jesus Christ, undoes by his glorious resurrection everything shown so powerfully in the Until it Sleeps video clip: the fall of Adam and Eve, the reign of the devil and his minions, and the torment visited upon humans as a consequence of the fall. I hope that the lead singer of Metallica, whose inner struggle and creative vision brought us some of the greatest heavy metal music in history, might also find such a resolution.