John Connor is the messianic symbol of The Terminator. In other words, he's the machine gun-toting Jesus Christ of this story.
Okay, not exactly. It's way more complicated than that. But what do you do when things get complicated? You let Shmoop uncomplicate it for you. With that in mind…
A Lot of History, Real Quick
For those of you who didn't frequent Vacation Bible School, here's the tl;dr version of what a messiah is. Generally speaking, a messiah is an expected deliverer or liberator. The reason people are expecting him is generally that prophecy has foretold his coming. Often, the liberation in question will come to a chosen people spiritually, but in certain eras, this redemption can be intermixed with political and social changes.
The word "messiah" comes to us from the Hebrew māshīah, which means "the anointed," so it's no surprise that the most well-known messianic concepts come from the Abrahamic religions. Orthodox Jewish tradition states that the Messiah has yet to come, but when he does, he will bring "ingathering of the exiles; restoration of the religious courts of justice; an end of wickedness, sin, and heresy; reward to the righteous; rebuilding of Jerusalem; restoration of the line of King David; and restoration of Temple service" (source).
The most famous messiah figure is probably Jesus Christ, whom the founding Christians believed to be the Messiah as foretold in Jewish tradition. Today's Christians generally believe that Jesus was the Son of God "sent to save mankind from death and sin" (source).
This brings us to John Connor. While we never meet him, the film tells (foretells?) the events leading up to his birth. As such, it's a type of dark Nativity. Sure, John isn't born of a virgin in a manger, but the rundown Tiki Motel does have a certain manger-esque quality to it, don'tcha think?
The way Reese talks about his future leader also marks him as a messianic figure. For starters, his coming is foretold in what we'll call prophecy lite. Instead of foretelling the future in cryptic couplets like a fortuneteller, Reese comes back in time to tell Sarah certain things will definitely happen. The machines will rise up, humanity will be on the brink of extinction, and a man named John Connor will teach us how to fight back. Future tense here, Shmoopers.
Reese also describes John in ways reminiscent of a messiah:
REESE: The disposal units ran night and day. We were that close to going out forever. But there was one man who taught us to fight. To storm the wire of the camps. To smash those metal motherf*ckers into junk. He turned it around. He brought us back from the brink. His name was Connor. John Connor. Your son, Sarah. Your unborn son.
The machines are set up as the oppressors and killers of humanity, but John steps up to save humanity. He does this by defeating the evil machines, saving people's lives, and restoring humanity to its rightful place of superiority over its tools. This description shares many qualities of the Jewish Messiah quote above: we get rewards for the good, punishment for the wicked, and the restoration of the world to a previous golden age.
And as if all this weren't enough, John Connor and Jesus Christ also share the same initials, J. C. So…yeah.