Martyred for the Gospel

Martyred for the Gospel
The burning of Tharchbishop of Cant. D. Tho. Cranmer in the town dich at Oxford, with his hand first thrust into the fyre, wherwith he subscribed before. [Click on the picture to see Cranmer's last words.]

Collect of the Day

The Second Sunday in Lent.

The Collect

ALMIGHTY God, who seest that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves; Keep us both outwardly in our bodies, and inwardly in our souls; that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The Collect from the First Day of Lent is to be read every day in Lent after the Collect appointed for the Day.

Daily Bible Verse

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Good Versus Evil: The Dark Night of the Soul

The era of illustrated novels has now generated the popularity of cinematic spectacles on the big screen which propose to deal with the deeper philosophical and theological problem of man's inherent evil. Unfortunately, the attempt in the medium of film is often superficial at best. While the movie, The Dark Knight, does a fair job of depicting human depravity, the film does little to point us to the source of such depravity and even less to show us a solution to the endemic problem common to all cultures and to all humankind.

While I must admit that I found the movie enjoyable, in other ways the plot merely rehashed some of the lines from the cartoon series on Fox, including the introduction of the villain Harvey Dent. The basic theme of the movie is that where evil prevails something, anything must be done to stop it. In this case, enter the Batman, a millionaire turned vigilante because of the murder of his parents at the hands of criminals. Implied in the character development of the film, there is a fine line between what pushes one man toward evil and another toward a greater common good. The Joker turns to evil because he was mutilated with a knife by his stepfather who carved a smile on his face when he was merely a boy. Infuriated by the assault, the Joker blames a world, an entire culture for creating the circumstances, the environment which allowed this injustice against an innocent youth. So the Joker's solution to the problem of evil is to utilize the same evil in revenge against an unsympathetic and uncaring world.

The other villain is initially a good guy. Harvey Dent is a district attorney out to save Gotham City from the criminal element but does not realize the extent and depth of the Joker's depravity and willingness to do whatever it takes to dominate and terrorize those who stand for good. The film's allusion to modern Islamic terrorism is chilling and effectively provokes American audiences, drawing them into the storyline. As a literary device designed to help the audience to suspend disbelief and enter into the narrative, this allusion is admirably effective. When Dent's fiancee, with whom Batman is also in love, and he are both kidnapped and held hostage at two different locations, Batman is forced to choose which to save before the final blast. Unfortunately, the twist of fate is set up by the Joker as a lose lose situation. Despite Batman's valiant effort to save him, Dent is almost killed and receives third degree burns destroying half of his face.

Dent implicitly blames God for his deformity. In revenge he sets out in random fashion to take out anyone in his way. When confronting an enemy he flips a coin which decides the fate of the person confronting him. The implication for Dent is that misfortune and bad events in life are arbitrary and capricious. Dent, once a fighter of crime, has now become what he formerly hated. He has become evil himself. Moreover, evil has this way of corrupting those who would fight against it. Only the Batman seems to overcome this tendency for becoming totally depraved by evil in response to a perceived injustice on the part of God and society. However, the irony, despite Batman's pledge not to kill, is that Batman himself resorts to violence and vigilante tactics beyond the pale of legitimate law enforcement. Apparently, however, Batman has the secret approval of the police commissioner which is a backdoor and tacit approval of his illegal fight against crime.

What I find particularly troubling about this film is the portrayal of good and evil as equals. In theological jargon, this is known as dualism. One line of the Joker is that Batman "completes" him. The Joker seems to need good in order to enjoy doing evil. Vigilantism, on the other hand, seems to imply that fighting a greater evil justifies lesser evils to achieve the end. In other words, the means justifies the end which is protecting innocent lives and the American way of life. Unfortunately, it was this same sort of utilitarian thinking and pragmatism which led to the atomic bomb attacks against Japan during World War II.

In anthropological studies ethnocentrism tends to see one's own culture as better and more worthy than other cultures, vilifying one's opponents so that whatever means to ensure the survival of one's own culture and way of life is therefore justified. This is the justification used for many wars, including the war in Iraq, which in hindsight has turned out to be unjustified based on false intelligence provided by the British.

Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows and so does Batman. The philosophical problem with this movie is its naive assumption that humankind in general is basically good and that only a few are totally depraved. Somehow, us good guys, even though we make small compromises with evil in order to prevail over evil, will eventually win out over the psychopathic, sociopathic terrorism of criminals, serial killers and unjust dictators who wish to take over the world. The implication of the film on another level, however, is a blind fatalism due to random chance that one person will go over the edge into sociopathic and heartless evil while another chooses to compromise with evil only to the degree necessary to preserve good and right.

However, the writers have forgotten the theme of the J. R. R. Tolkien trilogy. Compromising with evil to any degree leads to total corruption. Those who touch the ring are enticed by its power and drawn into a deeper compromise with evil. Not even Gandalf dares to touch the ring, despite his inherent goodness and heroic triumph over evil.

Moveover, the characters of the Joker and Harvey Dent show the potential and the depths of human depravity. While the film implies that this potential is there for anyone, it really says that the rest of us are not that bad after all. The theological problem of evil, however, is not dealt with at all in the film. The problem begins with the fall of Adam and Eve and consequently all humanity has become totally depraved and corrupt. While not every single individual actually becomes as evil as another in degree or in actual sins or crimes committed, the potential is there for everyone. The doctrine of total depravity does not mean that every person commits the most evil and despicable acts that psychopaths commit. Yet every area of the human nature is tainted and corrupted by evil. Our ability to properly reason and think clearly is defective such that we often make poor decisions even when we think we are doing the right thing. Since the fall, we have lost the ability to always do only good. Now we do both good and evil and even our best efforts fall short of the mark of God's perfect goodness. While we view ourselves as basically good, despite the occasional misstep or weakness, from the point of view of penultimate good, we fall miserably short.

The age old doctrine of pelagianism rears its ugly head again in this film. Man is basically good until he commits some terrible evil. We are born with a clean slate until we screw it up and corrupt ourselves through wrong choices. And we all know that the upper classes are more civilized and the poor and lower classes are corrupt through and through by their bad choices. Batman, it seems, is a good rich guy who has to fight the depravity of lower class criminals who deserve what they get. He's a little better than the criminal because he's only using evil methods to fight evil, though he won't go so far as to actually kill anyone.

The problem is that no one is good. We have all become corrupt and except for the grace of God we could all potentially do even more terrible things than the Joker did in this film. Both rich and poor, both genders, adult and child, everyone without exception is to one degree or another evil and totally corrupted through and through. We are rotten to the core. Furthermore, we should realize that evil does not happen by random chance. Nor is evil equal with good. In the creation there was no evil. Evil is merely a corruption of the good and cannot exist in the first place without God's permission! Thus, the theological error of dualism implied in The Dark Knight is unjustified as well. Augustine of Hippo once said that God willingly permits that which is against His will. In that sense, God decrees evil because He allows through secondary causes to allow free moral agents to choose between good and evil. Because of Adam's rebellion God removes the spiritual gifts and abilities which allow mankind to choose only good. After eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, mankind now knows evil as well. The problem, however, is that mankind is unable to prevail over this knowledge and succumbs to its enticement by his or her own choice. It is in this sense that the Protestant Reformers, citing Jesus in John 8:31-38, held that mankind is in total bondage to sin and evil. While not all vestiges of good are removed, to sin or do evil to any degree at all makes us slaves of sin.

The real hope of the Christian gospel for the problem of evil is light. Jesus is the light of the world. He is the light that shines in the darkness. He comes to His own and His own receive Him not (John 1:1-13). Unlike Batman, Jesus does not fight evil with evil methods. God, being ultimately and essentially good and omnibenevolent in His very being and attributes, cannot possibly compromise with evil to any degree at all. To do so to any degree would make God evil. If anyone doubts this, let him or her examine humanity at large and examine his or her own heart. Who can say that they have never done anything sinful or wrong? God triumphs over evil by sending His own Son to suffer the penalty of God's own justice against evil creatures. Not only does Jesus Christ live a perfect life never once sinning but He also suffers our just penalty for us on the cross so that God's just wrath against evil is satisfied and appeased. Jesus Christ triumphs over evil by suffering and humiliating Himself in dying a criminal's death on the cross even though He Himself was completely and totally innocent.

Why should we settle for a dark hero like the Batman who can only offer us a compromise with evil when we have a Savior who never compromised with evil even once? Why should we doubt that God is in control over evil and only permits it for His own glorious triumph over it in the end? While we may never understand why God decreed to allow human rebellion, we can understand that God wishes for us to make our own choices. The problem is everyone chooses sin unless there is an intervention. Like the reality TV show, Intervention, where drug addicts are confronted with their own evil behavior and the consequences it has on everyone around them, God intervenes and convicts us of our sinfulness and our rebellion. Not every addict has an intervention. Some go through life and end up in jail or dead and never experience an intervention.

Likewise, God being just, does not intervene in every sinner's life. He can and does justly leave some of humankind in bondage to their addiction to evil. God is not obligated to show mercy to even one of us and could justly damn every single one of us just as the United States thought it was just to wipe out every single man, woman and child in Nagasaki and Hiroshima with the atomic bombs dropped in WWII. The difference, however, is that the U.S. did this unjustly while God himself is completely just in His judgments. He can and does judge us with natural disasters such as tsumanis and famines. He can and does judge nations through wars and terrorist attacks. He can and does judge us with premature death and a host of diseases. Who can say to God, why did you do this to me?

This seems harsh but when we realize the devastation wreaked upon all humankind by Adam's rebellion, when we see the depths of human evil and humanity's own inhumanity to our fellow man, our neighbor, then we realize that God is merely giving us what we deserve. Mercy is not receiving what we deserve. And if God decides to show mercy to a few chosen out of the mass of humanity by sheer mercy and grace, what is that to you?

Jesus Christ died on the cross to save sinners. When we are willing to acknowledge the depths of our depravity and evil, then and only then are we ready to cry out to God for mercy and it is at that point that He abundantly pardons. Where sin or evil abounded grace does much more abound! Only God can set us free from our bondage to sin and even then we remain sinners who imperfectly follow after Christ. This is why salvation and justification must be by grace alone through faith alone. It is the gift of God to undeserving sinners. The real question we have to ask ourselves is whether or not we will let our anger at God and what we perceive as injustices in our everyday lives dominate us and excuse our own evil actions? When we excuse ourselves we are actually becoming the very thing we hate. We become unjust, depraved, corrupt and evil. Only Jesus Christ can make us good enough to deserve God's forgiveness and He does this by dying on the cross, not by making us perfect. As Luther said, Christians are both sinners and saints at the same time.

Finally, Christianity transcends all historical settings and cultural settings and justly condemns all cultures and societies as sinful and evil to varying degrees. God's justice against humanity is not arbitrary nor is it capricous but is in fact a just sentence against us all. This judgment applies even to the United States where we publicly endorse the genocide of unborn children and undermine God's original creation of marriage as that between one man and one woman. In one sense at least, Islamic fundamentalists rightly judge the United States as a depraved and wicked nation. From the perspective of Holy Scripture, it would seem that God's judgment is the same. The only way forward is to plead for national and individual repentance. In some sense we all bear responsibility for what Adam did back then and for what our nation does today. Sin is both an individual responsibility and a collective and community responsibility. All Americans in the end must answer for what the nation as a whole decides to do. While repentance does not seem to be happening at this point, Christians can know that in the end God wins. Evil shall never prevail.

Colossians 2:13-15 (ESV)13 And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, 14 by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. 15 He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.

Romans 3:3-8 (ESV)3 What if some were unfaithful? Does their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God? 4 By no means! Let God be true though every one were a liar, as it is written, “That you may be justified in your words, and prevail when you are judged.” 5 But if our unrighteousness serves to show the righteousness of God, what shall we say? That God is unrighteous to inflict wrath on us? (I speak in a human way.) 6 By no means! For then how could God judge the world? 7 But if through my lie God’s truth abounds to his glory, why am I still being condemned as a sinner? 8 And why not do evil that good may come?—as some people slanderously charge us with saying. Their condemnation is just.

1 Peter 2:24 (ESV)24 He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.

Romans 4:5-8 (ESV)5 And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, 6 just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works: 7 “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; 8 blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.”[1]

Soli Gloria Deo!

[1] The Holy Bible : English standard version. 2001. Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

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