Penal Substitutionary Atonement Exemplified In Film

Art, in all its forms, gives us plenty of insight into what we think and how we think about God and life which is why I like to look at art through a theological lens. I want to do a little something different for this post… and investigate theology in film. In particular, I want to look into a unique trend I’ve noticed in movies where the hero will display or possess messianic traits and characteristics. For example, Neo, in the Matrix, is the prophesied chosen one who upends the matrix and defeats the enemy, and so on. In Dr. Strange, Dr. Strange endures near-endless suffering so that ordinary humans wouldn’t have to die. In fact, many movies and stories feature a main hero who suffers and/or dies so that others may live. One might say these are examples of substitutionary atonement, where one takes the place of another in their suffering or death sentence.

What isn’t so commonly seen, though, is penal substitutionary atonement. What do I mean by penal substitutionary atonement? The ‘penal’ simply signifies that in the atoning act of a person, there is a strictly legal consequence which results in the satisfaction of justice on behalf of the other.

In Christian theology, penal substitutionary atonement means that when Christ died, perfect and blameless, he satisfied justice on our behalf. It wasn’t just an act of mercy (suffering for us), but a legal penalty was actually paid. It is to say he was punished in our place. In other words, there was a debt that we couldn’t possibly pay ourselves (the payment of death owed for a life marked by sin) and it is this penal substitution that makes sense of Christ’s suffering for us. He suffered in order to absolve God’s wrath stored up for us, once and for all, to justly forgive us. So that we can walk free. Justice. Mercy. Simultaneously. Harmoniously. Gloriously. (Isaiah 53, 1 Peter 3:18, Hebrews 10:14-18, Romans 3:19-26, Romans 5:16-18)

In movies, we see a lot of heroes dying for others who are otherwise innocent victims, but seldom do we see heroes sacrificing themselves to pay a debt so that their criminally crooked friend could get off, scot-free. However, I’ve observed that there are at least two noteworthy examples of this specific type of atoning act in film. One is in the Dark Knight. The other is in Rounders.

(P.s. spoilers duh)

The Dark Knight: Dirtying Hands to Keep Others’ Clean

Christian Bale’s Batman in the Dark Knight trilogy.

The Dark Knight, directed by Christopher Nolan and starring Christian Bale as Batman himself, is far and away the greatest superhero film ever made. The superhero genre almost doesn’t fit the movie’s tone and thematic intensity. It portrays a nearly deified cultural icon in a much more human-looking costume, in a world where no one flies and the gadgets are fairly near-future.

The story has two interesting juxtaposed story arcs revolving around the idea that human nature is fundamentally flawed. Good morals are outward schemes put on to control things, paraphrasing the Joker’s interrogation monologue, but, inside, we’re all a little crazy. That’s the clown’s thesis, anyways. On one side of the Joker’s nihilistic rejection of morals and meaning, there stands the Dark Knight himself, who contradicts the Joker in that he affirms that moral values exist, though the Law isn’t always true, and meaning governs what is right. On the other side of the Joker’s sinister plan is Harvey Dent, a Gotham D.A. who upholds the letter of the law in the most consistent sense until the law finally disappoints him. At the onset of sudden loss, he is driven into a craze and becomes Two-Face. All it took, after all, was just one bad day.

In my mind, Harvey Dent represents the failure of the law to ultimately purify the world of evil, as well as, I think, an Adamic archetype. Dent, from the get-go, wants to do things professionally, by the book, and not work with shady cops (rightly). His commitment results in loads of criminals being put behind bars. But eventually, though he upholds the law and enforces it the best he can, evil still roams causing disaster, disappointment, and an ultimate loss of control. The world, it seems, is irreversibly lost.

The key climactic scene of the movie features Dent turned Two-Face murdering, or in some way terrorizing, everyone who had been in any way involved in Rachel Dawes’ death. His final step was to get revenge against Jim Gordon. Batman foiled Dent’s plan which lead to Dent dying after a fall (has it hit you yet?).

What was the fundamental problem? That the Gotham City D.A.’s cleaning the streets of mobsters would be undone by his murdering of several people and the tainting of his reputation. For the criminals to remain in jail, Dent had to be “clean”, otherwise, the major crime syndicates would regain their power and the Joker will have accomplished what he set out to do.

What was the solution? Batman, who killed no one, accepts the murder charges that would’ve otherwise been handed to Dent. The result is that the criminals remained imprisoned, Dent remained a hero for Gotham City, and Batman became a wanted criminal.

Batman satisfied a legal debt that couldn’t have been paid by Dent. By paying this debt, he accepts the blame and thus the penalty for his crime, and makes satisfaction for the justice system in order to maintain peace in Gotham City.

Rounders: Winning Big for Crooked Friend

Matt Damon in Rounders.

This is a slightly less acclaimed picture. In fact, my guess is that most readers will not have heard of the movie, Rounders. It features young Matt Damon, Ed Norton, John Malkovich, and Famke Janssen. It’s all about High Stakes Poker gambling and the lessons you learn from it. To be completely honest, I don’t remember too much from the movie besides John Malkovich stuffing his face with Oreo cookies. I don’t even remember the names of the characters so I’ll be referring to each character by their actor. The one thing I did take away was how it ended.


The final scenario was that Ed Norton owed a gambling debt to a crime boss, a Russian kingpin known as “KGB”, that he couldn’t afford. Matt Damon, who is Ed Norton’s only friend, is the only real solution to the problem because (a) he’s Ed Norton’s only friend, and (b) he’s really, really good at poker.

Matt Damon plays a character who just wants to make it big. He’s tired of settling for status quo and aspires to become a professional poker player, partly because of the adrenaline, partly because he knows he can win. (Is it really gambling?) When Norton goes down into debt, Damon knows he could get the funds by playing lots of cards. He also knows he can actually make a name for himself. But, there’s risk. Is his friend really worth it?

What is the fundamental problem? Ed Norton owes a massive debt to a mob boss who, for the record, is a genius poker player. Norton doesn’t have a job. He’s an ex-con so he can’t get a job. He can’t get into underground poker matches because he cheats and he’s known for it. He can’t win poker matches because he sucks. In other words, there’s no way he can climb out of the hole he dug for himself.

What is the solution? Norton ultimately implicates Damon by running to him for help (Norton’s character is deeply frustrating and despicable). Damon was enlisted to come up with the money for the boss. By the payment deadline, the two buddies have nothing. Damon knows the mobsters will kill Norton for showing up empty. Unlike Norton, Damon knows he can make the money by simply winning a good, clean game of poker against the boss himself. So, he tells Norton to run, while Damon faces down KGB at a poker match to wipe the slate clean. The result: a big win.

Ed Norton’s character is in many ways a hate-able character who consistently gives into his impulsive desires. Much like most of us. To get out of the mess, it required his best friend, otherwise innocent and in no way obligated to stick his neck out, to win big for him.

What are your thoughts? Feel free to comment!


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