Digging in Deeper: Romans 7:24-25b

“What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (CSB – Read the chapter)

Sometimes when you set out to do something, you just don’t get it right the first time. That was the general reaction to the much-hyped Justice League movie when it hit theaters in 2017. DC Comics was desperately trying to achieve with their major characters what Marvel was accomplishing with theirs. By all accounts, they should have been successful. Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman are names easily as recognizable and arguably more famous than Captain America, Iron Man, and Thor. Or at least, they were. But they came late to the party and rushed to get their parity product into the theaters. The result was largely panned even though they hired Joss Whedon, the creator of the original Avengers magic, to helm the ship after the original director, Zack Snyder stepped down following the tragic death of his daughter. And that should have been it. But in a remarkable twist, HBO decided to take a risk and give Snyder the chance to make the film he had planned from the beginning. The final product released yesterday…and is over 4 hours long. I’m most of the way through it, but here are some thoughts I’ve had along the way.

My first reactions are that HBO’s investment will pay off and this is a much-superior final product as compared with the first theater-only attempt. The additional scenes greatly fill out a story that was largely implausible (even as far as superhero stories go) and really served as a vehicle for a bit of product placement and big CGI action sequences. Snyder gives nearly all of the characters a great deal more depth which all serve to make the final team up entirely more enjoyable and less-forced than the original was.

I want to look just a bit deeper than the surface reactions, though, to the worldview beliefs at play here. In the big story, the planet is being threatened by an immortal villain, Darkseid, who has as his goal the subjugation of all life in the universe by means of the anti-life equation. As far as villains go, Darkseid actually comes off entirely more threatening and evil than his Marvel equivalent, Thanos. Thanos’ vision of eliminating half the life in the universe – and sparing no lives in his quest to obtain the power to accomplish such a feat – was obviously evil, but in his mind it was always an act of mercy. He sought to bring balance this way and then to retire from the scene to live a quiet life, content with accomplishing his goal. Darkseid desires to be the unquestioned ruler of all life. He won’t stop until the universe bows to him as its only god.

If you think about it, from the standpoint of the Scriptures, this kind of evil is the very thing that threatens us. Satan wants to sit himself on the throne of God and have all life in the world bend its knee to him and him alone. He does not value any life. It is all nothing more than a means to achieving his ends. He will use and abuse it freely, throwing it aside like garbage when it suits his fancy. The difference is that this is no comic book. Satan is real and he really is aiming toward this end.

In the context of the movie, Batman becomes aware of this coming threat and beings to assemble a team of superheroes to stand together against it. Much of the film is dedicated to his efforts to assemble the team. Their goal, though, is to combine their powers to defend the world. And in the end, we know they’ll be successful because that’s how all of these kinds of stories go. The point, though, is that we have it within ourselves to stand against and even overcome the challenges before us. We can save ourselves.

That’s how these stories always go. They always go this way because that’s how we want them to go. We want to imagine ourselves as sufficient to overcome the challenges we are facing. It does not matter what they are. When there are challenges before us, we want to be able to say that we overcame. We had it within ourselves to find success in our venture. We cannot be held down forever. If we move forward with enough determination and access the right power, we will not be stopped. And then, we will be able to look back on where we’ve been with pride at what we have accomplished. We were enough. We didn’t need anyone else.

While that makes for exciting storytelling, the real question we need to answer is this: Is it true? Sure, our knee-jerk response is yes, but is it really? Well, we can certainly point to all of the things we have done to overcome evil in the world. Just look at how the world came together to defeat the evil of the Nazi Third Reich. We stood and defeated the evil of Soviet Communism. Radical Islam is not gone entirely, but it is a bare shadow of where it was just a few years ago. We have even risen up to overcome the threat of COVID. The journey is not over, but we came together and have assembled multiple different vaccines at a pace lightyears beyond anything we’ve done before and are rapidly disseminating them throughout the world. What could the world possibly throw at us that we couldn’t overcome if we stand against it together?

And yet…look at all the problems we are facing all the same. Violence and hatred and racism and jealousy and suspicion and cynicism are all run amok. Even as we have largely conquered things like extreme poverty and life-threatening hunger and many other challenges that are external to us, we are beset by internal challenges that we simply can’t seem to overcome. People are spiritually dry. They are empty. They are searching for anything that can fill the void they know exists, but don’t know how to name. We are constantly shocked at our own evil, but never can quite manage to put it to rest for good.

The truth is a hard one, but is nonetheless essential to embrace: We are not enough. We may be able to conquer the global energy crisis, but the most pernicious threat to our existence is growing inside of us and we are powerless before its advance on our own. Paul writes about this internal war being waged for our very souls in his letter to the believes in ancient Rome. In Romans 7 he writes with piercing insight on the struggle we face to overcome our own inclinations toward evil. We want to do better, but we just can’t. There is no superhero coming or power we can obtain that will enable us to finally defeat it. It just keeps coming. He finally cries out with desperation in v. 24: “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?”

Who indeed? Where can we find the help and hope we need? Do we need to bring Superman back from the dead? No. No, Superman is needed. What we have available to us is far superior than that. We have the Lord Himself. “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” The Lord, the Maker of the heavens and the earth, He is the one who will save us. It is not to ourselves that we must look. We must look out and up. We must look to the one who made us and who loves us in spite of our faults and failings. He sent His only Son to die so that we might live. And if we will trust in Him, there is no power that can overcome us. His victory can be our victory if we will only trust in Him.

Justice League is a fun film. Snyder’s version is even better than the original. But the hope it offers is one that will fail us in the end. Our only hope is in Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. For the joy that lay before him, he endured the cross, despising the shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. When we go to Him, we will find life and the power to thrive in the face of any evil. I don’t know about you, but that sounds pretty good to me.

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