Let’s see if you can guess this movie:  There’s a good guy and a bad guy.  The bad guy does something bad and the good guy tries to stop him.  The bad guy seems to be winning and then in a rather expected plot twist, the good guy gets the upper hand and saves the day.  The bad guy gets punished and the good guy lives happily ever after.

The answer: Just about every action movie ever made.

We all love this type of plot.  Who doesn’t love to see the attractive and engaging protagonist that represents our sense of goodness and justice save the day?  Who doesn’t love to see the villain who has offended our sense of morality get what’s coming to him?  Most movies and stories are intended to end at the happiest point.  The hero gets the girl.  The victim is rescued are rejoined with the ones they love.  Peace and order is restored.

The story has to stop there because it gives us our “happily ever after”.  No one wants to see the story between the hero and the damsel after that epic kiss at the end of the movie.  If the cameras were still rolling afterwards, we might see that the damsel hates the hero’s daddy issues and inability to keep his toenails trimmed.  We might see the hero’s dismay when he learns that women, even perfect ones like the damsel, pass gas.

We all long for happily ever after and reality destroys it.  No one wants to see a farting damsel.

And then there’s the villain.  He only has a few options in a happily ever after story.  He either gets destroyed, imprisoned; or there’s a sequel where he gets another shot only to fail again.  And like our hero, the story stops at the villain’s punishment.  We don’t want to see anymore after that.  We rarely ever see the villain coming to his senses and becoming penitent.  We rarely ever see him becoming a good guy and reconciling the damage he’s done in his own volition.

To put it simply: Infinite joy for good guy + infinite punishment for bad guy = happily ever after.

Here’s the rub:  This model of how we treat the bad guy makes for a great story, but I feel that we Christians use this model in real life way too often – and that’s not very Biblical.

From a Christian perspective, there’s two ways to look at God in regards to punishment.  One view is that God is some bifurcated, homicidal schizophrenic Zeus figure that would roast us all if it wasn’t for Jesus calming him down.  This view is absurd.

There’s another view that believes that punishment exists not to satisfy blood lust, but to bring reconciliation and forgiveness.  This view believes that punishment has a reason, and that reason is love.

Let me put it this way:  I punish my two sons whenever they do something wrong. I punish them because I love them.  If I never punished them, they would grow up to be horrible human beings and I would be a horrible, unloving father.   If I were to punish them to just satisfy my anger, then I would be a child abuser.   I punish them out of love.  Love and punishment should never be separated.

But punishment is often dwelled upon without even the thought of potential reconciliation. When was the last time you saw on the news that someone had committed a heinous crime?  Did anger and a need for vengeance flair up in you so much that you wished he would die?  Did the hope for peace and restoration for both the victim and the bad guy ever cross your mind?  Can we really, in our finite and imperfect judgments, so easily write someone off as irredeemable, that we would make wrathful punishment the end of their story?

Or, what if we embraced the audacious optimism that everyone was capable of righting their wrongs; that all were worthy of potential redemption?  What if even the most soulless men on Earth still had a spark of humanity that was worth saving?  What if we used punishment as a means to correct and bring wholeness instead of a venue for satisfying our anger?

It may not make for an entertaining movie, but it just may make for a more beautiful happily ever after.

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Comments on: "Beyond Happily Ever After" (4)

  1. I don’t know, man. I think you’ve put the cart before the horse. 😉

    The influence that all the old epic stories of sacrifice or love, tragedy or revenge have had on our modern storytelling is pretty clear.

    I’m pretty sure we have fetishized the idea of terrible retribution primarily because for most of our cultural history we’ve been talking about how that is what god plans to do to all the bad people.

    “This model of how we treat the bad guy makes for a great story, but I feel that we Christians use this model in real life way too often – and that’s not very Biblical.”

    Actually, it finds such an audience because it is very Biblical. It’s a little more old testament, but if we read Revelation we find the new testament corollary that says the final chapter, the happy ending is first the torture of sinners on earth, then the destruction of earth, then paradise for the believers.

    We are the bride waiting for Christ to return and save us from an evil world and finally out things right in a finally, mighty act of punitive retribution.

    Heck, I would bet my life this is why we all love end of the world movies. We were raised on the ideas, and they make for great stories.

    When you consider the volumes of great literature that wouldn’t make sense without understanding the bible (Dante, Blake, Shakespeare) and then consider their themes and subject matter, I think you’ll see we love these stories because we have also loved the bible.

    That’s my two cents.

    • I wrote this knowing I’d leave myself wide open like that. 🙂

      I’ll admit this piece isn’t my best. Even though I wrote it to be fairly polemic, it’s really just me fleshing out my thoughts so I’m glad you called some things to attention.

      As far as the Biblical theme goes, I’m of the mindset that redemption and reconciliation is the central theme that’s laced throughout the Bible. I believe that every part of the Bible should be viewed through that lens. In Revelation when you have the whole “smoke of the torment” passages and then a chapter later you have where it says “The Nations” come and worship God. But the Church is never once called “The Nations”. I believe it’s talking about everyone. There’s definitely punishment, but there’s never a point of no return. There’s always redemption. Of course, evangelicals get all angry at this view, but screw em’. 😛

      Now putting the Bible aside, I have to admit that I have an overdeveloped sense of vengeance. The part in the movie, “Tears of the Sun” where the army of Kony wanna-bes gets blown to smithereens, I can’t help but to want to throw my fists up and yell “oorah!” I don’t feel bad about this. I think we’re all wired to want justice. I guess I’m trying to find if we as a culture (or even just me personally) takes it too far. Hit me back, this is helping me flesh it out.

  2. Patricia said:

    I agree with you that punishment is about removing the inclination to wrong, annihilating the sin, as it were, rather than the destroying the sinner. I also agree that reconciliation is the end game. What I’ve found, though, is that most of the prevailing wrongs aren’t even crimes. They’re not “big enough” to merit attention, and if mentioned are laughably dismissed. They get practiced under a lot of hooey that excuses and justifies the wronger, whether by virtue of authority, or power, or wealth, and dismisses the target as somehow bringing consequences on himself. In religious circles, the target can be backed into the “well, you’re just supposed to forgive” corner, while the aggressor simply and piously expects exhonoration without repentence, or any kind of acknowledgment of wrongdoing, backed up by his or her Christian hordes.

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