Substitutionary Atonement and The Dark Knight
I think it’s safe to say that one of the greatest comic book movies of all time is The Dark Knight. As Brad J. Gray alluded to in his comments about Inception (here), Christopher Nolan knows how to make a good movie. Naturally, his treatment of Batman in the “Dark Knight” Trilogy set the bar high for comic book films.
In The Dark Knight, we see Batman battle the Joker, a villain attempting to turn Gotham into a world of chaos. Throughout the film, the Joker pollutes those whom he works with. His greatest and worst achievement is the corruption of District Attorney Harvey Dent. Setting Harvey on a violent path as Two-Face to get vengeance for the death of his fiancé and disfigurement of his body. But if you’ve seen the movie, you know that Batman stops him before he kills the police commissioner’s family, and in doing so, accidentally kills Two-Face (Dent).
In the movie’s climax, we see Batman trade Harvey Dent’s crimes for his blamelessness. The good guy wins and Batman defeats the Joker, but not without great cost. By taking on Harvey’s sins, Batman preserves the image of his cities leader and prevents them from spiraling into chaos. However, in doing so, Batman had to stop being Batman. Though not a perfect illustration, this movie echoes the doctrine of Substitutionary Atonement.
Substitutionary Atonement is the doctrine of Christ dying on the cross in our place. It’s the theology of Christ taking on our sins and giving us His righteousness. The ultimate trade-off. His for ours.
Peter writes about this in his first epistle saying:
“For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit…” (1 Peter 3:18).
To better grasp the weight of this doctrine let’s go back to the beginning. In Genesis, we read that God created man Imago Dei, in His image. After He was finished with creation He claimed that all He had done was good (Gen. 1:31). God eventually created a woman for Adam named Eve. Together they enjoyed uninhibited communion with God and each other every day. But as you know, our parents failed in the garden and fell into sin. It was at this point that man became, as Dr. Tim Keller often describes, “Cosmic Criminals”. That day the Lord made the first atonement for sinners by sacrificing a ram and giving Adam and Eve clothes to hide their nakedness.
Before sin, Adam and Eve could experience the presence of God without exploding (like Rorschach at the end of Watchmen) because they had no sinful nature. There was no need for separation because all that God had created was good and perfect. But when sin entered the picture, a spiritual and physical veil was put up. Adam and Eve were excommunicated from the utopia of Eden and cursed to living a hard life with labor and pain and eventually death.
Centuries Later, God would give His people the Law. During this time, the Tabernacle was built and a physical veil was put into place yet again. The veil was made to separate man from the place where God’s glory dwelt on the earth. The only person permitted to enter this space and sacrifice to the Lord was the high priest, who would first have to make atonement for himself or die. However, these sacrifices were temporary and not powerful enough to cover our crimes completely. What they needed (and what we needed) was a perfect priest to make permanent atonement for us. We needed a High Priest who could make the ultimate sacrifice and wash away our sins entirely. Knowing this, God sent His Only Son, Jesus Christ to be that perfect and ultimate sacrifice.
This Jesus, the Son of God, would live a perfect, sinless life as the God-man on earth for roughly 33 years. He would heal diseases, cast out demons, and most importantly, be a friend to sinners. He was betrayed by one of his closest friends. He was also beaten and broken beyond recognition (Matt. 26:14-16; Isaiah 52:14). He was tried, accused, and found guilty of being a heretic, and then He was hung on a cross. For you and for me. And Also for God’s glory.
To be fair, it would have seemed to those watching that Jesus was dying a heinous execution on a cross simply because he was lunatic. After all, wasn’t Jesus just a crazed Jewish carpenter who knew some fancy magic tricks and liked to offend the Pharisees by saying things like, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” or “No one comes to the Father except through me”? No. None of it was magic and He wasn’t lying. He was both the Son of God and the Son of David. He was both God and man, (the hypostatic union). This means, that God Himself was hanging on that cross with a crown of thorns smashed into His head. It means that God Himself was hanging in between two criminals as mockers spit on Him. It means that God Himself took on our crimes so that those veils would be destroyed and so that we could come to His throne with confidence (Hebrews 4:16). He took the punishment we deserve and gave us his perfect rap sheet. This is the work of His perfect gospel. This is substitutionary atonement.
Thus, the Dark Knight echoes the beautiful realities we find in the Gospel. It reminds us of Substitutionary Atonement. How so? Well, the Joker tempted Harvey, who fell into sin just like our first parents. Batman took on Harvey’s crimes and extended to him his achieved blamelessness just like Jesus did for us. However, all analogies break down at some point. I hope you know that this Batman illustration falls short of the true sacrifice of Jesus Christ. While Batman may have saved the Commissioner Gordon’s family and saved Harvey Dent’s reputation, Jesus saved our eternal lives, He purchased us, canceled our debt and has given us not only His Holy Spirit but also confident access to God himself. In Jesus we get the greatest gift of all; God.