Seeing the Need for the Gospel in There Will Be Blood
- 2008 27 Feb
After having seen There Will Be Blood three times in packed theatres, there is no question it deserved its seven Oscar nominations—and perhaps should have received the Academy Award for best picture on Sunday night (No Country for Old Men triumphed, while Daniel Day-Lewis of Blood received the best actor award). But many evangelical Christians might disagree.
Based on Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil!, There Will Be Blood chronicles the degeneration of the fictional 19th century oil man Daniel Plainview who (as my own 15-year-old son has accurately described) becomes “less and less human and more and more reclusive” as his story unfolds. Because the movie vividly depicts the violence, lust and greed which accompany Plainview’s descent, many Christians see in it no socially or spiritually redeeming value. I disagree.
Consider The Passion of the Christ. It exceeded all expectations at the box office and since it did, evangelical Christians have come to expect “socially redeeming” films to overtly, explicitly and clearly spell out the Christian gospel almost “verse by verse.”
While not offering a clear presentation of the gospel, the need for the gospel is present in There Will Be Blood more in the form of a photographic negative than as a detailed Technicolor print. Christians prefer their gospel discussions pretty and bright, not dark and foreboding. Furthermore, many evangelical Christians object to There Will Be Blood because they believe it displays needless violence.
However, There Will Be Blood contains less dark elements than does the gospel story itself. Salvation was, after all, secured for us through what can properly be characterized as a miscarriage of justice leading to the torturous, bloody and shameful public execution of the Son of God. The all-too-often sterile Sunday School version of events surrounding the death of Christ does not accurately reflect just how violent it was. If the trial and crucifixion of Jesus Christ were accurately depicted on the big screen today, it would probably earn an NC-17 rating and Christians would boycott the film for not reflecting “Christian” morality. Ironic indeed.
But the whole point of There Will Be Blood is violence; therefore the violence cannot be characterized as "needless." Nihilistic, perhaps, but not needless.
Jesus said, “An evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart brings forth evil things” (Matthew 12:35). A critical element of the gospel (which is left out of many contemporary presentations) is the reality of the evil that abides within us, and the damning effect it produces through our words and deeds. This film exposes the evil heart of Daniel Plainview (and, and by extension, of every human being) as he recklessly pursues the satisfaction of his passions. Some people are psychologically abused in this pursuit, others are physically abused and some even die. Even family ties are no match for the unrestrained depravity that overtakes this man by the end of the film, resulting in his being abandoned by everyone, including his own conscience, which is the ultimate end of sin. Daniel Plainview’s closing line in the film is nothing more than a paraphrase of James 1:15: “Sin, when it is finished, brings forth death.”
Many evangelical Christians have also concluded the film is openly hostile toward the Christian faith. Perhaps. But the burden for the Christian is to explain that the film doesn't depict the true Christian faith at all. It depicts a counterfeit religion masquerading as Christianity, accurately depicting the sin within the heart of those who profess to be ministers of the gospel but who are in reality committed only to their own profit and pleasure—at the expense of deceived followers.
The final scene brings this point home. The faith healing prophet/preacher Eli Sunday comes to Daniel Plainview with a proposition which unveils the depravity of his own heart. Plainview unmasks the preacher, exposing his hypocrisy by demanding Sunday to repeat, "I am a false prophet and God is a superstition."
The philosophy expressed in those words rightly offends the sensibilities of Christians. But taken in the context in which they are spoken, these words are an honest confession of faith, revealing a heart far from God spoken through lips that have heretofore “honored” Him (cf. Matthew 15:18), thus exposing the evil heart. Unless we are confronted with the evil within our own hearts, we believe we have nothing to be saved from and therefore the Christian gospel has nothing of importance to say to us (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:20-25).
There Will Be Blood is not the positive, uplifting "Christian" film evangelicals prefer, but it doesn't have to be in order to proclaim Christian truth. Truth is present in the inability of its lead characters to achieve lasting peace through the unrestrained pursuit of their depraved passions, affirming the Christian’s conviction that only the gospel of Jesus Christ can cure the evil in the human heart.
The absence of this gospel is the reason for the violence. In the end the film cries out for a resolution that only the gospel of Jesus Christ can offer. By leaving out an explicit presentation of the gospel the screenplay inadvertently, if not intentionally, leaves the need for the gospel in PLAIN VIEW.
Paul Edwards is a regular columnist and the host of “The Paul Edwards Program” heard daily on WLQV in Detroit. Contact Paul at firstname.lastname@example.org.