So you’ve probably seen Wonder Woman by now. If you haven’t, see it! On top of being a great action movie, giving girls a hero, and boys a helpful female hero, it engages deeply in theological conversations.
*Warning: Spoilers to Follow*
In the film, Diana’s (that’s Wonder Woman, Princess Diana of Themyscira) basic trajectory is to confront a simplistic understanding of evil in the world. She was raised in isolation on tales of Greek gods and their interaction with humans. She understands all war to be the product of Ares’ (the god of war) influence on humankind. Her people, the Amazonians of Themyscira, exist to oppose Ares’ work.
As Diana interacts with Europe during World War I, she begins to realize that Ares did not cause this war. Human beings caused the war, and our idealistic hero is troubled. It is during the big finale that she must confront the idea that human beings are deeply evil.
Ares informs Wonder Woman that he whispered in the ears of mankind, but never caused a war. He had seen the deep evil in the human heart and believed the best thing for creation was for human beings to destroy themselves. He simply fostered the deep brokenness inside of human beings.
Ares & Total Depravity
Implicitly, Ares believes something close to a Calvinist idea called Total Depravity. Total Depravity is the idea that human beings are totally depraved because of the fall. That is, they are completely ruined, with all ability to do good before God destroyed. Wayne Grudem, a Reformed/Calvinist theologian, writes
“In these passages, Scripture is not denying that unbelievers can do good in human society in some senses. But it is denying that they can do any spiritual good or be good in terms of a relationship with God.”
However, many Calvinists go farther, believing even your good deeds are not truly good, as John Piper (a deeply Reformed thinker) articulates here. You might love puppies, but you only love puppies because they make you feel good. Without the healing of the human heart that comes with redemption, we are totally unable to do good. You can see this in Wonder Woman since humanity is totally unable to do works that impress Ares. As far as Ares is concerned, humans are totally ruined.
Initially, Wonder Woman is persuaded by Ares arguments. She can see, as a deeply ethical person, that this makes a lot of sense. However, she ultimately rejects this idea. As she remembers the loving things done by the flawed people she met through the movie, she realizes that reality is more complex. Humans are deeply flawed, but they are not completely ruined. This is a rough approximation of positions staked out by much of the rest of Christianity: humans are deeply scarred, but they are not totally depraved. Good, true good, remains in them.
It is important to see that these positions rely on other questions about God and humanity. The Calvinist position really comes from Augustine’s later writings, where he argues with a man named Pelagius. Pelagius argued that good works earned God’s approval and ultimately, salvation. Before Pelagius, Augustine believed strongly that fallen humans sometimes choose good and sometimes choose evil. It is the debates with Pelagius that include Augustine’s insistence that humans are all evil. That is, the virtue Calvinists see in this position is that it clarifies that humans cannot earn salvation. If you are totally unable of doing any work that impresses God (that “merit’s God’s favor,” where merit is a technical term), then you are totally dependent upon grace for salvation.
Most other strains of mainstream Christianity argue this dramatic position is unnecessary. It certainly accomplishes the goal but in an excessive and semi-gnostic way. Varied Christians will take several approaches to this question, but a common approach is the position staked out by Wonder Woman. Humans can do both good (which God would certainly recognize, as the god Diana recognizes) and also do deeply evil things (which God and the gods in the movie would also recognize). Either position leaves humanity deeply sinful, in need of God’s salvation. The fact that humans do some good works (as much of Christianity endorses) does not mean they do all good work. If 60% of my actions are pleasing to God, I am still a sinner in need of God’s loving grace.
Why does this debate matter in your youth group?
After all, western Christians haven’t been able to agree on this. Will your group of adolescents figure out the right answer? I think this matters for a few reasons.
First, simply having this debate, and making it clear that lots of good, Bible-loving Christians disagree, really opens youth to explore their faith. Learning that they can engage critically with ideas and that they are expected to think for themselves is often liberating. In most churches, most youth sort of implicitly assume they are supposed to simply memorize truths handed down. Thinking that way sabotages their faith. As soon as they have doubt about some detail of their church’s understanding of the Christian faith, they assume they are doubting Christianity itself. That might be the case, but it is just as likely they simply question a particular theological position. Discussing theological debates undermines abandoning Christianity.
Second, what we think about these ideas informs our understanding of ourselves and the Christian task. Our youth are in the middle of sorting out what they think of both. Too rarely, we fail to see how our theology affects our identities. If Ares and Grudem are right, this says something about who your youth are. Further, it says something about what exactly God is doing in Jesus. Both systems believe we need redemption, but the two approaches differ dramatically in understanding what Jesus’ redemption is doing. That means they differ in what the role of a Jesus-follower is today. That’s a big deal to any Christian.
Third? This movie’s awesome!
Conversation Starters (:
- What does Ares think about human beings? What does Diana think about human beings at first? What does she think at the end of her fight with Ares?
- I know Ares is the bad guy in the movie but is there any value in what he has to say? Have you ever been shocked by how evil someone’s actions are? Have you ever noticed how many people do evil things?
- What advantages are there to Diana’s approach?
Passages in Support of Total Depravity (as Reformed theologians understand it): Rom. 3:9-10, 18; 7:18; 14:23; John 3:20-21
Passages often cited in opposition to Total Depravity: Deut 30:11; Josh 24:15; Acts 2:40; Mk. 4:11,12; Mark 6:6; James 2:24; Lk. 18:13-14.
Please note that these theological positions are much more complex than can be discussed here. I’m much more interested in having a debate and seeing the debate played out in Wonder Woman. That’s extremely useful to our youth.
If you’re interested in these discussions, keep reading elsewhere! However, it’s important to remember that these ideas are integrated into wider systems. Our understanding of human depravity is a cog in a bigger machine. It takes a central place in theological systems, so it must fit together with lots of other theological ideas. If you want to read further about this, keep that in mind!
The Theopedia article on Total Depravity is a good defensive introduction to Calvinist understandings of the term.
The Wikipedia article on Total Depravity gets into the debate a bit more. However, if you want to read a better presentation of a system (instead of rebuttals against Calvinism), you need to pick a system and read more about it. The Wikipedia article gives a few leads on that.
 Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Press, 1994, 2000), 497.
 It’s important to see that, for Calvinism, this is really a question about whether humans can do works good enough to merit God’s favor. Can you earn God’s love?
 It’s important to also know that Pelagius didn’t argue this exactly. This is something of a caricature of the actual man’s ideas.
 Serene Jones and Paul Lakeland, Constructive Theology: A Contemporary Approach to Classical Themes, 132-3.
Stephen Hale is Director of Youth Ministries at First United Methodist Church Redondo Beach. He is also Director of International Programs for INALIENABLE, a non-profit working for the dignity of migrants. He received a BA in Social Sciences from BIOLA, an MA in Theology from Fuller, and is finishing an M.Div from Claremont School of Theology in May (he hopes). You can keep up with him at STEPHENPHALE.WORDPRESS.COM.