TDK: Does Reformed anthropology require (at least) one ferry to detonate?

Spoiler alert: This post mentions the resolution of a major plot point for The Dark Knight.

As the film The Dark Knight has earned over $300 million in the first two weekends, I assume that many reading this post have viewed the movie. The major villain of this film, the Joker, delights in placing people in moral dilemmas in which other characters have to make a less-than-ideal choice- a choice in which a person (or many people) will have to be killed. One such dilemma occurs as the Joker rigs two ferryboats full of passengers with a large amount of explosives and then strands the ferryboats in the middle of a waterway. The Joker announces to the passengers that if anyone attempts to leave the boats, they will explode. Also, the Joker says that he will detonate both boats at midnight. The Joker has also placed a detonator for the other boat on each ferry; the only way that either boat will survive is if, before midnight, the passengers on one of the boats chooses to detonate the other boat, killing all of the passengers on the other ferry. To make the moral experiment even more interesting, one of the ferryboats is filled with criminals who were being transported, while the other boat is filled with average citizens.

In the movie the dilemma is resolved as a prisoner on one boat convinces the warden to give him the detonator under the pretense that the prisoner will detonate the other ferry and allow the warden to say that he was attacked and the detonator was taken; the prisoner proceeds to throw the detonator into the water, thus taking away the possibility of killing the other passengers. In the other boat, the average citizens vote to detonate the ferry full of criminals, but then the crewman holding the detonator refuses to press the trigger; one of the other passengers volunteers to use the detonator, but cannot bring himself to do it.

In the event that someone reading this post who has not yet seen TDK ignored the spoiler warning, I will not reveal if the Joker detonates the ferryboats, but the point of the scene is that the people of the city- both average citizens and criminals- are fundamentally better than the Joker; that even under great duress, the people of the city will not choose to do something so blatantly wrong as taking dozens of other lives in order to preserve themselves.

The question I am promoting for discussion today is this: According to a Reformed worldview, humankind is radically corrupted by sin- given this view, is it at all plausible that people in real life could choose in a way similar to the characters in TDK if placed in a similar situation? In other words, “Does Reformed anthropology require (at least) one ferry to detonate?” Could a great number of people make a seemingly noble choice- a choice calling for self-sacrifice- or would such a choice be impossible in this sinful world?

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6 Comments on “TDK: Does Reformed anthropology require (at least) one ferry to detonate?”

  1. Jesse Light Says:

    I wondered the same thing when I saw the movie. I think the movie really got it right when it depicted that the people on both boats were willing to blow up the other boat- until they had to actually push the button themselves. They were willing to kill in the abstract, voting to have someone do it for them. But when someone actually had to do the killing personally, that person could not do it. In this case, then, it was not necessarily that everyone wanted to sacrifice himself, but that no one could work up the courage to live the rest of his life knowing he was a mass murderer. So I guess I see the people on the boats as not so much noble as restrained by conscience and social norms. Total depravity says that we are fallen in all areas, but we are not necessarily as evil as we could be. If simply voting in favor of blowing up the other boat would have been enough to make it happen, then something would definitely have blown up. So to sum up, I think the resolution of the scenario in TDK is a possibility in a sinful world, although only by the restraining grace of God.

  2. Brandon Says:

    To look at it another way: they could be motivated out of a certain sense of self-righteousness. The Joker was trying to show them how evil everyone is. They decided, particularly the criminal, to show the Joker that they’re not really bad people at heart, like he is.

  3. Churchy Says:

    I would take it a step farther and say that in the ‘proverbial sense’ – this scenario is exactly what we have most of the time.

    With the Biblical understanding of depravity is the truth that we are all born capable of being “Joker” or Hitler and even worse. And everyday unbelievers are restrained by God’s grace and the Holy Spirit to not commit abhorent deeds.

    I do not think this is as hypothetical as some would think.


  4. Having seen the movie I wasn’t too worried about your spoiler warning. When I saw that part I thought about that very thing but I also remembered that total depravity doesn’t mean that we can’t do what is called “civil good” so what the prisoner did isn’t in violation of the doctrine but just proof that what he good he did wasn’t to the glory of God but inline with the concept of “civil good”.

  5. Fusion! Says:

    You know, I think we’re ignoring the fact that the movie takes place in the Christian west. One has to ask the questions: would the choices made in the film have happened if they didn’t take place in the west with the influence of Judeo-Christian ethics? (Gotham) but in South America or China or even the Middle East? I have to agree with the civil good answer. It’s in one of the confessions I believe.

  6. Darrin Says:

    Interesting to me because a day before this post a friend was saying he thought the hostility of church members to the doctrines of grace, which we currently observe, is due more to anthropological than theological problems. And indeed, at the outset of Institutes, Calvin shows that our views of God and man are tightly intertwined, and one will only be as accurate as the other. Thus we remain self-determined, denying man’s total inability and helplessness, etc., which drives our views of God and the means of salvation. I’m used to wincing through mainstream movie messages of “people are basically good” and “we can always make the right choice”, but I can’t get used to hearing it in the assembly of believers. We likewise have the twisted concept that what we choose leads to who we are, not the other way around, which would be biblical. Praise God, Who alone can make us fit for any good work!


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