What would happen if the Vice President of the United States committed murder and got away with it? It is not a rhetorical question; such a thing happened long ago, in the early days of the American Republic. On July 11, 1804, Vice President Aaron Burr shot and killed fellow New Yorker Alexander Hamilton. The two had been adversaries for several years, and eventually their enmity resulted in a duel at a neutral site in Weehawken, New Jersey. It is unclear who fired first, but it is certain that Hamilton fell mortally wounded, dying the next day in New York City. Burr fled, facing charges of murder both in New York and New Jersey, but later returned to the city of Washington to complete his tenure as Vice President. In time the charges of murder were dropped, but Burr’s political career was over. Thoroughly disgraced and out of favor with President Thomas Jefferson, he moved to the West in search of new opportunities.
The American frontier in those days separated the United States from the Empire of Spain in Florida and along a continental-sized line from Louisiana to what would become the Oregon Territory. It did not take long for an enterprising man like Aaron Burr to create opportunities for himself, whether legal or not. It is said that he intrigued with Spanish and American officials on a scheme to separate Mexico from Spain and the western territories from the United States and establish a new empire with himself as its chief. Although the full extent of Burr’s plans will never be known, there was enough truth to the allegations of intrigue to result in his arrest and prosecution by the Jefferson Administration on charges of treason. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Marshall, personally presided over the famous trial in August 1807. The Chief Justice had instructed the jury that conviction required testimony by two witnesses to a specific, overt act. When the prosecution could not meet that standard, the jury declared Burr not guilty.
In the election of 1800 Aaron Burr had come within a whisker of winning the presidency. By 1808 he was a political outsider living in exile. By 1812 he had returned to the United State, but he never returned to power. His family, his law practice, and his health deteriorated over the remaining years of his life as he watched his nation grow in size and power without him. Although endowed with considerable gifts and abilities to govern, his grasp for power ensured that his legacy would not be as one of America’s great men, but as a byword, a legal precedent, and a footnote in history. Yet from him, perhaps, we can learn something more about what Yeshua of Nazareth meant by His cryptic observation:
From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and violent men take it by force. (Matthew 11:12 NASB)
At the distance of two hundred years the specter of Napoleon Bonaparte is no longer frightening. Now he is nothing more than a historical figure often depicted as a comic caricature of the man who once ruled most of Europe. In his lifetime he inspired admiration to the point of worship not only for his genius at the art of war, but for his genius at bringing responsible government out of the chaotic revolution of France. Yet his ambition pushed him beyond the limits of himself and of France, and in time he lost everything.
We have a picture passed on through the years of a bitter Napoleon who blames everyone but himself for his setbacks. That is the picture C.S. Lewis invokes in his description of Napoleon in hell in his classic work, The Great Divorce. A similar picture appears in Waterloo, the 1970 movie about Napoleon’s final battle starring Rod Steiger as the Emperor. In the midst of the battle, illness overcomes Napoleon and compels him to leave the field briefly. During that time Marshal Michel Ney (played by Dan O’Herlihy), Napoleon’s trusted subordinate, orders the French cavalry to attack when he believes the enemy is retreating. What he does not realize is that the Duke of Wellington (played by Christopher Plummer) has ordered his infantry to shift their position to the other side of the hill they occupied. As the French cavalry charge, the British infantry form squares, a tactic designed for defense against cavalry. In charge after charge, the French horsemen expend their lives to little effect, eventually crippling that arm of Napoleon’s force and contributing significantly to his ultimate defeat. In the movie, Napoleon returns to the field just as Ney is leading the charge. In rage and dismay he says,
What’s he doing? What’s Ney doing? What’s happening? Can’t I leave the field for a minute? What’s he doing there? How can a man go forward with the cavalry without infantry support? What’s the matter with you?
To the military mind this outburst is perfectly understandable. Napoleon the general trained his men well and expected them to act not only with initiative, but also according to his commands and within the parameters of good order and discipline. It is no surprise that he became angry at learning that a trusted and experienced subordinate acted impetuously, violating a cardinal principle of war and endangering the entire army. It is the same reason our God becomes very angry when His people disregard the good order, discipline, and sound judgment He expects of them.
One of the compelling images I recall from childhood is the opening scene of Branded. This Western TV drama starred Chuck Connors as a United States Army officer unjustly charged with cowardice. Week after week the series opened with Jason McCord, Connors’ character, being drummed out of the service at a remote post in the American West. As the garrison assembles, McCord is marched to the front and center of the formation, where his commander removes from him every vestige of his connection with the Army – his hat, rank insignia, and even the buttons on his coat. Last of all the commander removes McCord’s sword from its sheath, breaks it over his knee, and tosses the broken hilt out of the fort’s gate. The shamed officer then walks out of the fort as the doors close behind him. Now on his own, branded for life with the mark of a coward, he must find a way to clear his name.
What if someone had exonerated Jason McCord? Such things have happened before. There is provision in the law to excuse an offender, either when the accusation is proven unjust, or when a duly constituted authority bestows clemency in an act of mercy. The law, however, remains in effect. Should another man, or even the same man, desert his post in an act of cowardice, he would be guilty of the same offence. Even if the entire United States Army deserted, requiring the President to recruit an entirely new force, the deserters would still be guilty according to the statutes and regulations governing the military service. And should the law change somehow, perhaps refining the definition of cowardice and clarifying the penalties, the law would still be in effect, and those subject to it would be wise to learn the changes lest they find themselves inadvertently in error.
How interesting that such a principal gleaned from a 1960s TV Western is actually a principal of the Word of God. While some may argue that the Law of God has no application at all in an age when Messiah Yeshua has won forgiveness for all who believe on Him, in actuality His work of redemption secured a prophesied change in the Law, not its abolition.
Raiders of the Lost Ark did not launch the film career of Harrison Ford, but it did bring him his first top billing as an actor. His role as Indiana Jones, the eccentric archaeologist with a nose for adventure, built on his previous starring role in the Star Wars film series in which he played the swashbuckling interstellar smuggler Han Solo. A major difference between the two roles, however, is that Solo’s universe existed entirely in the mind of the Star Wars creator George Lucas, while the adventures of Indiana Jones had some basis in historical fact. Raiders of the Lost Ark, for example, followed Jones in his quest to find the Ark of the Covenant, the physical symbol of the Presence of the Lord God among the people of Israel. No doubt the Jewish heritage of director Steven Spielberg, writer Lawrence Kasdan, and Harrison Ford himself influenced the story line. They would have grown up learning about the Exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt, the construction of the Ark and the Tabernacle at Mount Sinai, and the loss of the Ark at some point in Israel’s ancient history. They would also have been keenly aware of the heinous crimes against the Jewish people committed by the Nazi regime of Adolf Hitler, and of Hitler’s alleged fascination with the occult and mystical knowledge. Those elements factored into the story of the Nazi attempt to recover the Ark from its long-hidden resting place in Egypt and use it as a supernatural enhancement of Hitler’s war machine.
As the movie unfolds, the audience sees Indiana Jones race from one adventure to another in his attempt to thwart the Nazi agents and their accomplice, the French archaeologist René Belloq (played by Paul Freeman). In the end, though, it is not Jones, but God Himself Who brings an end to this unholy use of His holy things. In the climactic scene, Belloq dons the clothing of Israel’s High Priest to preside over a ceremony of consecration for the Ark. As the ceremony proceeds, the Lord strikes down Belloq and the assembled Nazi soldiers in a graphic depiction of the judgment prophesied by Zechariah:
Now this will be the plague with which the Lord will strike all the peoples who have gone to war against Jerusalem; their flesh will rot while they stand on their feet, and their eyes will rot in their sockets, and their tongue will rot in their mouth. (Zechariah 14:12 NASB)
Raiders of the Lost Ark is an exciting story, although with an anticlimactic end as the lost Ark ends up locked away among thousands of crated artifacts in a United States Government warehouse. Yet even with the anticlimax, something very Jewish comes through in the larger message of the film: the sense of the holiness of Almighty God.
How would one describe hell? Dante does a nice job in his Inferno, depicting levels of escalating unpleasantness corresponding to the earthly misdeeds of the unfortunate sufferers. It is important to note that Dante’s descriptions, however grotesque, are not without a certain order. In other words, hell is not complete chaos. There is an organization, a hierarchy, and a supreme authority that keeps it functioning. If there were no order then hell would splinter into a million pieces and never cause harm to another soul. And thus Dante reflects something that Yeshua explained about the infernal realm:
And knowing their thoughts Jesus said to them, “Any kingdom divided against itself is laid waste; and any city or house divided against itself will not stand. If Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself; how then will his kingdom stand? (Matthew 12:25-26 NASB; see also Mark 3:23-27 and Luke 11:17-22)
This principle of diabolical organization is something C.S. Lewis explains as the rationale for his masterful work, The Screwtape Letters:
I live in the Managerial Age, in a world of “Admin.” The greatest evil is not now done in those sordid “dens of crime” that Dickens loved to paint. It is not done even in concentration camps and labour camps. In those we see its final result. But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed, and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voice. Hence, naturally enough, my symbol for Hell is something like the bureaucracy of a police state or the offices of a thoroughly nasty business concern. (C.S. Lewis, 1961. The Screwtape Letters with Screwtape Proposes a Toast. New York: MacMillan.)
If Yeshua and these literary masters are correct, our conclusion is that hell must be organized and lawful, to some extent at least. But why is that so? One would think that Satan, the enemy of the Most High God, would do everything opposite what God does. That would mean he would preside over a completely lawless, chaotic realm. Yet that cannot be so for a fundamental reason that Satan knows only too well: without Law, nothing can function.
Just because a person enjoys the favor of the king does not mean they can do as they please. This is not some antiquated concept that no longer applies to modern days. A king may have the power to take a life, but a president, a general, an employer, or even a parent has the power to revoke privileges, inflict punishment, cut off access, and otherwise make life miserable for someone who gets on their bad side. Whether the setting is before a throne, in an office, or around a kitchen table, those who disregard the authority figure’s protocol will suffer the consequences.
A timeless example of this principle is in the ancient story of Esther, the Jewish exile who became queen of the mighty Xerxes I (Ahasuerus) of Persia. When advised of a plot by the king’s Grand Vizier, Haman, to annihilate her people, Esther takes it upon herself to intervene. Protocol dictates that she cannot come into the king’s presence unless he summons her, yet the situation is urgent and Esther has little choice but to enter the throne room unbidden. She does so, willing to trade her own life for the lives of the Jewish nation. Her trust is ultimately in her God, but she goes also in the knowledge that she has the favor of King Xerxes and knows him intimately. He should understand that she would not break protocol unless she had very good reason. Perhaps the most stunning portrayal of this story is in the 2006 movie, One Night with the King, starring Tiffany Dupont as Esther and Lou Goss as Xerxes. In the great climactic scene in the throne room, Esther humbly yet purposefully approaches the king, undeterred by the calls for her death. She stands at last in front of the throne, raising pleading eyes to the king, and awaits his decision to take her head in payment for her breach of protocol, or extend to her his scepter as a token of forgiveness and continued favor.
We know the rest of the story: the king extends his scepter and grants Esther’s petition to attend a series of banquets at which she calls on him for salvation from Haman’s wicked plot. By the king’s command, Haman receives his just reward and Esther and her uncle Mordecai proceed with actions in the king’s name to preempt the genocide. What we do not often realize, and what Esther and Xerxes themselves probably did not know, is that they were acting on principles that God Himself had established from the beginning, and which He had communicated to His people at Mount Sinai.
The “snake oil salesman” is another of those characters to whom writers and performers have turned for an endless source of entertainment. Perhaps he is offering a useful product, but more often than not this travelling peddler is a fraud, attempting to sell a strange concoction of secret ingredients he promises will cure every ill known to mankind. While it is amusing to see how easily this trickster can deceive the gullible, it is tragic to consider how quickly honest people can be robbed of their hard-earned wages when they are desperate to ease the suffering of those they love. We see a bit of both in Danny Kaye’s masterful performance in the 1949 comedy, The Inspector General. The film opens with a scene in a Central European village where a troupe of travelling con men stage a show to sell Yakov’s Golden Elixir, a product they claim will not only cure sickness, but even prolong life. Danny Kaye is the star of the show, posing first as the head of an Egyptian prince kept alive for two thousand years by Yakov’s Elixir, and then dancing and singing as a man whose many diseases have disappeared thanks to the magic tonic. Yet the whole time he knows what he is selling is no miracle cure, but instead is a dangerous substance used as furniture polish and cleaning fluid. At the end of the act, when an old woman offers her entire fortune of twelve pennies to buy a bottle for her sick husband, the tender-hearted performer cannot bear to take her money. Others overhear as he tells her the truth, and with that confession the fraud is exposed and the company of thieves chased from the town.
Of course the real product in The Inspector General is Danny Kaye’s comic genius, and the movie continues to a hilarious conclusion. Yet the opening scene leaves one with a question: Could there really be a Yakov’s Elixir that could cure all ills?
Actually, there is such a miraculous cure, and it is even connected with a man named Yakov. In English that man is known as Jacob, the same man to whom God gave the name Israel. When God rescued Jacob’s descendants from slavery in Egypt, He gave them a recipe for success which we would do well to learn:
And He said, “If you will give earnest heed to the voice of the Lord your God, and do what is right in His sight, and give ear to His commandments, and keep all His statutes, I will put none of the diseases on you which I have put on the Egyptians; for I, the Lord, am your healer.” (Exodus 15:26 NASB)
One of the big things people miss about grace is its connection with good works. God made us for good works, but because each of us wants to be our own little gods in our own little cocoons we have a big problem doing those good works. It’s actually worse than that. Because we all inherited this tendency toward rebellion against God, we usually end up doing exactly the things that God doesn’t want. In other words, like Satan we tend to kill, steal, and destroy rather than help God provide life to His Creation (John 10:10; Luke 11:23).
And that’s why God has this dilemma: does He let us survive and continue destroying His Creation, or destroy us and start all over? What is an All-Powerful Deity to do? Either way His Creation gets irreparably harmed because we are the greatest part of His Creation (Genesis 1:27; Psalm 8:1-9).