This latest version of the Hercules story had a modern skeptics’ spin on it. It was almost like watching Hercules: Myth Busters … until the end when everything was thrown into question, again. (I have read some complaints about this, as if the movie couldn’t decide which direction to take or what it was really trying to say.) I’m sure I could find some connection points between Hercules and the Bible, but what strikes me most is the way this story echoes our modern sentiments about God.
According to the original legend, Hercules was a demi-god, the son of Zeus and a mortal woman. Zeus’ wife, Hera (a goddess) was understandably upset by her husband’s infidelity and took it out on Hercules by trying t kill him. But, the son of Zeus took after his daddy and as he thwarted her attempts to harm him, legend of his strength and great deeds grew.
The movie begins by recounting the legend, but then the narrator undermines all confidence in the legend by saying, “You think you know the truth about him? You know nothing.” It then transitions to a man, tied up, awaiting his death, recounting the amazing stories of Hercules, and warning his captors that Hercules would save him. On and on he goes, proclaiming his well-rehearsed stories of Hercules’ might and skill and invincibility. Hercules enters the scene, but instead of showing up in might and power, he stays obscured. Members of the enemy army begin to die, but we see that it’s not at Hercules’ doing (or not his alone, anyway), but rather he works with a team of skilled warriors. We see that, as an audience, but the enemy—they assume it’s Hercules, all Hercules.
That’s where we first begin to realize that Hercules didn’t do all those amazing things alone. He had help. Part of his help was the team of skilled warriors who watched his back. The other part of his help was a great story teller who made the adventures of Hercules continually bigger and scarier and more impressive. The bigger and scarier the stories, the less likely the people were to fight and the easier to deceive. People believed Hercules a demi-god and believed all the stories of his might deeds—that he had done all these things alone—so they never thought to look out for the fact that he might have help.
One of Hercules’ band of warriors, Autolycus, admits that the idea of Hercules being a demi-god wasn’t even theirs. But, the people knew that “No mere mortal could have performed such feats” and since they knew the stories must be true, the people were the ones to suggest that “He must be the son of a god”. “So we played along,” Autolycus admitted. Why not? It only helped their cause. In truth, Hercules was an orphan who never knew his father, but better the enemy think Hercules was a demi-god than a mortal. A mortal can be killed; a team can be outwitted—but a demi-god should be feared.
The audience goes through the whole movie believing Hercules is just a man, a really strong, really large man, but a man nonetheless. And then, just at the end, doubt is thrown in again, and we begin to wonder if we are wrong, if maybe he is more than a man, after all. Hercules is chained, his band of friends imprisoned and he’s watching as a cruel king is about to behead his own daughter who had turned to Hercules to help save her and her son. It’s this horrible moment when everyone really needs Hercules to be more than a man; he’s the only one who can save the day.
That’s when Amphiaraus, Hercules’ friend and wise-sage-of-sorts, turns the tables on us. He seems to believe that Hercules is more than a man. He seems to believe the rumors are true. “Who are you? Are you a murderer? Are you a mercenary who turns his back on the innocent? We believe in you! We have faith in you! Remember the deeds you have performed, the labors you have accomplished! Are you only the legend, or are you truth behind the legend? Now, tell me, WHO ARE YOU?” It’s a defining moment for Hercules, a tipping point in the plot, the climax of the movie… “I am Hercules!” he bellows out. Of course, at that point he finds the strength to rip out his chains and save the damsel.
Not long after that they are in dire straits again, and again Hercules calls upon super-human strength to topple over a gargantuan statue of Hera onto the approaching army. This is way beyond human strength, even extraordinary human strength. So is Hercules the son of Zeus, after all? Amphiaraus (who wrongly predicted his own death) concludes the movie with this cringe-worthy statement: “Is he actually the son of Zeus? I don’t think it really matters. You don’t need to be a demi-god to be a hero. You just need to believe you’re a hero. It worked for Hercules. But there again, what do I know? I’m supposed to be dead.”
Confused? What’s the point of the movie? What are they trying to say about Hercules? He’s not a god, but maybe he really is…OH no, actually—he’s not a god, he just needed to believe he was a god…that’s where his power came from, from the power of belief. Fantastic.
So what does this have to say about our culture’s modern sentiments about God? A lot, actually. Our culture is increasingly anti-authoritarian. We love the underdog. We love stories where the mighty fall. We have an inherent distrust of authority, establishment, organization and tradition. Much of this is an understandable result of where we came from. It’s a reaction to future generations who were more willing to trust the powers that be—a pendulum swing in the opposite direction. It’s also a response to so much of the corruption that we have witnessed in different places of authority, corporations, religion, fathers, heroes, etc. All of this distrust in authority, however, can’t help but taint the way we feel about the ultimate authority, God.
There are any number of popular writers right now propagating theories that Jesus was not the Son of God. They are convinced that everything was a hoax, and the disciples were in on it, working together to promote the myth of Jesus (just like Hercules and his band of warriors).
This isn’t all the movie tells us though about our thoughts on God. The movie doesn’t end like a satisfying episode of Myth Busters. It doesn’t simply reveal the way the hoax was pulled off. It goes on with a suggestion that maybe there was truth to the legend, after all. There are two kinds of legends: some are like fairy tales, fictional stories; others are truth. What makes them legend is their popularity, not the accuracy of their content.
So in this movie, it is suggested that Hercules was a legend, but a legend with truth behind it. Why do this? Why change direction at the end? I suspect it’s because deep down, despite our skepticism, we actually really want to believe that good, amazing things are true, or at least can be. We don’t want to play the fool, we don’t want to be deceived, but that doesn’t mean we don’t also want it to be true. We want to believe that Hercules was more than just a man. We want to believe Jesus was who He said He was, the Son of God, able to heal the sick, come to set the captives free, the way, the truth and the life, died for our sins and risen again, conquering death and inviting us into His kingdom, His family and His love. We want him to be more than legend; we want him to be the truth behind the legend.
We want that, but we are still skeptics, still afraid to be taken advantage of. So what do we do? We create a silly alternative. We don’t want to have to choose side, to decide if Jesus was who He said He was or not—partly because we aren’t sure, and partly because we don’t want to offend any else. So we say that it doesn’t matter. We decide that the important thing isn’t how we feel about Jesus, but how we feel about ourselves. Let me remind you again of what Amphiaraus said in conclusion: “Is he actually the son of Zeus? I don’t think it really matters. You don’t need to be a demi-god to be a hero. You just need to believe you’re a hero. It worked for Hercules.”
This says two important things about culture. First, we are a me-first, ego-centric society. The point isn’t about Hercules, or about God, but it’s about YOU! What does this mean for YOU?! The second is that truth isn’t as important as feelings and beliefs. Who cares what the truth is about Hercules (or about Jesus, etc.)? All that matters is… (add any number of statements like: how you feel about you, or what you believe, or what makes you happy, or what works for you, etc.).
Specifically, in Hercules, the solution for Hercules was to simply believe he was a hero of demi-god proportion. Can I just for a moment point out the utter absurdity of this?!! I’m not saying that there isn’t power in positive thinking. Self-help has its place. BUT—believing I can fly isn’t enough to make me fly. I can’t believe and positive think myself past my limitations. Granted, I may be able to do so past what I perceive are my limitations, but at some point I will reach limitations that are real and cannot be superceded by any amount of belief on my part. But this is our world. “Just believe in yourself,” we say. Better to believe in God who has no limitations than to believe in ourselves.
The movie is wrong. Truth matters. You see, the people needed Hercules to be a demi-god, or they were all going to die. They had put their trust in him, and if their trust was built on a lie and he was just a man, then he couldn’t save them. The same is true for us today. It’s not just important that we believe, it’s important what we believe. We cannot save ourselves. We have limitations. We need a savior. If Jesus is who He said He is, then we need to believe it. Don’t fall into the cultural deception…truth matters.
If you’re not sure about Jesus, there are several books that will help you look through the evidence. Josh McDowell’s Evidence that Demands a Verdict and Lee Strobel’s Case for Christ (he has a whole series of books in the Case for… line) are among the more well-known.
Questions for Discussion:
- How did you feel about the premise that Hercules was only a man? Why?
- What did you think about the change, when Hercules decided to believe (and act like) he was more than just a man?
- Do you agree or disagree with Amphiaraus when he said: Is he actually the son of Zeus? I don’t think it really matters. You don’t need to be a demi-god to be a hero. You just need to believe you’re a hero.”?
- Do you think our society has a tendency towards skepticism of authority figures, including the idea of God?
- What do you think about Jesus? Is he a legend, or is He really the Son of God?
Side note: There are two other movies that have a similar theme of skepticism toward a legend which come to mind off hand, Big Fish and Second Hand Lions. They have different conclusions, and each adds something interesting to the discussion. In case there are any others nerds like me out there who would be interested in comparing/contrasting the way they handle this theme!