by Marc T. Newman, Ph.D.
The Pirates of the Caribbean movies are more than prime popcorn flicks. Despite the carping critics who whine that they can’t find, much less follow, any coherent theme or plot in these frothy films, I contend that these pirates are sailing in pretty deep waters. It is easy to argue that the first two movies are about the wages of sin, the need for redemption, the ease with which our souls are imperiled, and the desperate desire of the spiritually unprepared to avoid meeting their Maker. (See in the article archives “In Peril of Our Souls: Theological Considerations from Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest”)
The only reason I can imagine for failure to see these storylines in the Pirates movies is an unwillingness to recognize the theological thread that ties them all together. (But since some critics refused to see the parallels between The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe and the Gospel of Christ, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised.) I am happy to report that the latest, and supposedly last, installment in the trilogy, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End does not disappoint – either as a slam-bang action-adventure film, or as a movie that looks at serious theological themes while successfully masquerading as a mindless comedy.
At World’s End clocks in at over two and a half hours. That might seem long, until you realize that in that time the movie has managed to touch on the nature of hell, the certainty of death (and the reassuring lies people tell themselves about it), the desperate search for alternatives to the Gospel among those who refuse to bow to God, and the enduring lure of eternal life – among other things. If you are looking for a film that can jumpstart spiritual discussions, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End has the spark you’re looking for.
There’s Something about Hell that Changes Everything
In Dead Man’s Chest, Jack Sparrow quips, "Funny what a man will do to forestall final judgment." The reason Jack is interested in putting off his day of reckoning is because he reckons that his moral balance sheet is out of whack. But now, in At World’s End, the time for speculation is over. As the film opens, we discover that Jack is no longer traipsing along the temporal plane. Tia Dalma (the voodoo woman) explains to Pintel and Ragetti – two of the reanimated pirates from the first film – that “Jack Sparrow is taken body and soul to a place not of death, but punishment. The worst fate a person can bring upon himself. Stretching out forever. That’s what awaits at Davy Jones’ Locker.”
Let’s see – Jack Sparrow is in a place of eternal punishment. Sounds like hell, and it is. Anyone who has seen a trailer knows that Jack must get out, but being in hell has a way of making an impression on people. Once you’ve had a glimpse, you don’t want to go back. So if Jack was interested in forestalling his death in the second film, he is positively compulsive about it in the third. When Davy Jones finally gets around to asking his signature question to Jack, “Do you fear death?” Jack, with a hint of terror in his eyes, responds. “You have no idea.”
Only one story in the Bible gives us a well-developed, personal glimpse of the frightening nature of hell: The Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:20-31). An unnamed “rich man” and a poor man named Lazarus both die. In life, Lazarus was destitute and afflicted with sores. He used to lie at the gates of the rich man’s property, but the rich man would do nothing for him. After death, the rich man goes to a place of eternal torment, while Lazarus is carried by angels to a pre-heavenly paradise, where he is comforted by the patriarch, Abraham. The rich man pleads for relief, but he cannot have it. So the rich man begs for Abraham to send Lazarus back to the land of the living to tell his brothers about the terrible truth of hell “so they will not have to come to this place of torment.” But Abraham replies that his brothers have the warnings of the prophets, and that even if someone rose from the dead, they would not be persuaded. The moral of the story? Pay attention to the warnings and don’t go to hell.
Jack Sparrow’s character in At World’s End embodies key elements of the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus. Just theoretically knowing about judgment and hell scared him in Dead Man’s Chest, but now he has been there. Hell is no longer a convincing speculation, but a reality. One thing is certain: Jack doesn’t want to go back. Yet, despite his preview, he just might.
“Passing on – that’s dead certain”
Unfortunately, Jack’s methodology for avoiding the return trip to hell demonstrates a lack of understanding about how to successfully remedy the reason he was there. Jack is in hell because he has done many – very many – bad things. In short, Jack is a sinner. He knows that death brings judgment, and that the punishment for unrepentant sin is eternity in hell. Jack’s brilliant reasoning, then, can be summed up as: “to avoid judgment, don’t die.” After all, it’s worked for him before. When he shares his risky strategy with Captain Barbossa, even his twice-reanimated shipmate has to admit: “Aye, but that’s a gamble of long odds, ain’t it? There’s never a guarantee of comin’ back. Passin’ on – that’s dead certain.”
Jack’s not the only one with a strategy for beating death. Lord Cutler Beckett, chairman of the infamous East India Trading Company, believes that his cunning, and his military might, renders him invulnerable. Not only does Beckett act as if he is immune to death, but he believes that the new world order he represents has overthrown the supernatural as well. Beckett tells Davy Jones that now, “The immaterial is immaterial.” He is in for a big surprise.
Pulitzer-prize winning playwright William Saroyan’s last words: "Everybody has got to die, but I have always believed an exception would be made in my case. Now what?" represents not only the attitude of some characters in At World’s End, but also some contemporary people in the West. Despite the fact that death is a statistical certainty confirmed by virtually every human being that has ever come before us (Enoch and Elijah were the rare exceptions – nobody is banking on similar treatment) many people seem to act as if they will live forever, and that final judgment is optional.
Jesus spoke of those people who make provision for their own bodily comforts, thinking that essentially they have forever to enjoy them, while neglecting to reconcile their broken relationship with God (Luke 12:15:21). One of the problems associated with belief in our own self-sufficiency is that we forget how reliant we are upon God. He measures the length of our lives. And our relationship to Him determines our eternal destination. No matter how hard we cling to this life, it will slip from us. But Jesus offers us a way out. He tells His disciples, “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Matthew 16:25-26).
Souls imperiled in Dead Man’s Chest had the example of the one sailor on a sinking ship who implicitly chose to put his trust in the saving mercy of Jesus Christ instead of putting his soul in the hands of Davy Jones. Even Ragetti recognized the need to take care of his “immortal soul” and knew that the Bible contained the information he needed. But by the time we get to At World’s End, it appears that while everyone wants to live forever, they only want to do so on their own terms.
Let’s Make A Deal: Just Not That One
No doubt about it: Jack fears death because he fears hell. So far, so good. Matthew 10:28 affirms, "Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” Jack’s fears are well founded. But Jack’s temporal alternatives are running out. With the East India Trading Company’s armada of ships bearing down, and Davy Jones hungry for revenge, Jack starts looking at supernatural options; even the possibility of replacing Davy Jones as the eternal captain of the Flying Dutchman. Jack tells Will Turner, “Death has a curious way of reshuffling one’s priorities.” Will explains that replacing Jones comes with a catch. Jack won’t get what he wants: eternal life and eternal license. Instead the job comes with the one thing Jack cannot abide: conditions.
Jack admires one character who has “seen it all, done it all” and survived. That’s what Jack really wants to do – live out his life’s desires, forever, on earth, with no consequences. As Peter Lawler writes in Aliens In America: The Strange Truth About Our Souls, “There is no need for otherworldly longing if this world is lacking in nothing.” There is just that pesky issue of death standing in the way.
Many people today are like Jack. They want to make a one-sided deal with the Landlord of Heaven: let us in but leave us alone. Captain Jack is attractive to us because, in many ways, Jack is us: longing for eternity, but either not sure of how to obtain it, or reticent to lose his life that he may gain it. Jack represents the struggle over the question of eternal life, not the answer to it. And for viewers eager to explore the implications of that question, that’s not such a bad thing.
The Lure of Eternal Life
From the first film in the Pirates trilogy to the last, the overwhelming story arc is theological. The Curse of the Black Pearl showed the corrupting power of sin and the need for blood sacrifice and restitution to make atonement. Dead Man’s Chest focused on the immense value of the soul, why we must care for ours, and how easily they are imperiled. At World’s End exposes the end state of the unrepentant – and though some of Jack’s time in hell is played for laughs, much of it rings true. Hell is a place of loneliness and isolation, where torment and punishment reign and people relive their sins for eternity. But both Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End also reveal that a longing for eternity has been placed within our hearts (Ecclesiastes 3:11). We see hints that peace after death is possible, and it is strongly suggested that there is a connection between personal sacrifice, some measure of repentance, and redemption. These glimpses are by no means a complete, but they certainly will serve as starting points.
Despite what some critics might claim, the Pirates trilogy is not a narrative nightmare. It is easy to see the connections between the films, to discover what is at stake, when we take the theological constructs in these comedies seriously. And once the dazzle of the special effects wears off, and you regain your hearing, you can take your film-going group to a coffee shop, pizza parlor, or ice cream stand to wrestle with Davy Jones’ question, “Do you fear death?” It might be the best chance you’ll get all summer to tell others why you don’t. Savvy?
Marc T. Newman, Ph.D. is the president of MovieMinistry.com -- an organization that provides sermon and teaching illustrations, Bible Studies, and FilmTalk cards drawn from popular film, and helps the Church use movies to reach out to others and connect with people. Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End , which opened in U.S. theaters on May 25, is rated PG-13 by the MPAA for "intense sequences of action/adventure violence and some frightening images."