Is Indiana Jones a Hero?

There were three fictional characters I wanted to be when I was young: Fox Mulder, Han Solo, and Indiana Jones. They were everything I wasn’t — cool and confident, always up for adventure, and irresistible to the ladies. Mulder and Solo faded with time, but Jones stuck with me. He wasn’t an outcast like Mulder and he never get soft like Solo.   Indiana Jones was the true hero. I would imagine myself breaking into ancient temples with a hat and stubble, eye on the treasure, whip at the ready.

When I found out Indiana Jones was coming to a theater near me in honor of its 35th anniversary, I had to be there. I watched Raiders of the Lost Ark at home and Last Crusade on the big screen. The movies were as great as I remembered, but something about Jones felt different. The first thing I noticed was the body count. Indiana Jones kills a lot of people on his quests. And he doesn’t just knock them over the head. The guy’s got a gun and he knows how to use it. I was surprised at how many of the kills were played for comic effect — Jones shooting the swordsman in Raiders; Jones shooting eight guys at once with a magic bullet in Last Crusade. These are funny scenes, but are they?

Suddenly I didn’t know anymore. Who was this guy that fascinated me so much in my youth? How does he fight, and what is he fighting for? When all is said and done, is Indiana Jones a hero?

Heroes Are Servants

The only litmus test I know for heroism is the life of Jesus. Jesus came to earth as God in the flesh and lived a perfect life — a life he commanded us to emulate. If God is sanctifying us day by day to become more like his Son, then that must be what a hero looks like, regardless of any preconceptions we bring to the table.

The most fundamental disposition of Jesus was that of a servant. Think about that. This was God revealing himself to humanity at the climax of the redemption narrative and he chose to appear as a servant. He could have come as a king with pomp and circumstance. He could have come in power with thunder and firebolts. Instead, he came to serve.

“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” (Philippians 2:5-7)

Is Indiana Jones a servant? Servanthood is more about a state of mind than a list of duties. Maybe a better question to ask is how selfless is Indiana Jones? There are isolated moments where Jones risks his life for the ones he loves, but overall Jones is fiercely independent and loves to do things his way. In Last Crusade, Elsa gets mad that he kept his dad’s diary from her. He responds, “Knock it off, you’re not mad. You like the way I do things. My guess is dad found out more than he was looking for and until I’m sure I’m going to continue to do things the way I think they should be done.”

This is Jones’ m.o. In Raiders, he has a chance to save Marion from the Nazis. He rushes into the tent where she’s being held prisoner and starts to untie her, but then stops and ties her up again because freeing her would put his plans to unearth the Ark at risk. She protests, but he puts the gag back on her and leaves. Later in Raiders, Jones has the chance to save Marion again, but he lowers his weapons and allows himself to be captured because he wants to see the Ark opened up.

The most important things for Jones are protecting himself and the prize he’s after. He’s hesitant to trust people and rarely takes anyone else’s ideas under consideration. Jones does things his way and he’s not ashamed to admit it. This may appeal to our American sensibilities, but it doesn’t match up to Jesus.

Heroes Are Peacemakers

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus declared, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” The Jews were expecting Jesus to lead them in a violent overthrow of the Roman Empire, but that was never part of the plan. After his triumphal entry, Jesus weeps over Jerusalem and exclaims, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.” He preached love, not just for friends and family, but for enemies. And when Peter raised his sword to protect Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus disarmed him saying, ”Those who live by the sword will die by the sword.”

Christian pacifism is gaining more acceptance in the Church these days, but many still view the concept with contempt. Not that the view is a new one. It was the default position of the Early Church. I’ve outlined my thoughts on the subject here and here, but I know a large number of Christians remain unconvinced. There are “gotcha” arguments to be made on both sides of the debate, but if there’s one thing we can all agree on, it’s that if you’re going to use lethal force, it better be for a good reason.

Unfortunately, Indiana Jones doesn’t seem to put much thought into who lives or dies at his hand. If you fight him, he’ll kill you without hesitation. Most of the time, this is in service of the treasure he’s seeking, which isn’t a good reason at all. But there are other times where Jones kills to protect the ones he loves. That’s a much better reason, but does it stand up to biblical scrutiny?

Jesus boldly declares that our allegiance to him should surpass all other ties – our jobs, our possessions, our friends, even our own families (Luke 14:26). John Howard Yoder proposes in his book What Would You Do? the idea of protecting my family at all costs is actually a subtle form of idolatry. Should we really be willing to put down the cross and pick up the sword for the sake of our family?

Am I suggesting we should let someone come into our house and slaughter our family? Not at all. I’m saying that we should place our trust in something actually worth trusting in. Not a gun, but the God of the Universe. Psalm 44:6 says, “Not in the bow do I trust, nor can my sword save me. But you have saved us from our foes and have put to shame those who hate us.” We should also not be willing to compromise everything we stand for in the heat of the moment. If someone breaks into my house, I want my two-second response to be a prayer to God for an outcome that brings peace both to family and the stranger in my home who belongs to another family.

This cuts to the heart of the enemy-love we’re commanded to have as Christians. Jesus embodied this on the cross. While we were still murderous wretches, Jesus died for us (Romans 5:8). Would Indiana Jones die for a Nazi? Would we?

Heroes Are Anonymous

The promos for the return of Indiana Jones to theaters consisted of all the times where a character says “Jones” in the series. Jones’ name is at the tip of everyone’s tongue in the films. Like Jones says in Last Crusade, “I’m like a bad penny. I always turn up.”

Being popular isn’t a bad thing, but for those following Jesus’ radical call to servanthood and cross-bearing, it’s a rare thing. There are many exceptions to this, of course. For example, Pope Francis, who is a walking embodiment of everything Jesus stood for, has 9 million Twitter followers.

Still, as a general rule, people who take Jesus’ words seriously aren’t thought of too highly by society. In fact, the majority aren’t noticed at all. They live in the background, quietly living out their daily walk, ignored, or looked on with suspicion. In Jesus’ Kingdom, the first are last and the last are first.

C.S. Lewis captures this beautifully in his book The Great Divorce. He writes of a woman named Sarah Smith who lived an ordinary life, overlooked on earth, but a Saint in heaven. She spent her life loving everyone around her. Lewis writes, “Every young man or boy that met her became her son – even if it was only the boy that brought the meat to her back door. Every girl that met her was her daughter.” She loved the animals too – “Every beast and bird that came near her had its place in her love. In her they became themselves. And now the abundance of life she has in Christ from the Father flows over into them.”

Now she spends her days dancing with her “children” in eternity, her face shining like an angel. Lewis concludes, “Already there is joy enough in the little finger of a great saint such as yonder lady to waken all the dead things of the universe into life.”

The question we must ask is why are the Indiana Joneses and John McClains and James Bonds of the world more exciting to us than the Sarah Smiths? We seem to innately understand brute force, kill or be killed, and protecting those we love. But loving enemies, giving our money away, and sacrificing for the poor seem strange ways to live. This is why the spiritual disciplines are so important. We’re receiving the wrong messages 24-hours a day. We need to constantly re-center ourselves back into the Kingdom way of life where the nobodies are heroes and Jesus is Lord.

Heroes Love Stories

This is the part where Christian film critics tell you to avoid Indiana Jones because it doesn’t line up with biblical truth, but I think God wants us to have thicker skin than that. These are some of the best action-adventure films of all time. Enjoy them. And at the same time, critique them. We should be able to engage the culture without compromising our beliefs. Granted, some things should be avoided altogether because they only offer harm. But contrary to the thinking of some, the majority of Hollywood filmmakers aren’t making movies with perverse intentions. They just want to tell great stories. And great stories always have value.

If the Gospels are any indication, Jesus loved stories. They were his primary teaching tool. Maybe that’s why the greatest stories always point back to him. Indiana Jones may not be a hero, but his failings make me appreciate Jesus even more. Indiana Jones always puts himself first. I serve a God who washes dirty feet. Indiana Jones kills his enemies. I serve a God who dies for them. Indiana Jones is always at the center of the action. I serve the God of the “mustard seed” Kingdom, small and disregarded, but growing into unspeakable glory.

Indiana Jones reminds me of a treasure worth more than the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail combined – the treasure of knowing Jesus, the greatest hero this world has ever known.

  • One word: Temple of Doom. It’s the best of the three AND Indiana is much less of a macho jerk in it. He’s in it to liberate the captives.

    • Alright, you’ve moved this to the top of my re-watch list. I’ve ignored the movie for so long because it always felt like the ugly duckling of the trilogy. It’s time to give it a fresh look.

    • Ben Parman

      As a child, Temple of Doom was known as “the bad one,” like every film in the Pink Panther series after A Shot in the Dark. As an adult, perhaps I need to revisit.

    • harmonie

      Let it be known that I hate “Temple of Doom”.

    • I went to Catholic HS, and one of my favorite memories was Mr. Donoghue’s religion class, and how he would compare moments in movies to the church. I still remembering watching the Temple of Doom (the “religious” ceremony) and comparing/contrasting it to mass… not the most flattering choice, but very memorable.

      • I can see how that would be a useful resource.

  • That example from the Great Divorce is exactly what a hero is… we always think that the exciting and highly accomplished work is what God is wanting from us, and we minimize everyday heroes like a stay-at-home mom.

    Still, I am forever a fan of these movies, and maybe I take a different tilt. Jones is not supposed to be a hero (to me), I still subscribe to him as anti-hero who ends up finally coming around. He’s the guy who will push the moral boundaries, but will relinquish at the point that comes too far… I think you see the same in any cowboy movie (traditional cowboy movie), and there is a beauty in this also: our earthly heroes need to be redeemed as well, but there are still admirable characteristics among the flaws. Jones is brave, he is passionate, he pursues the truth all the way. It’s so much like watching the book of Judges (where the heroes are womanizers, killers, liars, and at times failures; but they are also called followers of God). I know he seems to kill indiscriminately, but are there moments where we see heroes of the faith do this as well? Sampson seems to after his very strange wedding, and there’s also Nebuchadnezzar whom God stirred up to bring against his chosen people.

    • Don’t get me wrong, I love these movies too and I always will. There are a lot of admirable characteristics of the series as a whole. One of my favorite is the underlying assumption that Jesus existed and that the power of God is real. That’s a rare worldview among Hollywood films. And Jones is definitely brave and passionate and desires to stop evil. But is he the kind of hero Jesus has called us to be?

      You brought up the Old Testament which is a logical place to go. Certainly Jones fits in with the heroes of old, even David the precursor to Jesus. And if that’s all we had to go on, then yes Jones could rightfully be called a hero. But everything changed with Jesus. This New Testament we have is “new” in every sense of the world. It doesn’t negate the old, but it does flip everything on its head. Most importantly, we now see who God truly is. Hebrews 1:3 says Christ is “the exact imprint of God’s nature.” Where before our understanding of God was limited and fuzzy, we now know exactly what he’s like, not only through his teaching, but in the way he lived his life. And we now have a radical new call as Jesus followers. No longer do we take up swords against our enemies; we love and pray for them. No longer is God working exclusively among one set of people; he now extends his love to the entire world.

      Everything changed with the New Testament, which definitely causes problems as we read the Old Testament. Did God change? Why wasn’t he like Jesus before? Why did he order the mass slaughter of cities? Why was he so quick to punish and destroy when people sinned against him? Anyone who doesn’t see a contradiction between the way God is depicted in the Old and New Testaments probably hasn’t read the Bible cover to cover. This is one of the hardest things I wrestle with as I read the Bible every day, and I don’t have any clear cut answers. People have been coming up with theories for thousands of years. Maybe God could only work with the Israelites the way he did because society was far more primitive then and they weren’t ready for a God like Jesus. Maybe the Old Testament writers wrote down a perception of God that wasn’t entirely accurate because the clear revelation of himself hadn’t yet come. Maybe God really is violent, but he’s stowing that violence now in this new age of grace. I don’t know. The truth could be a combination of all of them.

      I do believe God can be violent, though even his violence is rooted in love. Scripture says God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked. If sin is going to be destroyed fully someday, then that will mean unrepentant people who want nothing to do with God in this life or the next will have to go. Immortality is a gift solely bestowed on the righteous. So yes, God can be violent. But Jesus is clear that we can’t be. We no longer fight against flesh and blood. We’ve been disarmed. And I think the greatest indication of this is how commonplace this notion was among the Early Church. These were the disciples of the disciples, and they clearly understood that participating in war or violence of any kind was incompatible with the way of Jesus.

      Justin Martyr said “We, who in past times, killed one another, do not
      now fight with our enemies. We, who had been filled with mutual
      slaughter and every wickedness have each one – all the world over –
      changed the instruments of war, the swords into plows and the spears
      into farming instruments, and we cultivate piety, righteousness, love
      for men, faith, and the hope which is from the Father himself through
      the Crucified One.”

      I will always love Indiana Jones, but I don’t look up to him the same way I once did. I don’t want to be him like I did when I was 13. Jesus showed us a new way, and that changed everything.

  • Patti Dolan

    When it comes to the Indiana Jones movies, I find it hard to be analytical – though I greatly admire Jonathan’s ability to extract such weighty arguments on this theme. For me, it was always a fun, popcorn time with a “bi-polar” actor who kept me guessing. His goofy, scarred smile got me every time. Trust me, I can get deep, but going there for Harrison Ford eludes me.

    • You might be right. These are designed to be popcorn movies, so it can be a buzzkill holding them to a high standard. At the same time, I wonder if casual violence in these breezy, fun movies are even more of a problem than graphic violence in hard R movies. At least graphic violence is true to real life. There’s a danger of desensitizing ourselves to the cost of violence when the “bad guys” just fall over bloodlessly.