Interpreting reality through redemption.
This article was originally written for Christ Hold Fast.
If you know me in the least, then you know of my fondness for the 2010 film Inception. Christopher Nolan’s enigmatic opus is perpetually rewatchable and endlessly compelling. I still remember watching Inception in the theater. The entire experience was breathtaking.1 The conclusion of the film alone has its own scale of epicness, notwithstanding all the emotion and action that that come before it.2 It has sparked a ceaseless barrage of questions and interpretations that all seek to decipher the truth of the film. Was Dom Cobb finally reunited with his two children as the credits rolled, or was he still in the world of the dream? Cut to black.
After watching this film for the dozenth time, I still hold that it’s nearly the most perfect film ever crafted. From the performances, to the writing, to the action sequences, to the pacing, to the soundtrack, I could go on and on. Indeed, I could wax eloquent about the genius of Inception for quite a few thousand more words, but that’s not what I’m here to do (though I’m tempted to). The film, however, turns on a dime when it’s revealed that Dom has performed “inception” before, on his own wife. During an intense sequence and extended experience of the dream world, Dom implanted in his wife’s mind the idea that her world wasn’t real. This innocent attempt to save his spouse from being consumed by the dream ended up with her becoming devoured by the same idea: that her world wasn’t real, that she must get back to reality. This idea became her identity and quickly led to her demise.
Mankind has similarly been incepted.
If we were confronted with the offering that we can have all the pleasure we want, only it’ll never last; that we can chase and, perhaps, acquire all the money we want, only it’ll never fulfill; that we can pursue any path we dream of, only it’ll be filled with persistent heartache and pain and problems, who would take that? What sin offers is never the truth. Its promises are never what they seem. If we were told of all the darkness and depravity and devastation that would ensue upon taking the offering of sin, we’d never take it.
Similar to Inception, we can’t be told to sin, we have to be inspired to it, inspired into believing that all its guarantees are real. Using the example from the film, if I say, “Don’t think about elephants?” what are you thinking about? Elephants, right? Likewise, if I tell you, “Look at porn! Objectify women! Ruin your marriage! Devastate your mind with smut!” who would do that? Satan knew that what he was selling wouldn’t ever be bought if he were truthful about all its far-reaching consequences. Thus, what he sold to mankind’s representatives was the perfect lie, appealing to all our natural sensibilities. And he’s been lying to us ever since. The lie of sin always palliates the repercussions of such rebellion against God’s created order. We’re told that nudity’s normal, masturbation’s healthy, binge drinking is fun, one hit is okay, and “no one will ever know.” These lies, and others like them, find their beginning in the Book of Beginnings.
Genesis 3 is, in no certain terms, Satan’s inception of man, wherein he tells them that that they can “be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Gn 3:5) The promise is for fruitfulness, not failure; for knowledge, not debauchery; for fulfillment, not emptiness; for peace, not friction; for life, not death. The devil’s deception is the most artfully performed inception — a reality-breaking inception that leads us to believe innumerable falsehoods that keep us forever falling into deeper and graver travesties. Now, for the rest of time, we’re born believing that we can be better God’s than God himself.
We come into the world as our own liberators, our own champions; we don’t need anyone else. We exit the womb as functioning autonomous human beings, not realizing our grave dependence. Satan’s inception was certainly a good one because the idea has stuck. We’re a race of fumbling, bumbling, groveling creatures that all deem ourselves as self-governing and self-righteous. We’ve been duped, we’ve been incepted. We’re the spitting image of what it means to be insane, trying thousands of different things over and over and over again, all in the quest for life, for hope, for meaning, for God, but we continuously come up short. We beat the drums of pleasure, power, people, and prestige in the desperate search for that one thing that will fill the void. But these vanities can never live up to their billing, for the simple fact that they were never made to.
The things we enjoy, the company we keep, the hobbies we pursue, the luxuries we relish were never meant to be our deities, but we’ve turned them into that. We turned menial things into functional God’s, putting massive weights on the shoulders of opportunities and activities and people they were never meant to bear.
The simple fact is, we were made for God. We were made for the glory of our Creator but, instead, we’ve run after his creation. We were made to pursue the Giver but we’ve left him in lieu of his gifts. And as long as we’re chasing thing after thing in order to slake our lusts, we’ll never find rest, we’ll never find meaning, we’ll never find life. As the Frenchman Blaise Pascal has famously noted, “The infinite abyss [of man’s soul] can only be filled by an infinite and immutable object, that is to say, only by God himself.”3 This is why we need the gospel — this is why the Word of God is so important.
The gospel of God’s rescue of man is at once the precise thing what we need and the last thing we’d expect. We don’t need to be preached the umpteen ways we can live our best life now. We don’t need to be told how to become better versions of ourselves. We don’t need to be told the formula for fixing the problem and finally finding success. That’d be like putting a bandaid on a gushing aorta, or cologne on a corpse: it doesn’t fix anything, it just masks the greater problem.
Our deepest need is only met as the words of deliverance are spoken. The only way to push back against the darkness of duplicitous sins is through the oft and ever repeated words of grace. God’s gospel isn’t another means by which we can plaster our lives back together. It’s not merely another entry in a compendium of truths which hope to explain reality. The gospel is our reality. “Scripture does not give us data to interpret; it is itself the interpretation of reality, the shaper of a distinct worldview.”4 We don’t come to the Word with a specific ideology and interpret from thus — the Word is our ideology. The biblical framework of the gospel is the lens through which we view the world, arousing in us thoughts of grief, compassion, sympathy, and hope. By it, we are made wise unto salvation. (2 Tm 3:15) Through it, we’re given the cognizance of our impending doom apart from Christ’s intervention and the reality of our redemption because of his incarnation. The only true reality is the reality of the gospel. Everything apart from it is false, empty.
If the Bible isn’t true, then nothing matters — but if the Bible is true, then nothing else really matters. This is the only truth of consequence. Much like Professor Miles in the film, who pleads, “Come back to reality . . . Please!” we’re called back to God’s redeeming reality in the gospel. In a sense, this is what Paul’s after when he’s insistent upon more urgent preaching of this good news in Romans 10. (Rom 10:14–17) Paul understood the gravity of the gospel and the sight it gives to blind sinners. He had been awakened to the reality of redemption — a reality that says, “Come to me, all you spent wanders. Come to me, all you who are weak and wrecked. I no longer see your sin because you’re standing in my Son’s shadow. His righteousness is now yours, and you are now mine. Forever!” (Mt 10:28–31; Is 38:17; Ps 103:12; Mic 7:19; Col 3:1–3; 1 Cor 1:26–31) He also understood that souls are only awakened by the proclamation of this news. Not by creed, or rule, or ordinance, or force. Only a daring confidence in the grace of God for the chiefest and realest of sinners can set us free.
This is how we interpret reality through redemption, knowing that we are real sinners but that we’ve been given a real grace. Through God’s Word and Spirit, we’re made to understand the atrocity of our sin and the insanity of our rebellion against our Creator. It doesn’t curtail its reporting of the monstrosity of our iniquity, but tells of its reality. We’re not imaginary sinners with a pretend righteousness of our own conjuring — we’re bona fide delinquents, lawbreakers, and reprobates with a dire need of rescuing. As Martin Luther has famously quipped in a letter to Melanchthon:
If you are a preacher of grace, do not preach a fictitious, but the true grace. If grace is of the true sort, you will also have to bear true, not fictitious, sins. God does not save those who only acknowledge themselves sinners in a feigned manner. Be a sinner, then, and sin bravely, but believe more bravely still and rejoice in Christ, who is the Victor over sin, death, and the world.5
Come back to reality. Be awakened to redemption. Come to Jesus and live forever in the reality of his grace.
Seriously, if you don’t get chills at this scene — primarily due to Hans Zimmer’s all-time-amazing score — you might not be human!
Blaise Pascal, Thoughts, translated by W. F. Trotter (New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1910), 138–39.
Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics (Grand Rapids, MI: Dutch Reformed Translation Society, 2003), 354.
Martin Luther, quoted in W. H. T. Dau, Luther Examined and Reexamined (St. Louis, MO: Concordia, 1917), 125.