I've said before that I don't like the casual way the concept of Hell is tossed about in popular culture. But then I tried to think about what I could do with it, short of a follow-up on William Hell* or revisiting the issue of X-Men Unlimited featuring a mystical artifact called the “Hell Toupee” (and potentially undercutting my own reservations about taking the topic too lightly). I could have also sidestepped it and just covered Daredevil and Hell's Kitchen – which Jesse Starcher and I did on an episode of the Source Material podcast last year before this particular SBTU installment got delayed.
But then I remembered something that not only fit the theme, but would let me talk about the other, much better side of the coin that a lot of stories seem to ignore for various and sundry reasons.
My brother is almost 10 years younger than me, so when he was in middle school and high school, I was a cool, mature adult. Well, anyway, I was an adult. And I was asked to teach his Sunday school class, which I often did by tying in movie clips and the like to scripture. Or sometimes we just played Bible Scattergories, so I shouldn't really judge my health teacher that occasionally showed movies in class.
I did get the approval of a pastor before showing a clip from the 2004 Guillermo del Toro “Hellboy” movie (PG-13!) to teenagers, who probably saw and heard worse at school regularly. But still, this is church.
I attempted to tie this in with the hymn “His Eye is on the Sparrow,” whose chorus says, “His eye is on the sparrow, and I know he watches me.” That is drawn from Matthew 10:29-31: “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father's care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don't be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”
It may have been a reach, but the point was supposed to be that in the clip, Hellboy was saving kittens, sure, but the reason he was fighting the demon in the first place was to save the people. If he was going to protect the kittens, he was going to protect the people.
Hey, it was meant more to help them remember the concept with that bizarre scene than a one-to-one metaphor. I'd like to tell you it was effective, but I honestly don't recall much reaction one way or another. My brother tells me he remembers the clip, but not the point I tried to make.
Prior to the movie, I had been skeptical of Hellboy. Reading about the Dark Horse comic and DC's “Hellblazer” in Wizard, I came to the uninformed conclusion that they were probably written by people who had an axe to grind with Christianity. I eventually read the “Dangerous Habits” arc of Hellblazer and had to admit, OK, that's a heck of a story. I tried the next volume but didn't appreciate the way matters of faith were portrayed and quickly lost interest.
But Hellboy never struck me as anti-Christian. And in the 2004 film, you can actually argue that Hellboy is a Christian. The theme of being defined by something other than one's past or nature is a much richer one than my sparrows-cats connection.
It had been a while since I watched the movie, but viewing the director's cut recently, I heard Professor Broom (John Hurt) musing on that theme in the opening lines. Christian imagery is front and center as he offers crucifixes to the soldiers he's leading to a secret Nazi site where something horrific is to be conjured to help the Third Reich turn the tide of World War II.
What they, and the villainous Rasputin, bring to this plane is a red baby with a large, stony right hand. Thinking they've thwarted the plot, the soldiers nickname the creature “Hellboy” and Broom adopts him. Hellboy grows up working for the U.S. government's secret Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense and battling things that go bump in the night.
When we flash forward to the present and see an elderly Broom, he still has the rosary around his wrist. He also consults tarot cards after receiving a troubling medical diagnosis, so this may be more about symbolism than actual faith. Hellboy uses items like a reliquary containing the bone of a saint and a gun he nicknamed the Samaritan, which are probably more surface level as well, but the movie never comes across as hostile toward or dismissive of faith.
Rasputin returns from the realm in which he was trapped back in World War II, still planning to awaken the Ogdru Jahad, tentacle-laden gods of chaos. The literal key is Hellboy and his oversized right hand. As the undying sorcerer's plans start to come together, he confronts Broom and mocks both his kindness toward Hellboy and his faith.
“If only you had had him destroyed 60 years ago, none of this would have come to pass,” Rasputin taunts. “But then, how could you have known? Your God chooses to remain silent. Mine lives within me.”
After Rasputin's servant, Kroenen, kills the professor, a mourning Hellboy picks up his crucifix. He's still carrying it when Rasputin seems to have won, forcing Hellboy to open the portal for the Ogdru Jahad in a bid to save Liz Sherman, the woman he loves. But Broom's handpicked successor, FBI Agent John Myers, grabs the crucifix Rasputin cast aside and calls out for Hellboy to remember who he is. Then he flings the rosary to the big red guy, who catches it and does just that as it burns a glowing cross into his hand.
The Bible is filled with people whose past one would think disqualifies them from serving a holy God. But Jesus welcomed people like Zacchaeus, the tax collector who worked for the Roman government and cheated his fellow Jews. It was scandalous when Jesus had dinner at this man's house, but that kindness led Zacchaeus to pledge to repay everyone from whom he stole. Or Saul, who relentlessly persecuted Christians only to encounter the ascended Christ on the road to Damascus and become Paul, the apostle who spread the gospel throughout the region and wrote a healthy chunk of the New Testament.
Hellboy was born a demon but he chose to be a man, to do what was right. And while Rasputin's deity of choice certainly was active and visible, it didn't win against the one, true God and His unlikely servant.
* - There's not much