Heroes are not supposed to fail, and yet they do. We elevate influential leaders to almost god-like status, expecting them to persevere authentically and blamelessly throughout life. Yet, so often these heroes fail miserably. They are revealed to be hypocrites, failing to live up to the expectations of their followers. F. Scott Fitzgerald is unfortunately accurate when he writes, “show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy.”
This sad reality is perhaps nowhere more evident – or painful – than in the Christian Church. Within the last two years alone, numerous prominent Christian leaders around the world have been caught in heinous acts of sin and hypocrisy. As a society, we are often eager to see the wreckage caused by the fall of these Christian “heroes,” but we rarely stick around to watch the long and painful recovery process. In so doing, we miss a valuable opportunity to learn how we should respond when one of our heroes falls. Regardless of the setting, a fallen hero brings pain and heartache, and knowing how to respond can mean the difference between long-term despair and hope.
Christianity has much to teach us about how to view our heroes, especially when they fall. The biblical story of King David, in particular, provides a raw example of a hero who fell in spectacular fashion but whose experience of forgiveness points to lasting hope. In examining his life and legacy, three things become evident: the depravity of the human condition, the fallibility of any human “hero,” and humanity’s desperate need of a hero who will never fail.
The biblical King David was a hero in almost every sense of the word. He led the nation of Israel in successful military campaigns, ruled with wisdom and justice, and served as a spiritual leader.1 God even called him “a man after [His] own heart.”2 He brought peace and security to Israel and led his people to worship God. But all of this changed when David fell in a way that brought guilt, pain, and strife to his family and nation.
The account of King David’s fall is found in 2 Samuel 11. It begins with David standing on the roof of his palace overlooking the city he rules, a hero at the height of his power. In short order, David sees a woman bathing, has her brought to his palace, and sleeps with her. After finding out she is pregnant and realizing the threat this poses to his influence and image, David calls the woman’s husband back from war and tries to get him to sleep with her. This man–one of David’s most trusted friends–refuses because of his loyalty to his fellow soldiers, and he stays firm even when David tries to get him drunk. With his cover-up plans foiled, David orders his military officers to place the man on the front line of battle and then pull troops back so that he will be killed. After these orders are followed and the man is killed, David takes the woman as his wife.
In three short days David became a lying, murderous adulterer who turned aside from nearly everything he stood for as king. For those who looked up to David, their hero had fallen. Even as modern readers, we are left wondering what to make of this man and what to do with the broken pieces left in his wake.
David’s fall is first a reminder of the reality of human depravity. The man who committed these atrocious sins is the same man who, earlier in his life, wrote “I have been blameless before [God] and kept myself from sin.”3 He was even chosen by God to be king because of his pure heart. In spite of the great things he had done, this king, so often remembered for his uprightness, fell miserably. The Christian doctrine of human sinfulness teaches that this should not surprise us at all. The Apostle Paul, in his letter to the Romans, writes that “there is no one righteous, not even one,” and “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” 4 This means that even the best heroes are sinful and will fail at some point. The prophet Jeremiah diagnosed the source of this evil when he wrote that “The heart is deceitful above all things, and beyond cure.”5 Christianity teaches that all humans, regardless of who they are or what they have done, have sick and impure hearts and that this eventually manifests in evil words and actions.
This understanding of human nature flies in the face of the cultural logic of contemporary society. We are told that we are naturally and inherently good. Our mistakes are exceptions to the rule of human behavior, the result of negative influences from our environment. Yet, this doesn’t account for the great atrocities humans have perpetrated against each other throughout history, nor does it adequately explain how a seemingly upright person like King David could do such horrible things. Despite its accuracy in explaining the evil of mankind, we resist the Christian teaching of depravity because of what it says about the condition of our own hearts. We don’t like to think that our hearts are sick with evil. As the British writer Malcolm Muggeridge once wrote, “The depravity of man is at once the most empirically verifiable reality but at the same time the most intellectually resisted fact.”6 While certainly offensive to our own sensibilities, the Christian teaching on depravity offers an accurate explanation for why heroes fall. If someone’s heart is desperately sick with evil, then eventually that sickness will result in evil words and deeds.
This teaching warns against placing ultimate hope in human heroes. When we recognize the depravity of every human being, we will not be as surprised—or heartbroken—when our heroes fall. Ultimate hope placed in a fallible hero will inevitably lead to disappointment and pain when that hero falls, but a robust understanding of human depravity protects against this kind of heartbreak.
While this understanding of human depravity calls for sober-mindedness about the potential of our heroes, it still leaves the question to be asked: is there a hero who won’t let us down? Christianity answers this question with an emphatic yes! To see why, we must examine King David’s recovery and legacy—and the ultimate hero to whom they point.
Soon after David’s tragic fall, he is confronted by the prophet Nathan. David admits he has sinned against God, to which Nathan responds, “the Lord has taken away your sin; you will not die.”7 God’s forgiveness is scandalous in light of what David has done, and David tells us as much in Psalm 51, written after his confrontation with Nathan. In this prayer, David first admits the evil that he has done and recognizes that it stems from the evil in his own heart. His confession of depravity, however, does not keep David from asking God for mercy. He knows that God is gracious, so he boldly asks God to cleanse him of his sins and give him a new heart to replace the sick one that he has. In response, God forgives David, and he is filled with joy and new life.8
While certainly a powerful account of God’s forgiveness and mercy, this still does not satisfy the desire for a hero who will never fail. David’s experience of forgiveness is instead a signpost pointing to an even greater display of forgiveness. At the center of Christianity stands a hero who is both fully God and fully human, who lived a perfect life, and who offered himself as a sacrifice to pay for the sins of mankind. This hero’s name is Jesus, and through his life, death, and resurrection, he proved himself to be the infallible hero that we are searching for. Jesus’ death on the cross enables humans to receive forgiveness, and his victory over death through his resurrection provides an everlasting hope that will not fail. Unlike other heroes, Jesus is one in whom ultimate hope can be placed, for he has already proven that he will not fall.
David’s own legacy directly points to Jesus and the hope that can be found in him. Jesus was born in David’s family line, just as God promised, and he was often referred to as the “son of David.”9 Jesus even used one of David’s psalms to reveal himself to be the Messiah.10 While David could not have known fully the extent to which Jesus would bring forgiveness and hope to the world, his experience of forgiveness and the legacy that he left serve as signposts pointing towards Jesus. The fact that David was able to play this significant role in God’s plan also reveals the power of God’s forgiveness and the hope that even fallen heroes can have. In spite of his incredible fall, David is still known as a man after God’s own heart and his legacy points to the hope that can be found in Jesus.11
While human heroes will continue to fall, and the impact will still be painful, the story of King David offers hope. The forgiveness that he experienced and the legacy that he left point to the mercy and forgiveness of a loving God who has provided an answer to the problem of human depravity through the sacrifice of his son, Jesus Christ. Through his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus established himself as the only hero in whom ultimate hope can be placed. In a world where heroes fall, bringing pain and heartache, Jesus offers hope, for he has proven himself to be the infallible hero we all need.
Joel Byman ’21 is an Economics concentrator in Currier House.