Probably, the first time you watched it, you didn’t get to see it. I didn’t get to see it until I was old enough to watch it on my own, and even then, I was afraid to look.
What am I talking about? Why, the face-melting scene at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, of course. We watched that movie dozens of times when I was a kid; it must have been one of my parents’ favorites. But every time we came to the crucial moment, when Belloq opens the Ark of the Covenant, adult hands were placed over my eyes, fast-forward buttons were pressed, and adolescent innocence was preserved.
Looking at the scene with desensitized 2013 eyes, it’s actually pretty ridiculous…but invested with some pretty heavy theological significance:
There are three important things to be said about this scene:
First, movie special effects have come a long way.
Second, Indiana Jones has a deep, wide, and proper anthropology.
When the power of God begins to emerge from the Ark, Indy knows that there is no moral difference between him, the Nazi flunkies who are just along for the ride, and Belloq and Major Toht, the baddest of the bad guys. We humans spend a lot of time trying to place ourselves on the scales of humankind, seeing who is better than us and who is worse. Of course, we much prefer it when we can find someone worse…it means we can convince ourselves, if only for a moment, that we’re doing okay.
Indiana Jones might well survey the scene and think that he’s better than the Nazi foot soldiers, and certainly better than their leadership, which just wants to use the Ark to create an invincible army to serve “der Führer.” Indy could tell himself that the wrath of God would be far too busy destroying all of those people to bother with a couple of righteous on-the-side-of-good adventurers. But Jones’ anthropology is deeper than that. He knows that God doesn’t judge like we humans judge. We look on the outside (and see the Nazi insignia and heretically-worn priestly robes) but God looks on the heart (1 Samuel 16:7). He also understands that hearts are “deceitful above all things and beyond cure” (Jeremiah 17:9).
Jones’ anthropology is wider than that, too. He knows that his heart is, in final analysis, just as twisted as the Nazi hearts that surround him: “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one” (Romans 3:10-12).
And so he tells Marion to close her eyes, and to keep them shut until the wrath of God has done its work, bringing us to our third important observation:
Third, the Law of God is a merciless killer.
When the beautiful spirits arise from the sands contained within the Ark, Indiana Jones knows what’s coming: death and destruction (2 Corinthians 3:6). The Ark held the 10 Commandments, the Law given by God to Moses as a reflection of his holiness. Indy knows that the Law of God is not something to be trifled with, not something to be controlled, not something to be overcome.
When we come face-to-face with the Law, we see how short of its standard we fall, and we die. This is no exaggeration. We have all come to see ourselves as the sum of our achievements. We say things like, “I am a good father," "I am a college professor," "I am a pastor," or "I am a good Christian.” When we are shown to be fraudulent or failures…our lives crash in upon themselves. This is nothing less than a death, and a much more painful death than our literal and physical one because we are cursed to live through it.
The Bible also claims that the law kills, and literally. When Moses brought the law down from the mountain, finding the Israelites worshipping the golden calf, three thousand people died (Exodus 32). Life under and with the law killed the entire first generation of Israelites who had come out of Egypt before the Promised Land was reached (the Book of Numbers). Death is real result of interaction with the Law of God.
Too often, we set our sights on being a better father, or a college professor with tenure, or the pastor of a larger congregation, or a more sanctified Christian. We don’t know that, by doing this, we are willingly placing ourselves in front of the firing squad of the Law. We forget that the Law melts faces.
Of course,we cannot simply close our eyes to the law, “engraved in letters on stone,” as Indiana Jones did. It is too powerful, and will bring only death and destruction. We have a better hope than he had, though: the hope found in a resurrected Savior, who promised to fulfill the law on our behalf, stare its destructive power in the maw, and give his victory to us.