It’s your typical hero’s journey, but this one is narrated by a fine quintet of gospel-singing muses.
They introduce us to Hercules, son of Zeus and Hera. He’s born a god but his divinity is stolen from him through a ploy by Hades (the god of, well, Hades). It almost works except that Hercules escapes with one divine attribute intact: his god-like strength.
Hercules is adopted and raised by mortals, but as he grows he knows he’s destined for more: greatness, stardom, glory. He knows he’s made to be a hero. In fact his origin story reveals that only an act of true heroism will help him regain his place among the gods.
He enlists the help of Philoctetes or “Phil,” a half-man half-goat hero-trainer voiced perfectly by Danny Devito. Reluctantly, Phil agrees to help the kid out and leads him to a city teaming with desperate people, victims of earthquakes, fires, floods, and “don’t even get me started on the crime rate.”
What they need is a hero, and thankfully they got one. In an epic montage of his deeds of strength, power, and wonder, Hercules rises to fame and glory. All is going great until he’s discovered again by Hades (who assumed he’d been dealt with back in act one).
Hades, determined to equalize Hercules and all the other gods, employs a damsel in distress named Meg, but she’s not your typical princess. She’s under Hades’ command, but she’s still an independent woman.
What follows is a thickening plot of both love and betrayal until the climactic scene in which Hercules, rendered truly mortal, is facing death when Meg saves him; but in the process she dies. She descends to Hades, sinking into the mythical river Styx where, with all the dead, she will drift in corruption and decay. That’s when Hercules storms the gates of Hades, and dives into Death to rescue the one he so loves… remind you of anyone?
It’s still Pentecost when Peter pipes up with the first Christian sermon. If it were a Disney movie, he too would be voiced by Danny Devito. “Fellow Israelites,” he says, “listen to what I got to say.” In front of a crowd of puzzled witnesses, by the power of the Holy Spirit, Peter gives them the gospel by telling them a story.
It’s a story of the son of God among mortals. His divinity isn’t stolen, he willingly sets it aside. From infancy it’s clear he’s destined for greatness.He enlists others along the way not because he needed their help, but because they needed his, Peter among them.
It was obvious he was more than mortal, “attested by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know,” Peter says. It’s like a typical hero’s journey, but this is not your typical hero. He doesn’t seek his own fame or glory. Instead he lifts up the lowly and calls their salvation the glory of God.
In the end it’s a story of both love and betrayal with a climactic scene in which it almost seems like our hero made a deal with the devil, offering himself up for the sake of others, but Peter is clear our hero didn’t do it alone. “We crucified him,” he says. We can’t blame it on some demigod like Hades. We did this. He came to what was his own like a hometown hero, and we sent him from hero to zero in no time flat.
I hesitate to even mention a Disney story because Hercules is not Jesus and the gospel is not a Disney movie. But still, the Christological notes are too strong to ignore. Even when it’s a cartoon superhero who does it we can’t help but be moved at the sight of someone diving head first into Hades for the sake and salvation of another.
The animators even make sure we see the corruption of Hurcules’ flesh as he swims down deeper and deeper, diving with every ounce of his being to rescue his beloved. As he dies it reveals his that his heroic destiny was not found in his strength but in weakness, in his willingness to lay down his life out of love.
It’s then and only then that he is raised, and Meg with him. We can’t help but be see in this the shape of the gospel, life brought out of death.
“This Jesus,” Peter proclaims, “This Jesus whom you crucified… God raised. God released him from the agony of death because it was impossible for him to be held in its power.”
Peter’s short gospel story: “This Jesus whom you crucified, God raised,” it is the good news that echoes in many other stories, yes, but it’s not just a story. It’s not a product of Disney’s imagineers, it is an act of God, a God who is hell bent on saving you.
This gospel is revealed in many places, yes, but nowhere more clearly than in the flesh of Jesus Christ. Even our worst has not stopped him from pouring out his best, his flesh, his blood, his spirit, his grace, his power, his immortality, all of it, poured out on all flesh. He is our hero, diving deep into death to raise us up to life, making more of us mortals than we could ever ask or imagine.
“Therefore,” says Peter, quoting the Psalms, “Therefore let our hearts be glad, and let our tongues rejoice; moreover, let our flesh live in hope. For God shall not abandon our souls to Hades or let our bodies experience corruption. The Lord has made known to us the ways of life; and filled us with the gladness of his presence.”
Thanks be to God.