Thursday, January 03, 2013

Some Theological Analysis of Les Miserables - The Bad and the Good

I absolutely loved the most recent movie depiction of Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, and I recommend it highly, but not uncritically. Hugo was not a Christian, and he did not intend to communicate the biblical gospel through his work, though gospel themes run through it.

The Bad 

1. Christ is not the redeemer. Throughout the story, human beings are portrayed as “redeeming” human beings. Hugo depicted a world where human beings, by acting “redemptively” toward one another, are able to change the world, and make it a better place, free from the condemnation of the law.  This is not the biblical picture.

2. Justice is not the basis of Hugo's idea of redemption. Also, some of Valjean's “mercies” are outright injustices. Valjean often thwarts the law and runs from it. When Valjean saves Fantine from arrest by Javert, he simply rescinds the law by fiat based on his power as a governor. There is no substitutionary sacrifice, no satisfaction of justice.

3. No one is redeemed for Christ. People are redeemed from the penalty of the law, but they're not redeemed by the grace of the Lord Jesus, nor are they redeemed to know Him, commune with Him, and be conformed to Him for His glory. They are redeemed primarily for “freedom” from this-worldly oppression. The little man is saved from the tyrannies of the strong, but not explicitly by Christ or for Christ.

4. Final salvation is without Christ. Heaven is a better political order where the little man is no longer oppressed by the strong. The weak are free from the dominion of tyrants. Hugo's heaven is not a world of Christ's love with Him sitting on His eternal throne. It is not a place where Jesus is central. Rather, people are central.

5. The source of sin is not within sinners, but originates from without. Human beings sin because others have oppressed them and they've been caught in hard circumstances. If oppression were to lift and circumstances were to improve, people will probably stop sinning so much. Valjean was imprisoned for his theft, which was not really his fault. Fantine was called to account for her sin, which was not really her fault.

The Good 

1. There is a strong contrast between the law and the gospel. Though Hugo's picture is distorted, there is a true biblical contrast between the law and the gospel. The law does not and cannot save. It only condemns sinners in their sin, enslaves them, and puts them in need of redemption. Only true mercy and redemptive grace have the power to change a heart and a life. At one point Valjean (mercy) tells Javert (justice) that he finds no fault with him, but that Javert has done his duty “and no more. “ Biblically speaking, the gospel finds no fault with the law, but it certainly does more than the law by satisfying it. 

2. The larger trajectory of Valjean's life is that of a Christian. At first, Valjean is enslaved to the law for his sins. His sentence to imprisonment for breaking the law cannot touch his heart. The law can never change the heart of a sinner. But Valjean is then redeemed freely and unconditionally by the mercy of another, even in the face of his stubborn sin. And the actions of Valjean's redeemer melt his heart and change his life forever. For the rest of his life, Valjean is a flawed character, but having been shown grace, he can't help but show grace and mercy to others. He is a man who can never get over the mercy shown to him. Valjean's death is not the end but leads to a better world.

3. True grace is not cheap. The church today often teaches a gospel of cheap grace that does nothing but give people a ticket to heaven. The distorted picture of grace is sentimental and produces good feelings, but it does not transform lives. But God's grace in Christ is powerfully transformative. Just as Valjean couldn't get over the mercy shown to him, those who see their own sin and condemnation and Christ and His mercies can't ever get over the gospel. There is no such thing as a sinner saved by the gospel of Jesus Christ who does not show grace and love to others. Redeemed people seek the redemption of others in Christ.

4. Christ's mercy overcomes the penalty of the law. Valjean's unconditional mercy overcame Javert's strict justice and ultimately ended up killing Javert. In the way of analogy, Christ's death on the cross does the same thing (Rom 7:1-6), except Christ did not kill the law, He satisfied it. Christ didn't destroy the law by leading it into an irresolvable conflict; rather, He exalted the law so that it lives in full.  "Do we then overthrow the law by this faith?  By no means!  On the contrary, we uphold the law" (Rom 3:31).

5. God's mercy in Christ is for the worst of sinners. Jesus Christ shows mercy to thieves, liars, prostitutes, and legalists. Sinners don't have to (and must not!) clean themselves up before they receive mercy. Rather, Christ gives His mercy freely. He saves and redeems the worst of the worst, just as mercy came to the worst of the worst in this movie.

6. Christ came to save the weak, not those who think they are strong.  Scripture tells us that Jesus didn't come to save the righteous but the unrighteous.  He didn't come to heal the well, but the sick.  Mercy is for those who are miserable in their sins.  Grace is for those who need it.  Les Miserables captures this truth.  The strong cannot comprehend their need of mercy.  But the weak do.

7. Heaven will be a restored world, free from all oppression. While Hugo's vision of heaven is truncated, what he says about it is basically true. It will be a place of freedom from oppression. It will be a renewed political and economic order. It will be a place where swords are exchanged for plowshares. It will be a world of happiness.

8. Ironically, the very fact that Hugo hides humanistic ideas in Christian clothing confirms the truth of Scripture. By nature, fallen human beings resist the gospel. We want to think we can be our own saviors and the saviors of others. Even true Christians fall into the trap of emphasizing our mercy, our good works, and our ability to change ourselves and others, rather than Christ's works, Christ's mercy, and Christ's ability to change us. So, unwittingly, Hugo confirms the truth of Scripture about human nature. He confirms his need and our need of God's grace in Christ.

9. Ironically, the fact that Christian themes are pervasive throughout the film confirms that Hugo is made in God's image. Tolkien and Lewis said that the gospel is the “true myth.” Though the lost can't embrace the gospel as it is, its themes resonate with the remaining image of God in them. Victor Hugo couldn't escape the "true myth" and even found beautiful the glory of mercy and redemption.


  1. I am facilitating a one week (15 hour) forum at Christian Heritage Academy (Chicago suburbs) entitled "The Theology of Les Miserables". I used this posting as a part of the class, asking students to either agree or disagree with each of the points listed here. Thank you for your insights!

  2. I absoluely loved it. But I have seen the musical about 5 times and read the book at least twice. So I think I was predisposed to like it. I thought that the director did a good job of making use of the strengths of the screen to do things that are not really possible on stage.

    There are some places that the singing could have been trimmed and they just spoke. I think Russel Crowe was the weakest of the main characters, especially in singing.

    But on the whole I really liked it.
    Highly recommended Painting Sacramento Company