This post comes to us from Grayson Quay:

(The following is not meant to provide an exhaustive or systematic theology of the Atonement, if indeed such a thing were possible.)

The familiar theme plays over the title card. It’s “Gonna Fly Now,” stripped of lyrics and of all instruments but horns. The effect is something like a royal fanfare, evoking images of the human form crowned with gold, robed in purple, and seated on a throne. Instead, when we see Rocky and his opponent, Spider Rico, we see the human form beaten, bloodied, and reviled, stripped of all dignity. Spectators hurl trash at the pugilists and call them bums. “Hit him!” a woman screams. The fighters’ frustration flames out in moments of cruelty. Spider headbutts Rocky. Rocky responds by knocking him to the mat and punching him while he’s down. They return to their locker rooms, only to be disrespected and underpaid by the promoter. It’s a bleak opening.

But before we ever see Rocky, we see another face, the face of Christ painted on a mural above the ring. The first shot is a close-up. His hard-set countenance, haloed in light, suggests a stern Pantocrator, but as the camera zooms out we see that instead of the book and blessing of the Last Judgment, His hands hold a Host and chalice. Thank God for this shot. It is only with a wounded-yet-glorified Christ looking on, offering His broken body and spilt blood in solidarity with a suffering world, that Rocky can face the ultimate opponent and “walking in the way of the Cross … find it none other than the way of life.”

His opponent is Apollo Creed, a name charged with meaning. Creed: a dogmatic and inflexible statement of faith; an unshakable reality against which a man measures and defines himself. Apollo: the Greek god of the sun and of pestilence; a god who — like other ancient gods — has no love for mankind and crushes any who cross him. Life is suffering, and it is against this harsh and unchangeable truth that Rocky must struggle. So must we all.

As Homer’s Iliad draws to a close, Achilles and Priam, enemies in the Trojan War, recognize their shared helplessness in the face of such realities. Achilles has lost his closest friend and Priam his dearest son. There is nothing either can do about it. Divine indifference can turn to cruelty without warning, falling upon anyone at any time. All we can do is endure it. Achilles tells Priam as much, recounting a tale of Apollo’s vengeance:

For even Niobē, she of the lovely tresses, remembered
to eat, whose twelve children were destroyed in her palace,
six daughters, and six sons in the pride of their youth, whom Apollo
killed with arrows from his silver bow, being angered
with Niobē, and shaft-showering Artemis killed the daughters;

Nine days long they lay in their blood, nor was there anyone
to bury them, for the son of Kronos made stones out of
the people; but on the tenth day the Uranian gods buried them.
But she remembered to eat when she was worn out with weeping.

Delightful, isn’t it? “Come on, Priam, eat something! Sure, the cosmos is an existential nightmare for mortals like us, but if you eat something, you’ll feel better about it.” Life sucks, and then you die. Anything else is wishful thinking. Rocky must challenge Apollo, and he will inevitably find that — to borrow one of my wife’s favorite sayings — his arms are too short to box with a god. Rocky knows this. “I can’t beat him,” he says. “I ain’t even in the guy’s league.”  It’s a mismatch from the start. Only one outcome is possible.

The gods — or fate or the universe or whatever you want to call it — squash humans like bugs, and with as little thought. They hoard immortality for themselves, leaving us to die. They do not love us. Rocky is facing off against this entire cosmic order, against human limitation, against meaningless suffering, against death itself.

Perhaps alone among the ancients, Job refused to live in a cosmos governed by cruelty and caprice. Having been given every reason to resign himself like Achilles, he instead cries out, “I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last He will stand upon the earth.” The fight is still unwinnable, but Job knows that one day Someone will climb into the ring and take the punches alongside him. And just like that, everything changes.

Earnest Hemingway doesn’t express much interest in the theological doctrine that Christ died for us, but it mattered a hell of a lot to him that Christ died with us. In For Whom the Bell Tolls, a young Communist soldier named Joaquín is about to die on a poorly defended hilltop. He is a good atheist, as the Party demands, having transferred his veneration from the Virgin to the Communist hero Dolores Ibárruri, also known as la Pasionaria. His comrades mock Joaquín’s devotion, telling him that his goddess has a son who is studying in Russia instead of fighting alongside them in Spain. Joaquín tries to brush off their taunts, but as bombs fall around him, he begins to pray the Hail Mary. La Pasionaria’s son may not have died on a hill with him, but Mary’s Son did. In the end, that’s all that matters to Joaquín.

In his short play “Today Is Friday,” Hemingway depicts three Roman soldiers drinking in a bar after Christ’s crucifixion. They talk about it like it was a boxing match. “I thought he was pretty good in there today,” one says.

“Listen,” another replies, “I seen a lot of them — here and plenty of other places. Any time you show me one that doesn’t want to get down off the cross when the time comes — when the time comes, I mean — I’ll climb right up with him.” Christ’s death and resurrection provide the ultimate affirmation that there can be meaning in suffering, victory in defeat, life in death. Only with that confidence can we endure those trials. Jordan Peterson’s exhortations to take up the cross and stumble uphill aren’t helpful unless there’s something at the top of that hill other than torture and death. If life is meaningless suffering all the way through, then pretending it’s not is mere delusion. Christ can’t just be an archetype. The Story only works if it’s true.

The night before the fight, Rocky, like Christ in Gethsemane, understands what he’s about to face. Rocky knows he’s going to lose, but he shows up anyway. “All I wanna do is go the distance,” he tells Adrian. “Nobody’s ever gone the distance with Creed. And if I can go that distance, see, and that bell rings and I’m still standin’, I’m gonna know for the first time in my life, see, that I weren’t just another bum from the neighborhood.” Rocky hopes to go 15 rounds the way Christ went 14 Stations. Without Christ as its true archetype, Rocky’s paradoxical victory is just another defeat. “For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too,” writes St. Paul, for whom the analogy between Christian and prizefighter was a natural one. Rocky’s “comfort” is that, by suffering Apollo’s punches with courage and hope, he can regain his lost dignity, just as Christ, through the marring of His countenance “beyond human semblance,” restored the disfigured Image in us. Like Christ, Rocky can drink the cup of suffering to its dregs and, emerging victorious in defeat, lay claim to his bride.

It’s fitting that Rocky shares his nickname with the Jewish fisherman Simon bar-Jonah, better known to us as St. Peter. Petrus. The Rock. Rocky. The “bum” who folded under the slightest pressure but could later write to his flock that Christ “suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in His steps” and still later follow in those steps himself. Peter went to his death having seen firsthand that suffering need not be senseless, that God is not aloof and vengeful like Apollo but rather a lover of and co-sufferer with mankind. To share in His suffering was to share in His victory. The early Christians approached martyrdom with the same attitude. “[A]nother will be inside me Who will suffer for me, just as I shall be suffering for Him,” St. Felicity said as she prepared to die in a Roman arena.

In the sixth film in the series, Rocky Balboa, an aged Rocky comes out of retirement to fight reigning champ Mason “The Line” Dixon. Badly outmatched by the younger man, Rocky absorbs one brutal punch after another, but in the second round, Dixon lands a badly aimed punch on Rocky’s hip, hurting his hand. Now it’s an even fight. Our situation is similar. Death, still seemingly an unstoppable force, has broken himself against an immovable Object. He still hits plenty hard, but with Christ, we can take anything he can dish out. We might even get a little cocky: “What happened to that right hook I’ve heard so much about? Where’s your victory, buddy? Where’s your sting?”