First Reformed and the Impossibility of Grace
Note: this article contains spoilers.
Paul Schrader’s 2017 film First Reformed, starring Ethan Hawke and Amanda Seyfried, is a brilliantly dark film that explores profound religious questions. The story centers on Rev. Ernst Toller, a divorced pastor of the waning congregation at First Reformed, a historic Dutch Reformed parish in Snowbridge, New York. From the outset, it is apparent the pastor is undergoing a crisis of faith, which we glimpse by way of excerpts from Toller’s nightly journal entries.
Parishioner Mary and her environmental activist husband Michael are thrust into Toller’s life when she raises concerns about her spouse’s mental health and antipathy toward their unborn child. After a conversation with Michael, it becomes clear that the young husband and father-to-be is spiraling into nihilism. Ecological degradation and subsequent destruction have robbed Michael of hope, a fact accentuated when Mary finds a homemade suicide vest in the garage. Rev. Toller shortly thereafter finds Michael dead in a park from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Beginning with Michael’s funeral at a toxic waste dumping site, Rev. Toller begins his own downward spiral, as he too becomes infected by the eco-nihilism that drove Michael off the edge. Toller’s descent into mental chaos is accompanied by health problems as the Reverend pollutes his own body with alcohol, paralleling the devastating impact of the energy industry on nature. Toller reaches his moment of crisis when he decides to arm and don Michael’s suicide vest at the consecration of First Reformed on its 250th anniversary, an event sponsored and attended by a wealthy energy executive whose company is a major polluter. After putting the vest under his cassock, he sees Mary enter the church to attend the event despite his warnings to her to stay away. Putting the vest away, he wraps himself in barbed wire and pours himself a glass of drain cleaner. As he is about to drink his poisonous cocktail, Mary appears to him in the doorway, causing him to drop the drink as they embrace in an ecstatic kiss right before the film cuts to credits.
The audience is left with a question. Is Rev. Tollerexperiencing an ecstatic vision as he dies, or is Mary actually present there with him? How does Mary get into the parsonage when the door is locked? What about his wounds from the barbed wire? The ending is purposely vague, allowing for a variety of interpretations. Paul Schrader himself admits this, saying, “It’s calibrated to be read in different ways.”
Before offering my own interpretation of the film’s enigmatic ending, I find it helpful to take a detour into Karl Barth’s Commentary on Romans. In Romans 7, Paul wrestles with the force of the Law and its impact on human existence (v.1): “Do you not know, brethren—for I am speaking to those who know the law—that the law is binding on a person only during his life?” The Law—a term Barth uses to mean human religion and morality, broadly speaking—sparks in its adherent the notion of possibility. Of course, Barth would admit that religion and morality ought to be practiced and can even be means of grace. However the downside is that the possibility continually offered to the person is one of false hope: “the last and most inevitable human possibility—the possibility of religion—even in its most courageous, most powerful, most clearly defined, most impossible ‘variety,’ is after all no more than a human possibility, and as such a limited possibility: and, because limited, peculiarly dangerous” (230). The Law, then, is a good—but its danger lies in its ability to deceive us into a mode of self-sufficiency where all we need to do is pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps.
Grace then breaks onto the scene, not as another possibility among possibilities but rather as “an impossibility which is possible only in God, and which is unencumbered and untouched by the final possibility, the ambiguity, of religion” (231). So, in Romans 7:1, where law has dominion over the human, it means we are all embroiled in the uncertainty wrapped up in the possibility of religion. This creates a dualism where, on the one hand, the practitioner is positive (in the “Yes” of God) in that they “bear noble witness to the relation which exists between God and man” and negative (the “No”) in that they are constantly confronted by the reality of God’s holiness in front of which they cannot stand. In this dualism, sin “abounds” (Rom 7:20) because when we practice religion, we translate God from a place of freedom and pre-eminence to locking him into the category of “no” (231). This is an inevitable feature of human life on earth; we will always practice religion. The impossible Yes of God, however, is not to the “natural” self but the new self who has been raised into life by that “Yes.” Even in the world where I achieve the possible—by obeying all the Law requires—it is all skubala without the impossible.
So that brings us back to the puzzling ending of First Reformed. The question Michael asked Rev. Toller at the beginning of the film, “Will God forgive us?” has haunted the pastor and becomes his obsession. It is at this moment when all hope seems lost: the barbed wire is cutting his flesh, the drain cleaner is poured in the glass, and Pastor Jeffress is unable to get into the locked parsonage. Yet, behind this display of despair, a song is being performed: “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.” The hymn creates a strange juxtaposition as Rev. Toller is increasingly trapped in his tortured angst. It is only when things seem hopeless that Mary appears in the locked parsonage and says Rev. Toller’s name as they embrace.
Her appearance evokes a similar moment in the Gospels. After the crucifixion of Christ, the Apostles felt hopeless as the man in whom they had placed their hopes seemed gone forever, executed as a criminal on the cruel wood of the cross. It was at that moment, however, that Christ appeared amongst them in a locked room (John 20:19). Mary’s appearance might also remind us of Augustine’s Lady Continence (who, I would contend, was the Blessed Virgin herself). When Augustine was alone in the garden, his sins whispering in his ears, Lady Continence appeared, exhorting him forward into the rapturous love of God. Similarly, when Rev. Toller finds the sins of environmental degradation, self-abuse, and despondency whispering in his ear, Mary appears, beckoning him into a humanizing relationship demonstrated by a passionate embrace.
The point is less about answering the questions remaining at the end of the film (Is Toller dead or alive? Is Mary really present?). The importance of the final scene is in the shocking conclusion of grace’s triumph. It is precisely because of the impossibility of it all that we know it is in fact possible in God. Throughout the film, Rev. Toller remarks a number of times on the difficulty and even impossibility of real prayer. He’s right because his conception of it has been too narrow, always starting with the human. At the film’s finale, we see that true prayer begins with divine initiative. In the end, Rev. Toller has a lived experience of the somewhat disembodied advice he provided the troubled Michael at the beginning of the film. Then, he diagnosed Michael’s reticence about having a child not as being a concern for the child or even his wife, but rather as an expression of his dejection in the face of his shattered hope in science, as detailed in the following exchange:
Rev. Toller: It’s about you and your despair. Your lack of hope. Look, people have, throughout history, have woken up in the dead of night, confronted by blackness. The sense that our lives are without meaning. The Sickness Unto Death.
Michael: Yeah, but this is something different.
Rev. Toller: Yeah, no. Man’s great achievements have brought him to a place where life as we know it may cease in the foreseeable future. Yes, that’s new. But the blackness, that’s not. We are scientific people. We want to solve things. We want rational answers. Right? And if…If humankind can’t overcome immediate interests enough to ensure its own survival, then you’re right. The only rational response is despair. But do you think that, that…That there’s any existence apart from this? This here, right now?
Michael: Uh, yes.
Rev. Toller: Yeah, right. Before us. After us.
Rev. Toller: Now, Michael. I can promise you that whatever despair you feel about bringing a child into this world cannot equal the despair of taking a child from it…Courage is the solution to despair. Reason provides no answers. I can’t know what the future will bring. We have to choose despite uncertainty. Wisdom is holding two contradictory truths in our mind, simultaneously, hope and despair. A life without despair is a life without hope. Holding these two ideas in our head is life itself.
In the final scene, Rev. Toller’s dialectic reappears—not as detached propositions or platitudes used in pastoral counsel, but as reality. And how are we to believe the final scene of the film? Precisely because it’s so unbelievable. That’s how grace always operates: as an impossibility.
Safe and secure from all alarms
Leaning on the everlasting arms.