A Flawed Atonement

Stories that Shaped my Faith

A Flawed Atonement

by Dominique Gilliard | June 6, 2016

Seven Pounds, which was released in 2008, is one of the most underrated films of its decade, and it’s undoubtedly my favorite Will Smith movie.

This film’s title derives from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice in which Shylock the moneylender agrees to make a loan on the condition that if it is not repaid, his debtor will repay him with a pound of flesh. In this film, Tim Thomas (Will Smith) offers his own “pound of flesh” as a sacrifice to atone for seven deaths he caused.

One night Tim is driving his fiancée home after a romantic date—where he just proposed—when his phone chimes, alerting him that he has a new message. He picks up his phone and begins to reply. As he tries to split his attention—between the road, his fiancée, and his phone—he swerves across the center line into oncoming traffic and causes a multi-car crash. Six strangers and his fiancée are killed.

In seven days, God created the world. And in seven seconds, I shattered mine.

Seeking atonement, Tim literally dedicates his life as a living sacrifice. Two years after the crash, he quits his job as an aeronautical engineer and donates part of his lung to his brother Ben, who is an IRS field agent. As he recovers at Ben’s house, Tim steals his brother’s IRS identification, which he uses to identify other potential recipients for his expiating gifts. Posing as an IRS agent, Tim is able to perform background checks on potential recipients. He then tracks them down and “interviews” them to assess whether they are worthy of his sacrificial offering. He requires each potential recipient to prove their virtue before they can receive his grace.

Tim ultimately identifies six individuals (his brother is the seventh) whom he deems worthy and provides them each with a gift that either extends or dramatically enhances their life. He offers his seven gifts of life, before God and to the recipients—in an effort to atone for his error. Each gift is something that the recipients could never provide for themselves, and he offers them with no strings attached.

His mission costs him his life, but through his death, his heart, eyes, and other vital organs are given to individuals who would have otherwise died, or at least would have gone through life without experiencing it fully.

In this way, Seven Pounds becomes an artistic, Eucharistic articulation. Tim’s broken body becomes a life-giving source for those who partake in it. Tim, who gives his life in selflessness, lives on through those who receive his body. The grace bestowed upon Tim’s recipients marks and seals their lives; and on receiving their gift of sacrificial love, each person is emboldened to live life anew, and to do so abundantly. Each recipient is therefore empowered by the gift, renewed to thrive in the world in new ways, both in their vocation and as people of peace in the world, ambassadors of love and reconciliation.

“In seven days, God created the world. And in seven seconds, I shattered mine,” Tim says. Seven Pounds is imperfect theologically, but it is a thought-provoking movie, especially for Christians. What if the church was known for devoting our lives to others as Tim does (without the judgment)? What if we saw ourselves as connected to others in ways that inclined us to sacrificially give of ourselves—even carnally—for their betterment? How would this change the world, our discipleship, and our understanding of Christian ethics? How would this reflect Christ in our world? How would this embody the sacraments we partake in?

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  1. Dominique, thanks for a helpful and thought-provoking piece. I think it’s difficult to find analogies for atonement, and – however imperfect – this one can be useful as we think through what Christ has done for us. Partly because they’re so rare, we’re also not used to using parallels like this, and it will be tough for some people to apply the big ideas without pointing out where the analogy fails… But I really appreciate the effort, and I think we have much to learn from the exercise.
    Christian academia needs to think intentionally outside the box. Our thought-leaders too frequently follow well-worn channels that result in a limited understanding and interpretation of doctrine. As you imply here, there is a predominant view of the atonement, which we’re all supposed to accept – but it certainly isn’t the whole truth of how justice, grace and mercy operate. I’m grateful, and I look forward to hearing more of your intelligent commentary.

  2. I watched this movie and I questioned whether his organs could be used by others because of the way he commits suicide. I’m not a doctor, so I don’t know. I couldn’t help but wonder how many suicidal people might think this was a good idea and would give their life (through their suicide) some kind of meaning. It left me feeling very unsettled.

  3. I am a little troubled at the idea Tim has done this “selflessly”—he is trying to atone for himself, which is not selfless. Also, he looks for those who are “worthy” of his gift. In the Eucharist, Christ’s atonement for us it totally selfless–he has nothing to gain from his sacrifice except to redeem a bunch of unworthy sinners. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this; while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Romans 5:8 This film may cause someone to think about sacrifice but it is a flawed sacrifice, indeed.

      1. I too agree with Rebecca. Once I learned the premise of the movie back in 2008, I decided I would never watch it. The protagonist is feeling guilt for his actions, for the death he has caused. That guilt has made him decide that he is no longer worthy to live and that he must die to make up for his crime. His “sacrifice” is a fancy suicide. It is not to be praised. As the author described, he commits felony after felony after felony in his “atonement.” This too is not to be praised. Seven wrongs do not make a right.

        Jesus was not atoning for his own sins, that is what made His sacrifice so valuable. A man pure of heart, pure of deed, was offered up in sacrifice for all of OUR sins not His own. There simply is no comparison and Seven Pounds deserved the panning the critics and the public gave it when released and it is shameful that the Covenant Church is advocating its message.

    1. First, I want to thank you all for reading my piece & reflecting on it. Secondly, I want to say that I completely agree with you, and for that reason I titled this piece a flawed atonement. I also say within the reflection that this film is “imperfect theologically,” and I did so because of the same promblems/distinctions between Tim & Christ that you raise. And as I turn to the reflective implications for the Church, I say what if we were to live in a way that we were willing to give of ourselves, “(without the judgment);” and, in hindsight, maybe I should have also said “and without the guilt driving us to be sacrifically connected to others,” but I thought that was clear already and with a limited word count, I didn’t want to be redundant. Additionally, when I said “sacrificially” I could have put quotes around it because I was describing the intention of the director, not my theological take on his work. I tried to make it clear that I wasn’t endorsing the film’s theological articulation. It’s flawed for sure. Tim’s guilt driven sacrafice was not selfless, but he believed that it was so; hence why he judged who was worthy of recieving it. This type of sacrafice is incompatible with Christ on every level and to act as if it is not, is heretical. So, that was not at all what I was suggesting. What I was trying to raise is what the film, flawed as it is, offers the Church in regards to reflecting on ethics, sacrifice, and our connection to others as people who are called to place the interest of others before our own. Tim is motivated by guilt, which is wrong, but is there a way in which we can learn something even from flawed examples? Tim saw himself as salvific and we must always remember that we are not, nor our the gifts that we offer, but could his character allow us to re-imagine what it means to be sacrificially connected to others, in a way that isn’t self destructive or suicidal, or inspired by a guilt that makes us feel like life is no longer worth living?

      1. Dominique: I enjoyed the piece very much. Thanks for your reflection. As you note, all metaphors and analogies are partial. Especially when I’m exploring popular culture, I’m not looking for exact parallels, but, hints and echoes of ultimate truth. I, for one, am grateful for what you’ve unearthed for us.

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