Looking to Hollywood’s horror film industry for moral vision makes about as much sense as looking to porn sites for tips on sexual purity. Yet every now and then, the Hollywood horror flick behemoth can, despite itself, reveal crucial truths about good and evil, right and wrong, morality and immorality.
Take the Purge anthology, five horror movies (and later a TV series) set in an alternative version of America with an annual holiday unlike Independence Day, Thanksgiving, or Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Instead, during this yearly celebration, called the Purge, all crime, including murder, is allowed for a 12-hour period. The law is suspended, and people are free to do whatever they want. And what follows in each movie is about 90 or so minutes of violence, carnage, and mayhem; that is, people doing whatever they want.
What, then, is the moral lesson from these gruesome flicks? Even if it is not what people who watch the movies might come away understanding, the answer is there: they show what happens when law, moral law, is no longer in effect. They demonstrate what happens when people no longer feel obligated, or pressured, to follow rules and laws not of their own making.
What these gruesome Purge movies have done, whether intending to or not (and probably not), is reveal why God’s law, the Ten Commandments, is so crucial for society. Yes, Hollywood, despite itself, has given the world a lesson in biblical morality and even the gospel.
the ten recommendations
Those old enough will remember where they were on September 11, 2001, when Islamic terrorists hijacked four commercial jetliners filled with passengers, killing almost 4,000 people and doing $10 billion worth of damage. It was the most deadly and destructive attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor in 1941.
What followed was predictable. Unable to differentiate between Islamic fanatics who fly airplanes into buildings and, say, Quakers who build homeless shelters or Seventh-day Adventists who run free clinics in Africa, a group of secularists known as the New Atheists began an all-out intellectual war on religion, all religion, no matter who practices it, or how.
Interestingly enough, despite their disdain for religion or anything theistic, some of these people, nevertheless, still saw a need for a grand moral code. We don’t need God, any god, to tell us how to be good, the idea goes, but we do still need some kind of moral foundation for society to follow. And this is why one of these leading atheist voices, Richard Dawkins, years ago promoted a contest in which contestants were to write up a secular version of the Ten Commandments. For each of the ten beliefs, the winner would be $1,000 richer.
They had their contest, and the secular version of the commandments went like this, at least partially: (No. 1) “Be open-minded and willing to alter your beliefs with new evidence.” (No. 6) “Be mindful of the consequences of all your actions and recognize that you must take responsibility for them.” (No. 7) “Treat others as you would want them to treat you and can reasonably expect them to want to be treated. Think about their perspective.” (No. 10) “Leave the world a better place than you found it.”1
With few exceptions, these new commandments were reasonable, and some, such as number 7, even sounded like the Bible: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12).
This atheistic rethink of the Ten Commandments, however, does lead to a few important questions: Why call them the ten commandments? Who is doing the commanding? Maybe they should be called the ten recommendations instead? But commandments? Who is the new Moses to command anyone to do anything, much less follow these rules?
This is an important point because we don’t need dystopian horror flicks, such as the Purge series, to know what happens when the law is not enforced and people do whatever they want. For instance, when the lights go out in a massive electrical blackout or after a natural disaster—who fills the streets first? Looters, vandals, rioters—or good Samaritans and philanthropists?
In contrast to these secular “commandments” created by atheists for a contest, the biblical Ten Commandments reveal their source as God Himself, the Creator of the universe. Built right into the first four of the Ten Commandments is the acknowledgment that God Himself is their authoritative source. They are, one through four, as follows: (1) You will have no gods before Him. (2) Don’t make idols out of what’s created and worship them as opposed to the Creator. (3) Don’t use God’s name in vain. (4) And keep the seventh-day Sabbath as a weekly reminder that God “made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day” (Exodus 20:11).
It is only after these first four commandments are given, which clearly establish the Sovereign God as their source, that the last six—commandments against lying, stealing, coveting, and so forth—are set forth. In other words, the first four show the authority of the One who gave these commandments, which is why we are obligated to obey all ten.
The Bible describes the scene in which they were uttered. “On the morning of the third day, there was thunder and lightning, with a thick cloud over the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast. Everyone in the camp trembled. Then Moses led the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. Mount Sinai was covered with smoke, because the LORD descended on it in fire. The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace, and the whole mountain trembled violently” (Exodus 19:16–18).
Smoke, fire, thunder, and bolts of lightning? The mountain quaked? The people trembled? And God, the Lawgiver, came down in “in fire”? Amid all this, God issued the Ten Commandments. Yes, commandments. Not suggestions. Not recommendations. Not good ideas conjured up from a contest, but commandments from God Himself.
for your own good
Years ago, three college kids, as a prank, removed a stop sign from a four-way intersection in the American Midwest. They took a wrench, and in two minutes, the sign was gone. Within an hour, a trucker, following the traffic laws, slammed into a passenger car.
Here’s how the New York Times described the courtroom scene when the three pranksters faced sentencing:
“Three friends in their early 20’s were sentenced to 15 years in prison today for removing a stop sign as a prank and causing the deaths of three teen-agers who drove into the path of an eight-ton truck in February 1996.
“ ‘I understand your parents love you as much as these parents loved their children—there are no winners in this case,’ Judge Bob Mitcham of Hillsborough County Circuit Court told the young woman and two young men who were convicted last month of manslaughter.
“The three teen-age victims, all 18, were killed after a night of bowling when they were broadsided as they drove through an intersection. The stop sign was found on the roadside near the accident.
“Turning to the sobbing families of those killed, Judge Mitcham said: ‘My heart breaks for you.’ ”2
This terrible story reflects something else from the Bible in relation to God’s law. “And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God ask of you but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in obedience to him, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to observe the LORD’s commands and decrees that I am giving you today for your own good?” (Deuteronomy 10:12, 13).
For your own good. God, as the Creator, the One who made us—He knows us, and He knows what’s best for us, and He wants what’s best for us too. Think of a parent who tells a child “Don’t eat the pills in the medicine cabinet,” or, “Don’t play with matches,” or “Don’t put things in the electrical socket.” They give these rules for the same reason that God gives His rules—out of love. And that’s the whole point of the Ten Commandments.
an antiquated law?
But aren’t the Ten Commandments antiquated and all?
Ask the woman whose cheating husband broke her heart. Ask her how antiquated the Ten Commandments are. Or ask their children, who saw their home break apart, if the commandment against adultery is outmoded and outdated.
Ask any one of the thousands who lost their life savings in Bernie Madoff’s $50-billion–Wall Street Ponzi scheme. Ask them how antiquated or irrelevant the command “Thou shalt not steal” really is.
“With the largest population, California also recorded the largest number of homicides in 2020, at 2,203 for the year. Texas had the second-highest number of murders, with 1,931 for the year.”3 Ask any one of those victims if God’s law is outdated (though we can’t because they are all dead) or, rather, ask their loved ones whether the Ten Commandments are antiquated.
In all these cases and so many more, the answer is obvious. Far from the Ten Commandments being outdated, our lives and the lives of our family and friends would be so much better, happier, and safer if everyone followed them. God knows that too—which is why they are not ten recommendations but, instead, Ten Commandments.
the Purge anthology and the gospel
Hollywood’s Purge series presented a pretty ugly picture of humanity. Though they’re only made-up stories, there is something frighteningly truthful about them. Think about what happens when soldiers act with impunity on conquered peoples. Do they feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and build homes for the homeless, or do they rape, pillage, and plunder?
A Rotten Tomatoes review of one of the Purge movies went like this: “An ugly, vile, and miserable film that essentially argues that all humans are evil.” Interestingly enough, thousands of years ago, the apostle Paul wrote something similar about humanity, saying that all human beings are guilty of sin and that “there is no one righteous, not even one” (Romans 3:10).
Even the best of people, at times, do wrong. We all know that. This is why, in the New Testament, God’s law, His Ten Commandments, are often presented with the hope of the gospel, which tells us that, yes, even though you have violated God’s law—everyone has—you can still find hope, promise, and salvation in Jesus.
There is, truly, a purge. But unlike Hollywood’s horror flicks, this purge is real, the purging of sin from our lives and from our records before God. And it can happen when, by faith, we accept Jesus as our Savior.
1. “The ReThink Prize: Crowd Sourcing the Ten Commandments for the 21st Century Winners,” Atheist Mind Humanist Heart, accessed June 1, 2022, http://www.atheistmindhumanistheart.com/winners/.
2. “3 Are Sentenced to 15 Years in Fatal Stop Sign Prank,” New York Times, June 21, 1997, www.nytimes.com/1997/06/21/us/3-are-sentenced-to-15-years-in-fatal-stop-sign-prank.html?pagewanted=1.
3. Statista Research Department, “Number of Murders in the U.S. by State 2020,” September 28, 2021, Statista, https://www.statista.com/statistics/195331/number-of-murders-in-the-us-by-state/.
Clifford Goldstein is the editor of the Seventh-day Adventist Church’s daily Bible study guide and a frequent contributor to Signs of the Times®. He writes from Tennessee.