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Rescued from the Brink: ‘Thirteen Lives’ and ‘Infinite Storm’ | Messages | Churchisonline.com

by Brett McCracken
God Made Us to Gather

I love a good survival movie—intense dramas of gritty resilience in the face of certain death. Think 127 Hours, where a stranded hiker (played by James Franco) has to amputate his own arm in order to survive, or classics like Castaway. It’s incredible what humans can do when they have the will to live on.

But even more compelling than a good solo survival story is a riveting drama of rescue. For Christians, there’s profound theological resonance in this type of story. We are helplessly lost, dead in our sin, in need of divine rescue; a merciful intervention is our only hope. When this dynamic shows up in movies—as in the nine examples I’ve written about before—it moves us. These salvation scenes sound the beautiful note of pure grace, and they strike a chord.

These salvation scenes sound the beautiful note of pure grace, and they strike a chord.

Two new “rescue” movies struck this chord with me: Thirteen Lives and Infinite Storm. These 2022 films dramatize true-story rescues involving harrowing attempts to pull people out of grim situations created by inclement weather. Thirteen Lives (directed by Ron Howard), following the excellent National Geographic documentary The Rescue (2021), stars Viggo Mortensen and Colin Farrell as British cave divers who help rescue a junior soccer team and their coach after they get trapped in a flooded cave in Thailand. Infinite Storm (codirected by Małgorzata Szumowska and Michał Englert) is based on a 2010 true story nationally publicized in a Reader’s Digest article. It stars Naomi Watts as Pam Bales, an experienced search and rescue hiker who single-handedly rescues an endangered male hiker on New Hampshire’s Mount Washington amid a howling storm.

In addition to their similarities in man vs. nature survival drama, these two films capture different facets of rescue that have resonance with the Christian gospel.

Postures of the Rescued

One observation about the rescued in these films is that the cause of their plight is a mix of ill-advised personal choices (venturing into risky terrain with inclement weather in the forecast) and circumstances beyond their control. In Thirteen Lives (rated PG-13) the victims are more sympathetic: they’re just young boys who hike into the wrong cave on the wrong day. The whole world roots for them to be saved. In Infinite Storm (rated R), the hiker needing rescue (played by Billy Howle) is less sympathetic. He’s belligerent when discovered by Bales and repeatedly resists her attempts to save him. As we later find out (and as it happened in real life), he had actually gone up to the mountain in the storm to end his life.

Despite the different levels of culpability for their plights, however, the Thai boys and the Mount Washington hiker (Bales never knows his real name, but calls him “John”), both accept their rescue and place trust in their rescuers. The Thai boys do so eagerly, putting their lives in the hands (literally) of the divers who carry them out of the flooded cave like packages. John does so reluctantly, only later fully appreciating Bales’s sacrifice that secured his deliverance. In a letter he eventually wrote (anonymously) to thank Bales for rescuing him, he says,

With all that has been going wrong in my life, I didn’t matter to me, but I did to Pam. She probably thought I was the stupidest hiker dressed like I was, but I was never put down in any way—chewed out yes—in a kind way. Maybe I wasn’t meant to die yet, I somehow still mattered in life.

“I didn’t matter to me, but I did to Pam.” How often is that true of sinners pursued by a gracious God? Somehow, even as self-absorbed as we are, we matter to ourselves far less than we matter to God. It reminds me of something Shane Morris wrote for The Gospel Coalition last year about the need for others to save us from ourselves: “Sometimes we need a hand there to curtail our freedoms, to override our self-will, and to tell us life is still worth living when our imaginations fail. And without the intervention and care of others, our imaginations will inevitably fail.”

Do we overcomplicate our rescue by debating our worthiness, questioning the motives of the rescuer, or insisting on contributing to our own salvation? Do we dig in our heels as God seeks to drag us out of the pit (or down the mountain, as in Infinite Storm)? Or do we embrace him with a child’s trust, allowing ourselves to go completely limp as he carries us to safety (as in Thirteen Lives).

As you watch movies about thrilling rescues, pay attention to the postures of the rescued (my all-time favorite is probably the blubbering, shell-shocked Tom Hanks at the end of Captain Phillips). But also note the postures of the rescuer.

Postures of the Rescuers

Parallels between human rescuers and God only go so far, of course. The rescuers in these films are as vulnerable and in need of salvation as those they rescue. They’re imperfect, deeply broken people. This is especially true in Infinite Storm, where Pam Bales arguably needs to rescue John as much as he needs to be rescued by her. Both are bruised by past traumas, and both need to be touched by this act of selfless heroism in order to move forward.

Still, the shadows of ultimate rescue we get in these films can help us appreciate theological truths about the Rescuer of all rescuers, Jesus Christ.

Consider how the rescuers in both films act sacrificially. They lay down their own safety (and in the case of Thai navy diver Saman Gunan, his own life) in order to save strangers they don’t even know. Consider also how indifferent the rescuers are to the question of whether the imperiled victims deserve to be rescued. For the Thai rescue divers and Pam Bales, it’s enough to know the needy are human beings. Their lives matter, to the point of warranting immense resources to save them (the Thai cave rescue involved 10,000 people and cost $9 million).

The asymmetry of the Thai rescue in particular—such an immense cost to rescue 13 lives—reflects the theological beauty of the gospel. On paper, our little lives are nothing compared to the staggering cost of the cross. But grace isn’t about even exchanges. It’s math that doesn’t add up. But that’s why it’s so beautiful.

Grace isn’t about even exchanges. It’s math that doesn’t add up. But that’s why it’s so beautiful.

It’s the illogical beauty of a father who embraces and welcomes home a rebellious son who did everything wrong and nothing to earn such a reception (Luke 15:11–32); of a group of divers who travel to the other side of the world and risk their lives in a dangerous cave to attempt to save the boys without even knowing if they’re alive; of a woman who risks her life to basically carry a stubborn, suicidal man down a mountain in a blizzard.

It’s the inscrutable beauty of the One who left heaven “to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10), emptying and degrading himself on a brutal cross for the sake of sinners who mocked him and spat in his face.

Arresting Beauty in the Storm

These asymmetrical rescues stop us in our tracks because they echo divine grace.

Thirteen Lives and Infinite Storm don’t operate out of a Christian worldview, so their understanding of this arresting beauty isn’t theological. In Thirteen Lives, the illogical rescue is explained in the terms of human solidarity: a global community that rises to the occasion when a need surfaces somewhere. In Infinite Storm, the rescue is pitched as an example of coping with suffering by choosing kindness in a cruel world. The title comes from something Bales says near the end of the film, paraphrasing John Muir: “Even in the storm, even in the pain, . . . there is so much beauty. The whole universe appears as an infinite storm of beauty.”

As Christians, we know there’s more to it than this. Grace isn’t just a random burst of beauty in a cold universe. It’s not just human compassion for humanist reasons. It’s the pulsating, glittering residue of the supernova event of history: God giving himself for the sake of his children, sending Christ to die for us while we were powerless sinners (Rom. 5:6–11).

Asymmetrical stories of unlikely rescue—whether in real life or in the movies—are echoes of the greater gospel rescue: the one in which we’re all stuck in a cave with no exit, or in an infinite storm, yet plucked from the abyss because of pure, unmerited grace.

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