Amnesia, Assassins, and What We Can’t Not Know

Leah and I recently watched the thriller Unknown. The movie’s premise is clever, if not very original. Professor Martin Campbell, played by Liam Neeson, awakens in a Berlin hospital with a case of partial amnesia following a terrible automobile accident. He soon learns that his wife doesn’t appear to recognize him and that another man has assumed his identity. To make matters worse, secret agents are trying to kill Campbell. After a series of plot twists, Campbell learns that he is actually a professional assassin and that his amnesia has caused him to incorrectly believe his “cover” is the real him. Campbell is horrified to learn about his true identity and sets about trying to atone for past sins.

If you’re like me, you may be thinking you’ve seen this movie before. The plot of Unknown echoes the Jason Bourne Trilogy in many ways. A man awakens after a traumatic event with a case of amnesia. People are trying to kill him. He slowly learns that he was once a professional killer who murdered people for a living. Disturbed by this revelation, he tries to redeem himself by turning over a new leaf, though of course a few baddies have to die along the way.

I’ve been thinking about how these movies actually point to the reality of a natural law. As J. Budziszewksi has helpfully reminded us, there are some truths we simply can’t not know. God’s moral law, which is summarized in the Decalogue, is woven into the very fabric of creation and is written on every person’s heart. When we suppress the natural law, we actually make ourselves dumber because we deny what we know to be true.

Though we have been bent by the fall, every human being intuitively knows that some things are wrong. Every culture everywhere has notions of murder, stealing, illicit sex, etc. Yes, different cultures draw the lines in different places-again, we’re fallen. But the point is that no matter what culture you live in and no matter what mores that culture embraces, there are some killings that are considered wrong, some possessions you can’t take from others, and some people with whom you can’t have sex.

In Unknown and the Bourne movies, the protagonist is disturbed when he learns of his previous life as a professional killer. Whatever moral compromises he’d made along the way to suppress his innate knowledge that murder is wrong, trauma and amnesia have snapped him back to moral reality. Murder is sin, and he knows it. And now he believes he has to take specific steps to put his past behind him, atone for all the murders, and move on in a new direction-one that doesn’t involve contract killing or covert (and illegal) assassinations.

Christians know that Campbell and Bourne can’t do anything to atone for their murderous pasts-only placing their faith in the risen Lord can do that. The two ex-murders can’t make things right, but they can rest in the One who has. The gospel alone offers them the cleansing of their guilty consciences and the hope they need to move on with their lives, even if they must face the consequences of their sin. Unfortunately, the movies don’t portray the gospel-but they do give us a picture of real moral truth.

I didn’t expect spy thrillers to remind me of God’s natural law, but sometimes you find truth in the oddest of places. Jason Bourne and Martin Campbell know, deep down, that it’s not right to murder someone else. I suspect they also know, deep down, that many other actions and attitudes are inherently wrong. And so do you and I.