Nature Crushes Nurture
The Letter of Hellboy to the Galatians
“But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts, crying out, ‘Abba, Father!’ Therefore, you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ.” —Galatians 4:4-7 NKJV
World War II. Axis and Allies have squared off in the twentieth century’s quintessential fight between good and evil. In Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy, the Nazi forces not only possess the military might to execute their diabolical schemes, they are equipped with the occult knowledge necessary to harness the forces of hell and bring the world to ultimate destruction.
Rasputin, mad monk and occult advisor to the Romanovs, is still alive, and stands poised with Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS, to open a doorway between hell and earth to unleash the forces that will trigger Armageddon. Rasputin’s plan is foiled by a crack team of American G.I.s, led by occult expert Professor Broom. Rasputin’s gate opens just halfway and all that comes through is a baby demon, whom Professor Broom adopts and names Hellboy.
Years pass. Hellboy is now fighting evil on behalf of Professor Broom’s secret government agency that specializes in the paranormal. Hellboy and Broom call each other “Son” and “Father,” and, indeed, Hellboy is like a teenager, desperate to please his father, do the right thing, and win the love of paranormal fire-starter Liz Sherman.
Grown to enormous size, with a fist made of stone and the ability to withstand fire, Hellboy is a born crime fighter, although his unusual appearance makes him natural tabloid fodder, much to the chagrin of agency head Dr. Manning. Hellboy carries a rosary with a cross, an emblem that both reminds him of his father and of the power of good over evil.
Hellboy’s respect for his father, fed by Professor Broom’s love for his son, is plainly evident throughout the story. Hellboy, more than anything, wants to please his father, and the sure way to do this is through achievement. What Hellboy doesn’t realize yet is that his father loves him just the way he is. All of Hellboy’s achievements are just icing on the cake Professor Broom—Hellboy’s pure existence is joy for Broom.
At the same time, unfortunately, Hellboy’s origins in, well, hell, have made him a subject of great interest for the revitalized Rasputin, who wants to use Hellboy to finish the job he was unable to complete back in 1944. It would seem that Hellboy would be far too good to succumb to Rasputin’s machinations, but Rasputin has made great study of the occult and devises a means to enslave Hellboy. He kills Dr. Broom and baits a trap by sending Liz Sherman’s soul to the other side. To be reunited with his love, it appears, Hellboy must embrace his true parentage and take his place on the side of hell.
In the film’s climax, Rasputin captures Hellboy in a restraint engraved with his true name—the only force that can resist Hellboy’s tremendous strength. Rasputin instructs Hellboy to say his true name to release himself, and then turn the key to open the gate to hell. The powers of hell will destroy the earth, and Hellboy will be its ruler with Liz by his side. Rasputin presents this to Hellboy as pure inevitability: This is who Hellboy was born to become.
Driven by his desire for Liz, Hellboy says his true name, and once released from his fetters, begins to turn the key. His only hope stands with FBI Agent Myers, who has been assigned to Hellboy and hence been trapped by Rasputin and forced to watch as Rasputin’s plan comes to fruition. Agent Myers calls out to Hellboy to “remember who you are!” He tosses the rosary, and Hellboy catches it, burning the cross into his palm.
Myers then says, “You have a choice. Your father gave you that.”
Once Hellboy claims his adoptive father’s name, he is able to defeat Rasputin and turn back the powers of hell. He rescues Liz’s soul by threatening to come to the other side and fight for it. The powers of hell are so confident that he would succeed that they release Liz into Hellboy’s arms.
The moral of the story is that adoption trumps nature. Hellboy is not prisoner to the accident of his birth, he is freed by adoption to triumph over his innate evil, and to eradicate that evil from every fiber of his being.
The Christ of the Apostles’ Creed descended into hell before he rose from the grave. Paul tells us that his triumph made it possible for all who believe to be adopted by their heavenly father and thus themselves receive the full measure of the inheritance due to the perfect son. In the days of Paul, adoption was a cultural custom where families would choose from older male children based upon their promise and their ability to become heirs—thus to manage the properties and carry on the family name—not our current model of adoption where infants are more desirable. Adoption was predicated on performance, and adoption was limited to free males. A slave or a woman could never hope to change status, which is why the gendered word “son” holds such meaning when looked at in the cultural context, why it is so significant that adoption is now opened to all.
Our adoption by God is more like Hellboy’s adoption by Professor Broom. When God chose us, he chose ugly, squirming, evil creatures without hope or future. Professor Broom saw past Hellboy’s origins and uncomely appearance and saw instead a creature he could love. And love he did, giving Hellboy the gift to renounce evil entirely. When God adopts us, we change entirely. No longer are we creatures of sin, bound to darkness, doomed to fail. We are freed from our birth. We are freed for something great: to be the true heirs of God’s promise of salvation. The promise is now and forever, and there’s work to be done. So what are you waiting for?
Hell doesn’t stand a chance.