What makes someone a hero? In Greek mythology, heroes have a tragic element to them—their heroic qualities are the very source of their downfall.
In our modern mythos, we have comic book heroes, super men and women who may face obstacles and challenges but always rise above them to vanquish the enemy—at least until the sequel. We call “heroic” those who save others from burning buildings and those who accomplish a particularly daunting athletic feat.
Based on the way we use the word, it doesn’t seem all that clear if the word “hero” has any meaning at all. Is a hero one with superpowers who can achieve extraordinary things? Does a hero have extremely normal powers yet responds admirably to extraordinary situations? Is a hero someone who pushes his or her body to its very limits to grasp extraordinary achievements?
This matters because we desire to emulate what we deem heroic. And this becomes a problem when what we desire to emulate is unattainable. Superpowers are computer generated. Our bodies are constantly breaking down. Even heroic acts performed by ordinary people require a sudden courage that our plastic culture does not cultivate. And even when it does, further scrutiny reveals many other shortcomings in our newfound heroes. What then?
Since our world is unable to give a satisfactory example of a hero, the Bible seems to be a good place to look next. In Hebrews 11, we find a compendium of heroes and their heroic acts. Looked at from one perspective, it is a hall of heroes every bit as grand as Valhalla: founders of nations, prophets, miracle workers, powerful warriors, kings and those who gave their lives, sometimes in gruesome ways, for a cause greater than themselves. We see honor and glory, strength and courage—we see heroism. From this superficial reading, we might say that to be a hero is to do what these heroes did.
Lurking beneath the surface, we find another, more sinister truth. In Hebrews 11 we also meet murderers, adulterers and abusers, those whose neglect of their children lead to their ruin and those whose pride lead many to idolatry. Jephthah’s rash and terrible vow, combined with his ignorance of the law, causes him to sacrifice his own daughter (Judges 11). Samson’s life is a chronicle of his own pride and arrogance leaving death and destruction in his wake, both of his enemies and of his own people (Judges 13-16). Should we really emulate these heroes? What is it that makes them heroes anyway?
Because of faith
Fortunately, this is only a cursory reading. According to the author of Hebrews, these people are not heroes because of their supposed heroic exploits that could be tarnished by their own folly. Rather, they are considered heroes because of their faith: “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for” (Hebrews 11:1-2, emphasis added).
This faith does not simply refer to sheer optimism, some vain hope that everything will work out. It is faith in God, in the personal Lord of Israel who, though he cannot be seen, fights for his people. They are heroes, not because of their own acts, but because of their faith in the God who will act for them according to his word. As Bible scholar F. F. Bruce puts it, “Their faith consisted simply in taking God at his word and directing their lives accordingly.”
Now we are getting somewhere. According to the biblical account, a hero is not simply someone who accomplishes some heroic deed, which may or may not be repeatable, and which, either way, is tainted by sinful shortcomings. A hero is someone whose faith is in God, whose deeds are done for his sake. But this only raises another question: What is faith? Or, since the author of Hebrews gives us a kind of definition, perhaps a better question is, what does this kind of heroic faith look like in action?
In Mark 9, a man brings his son to Jesus. This son is possessed by an evil spirit that leads him to foam at the mouth, gnash his teeth and convulse his body. The father is desperate. He even asks the disciples to rid his son of this spirit, though they are unable to. And so, in his desperation, he comes to Jesus.
“If you can do anything,” the father asks, “take pity on us and help us.”
What comes next gives us a key insight into what faith is. Jesus tells this father that if he believes—if he has true faith—anything can happen, even the deliverance of his son.
And this is how the father responds: “I believe; help my unbelief” (Mark 9:22-24, ESV).
This does not appear to be very heroic behavior. What does Jesus do? Does he walk away and say, “That’s not good enough”? Does he bemoan this father’s faithlessness? No! In response to the father, he rebukes the spirit in the boy, commands it to come out, and it does.
This is extraordinary. Jesus says the way for this boy to be delivered is through faith. The father admits to a shaky faith, filled with doubt and unbelief. And then Jesus delivers. Faith, Jesus shows us, is not sheer certitude. Faith is belief and trust, whatever can be mustered, in the person of Jesus Christ.
This is part of the upside-down kingdom that is Christianity. A hero, the author of Hebrews tells us, is not defined by deeds but by faith. But in Mark 9, Jesus shows us that even a man with strong doubts and despair can have sufficient faith, if it is in God. Why can this be the case?
This is how the writer of Hebrews ends this section: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:1-2).
The better hero
This is the key: Jesus is the pioneer and perfecter of faith. Jesus is the one who perfectly fulfills all that our heroes set out to do, even when they themselves are incapable of doing so. He is the true and better David, who overcomes his enemies not through worldly strength, but through weakness. Jesus is the true and better Jephthah, who honors God and saves his people, not by offering the body of someone else as the sacrifice, but by offering his own body as the death of sacrifice. Jesus is the true and better Samson who, through his death, saves his people not by exacting vengeance upon his enemies, but by exacting God’s vengeance on himself for his enemies.
The figures in Hebrews 11, the stirring examples from our Mennonite Brethren history in the pages that follow, the doubting father in Mark 9—and, perhaps, even you—can be lumped together because Jesus is the true and better hero for us. A real hero fixes his or her eyes on Jesus, the one who perfects our imperfect faith. And as we fix our eyes on Jesus, we too can run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Jesus, the true hero, will prepare us for our own acts of heroism.
Tony Petersen is a campus pastor at Mountain View Church in Fresno, California, and adjunct history professor at Fresno State University. He and his wife, Roaxanna, have three daughters.