The Limited Atonement of The Punisher

Jarod Grice

We all desire justice. In a broken world full of sin and death, we yearn for justice to be enacted and we mourn when injustice is done. In Psalm 82, the psalmist begs God to “judge the earth.” It's into this desire for justice that Marvel’s The Punisher speaks.

The Punisher tells the story of Frank Castle (Jon Bernthal), a Marine veteran who is obsessed with avenging the murder of his family. As Frank relentlessly pursues his own brand of justice, a complex if brutal hero emerges, one whose attempts to force atonement ultimately prove to be limited.

The Punisher doesn’t pull any punches. From the beginning of the series, we are privy to the reclusive, lone-wolf attitude of Frank Castle. In many ways, the pain Frank feels from the death of his family has driven him to a harsh individualism. He’s a man who refuses social interaction and takes help from no one. He copes with the loss of his family by working late into the night as a demolition worker. He spends incessant hours destroying cement walls until his hands are bloodied. Bernthal gives a riveting performance, making Frank’s aggression and anger so visceral that it’s as if it becomes your own. As Frank begins to pursue vengeance against those who murdered his family, he is never portrayed as an immortal, unbreakable hero. In fact, Frank is significantly broken—physically and emotionally—throughout the series. The Punisher makes its protagonist recognizably human while simultaneously heightening his unyielding determination to outrageous proportions.

The dissonance we feel at the end of The Punisher comes from our recognition of a gospel truth.

This same transparent humanity is what makes the ending of The Punisher so gut-wrenching. In the final episode, once Frank has destroyed everyone who had anything to do with his family’s murder, he confesses to being afraid of the “silence.” He no longer has any battles to fight; all he can do is sit in the aftermath of his actions. We last see Frank sitting in a circle of other war veterans, weeping over his own deprivation. In the wake of Frank’s fear and disappointment, we are prompted to ask: Can human beings ever achieve justice that totally satisfies our need for things to be right? Can the problem of evil be undone by our own efforts? The Punisher suggests that it can’t. Frank leaves no stone unturned, no wrong unavenged, yet he still bears the burden of his humanity.

The gospel offers an answer to this dissatisfaction. The reason true justice can’t be achieved by human beings is because we are disqualified by the very injustice that resides within our own hearts. The curse of sin and death has comprehensively stained our world, and it takes a perfect high priest to accomplish what we never could. The dissonance we feel at the end of The Punisher comes from our recognition of this gospel truth. Frank Castle achieved vengeance, but he couldn’t achieve his deepest desire—to rid the world of evil and restore his family. As we pursue justice with all our might, let us do so as those who follow the lead not of the Punisher, but of the Justifier, Jesus.

Topics: TV