People feel guilt for a variety of reasons with some reasons justified while others are not. Parents feel guilty about not providing for their children who in turn later feel guilty themselves for complaining because when they were growing up they did not have the gadgets shown-off by their classmates in school. Some adults regret failing to take full advantage of their educational opportunities as they work with little hope of advancement and no way to provide better for their families. Then there are convicted criminals who wish they had not made bad choices but instead heeded advice from the wise. However, the battlefields of war which require decisions based on extended analysis as well as split-second precision may offer the greatest opportunities for feeling guilt.
In 1963 the movie, Captain Newman, M.D., was released. It was an important film in cinematic history because it addressed psychological problems experienced by soldiers during World War 2. Playing the title character was Gregory Peck fresh from receiving the best actor Oscar for To Kill a Mockingbird. The setting for the film is a military psychiatric hospital. The cases of three characters from the movie show what guilt can do to a person.
One individual was Corporal Jim Tompkins who was portrayed wonderfully by Bobby Darin. His name in the film was “Little Jim.” He seemed from outward appearances to be alright except for times he would lash out in anger, and he tended to stay alone and strum his guitar. Dr. Newman decided administration of a pharmaceutical sometimes called truth serum might help Jim relate any combat experiences that were triggering his behavior. As the medication took hold, Jim’s story was uncovered. He had been a gunner in the waist of a bomber that was shot down. His close friend “Big Jim” was the pilot. When the plane crashed it caught fire and Little Jim was able to escape, but as he ran away he looked back and saw Big Jim trapped in the cockpit and screaming for help. Little Jim kept running. He feared for his own life and left his friend. What a heavy load of guilt to carry, but Dr. Newman was able to help Jim deal with his guilt.
Another character was played by Robert Duvall who had worked in To Kill a Mockingbird with Peck. His character was Captain Paul C. Winston who was admitted to the psychiatric ward in a non-communicative condition and he had to be led around by the hand like a child. Why was he this way? For more than a year he had managed to survive secretly in the cellar of a home in a village occupied by Germans. What was the source of his problem? He felt guilty because it is the duty of any soldier to search out his unit when left behind, but the comforting security of the dark cellar was too attractive. His friends had gone on fighting and dying, but Capt. Winston hid. Capt. Newman was able to help him recover from the guilt of abandoning his unit.
The third story is that of Colonel Norval A. Bliss played convincingly by Eddie Albert. Bliss had developed a split-personality bearing the names Mr. Past and Mr. Future. Depending on the circumstances he was experiencing, he could at any time transition from one to the other. Capt. Newman went to great lengths to determine why such a catastrophic problem plagued Bliss. He eventually found out that several officers under Bliss’s command along with men under their leadership were massacred as a result of following his orders. It was too much for Col. Bliss. His condition was a response to the heavy burden of guilt he felt because so many casualties resulted from the orders he gave to his men. Capt. Newman could not help Bliss.
All three of these men suffered guilt because they failed their colleagues in battle. Little Jim abandoned a friend; Capt. Winston deserted his colleagues; and Col. Bliss felt he failed those under his command. S. L. A. Marshall in Men Against Fire provides his theory for the reason soldiers fight.
“Men who have been in battle know from first-hand experience that when the chips are down, a man fights to help the man next to him, just as a company fights to keep pace with its flanks. Things have to be that simple. An ideal does not become tangible at the moment of firing a volley or charging a hill. When the hard momentary choice is life or death, the words once heard at an orientation lecture are clean forgotten, but the presence of a well-loved comrade is unforgettable.”
The source of the men’s guilt was failing their comrades. Their feelings were very real, heart rending, oppressive, and debilitating, but in two of the three cases, Newman was able to help. None of the characters in the movie were portrayed as Christians. There is no sense in the film that a person’s action or inaction went beyond the realm of the here and now. For the Christian there is another aspect to guilt and that is the Holy Spirit prodding consciences and exposing sin. One of the most striking Psalms is the fifty-first in which David expresses repentance for adultery with Bathsheba and then conspiring with Joab to cover it up by murdering her husband. David said, “Against you, against you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.” David clearly felt his guilt before God because he was the one offended, but any remorse he felt for the hurt he caused Bathsheba and others was second to the guilt of sin before God.
The book of Romans has been described as the crown of the New Testament epistles with the eighth chapter its jewel in the crown. The chapter shifts the message of Romans from setting forth the righteousness of God as presented in the Law and his gracious provision for redemption through Christ, to the believer’s assurance of redemption and certain hope for growth in the Christian life as God extends his kingdom throughout the world. Romans 8:1 declares the end of condemnation against the believer because of Christ. With the end of condemnation comes the end of guilt.
“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (ESV)
The repetitive beginning, There is therefore now no, emphasizes the certainty of no condemnation for those in Christ. The Greek term from the original Romans text rendered in English “condemnation” is a compound of the individual words “judgment” and “against” (κατάκριμα). No condemnation means no judgement against, thus the reason for believers feeling guilty ends with forgiveness for sin because the judgment has fallen upon Christ.
Guilt is common to all people and it varies in frequency and degree. As in Newman, the non-believer can be helped with guilt felt for any of a variety of experiences through psychiatry and other means, but for Christians recognition that the guilt felt among peers finds its resolution in God’s forgiveness for the sin producing guilt provides assurance that ultimately there is no condemnation to those in Christ Jesus.
Barry Waugh (PhD, WTS) is the editor of Presbyterians of the Past. He has written for various periodicals, such as the Westminster Theological Journal and The Confessional Presbyterian. He has also contributed to Gary L. W. Johnson’s, B. B. Warfield: Essays on His Life and Thought (2007) and edited Letters from the Front: J. Gresham Machen’s Correspondence from World War I (2012).
Notes—To Kill a Mockingbird was released March 16, 1963; the Academy Awards were given April 8, 1963; and Captain Newman, was released December 25, 1963. The quote from S. L. A. Marshall’s Men Against Fire: The Problem of Battle Command in Future War, New York: William Morrow, 1947, 1966, is found on page 161; I came to this book by way of James M. McPherson’s citation on page three of What They Fought For, 1861-1865, Baton Rouge: LSU, 1994. McPherson’s book contends that at least in the case of the Civil War, both sides were driven by ideology, constitutional issues, slavery, etc., which contended with the view of Civil War historians of his era who said that soldiers had little or no sense of cause or ideology.