I did not expect Netflix’s new show Unbelievable, about a horrific series of rapes, to feature a heroic portrayal of evangelical Christian faith. Yet it does.
The show is based on real events, first told by ProPublica and The Marshall Project in a Pulitzer-prize-winning article in 2015 and later a book. This is not a show for kids—the subject matter and language rule that out. But while it uses brief flashback images to depict the terror of being raped, it never shows anything graphic. It does, however, show incredible grace depicting each character, including rape victims and their rapist, with complexity and compassion.
Netflix tells a fictionalized version of the real story, following two separate threads that eventually converge. One thread is the rape of a teenager (named Marie in the show) who has been in the foster system in Washington since age 3. She is disbelieved by police, leading her to recant and be charged with false reporting. The second thread is the investigation of rapes in Colorado by two female detectives, named in the Netflix show Karen Duvall and Grace Rasmussen. The Netflix show, directed by filmmaker Susannah Grant (of Erin Brockovich fame), masterfully plays up the differences between Duvall and Rasmussen.
Duvall is an evangelical Christian. She prays before meals with her husband and two daughters. She sings “In Christ Alone” with her church congregation and listens to the pastor’s sermon. She quotes Matthew 6:34. She first appears on screen patiently and politely asking questions of a rape victim—an arresting contrast to the harsh policemen who hammered every minor discrepancy uttered by the teenage rape victim in Washington. Yet Duvall isn’t perfect. She swears occasionally and works so hard on the investigation, she often comes home after her daughters have gone to bed.
Rasmussen is the more prototypical cop. Fast-moving, fast-talking, foul-mouthed. She has a partner, but no kids, and she admits her work often leads her to withhold from him emotionally. The scenes showing Duvall in church with her family are spliced with scenes showing Rasmussen running alone through the Colorado woods with her dogs, who veer off the trail to find a dead animal carcass. When Rasmussen returns home, her partner asks how her run was, to which she replies, “Grim.”
Rasmussen mocks Duvall’s faith a couple times, including in a meeting with their colleagues, where she angrily questions how God could allow such evil in the world. Duvall remains silent. Later, as the two wait in a car on a stakeout of the rapist’s house, Rasmussen apologizes.
“In truth, I kind of envy all of you God-believers,” Rasmussen says. “I’d love to have that kind of faith.”
“The stuff we see,” Duvall responds, “it’s hard enough with God. I don’t know how anyone does it without.”
“Alcohol,” Rasmussen says, in jest yet with an air of seriousness. “And my dogs. But mainly, yeah, alcohol.”
Rasmussen and Duvall arrest the rapist at his house, finding proof of all his rapes in Colorado and, to their surprise, evidence that he also raped the teenager in Washington, Marie. After they inform the police in Washington, and the police drop the false reporting charge, Marie sues the city government and wins a settlement of $150,000.
As Marie is heading out of town to start a new life, she calls Duvall to thank her.
“I’ve spent my whole life trying really hard to believe that most people are basically good, even when the ones I knew weren’t. I don’t know, it just gave me hope or something,” Marie says.
“And then this thing happened, the rape, and it just became hard for me to believe that there was really any good in the world. And I think this was the hardest part of the whole thing, waking up feeling hopeless. And I would think things like, well, if this world is that bad, do I even want to be in it. You know?”
Duvall, with the weight of years of policework, replies, “I do.”
“But then out of nowhere,” Marie goes on, “I hear about these two people in some completely other part of the country, looking out for me and making things right. More than anything else—more than him getting locked up, more than the money I got—it was hearing about you guys that just changed things completely. And I wake up now and I can imagine good things happening.”
This is what Christian faith in action does—it gives hope to others because it makes it possible, in the midst of a world filled with evil, to imagine good. That’s not the same thing as salvation—we are not saved merely by believing in good, but in God. But true belief in a good God is impossible if the possibility of good is unbelievable.
Netflix’s Unbelievable shows God as one source of good—and in today’s culture, I appreciate that. But as Reformed Christians, we know even the good that shines through non-Christians—such as Grace Rasmussen—comes from God. It’s a form of common grace.
Some Reformed Christians argue that all common grace and all of Christians’ work outside the church merely restrains the effects of sin. Putting rapists in jail, for instance. But if this is all we expect from Christian labor in the world, we have an impoverished theology.
Christian labor serves to restrain, yes, but also to reflect and rebuild. To reflect the goodness of God—which is what Marie saw in the work of Detective Duvall. Duvall didn’t just seek to restrain wrongdoing, but to know the truth, to achieve true justice by “making things right.” When people live as if these eternal truths are, at least in part, real in this life, this is what can inspire others, even non-Christians, to turn from despair to hope.
And, putting God’s goodness into action, Christian labor can rebuild the communities ruined by the selfishness of sin. As I wrote last month, building communities of selfless love is the work of Christians in the church and outside it.
This is why Jesus came. This is why He continues to work through us in the world.
“He has sent me … to set the oppressed free,” Jesus quoted from Isaiah. And the passage continues, “they will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the LORD for the display of his splendor. They will rebuild the ancient ruins and restore the places long devastated; they will renew the ruined cities that have been devastated for generations.”
This has played out, at least in part, for the real-life Marie, a modern-day orphan oppressed by the sins of others and the injustice of the system. Instead of ending her life in loneliness and hopelessness, she rebuilt her life with her own community of love—getting married and having children. I hope the real-life Marie has or will eventually believe that the source of the good she experienced—and the one we all need if any of us is to be good—is God.