The gospel in Netflix’s “Ashley Madison: Sex, Lies, and Scandal”

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The gospel in Netflix’s “Ashley Madison: Sex, Lies, and Scandal”

May 31, 2024 -

Person holding cellphone with logo of online dating company The Ashley Madison Agency on screen in front of webpage. By Timon/stock.adobe.com

Person holding cellphone with logo of online dating company The Ashley Madison Agency on screen in front of webpage. By Timon/stock.adobe.com

Person holding cellphone with logo of online dating company The Ashley Madison Agency on screen in front of webpage. By Timon/stock.adobe.com

“Life is short. Have an affair” was the tagline of Ashley Madison, a website aimed at helping married people cheat on their spouse. Netflix’s series Ashley Madison: Sex, Lies & Scandal documents the infamous data breach of 2015.

Unsurprisingly, Netflix’s cast of characters recalling the scandal includes Christians, highlighting the perception of hypocrisy. Surprisingly, the show also allows them to proudly present the gospel.

We don’t recommend the show (it’s not particularly well done anyway), but the themes demonstrate the overarching biblical narrative and the gospel.

What happened in the “Ashley Madison” hack?

Ashley Madison was (and is) a controversial website that targets people wanting to have extra-marital affairs. In around 2015, they claimed to host nearly 40 million users. Ashley Madison, unsurprisingly, turned out to be defrauding their users on many accounts.

  • Many female users turned out to be bots or employers masquerading as other people.
  • It exploited men by charging them per chat message.
  • The site even charged users $20 to permanently delete their accounts (which the company did not do).
  • While Ashley Madison claimed to protect its sensitive data, it chose profits over bolstering cyber-security.
  • Their CEO, while saying he was faithful to his wife, turned out to frequently use escort services.
  • Despite the CEO claiming to be a “feminist,” the company faked the identity of women and allowed users to select things like race, age, and other objectifying factors.

In 2015, someone, still unknown, hacked the company website and threatened to release their users’ data to the world unless they shut down their business. Ultimately, the data was dumped on the internet, causing a massive, scandalous fallout, as celebrities, government officials, and pastors were revealed to have accounts.

The powers of darkness

Ashley Madison represents a power of the “present darkness” and “spiritual forces of evil” against which Paul says Christians are meant to contend (Ephesians 6:12). While such language may seem ancient and superstitious to modern readers, the fruits of Ashley Madison speak for themselves: Lies, death, shame, dishonesty, adultery, betrayal, and more.

While each user is at fault for going to the site and seeking sexual escape, fantasy, adultery, or emotional flings, the modern powers of commercial advertising and media attention breathed life into the spiritual force of darkness in Ashley Madison, leading many astray.

Sin

The sins varied from person to person in the show’s depiction. Some had full-fledged sexual affairs. One married couple proudly professed an open relationship. Others were drawn by curiosity to merely message other users. Of course, throughout, lying and deceit came up again and again. The shame and guilt brought by sin—and, more specifically, being caught in sin—are evident in the show.

Shame, guilt, and sin can be present among Christians who claim Christ. Dallas, the buckle of the “Bible belt,” boasting several mega-churches and a high percentage of people claiming to be Christian, was found to be the most unfaithful city in the US.

Ashley Madison perfectly represents illicit sex, a counterfeit to the joy-filled, intimate sex God intended for us. As Chris Legg, LPC, explains in the Denison Forum Podcast’s most recent episode, intimate sex is full of freedom and mutual love. It’s about knowing your spouse and being known by them. While erotic sex, emotional, passionate, novel, and exciting, is good, it’s not the foundation of a Christian marriage.

Meanwhile, illicit sex obscures you in darkness and corrupts your heart. It lights hot and fast and burns down your home in the process. Ashley Madison burned down the homes of many. Shockingly (though not shockingly to us who grasp sin), Ashley Madison still exists today, crouching in wait for vulnerable prey.

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God’s judgment

God’s judgment often takes the form of imposing the natural consequences of sin back on the sinner. Proverbs captures this wisdom well. “Whoever digs a pit will fall into it, and a stone will come back on him who starts it rolling.” (Proverbs 26:27)

We see the same wisdom playing out in Ashley Madison. Secrecy becomes exposed. If you cheat on your spouse, you get cheated on (many of the women’s accounts were bots or employees pretending to be real users). You lie to your spouse, so the website lies to you (they made you pay to erase your account, but Ashley Madison never deleted them).

The consequences of sin will be met on earth and, if not, at least on the final judgment day.

John Gibson was a pastor and seminary professor. He ended his own life when his name was outed in the data breach. His wife, Christi, reminds us in her Netflix interview, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” (John 8:7)

The secular media loved the salacious irony—government officials and pastors were caught on the site. It’s easy to judge. As Christians, instead of self-righteously condemning those foolish enough to get on the site, we ought to mourn the destruction caused by sin.

In Romans 1, Paul lists the sins committed by the culture of his day. He expects every reader to nod self-confidently, “Look at how evil they are!”

Then, Paul turns on the reader: “Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things.” (Romans 2:1) The truth is that we all sin and fall short of God’s glory.

The gospel in Sam and Nia’s story

They closely followed Sam and Nia, two popular Christian YouTube vloggers, throughout the documentary. Sam and Nia married in their twenties, lived in the South, had children young, and followed complementarian values. Low-hanging fruit for Netflix to display religious hypocrisy.

Sam’s old account with Ashely Madison came to light in 2015. Sam confessed to Nia, stressing that he never met up with any women. Although shocked and betrayed, Nia forgave him. They uploaded a video discussing Jesus’ forgiveness, Sam’s confession, and Nia’s forgiveness.

A clear presentation of the gospel.

Happy ending? Not necessarily.

At this point in the timeline, Sam was still lying. Eventually, he was forced to reveal other sins. He tried to seduce his wife’s best friends, frequented strip clubs, and more. In desperation, he called his pastor, who advised him to tell his wife everything and to “live in the light.”

This time, Sam confessed all. The weight of his sin was crushing. Nia felt betrayed, devastated, embarrassed, and done with Sam. He moved out of their house. But, despite the odds, Sam continued to fight for their marriage. Eventually, they went to marriage counseling with their pastor and his wife.

After long, hard struggles, they ended up together again.

Nia closed the interview by saying she accepts him for who he is, with all his flaws. She finally sees the real Sam, sinful but walking in the light, clean of sin’s curse by Jesus’ blood.

The true gospel

The first gospel, the shallow gospel that only touches your dismissable sins, isn’t the real gospel. The true gospel covers the adulterous affair of a head pastor. It washes over the shame of childhood trauma. It overwhelms the most twisted fantasies. It uncovers and forgives the most hidden motivations. While adultery is evil, wrecks marriages, and tarnishes our Christian witness, the ultimate witness for Christ is Christ himself.

While it will always be better to not sin, God’s power to redeem what we genuinely confess means grace can abound and conquer even our worst mistakes. Therein, freedom waits.

The gospel is preached in this secular documentary about adultery, secrecy, and greed.

Don’t live without anyone knowing who you are, your deepest flaws, secrets, and sins in all. Pretending to live a Christian life while harboring them is just that: Pretending. And, praise God, Jesus saves us even from our pretending hearts.

1 John 1-2 beautifully illustrates this by contrasting light with darkness. I’ll quote bits of it, but I encourage you to read its full presentation on sin, Jesus, and redemption.

“ . . . if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” (1 John 1:6–2:1)

Where do you need Jesus to be your advocate today?

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