An all-powerful being sacrifices his beloved child to death and by doing so unlocks the power to “save” the world.
Um…where have we heard this story before?
Young people scared shitless that they aren’t going to be saved from the wrath of an all-powerful being?
If you don’t know…you and I clearly grew up at different churches.
Because I sat in the pews, my legs dangling inches from the floor listening to adults read the Book of Revelation about the end of the world.
Marvel has a history of pulling story lines from old Bible stories: Thor Ragnarok is a nod to Noah and the ark, Hulk is a modern day Sampson, Iron Man is quite a bit like King David…
And I believe this is a key to their success. In an increasingly chaotic and unpredictable world The Marvel Cinematic Universe gives us heroes and sheroes that reassure us that they are people willing to be courageous. That good will triumph over evil. That the moral arc of the universe does bend towards justice.
For most of the history of western society we found this reassurance in the Biblical text. But with so many Christians choosing to be judgey ass-holes rather than everyday superheroes, our increasingly post-Christian culture is looking for hope somewhere else.
And as we prepare to say goodbye to some of our beloved Marvel (s)heroes, perhaps its fitting that our (s)heroes meet the “God character” Thanos in Avenger’s Infinity War. A modern re-telling of the Christian version of the end of the world as recounted in the Biblical Book of Revelation.
The similarities are clear (although its understandable if you missed them in the 2 hr 40 min star-studded intergalatic slug fest).
Thanos has a plan to “save” the universe by essentially “rapturing” half of the population, including many of our (s)heroes. Thanos’ powers are unleashed on the universe by the Infinity stones which work like the Angelic scrolls channeling God’s power. In perhaps the most striking similarity, Thanos’ own beloved daughter is sacrificed to “death” to unlock the power of the “Soul stone” from a Death/Devil-like Red Skull.
But all these similarities lead us to the ultimate moral dilemma in the film.
Can a God-like character sacrifice innocent lives to save others?
We know how Thanos’ daughter feels:
Gamora later says to her father Thanos: “You kill, and torture, and you call it mercy. The Universe has judged you. You asked it for a prize and it told you, no. You failed. And do you want to know why? Because you love nothing. No one.”
As I heard these lines I was struck by their theological significance.
Thanos’ plan to destroy half of the population to save others is seen as madness. He is at best delusional, stuck in the trauma of his own planet’s overpopulation crisis, and at worst a cold-hearted killer.
But why can’t Thanos use his infinite powers to save humans in another way?
It’s a question we don’t get a satisfactory answer to in Avenger’s Infinity War. We are just asked to trust Thanos.
But this is the theological gift of Avengers Infinity War.
It forces us to re-look at God in Revelation. If we are so uncomfortable with Thanos,
why are we comfortable with God doing the very same thing?
Revelation was one of the most controversial books in the New Testament and was very nearly not included in the 3rd Century canonization process of creating what is now known as the Bible.
It was difficult for many of the 3rd Century Christian leaders to accept a book based on visions from the books author John. Who wrote it on a scroll as he was stuck on in solitary confinement on a desert island. John had recorded wild visions of a tattooed woman, a seven headed dragon, Jesus and his angels coming down from heaven to unleash famine, plagues, and war upon the earth…a real Infinity War-like battle.
This vision of Jesus and angels returning with violence was a big transition. Jesus went from spending his days walking the small towns of Israel healing sick people, feeding hungry families, and loving people. And then he comes back from heaven as a blood thirsty warrior? From Prince of Peace to Rambo?
It seemed like a bit of a stretch.
I mean, I get why early Christians might have wanted to interpret the end of the world this way. Christians were being burned alive by the Roman Emperor and fed to the lions in the Colosseum. Christians were legally second class citizens and often were terrorized by their neighbors. Its understandable that these oppressed Christians would want Jesus to come back and open a can of whoop ass on their oppressors. For God to smite the smiters.
And for 2000 years this human thirst for revenge has largely fueled Christian theology of the end times. But there are other ways to read Revelation.
As far back as the 2nd Century the Church father Origen (AD 185-254) and later Augustine (AD 354-420) taught that the imagery of the book symbolically presents the ongoing struggle throughout the ages of God and the forces of good against the forces of evil. The battles and violence in Revelation were viewed as spiritual warfare manifested in the Imperial resistance to the Kingdom of God and the destructive wars throughout history.
There is a growing number of Christians who have begun to suspect that Revelation was not a prediction of the end of the world, but a metaphoric predication of the bloody fall of the Roman Empire. Kind of like an ancient Walking Dead series predicting fall of the greatest empire the middle east had ever known. And to be fair, this would have felt like the end of the world.
Perhaps we have allowed the metaphoric spiritual battles portrayed in Revelation to lead us astray in our apocalyptic expectations. It wouldn’t be the first time. Many of the 1st century Jewish people – including Jesus’ own disciples – were waiting for a Warrior Messiah to raise up an army and overthrow Rome. These violent expectations caused them to miss the non-violent revolution of the Kingdom of God. To overlook Jesus ushering in a new way of peace and community instead of an earthy King and military victor.
Perhaps we are making the same mistake today. I mean, is this really how you think Jesus is coming back?
Jesus who was born as a refugee in Egypt, a friend to sex workers and isolated lepers, the man who forgave the people who murdered him? Jesus who said “love your enemies and prayer for those who persecute you?”
This is how he is coming back?
Throughout our history and our lives we see plagues, famine, war. And for those communities directly affected it can feel like the end of the world. But the Jesus I read in the Gospels isn’t sending the disasters. He’s on the ground handing out food, setting up disaster relief tents, healing the sick, offering solace to the grieving. And that is what the Kingdom of God calls all of us to do. To show up, to help, to love.
And if that heartless seven-headed dragon from Revelation did actually show up, the Jesus I know would be fighting with the Avengers.
A little more Black Panther and a lot less Thanos.
“Today we don’t fight for one life, we fight for all of them.” – Black Panther