Lest you wonder if theology stands as the nerdiest thing about me, you should know I regularly (and gratefully!) receive comic books as birthday and Christmas gifts. Lord willing, I shall cross the age threshold to qualify as President of the United States this year, and I do not plan to stop enjoying superheroes.
Insofar as entertainment goes, seeing some of my favorite superheroes trade blows with their archenemies in the movies fulfilled a childhood dream. Apparently, many others also find these movies compelling, for the Marvel Studios movies stand alone as the dominant series of films currently, churning out nineteen films in ten years’ time. To compare, the Star Wars franchise has only ten feature releases (including the upcoming anthology film, Solo), and the Star Trek franchise includes thirteen releases. Both of those film franchises date to the late 1970s. Marvel Studios (which does not include the X-Men films, nor the Tobey Macguire or Andrew Garfield-helmed Spider-Man movies) only made its first offering in 2008 with Iron Man.
The latest film, Avengers: Infinity War, pits the heroes of Earth (and a few other places) against the incredible power of a villain named Thanos (pictured below). The movie seeks to make Thanos more sympathetic than his comic book counterpart. In the comics, Thanos desires to eradicate all life in the universe due to his infatuation with Death itself. In the film, he makes his goal to wipe out half the life in the universe for the purpose of cosmic population control. He reasons if half the population of the cosmos disappears, resources will abound for those who remain. He claims his murderous actions rendered one particular planet a paradise.
Without diving down the hole of Marvel mythology (as much as I want to do so), the plot revolves around Thanos’s plot to retrieve various objects which will grant him unlimited power. He will eliminate half the life in the universe with a literal snap of his fingers.
Children, teenagers, and adults across the globe have seen and currently are viewing this movie. To be sure, many will eat popcorn, sip an oversized Coke, and watch heroes and villains trade punches and laser blasts while making quick-witted remarks. I argue, however, pop culture is culture, especially for young people. They do not possess the folk heroes of yesteryear, and often, their have a skepticism for real-life figures because too many of them reveal themselves as disingenuous. Do you know who will not reveal himself so? Captain America or Black Panther or Gamora.
In the United States, we distrust those who hold too much power. Our three branches of government, with their checks and balances, ensure things run inefficiently. Whether we realize the thought consciously or not, governmental inefficiency serves its people well. No one can get a wild idea and run with it. John Dalbery-Acton famously said, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” and we tend to believe him. Certainly the power sought by Thanos in Infinity War falls into such a category. He seeks to make his interest for the entire universe a reality irrespective of anyone else’s welfare in the name of what he thinks of as providence and justice. His logic rests on the lives of others as purely quantitative terms.
So what shall we say to a student who says, “Thanos having the power to end what life he wants is bad, how do I know the same power isn’t bad when God wields it?” Given what we say about other kinds of power, mainly political, the question has great merit. We need to ready ourselves to answer such robust questions when our young people ask them.
Our answer comes in several parts:
First, God as revealed in the Bible has omnipotence as a necessary attribute. Omnipotence stands as part of who he is. Thanos has no such attribute. He exists as a small part of the cosmos seeking a power for which he only has a creaturely understanding. God never acquired omnipotence; he always possessed it.
Second, all of the universe exists because God willed it so (Genesis 1:1; John 1:1-5); the universe continues to exist due to the specific, intentional action of the Son (Colossians 1:15-20). Were Thanos or any other sort of alien life real and actual, it would exist only at the will of the Creator and Sustainer. Previous to his murderous rampage through the universe, Thanos stood only as a citizen of another rock floating out in space. While God maintains sovereignty over creation as the Creator and Ruler of it, Thanos’s quest reveals him an attempted usurper. Any sort of order we understand arises from God’s organization and design. He caused the universe in creating it, and he built order and purpose into it. Thanos can only approach an idea of orderliness as the receiver of such a thing and attempt to correct what he thinks deviates from his own bent standard.
Third, goodness flows from the character of God. No standard of goodness exists alongside him to which he must conform. The three persons of the Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, alone stand as eternally co-equal. Goodness comes from God as possessing all perfections, omniscience (all-knowingness), omnipresence (everywhereness), omnipotence (all-powerfulness), and omnibenevolence (all-goodness). Goodness does not sterilely float around in eternity divorced from the self-existent God. How we judge Thanos or any real-life figure has its basis in God’s character. As rational beings made in his image, we possess the ability to think (though imperfectly) and judge good from evil. We understand a political separation of powers as beneficial precisely because we understand God alone judges completely perfectly, in all rationality and impartiality, and we have a legion of examples to prove people do not do such things.
We see Thanos possessing the power to destroy life at will proves an affront to God, not a challenge to God’s wielding of power. Thanos proves a terrifying imposter of God and an imposer of a broken ideology of murder. Where Thanos sees a broken cosmos, he reveals his only solution as breaking it further. God breaks no cosmos; he redeems it and those who submit to his good grace in Christ Jesus.
Humanity, which commits numerous affronts to God, received the invitation to return to him through Jesus and those he has sent into the world to speak the good news of a victory over all brokenness and evil we perpetuate against one another. Come to him, submit to him, receive the righteousness he provides, and become like him. God proves much different than the raging Titan, Thanos who can only kill the innocent to attempt to set right the wrongs of starvation and overpopulation.