The Avengers and Biblical Theomachy

Feast of St Theodore the Sanctified and Apodosis of Pascha

WARNING: Spoilers follow for Avengers: Infinity War

Avengers: Infinity War is the culmination of ten years of cinematic adaptations of classic Marvel comic book characters and storylines, beginning with 2008’s Iron Man and preceded most recently by February’s Black Panther. In this most recent installment (which is part one of a two-part conclusion to what has been billed as only the first major arc of the Marvel Cinematic Universe), the Mad Titan Thanos—the lurking threat facing the cosmos since 2012’s The Avengers—begins actively collecting the Infinity Stones, the physical manifestations of the cosmic energies of Space, Reality, Power, Mind, Time, and Soul. His quest (for which the 1990 comic series that partially inspired this movie was named) is, to his mind, a noble one: life is expanding at a pace that, unchallenged, will eventually lead to planetary and cosmic overpopulation, leading eventually to the destruction of life; therefore, the most prudent solution is to randomly eliminate half of all life in the universe, an act of divine judgment requiring an omnipotence that only the Stones can grant. (For comic lovers, this is in fact a change from his comic book persona, wherein Thanos seeks the Stones and the elimination of half of the universe’s population in order to impress his unrequited love, the cosmic personification of Death.)

Obviously, this pits Thanos against the majority of people in the universe who can do anything about it, particularly the Avengers, who have already defeated his advance guard (Loki’s invasion of the Earth with the Chitauri several years beforehand) in their first cinematic team-up and now count the Vision (an AI who holds the Mind Stone in his forehead) as one of their own. Other concerned parties include important players in the Marvel Universe like Doctor Strange (who guards the Time Stone inside the ancient Eye of Agamotto) and the Guardians of the Galaxy (a key member of whom is Thanos’ favorite ‘daughter’, Gamorra). However, the hero whose enmity Thanos arguably earns most in the film is Thor, and it is the journey that Thor takes in Infinity War that struck me as perhaps the most important character development in the film (apart from Thanos himself, who enjoys more screen time than any other character). In many ways, Thor’s arc in the film is perhaps the best clue as to why comic books and movies based on them so grip our culture, and why they are so important for developing the theological mind.

Infinity War establishes Thanos’ credentials as a villain immediately and pointedly. The film opens with Thanos’ attack on the ship on which the Asgardians made their exodus from their destroyed home world at the end of Thor: Ragnarok, with now King Thor, his reconciled brother Loki, the portal guardian Heimdall, and the Incredible Hulk at the helm. In fairly rapid succession, the Hulk is overpowered by Thanos and Heimdall is killed (but not before warping out the Hulk to warn everyone on Earth). Loki, seeking to save Thor from execution by Thanos, gives him the Tesseract (which contains the Space Stone) and then makes an attempt on Thanos’ life. Thanos replies by strangling Loki to death in a frankly unnerving scene; the last words of the god of mischief, much reformed by the events of the previous two films in the Thor franchise, are a taunt at Thanos’ grasping at divinity: “You will never be a god.” Thanos throws Loki’s lifeless corpse not far from Thor. “You’ll die for that,” he promises, before Thanos and his crew teleport out just as the ship explodes. From the opening sequence, then, Infinity War is intentional about describing its central conflict: this is a war between gods for the claim to supremacy.

Thor is later picked up by the Guardians of the Galaxy, and recruits Rocket and Groot to assist him on a quest to Nidavellir, the legendary home of the dwarves (reconceived in the MCU as a space-forge built around a dying neutron star). There, Thor seeks the help of Eitri, King of the Dwarves, in the construction of a new weapon—Stormbreaker, a hammer-axe designed to harness the power of a god-king, the replacement for his iconic Mjollnir—which he only obtains after suffering the hellfire of the star’s full, concentrated power. With Stormbreaker, Thor warps to Earth to turn the tide of the battle against Thanos. The scene is truly epic: “Bring me Thanos!” he shouts, leaping into the air and crashing down to the ground with storm clouds, thunder, and lightning dispersing his enemies. I cried out loud in the theatre; this is what my twelve-year-old soul had waited a decade to see.

But there was something else in my excitement, that I’ve only been able to discern upon further reflection: the world of Marvel comics—particularly its cosmic and mystic dimensions—is exciting not only because it is entertaining, but because it is the world of myth writ large in the modern cosmos. In Marvel comics, the innumerable number of worlds, stars, and galaxies, which we can see through instruments the ancients did not have, is home to countless gods, heroes, monsters, and demons—many of them taken from antiquity—in a way that the ancients would have found all too familiar, who poise threats and offer potential protection to the world of mundane existence, the day-to-day world that we live in. The mythological instinct is clearly alive and well in a modern world that can take a Norse god whose (continuous) worship has been dead for centuries and reimagine him as a swashbuckling adventurer among the stars, quick to come to our aid in times of trouble. In truth, our definition of what constitutes a god has not changed much from the distinctives that ancient people assigned the category: as M. David Litwa has noted in his work (see especially We Are Being Transformed: Deification in Pauline Soteriology), gods are immortal (they do not die or, at least, they do not die as easily as humans do) and they are powerful, especially to save human beings (who are mortal and typically weak). To this lineup one might add that gods are usually glorious and beautiful; the fascination of the Guardians at the combination of masculine beauty and power in the personage of Thor is a humorous in-universe example of this logic at work.

Like the Norse Thor, Marvel’s Thor is an attractive god because he is impossibly old and wields a strength which he uses to hold back the forces of chaos and evil that threaten the human world. (The meditation on what constitutes a worthy god is a frequent one in Thor’s comic history, as JR Forasteros points out.) But Thor Odinson is not just a modern, cosmic version of his mythic antecedent. As I watched and reflected on Infinity War, I realized that his compulsion as a character for me is that he in many respects resembles the biblical god, YHWH, who triumphs in cosmic warfare over his divine and monstrous enemies.

This motif is pervasive in biblical literature, though it has little sympathy from modern readers. What is probably Israel’s oldest creation story—an epic narrative in which YHWH defeats the forces of watery chaos in battle in order to create the world and the necessary conditions within which life can thrive therein—receives no singular iteration in the Hebrew Bible. Instead, it receives scattered mentions in Israel’s poetry, particularly Job and the Psalms (Peter Enns has written a helpful article on the subject here, to which refer for what follows). In the beginning, so this myth goes, YHWH “rebuked” the waters (Ps. 104/103:7) in the primordial time: he “split open the sea…broke the heads of the monster in the waters…crushed the heads of Leviathan” (Ps. 74/73:13-14), a beast elsewhere called Rahab (Ps. 89/88:9-10; Job 9:13). In the later canonized narrative given in Genesis, as Enns notes, “the cosmic battle…is muted,” with God dividing the waters without an explicitly narrated (though potentially implied) battle (Gn. 1:6-7) and creating, not (explicitly) fighting, the sea monsters (Gn. 1:21).

As Enns notes, the cosmic battle is not “just poetry,” but reflect what was central to Israel’s worshipful understanding of YHWH: “He is worthy of praise in part because of the defeat of his ancient ‘foes.’” YHWH’s mythological victory at the dawn of time was also the model, in the Israelite imagination, for his decisive victories over the forces of chaos and evil in history, particularly at the Exodus. As Enns writes elsewhere,

The exodus was the formative experience for ancient Israelites—it is what made them a nation. Creation language permeates the exodus story. This is because the biblical writer understood the exodus as another ‘act of creation,’ which even included a cosmic battle.

The Exodus is a contest of gods, in which the plagues “are a sustained attack on Pharaoh and the gods of Egypt,” in which YHWH “bring[s] judgment on all the gods of Egypt” (Ex. 12:12). The victory of YHWH in the Exodus leads the Israelites to sing on the far shores of the Sea,

I will sing to YHWH, for He has triumphed gloriously, the horse and his rider He has thrown into the sea. YHWH is my strength and my song, and He has become my salvation; this is my God, and I will praise Him, my father’s God, and I will exalt Him. YHWH is a man of war; YHWH is His name. Pharaoh’s chariots and his host He cast into the sea; and his picked officers are sunk in the Red Sea. The floods cover them….Who is like Thee, O YHWH, among the gods? Who is like Thee, majestic in holiness, terrible in glorious deeds, doing wonders? (Ex. 15:1-5, 15, modified RSV)

YHWH’s victory over the divine forces who evilly oppose His people is what leads to the Israelite conclusion, at the Exodus and afterwards, that “YHWH will reign forever and ever” (Ex. 15:18), that YHWH is in fact “God of gods and Lord of lords” (Deut. 10:17). As Litwa (among other scholars) has pointed out, it is YHWH’s supremacy expressed in His salvific benefaction of the people of Israel in history that, more than anything, led to biblical monotheism, which is not so much a numeric limitation of divinity but a recognition that “There is no god like God.” YHWH’s proficiency as warrior-king of the cosmos and of Israel even parallels other deities of the ancient world like Baal, Marduk, Zeus, and, more distantly, Thor insofar as he is connected to storm imagery: He rides around on cherubim enshrouded by a storm cloud and sends forth lightning as arrows, repeating the primordial humiliation of the waters in the defeat of the (human) king’s enemies (e.g., Ps. 18/17:9-15). YHWH is indeed a “Man of War,” and it is His prowess in battle that has earned Him Israel’s exclusive allegiance. The Church adds to, rather than denies this litany of praise, for she cherishes the cosmic victory of Christ, YHWH made flesh, over sin, death, and the Devil, His conquest of the underworld, and His glorious resurrection from the dead, as the New Exodus, and awaits Christ’s second and glorious coming to win the final messianic victory over the forces of Satan and the Antichrist (Rev. 19:11-20). It is in fact the character of Christ’s victory over cosmic forces of chaos and evil that allow the Church to recognize Him as sharing fully in the identity of YHWH: she recognizes Him to be the same Lord who ransomed Israel in the past from Egypt, and rejoices at the new and deeper victory He has won both for her and, in His generosity, for all the Nations also.

Enns makes it a point in both articles referenced above to stress that a cosmic battle between gods can and probably should seem silly to us. By his reasoning, we certainly should not believe that YHWH fought a battle at the beginning of time which permitted the ongoing creation of the world into the form that we have it now, nor even some mitigated form of this tradition which, in the end, remains a part of the Old Testament canon. Such is apparently anathema to attempts to read Genesis responsibly in the light of modern science (an interesting position, given that the early history of the universe as best we understand it sounds horrifically violent with its large number of exploding and dying things, regardless of whether or not any created life was around to see it, though life, too, apparently has an extremely violent early history). Enns is also writing in a theological context where warrior gods in general are out of fashion. Innumerable theological monographs and articles now try to find ways to absolve God of apparent atrocities of violence in the Old Testament; likewise, Jesus is presented as the revelation of a fundamentally nonviolent God, who does not fight, kill, destroy, or, most of all, damn or punish. The idea that God might be violent, let alone that His warlike skill is one of the key pillars of His glory and a reason that we should praise Him, is horrific to most moderns, who can’t imagine a god that would be so crass and primitive.

The real problem, however, is: a) many moderns live in an unprecedented context of comfort and vested interest in the status quo of the world; and b) most people cannot conceive of a god that is so, well, involved in the universe, to the point that he would actually go to the trouble of overpowering something (human or otherwise) therein. Who needs a divine warrior to be their patron when they have the economic and social opportunity to climb the ladder to a better state of living? Who needs a god that will protect and nourish them from evil powers when there is no such thing as good or evil? Who needs a powerful immortal when we all think ourselves powerful, and we consider ourselves immortal by virtue of authentic self-expression or modification? Fundamentally, in ancient religion and modern superhero movies alike, divine violence is good news for the weak. In a universe full of cosmic players of variegated benevolence and malevolence (i.e., the universe inhabited by basically everyone, at all times, and in all places, including works of science fiction and fantasy like Marvel), humans are at the mercy of whoever is the biggest kid on the playground, either of lesser divinities that can choose benefaction or indifference towards us or of forces of dissolution and destruction whose corruptive influence rejoices at our undoing. The vast majority of humans—terrestrial beings in general, for that matter—can do nothing to stop Thanos: they simply aren’t powerful enough. That is the entire idea behind the Avengers: “a group of remarkable people,” commissioned “to fight the battles that we never could.” Simply put, it’s also the idea behind biblical theomachy: YHWH the Warrior God is the God who points His sword at the enemies of the cosmic order, particularly of the flourishing of human life and of Israel and the Church, lesser gods and daimons and monsters and, indeed, human beings alike. If Thanos were up against YHWH, there would be no contest. This is good news for those who can’t themselves do battle with Pharaoh, much less Rahab. (Also, let’s be intellectually honest: who are we to say that some Godzilla-like creature no longer threatens us because of divine intervention, or that some alien threat is not constantly held at bay by the might of God? We have not even plumbed the depths of our own bodies, much less of the raging seas, terrestrial or cosmic; what do we know? The stability of our cosmos is at every moment held in place by the divine will, but we know not what lesser wills the divine will thwarts at every moment by so preserving it. Perhaps this is best.)

It should be a wake-up call for us when we find ourselves drawn to movies like Infinity War (or, less fortunately, not drawn to such films). Massive crossover events that focus on large-scale wars or battles are often lambasted by amateur critics as fan-service: merely pandering to the adolescent fantasies of pseudo-fans who cannot appreciate the artistry of an individual franchise’s integrity, but instead need a pageant of orgiastic violence to be entertained. But in fact, what these movies call out to in us is our desire for the God who is powerful to save. They call out to this longing in us even before they call out to what is perhaps the louder yearning within us evoked by them, that is, the desire of every little boy (and not a few little girls) to be one of the superheroes that they admire on the screen, to join in the final battle and land the finishing strike. That is because the ultimate salvation of God is to make us into gods: to render us immortal, glorious, and powerful by participation in His own immortality, glory, and power, so that the ravages of evil will no longer be able to threaten or consume us. This share, scripture tells us, will also involve a share in His own triumph: we will be Christ’s entourage at the Second Coming (Mt. 24:31; 1 Thess. 4:17), He will be glorified in His saints (2 Thess. 1:10), we will judge angels (1 Cor. 6:3), and rule upon the earth (Rev. 5:10; 20:4-6). Our share in this glory is contingent precisely upon our share in divine warfare, “not against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12). Our confidence in this war can only be rooted in the knowledge that the decisive battle of gods has already been won, in cosmic and human history alike, by a god who has no rival to match him, and needs no magic stones to rule the universe.

David Armstrong is an Orthodox Christian who enjoys a shameless love affair with Jews, Judaism, and other Christians. He graduated with a BA in Religious Studies (minor in Classical Greek) and an MA in Biblical Studies from Missouri State University in Springfield, MO. He has an avid interest in far too many things, and would do well to specialize.

Eighth Day Institute seeks to renew culture by promoting the common heritage of Nicene Christianity. We are committed to facilitating a dialogue of love and truth as a step in that direction. This means we gladly allow a broad range of perspectives. But it does not mean that we agree with everything presented or published.

We hope and pray you will join the conversation. And we humbly ask you to help us continue promoting the unity of Christians for the sake of our dying culture. Our work depends on your support - 95% of our funding comes from individual donors/members. Please consider joining our growing community of Eighth Day Members today.

Become a Monthly Eighth Day Patron & Receive Complementary All-Access Pass to Your Choice of a Signature Event Below, plus a 10% Discount at Eighth Day Books.

Become a Monthly Eighth Day Pillar and Attend them All for Free Every Year!

Call for Papers
Plenary Dialogues on "The Patristic View of Salvation: Justification by Faith Alone?"
Iconography Workshop
Visit the Florovsky Week page to learn more about this upcoming event!

Inklings OktoberFest - $100 Value

January Eighth Day Symposium - $125 Value

February Eighth Day Colloquium - $125 Value

Be the first to comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.