“Avengers: Endgame” and the nature of God

(This is not a review, but it does contain a few spoilers for the film. The spoilers are significant, but are also entirely predictable, which is part of the point.)

The film “Avengers: Endgame”, the 22nd in the Marvel Cinematic Universe franchise/storyline, does not in fact say much about the nature of God.

I have previously pointed out here https://www.penelopewallace.com/captain-america-civil-war-a-few-thoughts-spoilers/Captain America’s marvellous line in the 6th film, “Avengers” – “there’s only one God, ma’am, and I’m pretty sure He doesn’t dress like that.” The 21st film, “Avengers: Infinity War”, to which “Endgame” is a Part Two, ends powerfully and movingly with the same character’s “Oh God,” which like many such remarks, can be construed as a prayer.

Despite this, however, and although I yield to nobody, well, almost nobody, in my love for the MCU franchise, its worldview is not really compatible with Christianity, and hasn’t been since at least “Doctor Strange” (film 14.) And “Endgame” certainly isn’t. Our heroes, male and female, have to try to find a way out of or beyond the mess the world is in on their own, and there is no point at which anyone, even Captain America, seriously suggests that God can or will do anything to help.

(The film does cheat by suggesting that anyone who sacrificed themselves in the process will be able to know what they’ve achieved beyond the grave – in what one may call the modern way of wanting  some kind of eternal life without any other theology.)

God doesn’t feature in “Endgame.”

There is a famous self-description of God in the Bible. (Bear with me.) “The Lord passed before him [Moses], and proclaimed, ‘The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.’” (Exodus 34: 6-7, referenced frequently in the Old Testament).

We all like the first bit of this, but aren’t so keen on the latter half. What is all this about vengeance on third and fourth generations? A bit unfair? In the book of Ezekiel, even God seems to disclaim the proverb that “the fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge”, declaring “the son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father.”(Ezekiel chapter 18). But on the other hand, God says to a few people, notably Solomon, “you have sinned but out of mercy I’ll delay the punishment until your son’s time”, which always seems a bit rough on the son.

Of course, practically speaking, it’s true that children do suffer for their parents’ sins. If people are cruel or negligent in bringing up their children, those children when adult are likely to suffer, and so are those they interact with. A ruler or government that makes stupid decisions leaves a mess for their comparatively guiltless successor. And so on. It’s the way life is.

The plastic we are throwing away, the energy we are over-using, the forests we are cutting down – these will create a dangerous problem for the third and fourth generation, assuming there is a fourth generation.

So you could say that God is simply telling Moses that this is what happens.

(Although this equates suffering with being unforgiven. Obviously Christianity says that the guilty can be forgiven in the end, but that’s not what we’re talking about here.)

What has the above to do with “Endgame”? Here comes the SPOILER.

“Avengers: Infinity War” ended with one half of life in the universe being wiped out, dying, ceasing to be.

Since the dead heroes included some of the most bankable characters in the franchise, such as Spider-Man and Black Panther, all fan theories assumed, as well as hoping, that the catastrophe could be undone in some way in “Endgame.” And it is.

I’m not quite sure that the convoluted and highly entertaining mishmash of time-travel and alternative timelines that follows makes sense, but anyway the “snap of doom” is eventually undone. Hooray.

The MCU films have their origins in comic-books, and everyone who reads comic-books knows that deaths of major characters is rarely final, even if the original story-teller intended them to be. Wait for a few months, maybe a year or two, and Wolverine, Psylocke, Colossus, Captain America, Mary Jane – they all came back. Hooray again.

So suffering is temporary and mistakes revocable.

It is hooray, but how long have we been doing this? How long have we had stories where catastrophes can be undone by meddling with the timeline? Perhaps only since Einstein… and also since people have begun wondering if it would have been morally acceptable to strangle Hitler in his cradle (a dilemma discussed in the film.)

In similar vein, how long have we and our science fictionists played seriously or merrily with the dozens or billions of alternate or parallel realities?

I don’t understand the physics, and I unashamedly say that I don’t get why anyone should think there are or might be alternate versions of the universe. I think there’s only one of me.

(The main purpose of alternate universes is to inspire fiction, especially the Chrestomanci books of Diana Wynne Jones. “Is there really a world where the French won the battle of Waterloo?” “Yes, I don’t like it much. Everyone speaks French, and they laugh at my accent. Except in India, where they are very British, and eat suet pudding with their curry.” Our copy of “Witch Week”, one of the funniest and best children’s books ever, has been passed down to the next generation, so the above is from approximate memory – but as usual I digress.)

So even if disaster strikes here, in some versions of reality all is hunky-dory. And perhaps vice versa, less comfortably.

What has all this to do with the book of Exodus? I just think that one explanation of the “vengeance on the third and fourth generation” is God’s No to time travel and alternate universes.

Events happen. They are not undoable. Even if you repent and are forgiven, that doesn’t put the teapot you broke back together (Dorothy L Sayers’ analogy.)  If you abuse your son, and repent, he’s still going to need counselling.

It’s a sort of compliment, in a way, to the human race. What we do matters, so take your thoughts, words, actions and omissions seriously.

If you kill Spider-Man, he’s not coming back next week. Only God gets to do that.

Love from the PPI Blogger

  • Malachi Malagowther

    23rd June 2019 at 7:43 pm Reply

    I think the ideas about time travel predate Einstein although he seems to have been the first to put it on a scientific basis. If you speak of time travel many people would think of The Time Machine which was first published by HG Wells in 1895 but follows earlier writings of his from 1888. Admittedly Wells is very aware of the consequences of our actions and how society may change as a result of our decisions. I wonder what he would have made of Donald Trump? Trump does seem to have some characteristics of the Eloi and you can see he might be in favour of hiding the workers or Morlocks behind a Wall or underground. The difference I suppose is that if Trump was a member of the Eloi he wouls manage to get the Morlocks to vote for him.

  • Stephen Sheridan

    24th June 2019 at 12:05 am Reply

    Altering the timeline to make things all better again has to be one of the most repeated Science Fiction tropes aside from “reversing the polarity”. Occasionally it can be fun, but mostly its is just too easy a deus ex machina (pun intended). Having plundered comic books and re-booted and ruined much loved SF franchises, I wonder when Hollywood might actually invest in original work. There is plenty around, but few studios ready to take the risk. The only superhero movie I have ever enjoyed was Watchmen – and that was written as a satire on superheroes by a Brit, but done surprisingly well by Zack Snyder (although the original writer Alan E Moore hated it – but he hates all adaptions of his work).
    But back to your point Penelope, the ability to change the past does have the attribute of a deity, who can effectively stand outside time and thus avoid the causality contradictions that result. Groundhog Day has attributes of this, but they reach a limit when the protagonist tries everything ti save a terminally ill man’s life and just can’t do it.
    I have another question for you though Penelope. There are references in your post to God’s anger. Sure God may be slow to anger in the Bible, but there is anger there. Anger is such a human emotion and one that seems to contradict the love and reason of God as well as the gut-feeling I have that it just seems below the omnipotent and omniscient being. Is it there because God takes on human attributes through becoming human in Christ or am I just misunderstanding what the Bible is describing and God’s anger is something very different from the human emotion?

    • Penelope Wallace

      25th June 2019 at 5:11 pm Reply

      Stephen, what a question! Not being a vicar or anything, my understanding is that God’s anger is not seen as derived from the Incarnation. God is portrayed as angry (and experiencing other emotions) throughout the Bible. Of course you could argue this is the authors explaining the unexplainable in anthropomorphic terms. I’ve heard people explain the puzzling way God seems to change His mind and “repent/relent” sometimes, eg when Moses prays on behalf of the people of Israel, this way. However, isn’t it also a basic of Christianity that God is not just a First Cause or standard of behaviour, but a Person who has relationships? Love is an emotion as well as an attitude and an action. I do see God as having emotions, and these include anger. This doesn’t mean I don’t have problems with the way the anger is described and expressed in much of the Old Testament, but I think it appropriate to see God as being angry with (say) Hitler and simultaneously sorrowing for him, as well as sorrowing for his victims.
      God is anger when people abuse each other, as well as being love. There are forms of anger such as resentment and vengefulness that I would hesitate to ascribe to God, but anger can genuinely be righteous.

  • Stephen Sheridan

    25th June 2019 at 11:44 pm Reply

    Thanks Penelope. Then to take the logic of this a step further, perhaps in order to feel positive emotions such as joy and love, it is also necessary to take on negative emotions like anger. Just as without evil, there can be nothing against which to measure good. I guess it is part of the conundrum of an omnipotent and omniscient being, who has to stand aside in some way to create free will for humans. So God feels anger and love, but they are not as we know them, rather they are something unfathomable to us while we are alive and we an only explain them in our our limited way.

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