Spoiler Alert: God Wins the Endgame

Third Sunday in Easter

“We’re in the endgame now”- Doctor Strange

Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders; they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, singing with full voice, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing, “To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!” And the four living creatures said, “Amen!” And the elders fell down and worshiped. Revelation 5:11-14

Warning: This post will contain actual spoilers for “Avengers:Endgame”, so if you haven’t seen it yet and don’t want to know what happens, read no further. You have been warned.

Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock for the last few months, you are undoubtedly aware of all the hoopla surrounding the release of the final chapter in a 22-movie saga that has been playing out over the last eleven years. I was in nerd-vana for the entirety of its three-hour duration and found it exhilarating and satisfying. I like movies where the good guys win, and I prefer happy endings to dystopian or ambiguous ones. Post-movie, I’ve been avidly reading some of the reviews and discussions about what happened in the movie, and what that might mean for the next book in the Marvel universe. It’s interesting reading, but I think too much dissection of the details of the plot is a distraction. And I think the same thing about the way some people approach Revelation, the final book in the Christian Bible.

What happened when Captain America returned the Soul Stone? Since it was obtained in exchange for Black Widow’s’s life, did returning it bring her back? What’s with Peter Parker going back to school and finding all his friends there? Wouldn’t at least some of them have survived the initial snap, and be five years older? If Captain America stayed in the past to marry Peggy and live happily ever after, is there a second Captain America frozen in the ice? Is Loki alive somewhere? And by the way, where is Goose?

It may be fun to speculate, but when people critique the movie on the basis of these alleged plot holes, I think they’re forgetting that it’s a story. Stories don’t have to make logical sense; they make sense on a level that is deeper than logic. Stories express truths that are not necessarily constrained by the bounds of reality. Joseph Campbell and C S Lewis both understood that the reason myths from different cultures share common themes is because they are expressions of universal experiences. Although Lewis and Campbell answered the-which-came-first- the chicken-or-the-egg question somewhat differently, they both believed that all stories are retellings of “the great story”. The problem with demythologizing stories in order to make them fit into an Enlightenment pigeonhole is that the attempt to make them real often serves to obfuscate their most essential truths. You can spend your time speculating about time travel paradoxes and alternate universes, or you can go along with our heroes on their journey, cheer them on as they attempt to take down Thanos, weep with them as painful sacrifices are made, and rejoice with them in final victories great and small. We can be reminded anew of the importance of family; that teamwork is better than going it alone; and that friendship can transcend immense personal differences and perspectives.

Revelation is a very strange book, and people either love it or hate it. That’s nothing new, for it had a prolonged and difficult journey into canonicity. Its inclusion in the Christian Bible has been questioned by many, including Martin Luther. And much like the Avengers comic books, it has provided plenty of material for popular books and movies, such as the Left Behind series. There’s a large Christian subculture that finds endless fascination in trying to decipher Revelation’s more cryptic visions, such as who “666” and other characters might be in real life, what the “mark of the beast” is, or how to predict the timing of the End of Days. So far, time has not been kind to any of these speculations. I can remember when bar codes were first introduced, some were claiming they were the Mark of the Beast. In the 1984 edition of “Bible Trivia” board game, there are several questions which attempt to relate then-current events such as the emerging European Common Market to passages in Revelation and Daniel. These haven’t aged well. People like Hal Lindsey and Harold Camping are remembered primarily for being famously unsuccessful in predicting the end of the world as we know it.

When we try to dissect Revelation as if it were a kind of divine Da Vinci code that must be deciphered to be understood, we’re missing its point, just as we’re missing the point of Avengers: Endgame when we expect it to all make logical and consistent sense. When we try to fit Revelation’s weird imagery into scientific, literal explanations, we’re in danger of missing its primary truth. The point of Revelation is that “ though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet“. The truth of Revelation is that in the endgame, God wins.

In Infinity Wars, Doctor Strange says that he sees 14,000,605 futures, and in only one of them is Thanos defeated. Following his vision, he willingly gives the Time Stone to Thanos, seemingly ensuring Thanos’s victory. He can’t tell the other Avengers what he sees, because if he did, they would lose. There is no opportunity to debate, because shortly thereafter he gets dusted and disappears. The remaining Avengers must act using their own unique gifts and strengths, without knowing whether they are making the right choices. And many find themselves in positions where the right choice is not in using their superpowers to fight, but in the strength of their characters to sacrifice. Black Widow gives her life so that Hawkeye can recover the Soul Stone. Iron Man first gives up his idyllic life with his wife and child, then sacrifices his own life so that others might continue to live.

In the verses leading up to today’s scripture passage, John has a vision of a scroll sealed with seven seals. It seems imperative that the scroll be opened, for John weeps when no one is found worthy to break the seals and open the scroll. One of the elders in the vision reassures John that the Lion of Judah has triumphed and is thus able to open the seals. But when John looks, he sees not a lion, but a slaughtered lamb in the place of honor. The Lamb is praised as “worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation.” (Nerd alert: I can imagine that scene in heaven as not unlike the reaction of the theater audience when Mjolnir flew into Captain America’s hands)

The Lamb is found worthy precisely because he was slain. The Lion of Judah did not assert his power to usher in the Kingdom of God in the way the people of God expected. As the song goes, “he could have called ten thousand angels” but instead willingly laid down his life so that others might live. In the endgame, it wasn’t superpowers that resulted in the win for the Avengers, but superior character, and I think that’s how God wins too. Reliance on superior power in an attempt to control others and force the universe to be the way you think it should be is the way of Thanos, not the way of God. The way of God is the way of sacrifice and of self-giving, to let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.”

The movie didn’t end with the deaths of some of its major characters, and neither does the Bible. We got to see Thanos dissolve into dust, and some joyful reunions with those who were thought to be lost forever. According to the Bible, in the endgame death and hell will be destroyed and there will be many joyful reunions with those we have loved and lost.

In the endgame, God wins. And God wins not by asserting his great power but by asserting his great love. And that’s good news to me.

Thessalonians: Don’t Lose Hope

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died,so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.

Paul wrote two letters to the Thessalonian Christians, and 1 Thessalonians is generally considered to be the oldest book in the New Testament, perhaps as early as 51-52 AD. Much of the content is personal in nature, and its theology is not as developed as it is in some of his later writings. The Thessalonian church was one of the first Christian communities established by Paul, so these letters give us a window into the thoughts and concerns of some of the very first converts.

Thessalonians is also interesting in that it contains a couple of passages that are often lifted from context and applied in ways that I think Paul never intended.  The concept of a “Rapture” where planes, trains, and automobiles will suddenly be left unmanned as all true Christians are snatched away to heaven at the second coming of Jesus is derived almost entirely from 1 Thessalonians 4:17: “Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air”  A great deal of speculative fiction has been written about this event, most recently the “Left Behind”  books and films. But when I read this sentence in its context. I don’t think that’s at all the point Paul was trying to communicate. Paul, along with most of the rest of the first Christians, expected Jesus to return within their own lifetimes. Some of those early followers had already died, and their bereaved families and friends wondered what would happen to them. If they weren’t there to welcome Jesus back, would they have a part in the coming messianic age? Paul wants to assure them that not even death can separate believers from the love of God. Not only would see their loved ones again, but they would join them in celebrating the reign of God “on earth as it is in heaven”.

The second Thessalonian passage that I think is often taken out of context and misused is Paul’s command in 2 Thessalonians 3:10: “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.” Currently, this phrase is often used to in order to give religious justification to political belief systems which pit makers vs. takers and do not think tax dollars should be used to fund a social safety net. I think that application of the passage not only takes Paul’s words of advice out of context, but goes directly against the repeated thrust of Biblical teaching in the law, prophets, and gospels that we are indeed our brother’s keepers. Read in context and with the understanding that the early Christians expected an imminent return of Christ, I think it’s more likely that Paul meant to tell the Thessalonians: “Don’t quit your day job”. Fairly recently, a radio preacher named Harold Camping made several failed predictions which established the date of the end of the world. Some of his followers quit their jobs and sold their possessions because they thought their time and resources would be better spent getting that message out to as many people as possible. I think some of the Thessalonians, whom Paul calls “busybodies”, may have had the same mindset. It’s not about telling the poor they need to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps; it’s about promoting industry over idle self-indulgence, and that can be applied to the rich as well as the poor, the old as well as the young.  What I understand Paul to be saying is that the best way to prepare for Christ’s return is to do what you can with the resources you have. Get busy doing something good!

Times are different now, but there’s still plenty of depressing stuff going on in the world. It’s so easy to get sucked into a soul-crushing black hole of hopelessness, anxiety, and despair that spirals inward into itself until there is nothing left. Paul’s words to the Thessalonians  inspire me not to give up hope, for not even death has the final answer. There is much I cannot change, but I can, and should, do something. “Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and through grace gave us eternal comfort and good hope, comfort your hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word.”

And that’s good news to me!