The Infinite Strangeness of Atonement

By Corey Patterson

[WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD!!!]

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If you’re a Marvel fanatic, you’re probably still wiping the tears from your eyes after Infinity War. The film lived up to the “war” in its name with the mad Titan Thanos wiping out half of the life in the universe. His murderous act was enacted through the use of the all-powerful Infinity Stones, many of which he acquired throughout the film.

There were many events leading up to the stones’ acquisition, but one of the most pivotal involved the Time Stone. After landing on the planet Titan, Doctor Strange, Iron Man, and other heroes come toe-to-toe with none other than Thanos himself. The one thing on his mind? Prying the time stone from the Avengers’ cold, dead hands.

Strange took it upon himself to use the Time Stone to see all possible futures of these events (over 14 million to be exact!). Of those outcomes, only one resulted in the heroes defeating Thanos. Strange put on a commendable fight against the Titan, but it wasn’t enough: Thanos managed to land a hit on Stark in the midst of the battle, causing the Sorcerer Supreme to stop in his tracks.

What happened next was quite unexpected: Instead of using the last bit of power of the Time Stone to retreat from Thanos (and perhaps find a way to undo the current situation), Strange offered it to him in exchange for Stark’s life. As Stark stared in disbelief, Strange let him know that they were in the “endgame.”

As those who saw the film know, Thanos eventually accomplished his goal of wiping out half of the universe’s life. And in this event Strange lost his life, leaving audience’s to wonder if there was still a chance of achieving victory. But dedicated fans are holding onto Strange’s “endgame” statement, hoping against all hope that this scenario would ultimate result in victory.

This specific scene on Titan reminded me of atonement theories in Christian theology. These are explanations of the event of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion and what it actually accomplished. And honestly, I think many of these fit the framework.

Here are the three that came to mind regarding Strange’s sacrifice: 

  • The Ransom Theory

This early theory of atonement suggests Christ gave his life as a “ransom for many,” alluding to Mark 10:45. Some early church fathers believed Christ paid Satan a ransom (his life) to free the world from the dominion of evil. This view can be seen in C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe when Aslan the lion trades his life for Edmund’s. (Lewis, p. 185 )

 One could argue Strange did the same thing, as Thanos exerted his dominion over the universe. The “payment” would be the Time Stone in exchange for Stark’s life.

  • The Penal-Substitution Theory

The Penal-Substitution Theory was developed by Protestant reformers following the teachings of Anselm. It claims that humankind incurred guilt upon itself and has been found guilty by God, who acts as a courtroom judge. Christ then steps in to take the punishment from the judge that humankind deserves.

 While Strange does step in for Stark, it’s not clear that the confrontation has anything to do with incurred guilt. Thanos simply wants to destroy those who stand in his way. His version of “justice” is more utilitarian as opposed to a guilty verdict.

  • The ‘Christus Victor’ Theory

‘Christus Victor’ or ‘Christ the Victor’ is a theory developed by G. E. H. Aulén that came to prominence in the twentieth century. It states that Christ’s death was an act against the evil enslaving humanity, which sounds much like the Ransom Theory. However, it differs in that there is no focus on paying a ransom or bargaining with the devil. Instead, there is a heavy emphasis on the ultimate triumph of good over evil.

Ultimately, one could make compelling arguments for each of these atonement theories. However, I would argue the Christus Victor theory most accurately portrays Strange’s confrontation with Thanos. Strange represents the Christ who gives up everything to save Stark, the representative of humankind, from Thanos, the representative of the forces of evil.

Strange does appear to bargain with Thanos, showing similarities to the Ransom Theory. Yet the bargain with Thanos was only one step along the way to victory; it wasn’t the achievement of victory itself. Thanos would have eventually overpowered Strange and the other Avengers if he had not sacrificed the Stone, but the sorcerer knew giving up everything was the only way to win in the “endgame.”

Strange’s goal, like Christ’s, was to eradicate the forces of evil through an act of surrender. It is through self-sacrifice, not bargaining, that good will ultimately triumph over the forces of evil.

Corey Patterson is a writer and webmaster. He is passionate about the synthesis of theology and geek/pop culture stories. His interests lie primarily in superhero and fantasy genres. Check out his blog here.

Sources

Lewis, Clive Staples (1950). The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (Britain: Geoffrey Bles)

 

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. Pablo Turnes says:

    our perspective is very interesting indeed. I was thinking about the Dr. Strange movie’s final scene, where he bargains (and this is the actual word the character uses) with Dormammu, an evil being. Once again, Strange knows he can’t beat his foe through direct confrontation, so he forces him to negotiate to the detriment of his other earthly foes. I think that while there’s an obvious good/evil logic, there’s also some kind of relativism – after all Dormammu exists in a nightmarish dimension, so his “badness” is logical -. And the sacrifice is made by Strange’s enemies and not by him directly – though he takes the risk of travelling to the other dimension where he can’t win -. In short, there’s a kind of balance that’s possible through the bargaining of good and evil instead of a direct confrontation that turns both concepts into irreductible and irreconciliable units. Could this relativism be applied to Infinity War? What would that mean? After all genocide was acceptable (or at least unavoidable) as long as Thanos was doing it somewhere else. And while it becomes Earth’s problem because the whole planet is affected by the conflict, if Thanos would have chosen to ignore Earth, would that still make it unavoidable? Would intervention in other planets be justified by this? I know I’m turning the axis from Theology to Political Philosophy but still, it’s interesting to present ourselves this dilemma.

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  2. robertsang says:

    Great post and very interesting. In terms of the ransom theory, if we’re specifically talking about the “paying to the devil” version of that theory, then I am not sure this is what was going on in Infinity War between Strange and Thanos at all.

    You can see traces of the penal substitution theory here. However, it might seem a little too trivial a point in this context if it were simply taking the place of another. That’s what happens all the time in every movie or TV show when the hero tells the villain to let a hostage go and take them instead, or takes a bullet on behalf of another.

    Like you, I think the Christus Victor theory probably fits the closest. The main idea in Infinity War isn’t simply substituting one life for another. It’s sacrificing because of the end game in mind – seeing the bigger picture and knowing the outcome, and therefore taking that seeming loss for the good of the greater victory.

    I think in the end though, none of these completely fit with what happened in Infinity War. Or more to the point, what Strange did in Infinity War doesn’t quite capture the magnitude of what Jesus did for humanity on the cross. Jesus sacrificed himself but not half the universe at the same time for a greater good. If Strange had merely sacrificed himself and, in that one sacrifice, encapsulated everything in himself on behalf of the entire universe, then perhaps that would be a closer fit.

    Who knows though? Maybe Stark will end up sacrificing himself for everyone at the end of Avengers 4 and that will be a much closer analogy.

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