By Dr. Joel B. Kemp
Images, attributes, and powers associated with God in the biblical tradition abound in comic books. Typically, we think of these divine characteristics in connection with our favorite heroes and heroines, such as Wonder Woman and Superman. These characters are celebrated for their strength, courage, intellect, and self-sacrificial love that benefits humanity, if not life in the known Universe. Have you ever wondered where the attributes of villains originate? What if they, too, were somehow connected to God’s portrait in the Christian Scriptures? In this essay, I want to explore how one villain – Clifford DeVoe (“The Thinker”) who was featured in Season 4 of CW’s The Flash– embodies and subverts divine attributes to become a seemingly unstoppable enemy. While many qualities attributed to DeVoe can be contrasted with depictions of God and the creation account in Genesis 1, the first chapter of Ezekiel offers an even more precise comparison. From themes of power, victory, omniscience, and even the role of “thrones,” similarities abound between the depiction of DeVoe and the description of God. While such overlapping features exist, the greatest divergence lies in the intent and purpose of the use of such powers. In Ezekiel 1, God appears as a powerful, all-knowing, easily accessible champion to comfort a people experiencing the traumas of forced deportation and imperial domination. In contrast, The Thinker and his appearances create fear and trembling as he seeks to impose his domination upon the world and reshape humanity according to his “salvific plan.” Rather than liberating an oppressed people, The Thinker desires to oppress humanity to save the human race from the perceived ravages of technology and modernity. Although several episodes drew connections between God and The Thinker, the similarities between the two portraits reached a crescendo in Season 4, Episode 22.
This episode begins with The Thinker infiltrating an A.R.G.U.S. facility, killing people as he makes his way to a particular metahuman he needs to complete his plan, while Handel’s Messiah plays in the background. In a moment filled with biblical imagery, language, and symbolism, DeVoe reaches his target and proclaims: “And God said, ‘Let there be light’”, quoting Genesis 1 to describe the inauguration of his great act (Gen 1:3). In contrast to the biblical portrait of God in Genesis 1, DeVoe’s invocation of this language evokes fear, terror, and dread over the seemingly inevitable and violent execution of his plan. To some extent, DeVoe’s plan to remake humanity and the world according to his “image” is portrayed as a new creation. According to DeVoe’s rationale, this “creation” moves humanity “forward” by robbing humanity of those elements that may best define progress – technology, knowledge, and intelligence. Coupled with the musical score, the opening scene of this episode portrays him as a villainous deity who harms and destroys rather than one who creates and saves.
Prior to this episode, The Thinker spends much of Season 4 travelling on a powerfully mysterious “throne” with various powers that intimidate and overwhelm his adversaries. In Season 4, DeVoe’s “throne” can fly and levitate several feet in the air. While lacking angelic creatures and other supernatural adornments found in Ezekiel 1, The Thinker’s throne, and the one who sits upon it, are no less formidable. DeVoe’s throne creates an impenetrable boundary that keeps him safe from his enemies. Moreover, the throne has “tentacles” that can be used to attack or capture enemies who oppose DeVoe. Throughout Season 4, his appearance on this throne portents destruction and defeat to all opponents. At several points in the season, including Episode 22, The Thinker is portrayed as an ominous, powerful, and violent being who is unstoppable.
Another feature of this throne’s mobility and its implications for the portrayal of The Thinker is that it provides him with a sense of unrestricted movement and quasi-omnipresence. While DeVoe is not technically omnipresent, he is able to appear or disappear almost instantaneously. Throughout Season 4, DeVoe and the throne travel through time and space by using “pocket dimensions.” DeVoe’s ability to generate and use these pocket dimensions, initially through his chair, frustrates Team Flash and contributes to their fears that he cannot be defeated. Repeatedly, DeVoe appears without warning, executes his plan, and disappears via a pocket dimension to allude capture.
Lastly, DeVoe is portrayed consistently as a quasi-omniscient being who is in control and one step ahead of all his opponents. This connection between knowledge and control is made explicit throughout the development of DeVoe’s masterplan, which he calls “The Enlightenment.” Despite the various powers DeVoe absorbs from metahumans, his intellect, mind, and knowledge are described as his most formidable weapons. Even within the context of his mobile throne, his mind is the focal point – as illustrated by a helmet he wears that links his mind to the chair and allows him to control it with his thoughts.
Where do these images and ideas about an ominous, quasi-omnipotent and omniscient being originate? The religious allusions and biblical quotations found throughout this season of The Flash, especially in Season 4, Episode 22, provide a clue that the Bible may be a place where such images and ideas can be located. We already saw how Genesis 1 was used to illustrate concepts of omnipotence and omniscience, analogous to qualities attributed to DeVoe in general; however, DeVoe’s supernatural qualities were strongly linked to his flying “throne” and DeVoe’s character had an ominous tone to it—neither of which are found in Genesis. For a biblical parallel more specific to that particular imagery, we can examine the first chapter in the book of Ezekiel, which provides a lens to investigate how biblical images and attributes of God are appropriated to describe this comic book villain. Before discussing the specific parallels between Ezekiel 1 and The Thinker, it is important to provide a brief overview of the contents and background of this chapter.
The book of Ezekiel is attributed to a prophet who experienced the deportation of Judeans in the 6thc. BCE by the Babylonians (Greenberg, 17). In the opening chapter, the prophet experiences a vision of God’s appearance while he is “in the land of the Chaldeans by the river Chebar” (Ezek 1:3). Initially, the prophet sees a great stormy wind and cloud coming from the north that is full of fire and lightning (Ezek 1:4). As the image comes into focus, Ezekiel sees four, winged creatures, each of whom has four faces, four wings, and human hands beneath one set of wings (Ezek 1:5-11). As these creatures move, an unidentified object with luminous fire spewing lightning is described to be in the midst of these four living creatures (Ezek 1:12-14). Additionally, the prophet sees ornate “wheels within wheels” that accompany each living creature and seem to control the movement (Ezek 1:15-17). These wheels, according to Ezekiel, had rims that “were full of eyes” and the wheels contained “the spirit of the living creatures” (Ezek 1:18-21). This fantastic vision concludes with the prophet gaining a glimpse of a “human form” seated on the “likeness of a throne” that is in the sky above these angelic creatures and eye-rimmed wheels (Ezek 1:26-28).
While scholars debate aspects of this vision’s meanings, origins, and what it may say about the psychological state of the prophet, several elements are accepted widely (Darr, 1118 – 1121) and connect to how The Thinker is portrayed. First, this portrait of God’s appearance is described as one that is ominous and illustrates the power of the deity (Darr, 1114). As Nahum Waldman notes in his discussion of Ezek 1:18, these opening images connect majesty and fearfulness in a manner consistent with many ancient descriptions of conquering kings and deities (Waldman, 617). A major purpose of this ominous description is to reassure Ezekiel’s audience that despite their distance from the land of Judah/Israel, God remains powerful, in control, and accessible to them in a foreign land (Greenberg, 59). This connection between comfort and power found in Ezekiel 1 stands in stark contrast to DeVoe’s character in The Flash. For The Thinker, his power becomes a tool to increase fear and anxiety rather than weapons to combat them.
Second, Ezekiel’s vision emphasizes the ubiquity of God and his accessibility to people no matter where they are located (Eichrodt, 58). In contrast to some understandings of ancient deities, Ezekiel 1 describes God’s ability to be present fully and effectively without restriction. As Darr comments, “[this] inaugural vision affirms Yahweh’s mobility and freedom to be present when and wherever the Lord chooses” (Darr, 1120). In Jewish and Christian traditions, an attribute assigned to God is that God is omnipresent and thus rules the entire world/universe (Greenberg, 59). This unrestricted movement and quasi-omnipresence also appear in descriptions of DeVoe throughout the season. Unlike Ezekiel’s description of God’s unlimited access, DeVoe’s mobility enhances people’s sense of dread rather than providing comfort.
Finally, God in Ezekiel 1 and DeVoe in The Flashare portrayed as omniscient beings. The omniscience of God in Ezekiel 1 is signaled by the presence of the eyes within the wheels described in Ezek 1:18 (Greenberg, 58). According to Zimmerli, the eyes are “an indication of the all-seeing power of the Rider of the throne-chariot” (Zimmerli, 129). Although the writers of Ezekiel never use the term “omniscient,” the combination of this inaugural vision and God’s subsequent actions in the book, it is clear that God knows and controls all relating to God’s people.
Although the writers of The Flashallude repeatedly to Genesis 1 to describe The Thinker, Ezekiel 1 provides another biblical reference that illustrates how divine attributes intended for beneficence are appropriated by certain villains to nefarious ends. In this case, DeVoe’s mobile throne, its attributes, and his characteristics are similar to those found in the description of God and God’s throne in Ezekiel 1. Both God in Ezekiel 1 and The Thinker are portrayed as ominous, powerful beings. In Ezekiel 1, this power is intended to provide comfort for a community that has experienced the trauma of forced deportations as a result of military conquest. In The Flash, DeVoe’s power is intended to destroy all opponents who interfere with his desired end. Second, The Thinker, through pocket dimensions, and God, as illustrated by his mobile throne, are described as beings with unlimited geographical reach. Consequently, both are able to fulfill their plans and affect change without physical limits. Finally, both God and The Thinker are portrayed as all-knowing (omniscient) beings. Despite their shared omniscience, the purpose and function of such knowledge differs significantly. In Ezekiel 1, God alleviates fear, while DeVoe incites dread in The Flash.
In their respective ways, DeVoe and God in Ezekiel 1 use their powers to “open all sorts of new and undreamed-of possibilities for a power as almighty as his to set up its kingdom” (Eichrodt, 59). In Ezekiel 1 and scripture as a whole, God’s intention is to establish a kingdom for human flourishing. In contrast, The Thinker’s goal “to save” humanity comes at the cost of humanity’s prosperity and growth – an anti-Godlike movement.
Dr. Joel B. Kemp is Assistant Professor of Theology for the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Scranton.
Darr, Katheryn P. “The Book of Ezekiel: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections.” Pages 1225-1242 in Introduction to Prophetic Literature, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Baruch, Letter of Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel. Vol 6 of New Interpreter’s Bible. Edited by Leander E. Keck. Nashville: Abigdon, 2001.
Eichrodt, Walther. Ezekiel: A Commentary. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1970.
Greenberg, Moshe. Ezekiel 1-20. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1983.
Waldman, Nahum M. “A Note on Ezekiel 1:18,” JBL103(1984): 614 – 618.
Zimmerli, Walther. Ezekiel 1: A Commentary on the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel, Chapter 1-24. Translated by Ronald E. Clements. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1979.