By Rev. Samuel Blair
Our popular culture has had a long love affair with the end of the world. The word “apocalyptic” is commonly used in reference to something being cataclysmic and destructive, but in Biblical literature it referred not to “end of the world” doomsday scenarios, but to revelatory passages where the veil of reality is pulled back to see the spiritual forces at work in history. Themes often dealt not just with how things were to end, but to how God had worked throughout history to bring His purposes to pass, which provided hope that God’s plans for the future kingdom and eventual defeat of evil forces in heaven and earth. Common tropes in apocalyptic narratives include cosmic dualism, dense symbolism and numerology, conflict and the eventual triumph of the righteous who persevere.
Apocalyptic as a biblical genre seems to arise during times of great community distress and upheaval. The Book of Daniel, which is the earliest source of biblical apocalyptic language and imagery, was either written either in the 6thcentury BCE in response to Israel’s fall to Babylon or else during the second century BCE as Hellenization challenged Jewish identity. Much apocalyptic literature also arose in Jewish circles between 200 BCE and 100 CE, a time rife with political turmoil coinciding with Roman occupation of Jerusalem and the eventual destruction of the temple in 70 CE.
The Book of Revelation stands out not only as the largest piece of apocalyptic literature in the Christian canon, but as one of the most influential pieces of the Bible in terms of its impact on American culture as a whole. While Revelation certainly had an impact on Western culture prior to it, the Protestant Reformation and its spread from Europe to the New World brought it to a new found place of importance. Because Protestants emphasized the importance of a literal reading of scripture, the symbolism found in Daniel and Revelation were taken to be literally true. Because Protestantism also placed authority much more in the hands of the believer instead of an elite priesthood, varied interpretations of these apocalyptic images proliferated. America itself took on a newfound significance in biblical prophecy and apocalypticism after the Great Awakening, and it was there where speculation on when God’s Kingdom might come and how we could interpret the “signs of the times” in order to determine this ahead of time.
The fascination with hidden meanings and interpretation of apocalyptic symbols hit a high mark in the 20thcentury, with televangelists and authors offering their own predictions of coming Armageddon based on numerology, world events and politics. In popular fiction, books by Tim Lahaye dealing with end times prophecies sold more than 80 million copies and brought his own brand of speculation about the imminent coming of Christ into millions of Evangelical homes. Non-fiction authors as well tried to parse out the minutiae of biblical texts in order to determine dates and locations where Armageddon would be played out. One author even used the Bible as a sort of cosmic “word search” puzzle to look for these clues.
So what does this have to do with Avengers: Endgame? Perhaps a lot.
Marvel Studios has created a world where heroes not only excite and thrill, but display such virtues such as valor, perseverance, self-transcendence and self-sacrifice. Most amazing to me has been that not only has Marvel created rich characters and films that – for the most part – tell compelling stories on their own, but that mesh together into a grander narrative woven throughout all the films that deals with the ultimate clash of good against evil, with the fate of (half) the universe in the balance.
Audiences went to Avengers: Infinity War expecting to see this clash writ large, but didn’t expect to see the good guys lose. This is similar to apocalyptic narratives in that they often say that as bad as the world is things apparently will get a whole lot worse before they get any better. Apocalyptic literature reminds us that good will eventually triumph but evil, whether it be in the form of Babylon, Rome or Thanos, will have its day. The instantaneous disappearance of half of the world’s population as seen at the end of the film even bore some hallmarks of the end-times Rapture popularized by dispensationalist theologians: mothers wondering who stole their babies while pilotless helicopters and cars crashed chaotically around them.
It’s interesting to note that in the same way as end-times authors like John Hagee and David Jeremiah sift through scripture to find hidden meanings and interpretations, bloggers and YouTubers have examined Endgame movie trailers frame by frame to determine what is going on, what will happen, and how it will happen. Entire plot theories have been developed based on the shifting color of Scarlett Johansson’s hair and what hand Loki stabbed Thanos with in Infinity War. In the same way that end-times apologists seem to each have their own theory about the end and will debate those theories endlessly, each movie patron has their own Endgame theory as well which they will gladly tell you about. In the same way as the Evangelical Industrial Complex churns out books to readers hungry for the next tidbit of dispensational gnostic truth because they make money, pop culture critics publish their own Endgame theories for clicks, impressions, fame and ad revenue, as well as the chance to simply “be right”.
Perhaps the popularity of Avengers: Endgame also has to do with our collective eschatological anxiety as a culture. We are at a crisis point socially, politically, ecologically, economically and spiritually. Every engagement in popular media, regardless of the issue, seems to be a battle between the forces of light and darkness. Avengers: Infinity War tapped in to that dread, and the collective gasp and honest sorrow at the end of the film perhaps mirrored the feelings of many who woke up on November 7th, 2016 to find to their shock that the impossible outcome had in fact come about. Biblical apocalyptic literature arose in similar circumstances (though honestly not nearly as severe as Roman conquest or Babylonian exile) and while it dealt with issues of conflict and justice, it ultimately serves as a beacon of hope in troubled times. Perhaps Avengers: Endgame is one way in which the public hopes to see that, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, good will somehow triumph, that darkness will not win, that justice will prevail, and maybe – just maybe – everything will be OK.
Rev. Samuel Blair is a hospice chaplain and bereavement coordinator in Pittbsurgh, PA. He co-hosts the Church of the Geek podcast with Rev. Brian Bennet, and is the creator of chaplainsreport.com. A form of this post originally appeared there in January 2018 and can be found at here.