By David Armstrong
The main distinction between gods and monsters in ancient mythology was how they used their power. Marduk is a descendant of Tiamat, and Zeus of Kronos (and therefore a brother of Typhoios), and yet both gods are gods rather than monsters precisely because they use their abnormally excessive power to preserve, defend, and save the world. Likewise, YHWH uses his power to defeat the primordial sea monsters of common ancient Near Eastern mythography and then, later, to rescue Israel from slavery in Egypt. The parallel between YHWH’s salvific act in rescuing the world from the titanic threats which emerged from the primordial cosmic ocean—Rahab and/or Leviathan—and his salvation of Israel is clear and often exploited in biblical texts, as is now standard in the scholarship on them. As in the beginning, when God defeated the sea monster and “split the waters” (Gen 1:7) so that the necessary conditions would be realized for dry land to appear, so, too, did God split the waters of the sea for Israel to cross over on dry land. And just as when in the creation story, God, having finished his work, rests and takes up residence in his finished cosmos, so, too, upon saving Israel and giving her the Law at Mt. Sinai, YHWH completes his legislation by giving Moses the instructions for building the Tabernacle, and the Book of Exodus ends with God taking up rest within it. YHWH’s divine kingship, in both cases, rests on theomachy (i.e., a battle among gods).
As the literature of the Hebrew Bible moves forward chronologically to the philosophical monotheism of Early Judaism, one notices a creative reuse of this mythic paradigm. Yes, God fought the sea monster and vanquished it (Ps 74:13); but also, the sea monster, Leviathan, is actually God’s playful creation (Ps 104:26), even his pet (Job 41). Indeed, the larger argument of Job 38-41, in God’s response to Job’s inconsolable lamentation, is to stress his creative sovereignty over the cosmic order, including the monstrous elements therein that threaten the stability of human life and activity. We should not press the point too hard by way of comparison or contrast: ancient Babylonians and Greeks surely believed, too, in the respective sovereignty of Marduk and Zeus (or, in Hellenistic times, perhaps some correlation of the two) as the divine king over the monstrous forces of the universe, and philosophically-minded ancients read these myths as allegories for, among other things, the victory of God and divine Reason (Logos) over the violent monstrosity of material nothingness, between which two poles the beauty of the sensible world was mediated by the cosmic soul (as in Plutarch’s Middle Platonic reading of Egyptian myth in De Iside et Osiride). In the Hebrew canon, we are being treated to a similar philosophical reflection on and transcendence of the boundaries set by inherited myth. Earlier Israelites imagined YHWH as a divine being alongside the divine beings of the monsters and the other gods with whom he did warfare; the author of Job, without per se rejecting these earlier traditions, modifies them such that YHWH’s sovereignty means that the only kind of theomachy logically possible for him is one that he condescends to participate in. From YHWH’s sovereign perspective, Leviathan is not his enemy but his pet, Satan his courtier (Job 1-2); it is only at the level of created contingencies, at the level of what later Greek theology would call oikonomia or “economy,” that there can be said to be divine enmity. Seen from the perspective of divine sovereignty, though, the monsters are manifestations of God’s own glory, power, and wisdom. Perspective determines one’s view here: monsters are either, as their Latin etymology implies, “epiphanies” (monstrum, from monstro, monstrare) or nightmares, revelations of divine glory or threats to the harmonious order of the world.
The stress on the mythic aspect of God’s conflict with the monsters resurges in Jewish apocalyptic literature and, later, in Early Christianity. The apostolic kerygma of Christ’s death and resurrection, including from very early on Christ’s descent into and conquest of Hades, would later receive fairly explicit hymnographic treatment as a theomachy in which God waged and won divine warfare against cosmic monsters and evil divine beings, like Sin, Death, Hades, and the Devil. “Verily,” reads the 6th Ode for the Orthros of the Resurrection in the Byzantine Liturgy, sung about half an hour before midnight, “Jonah the Prophet was caught, but not held in the belly of the whale. For being an impression of You, Who suffered and was given over to burial, he sprang forth from the whale as from a chamber.” Christ, like Jonah, bests the sea monster that is the underworld. And the 7th Ode: “Hades was pierced in the heart, having received the One pierced n His side, and was consumed by the force of divine fire, for the salvation of us who sing: Blessed are You, O God, our Deliverer.” And again the 9th Ode: “When You, the Immortal Life descended to Death, it was then, that You put Hades to death by the lightning of the Godhead; and when You raised up the dead from the infernal depths, all the Heavenly Powers cried aloud: ‘O Giver of Life, Christ our God, glory to You.’” In Christian iconography, Jesus’ baptism—thematically connected to his death and resurrection via the Transfiguration at which the theophany of his sonship is repeated in the Synoptic Gospels and by John the Baptist himself in the Gospel of John—is depicted as vanquished under the feet of Christ in his humility. Likewise, in some icons of the paschal mystery, Hades is a monster whose yawning jaws threaten to swallow Christ, who is really the hook of the divine spear that will pierce and kill it.
We are free to be critical of ancient perspectives about divinity and monstrosity: as Mary-Jane Rubenstein reminds us at length in her book Pantheologies: Gods, Worlds, and Monsters (New York: Columbia University Press, 2018), Western cultural notions of the “monstrous” as the “material” has often gone hand in hand with Western misogyny and xenophobia. In the former case, one need look no further than to cosmic monsters like Tiamat or Leviathan (often gendered female in later literature) or to goddesses whose wrath endangers male heroes like Hera (especially as Juno in the Aeneid) or Aphrodite (e.g., Euripides’ Hippolytus). In the latter case, perhaps the most famous monster story in Western literature, Odysseus’ encounter with the kyklops in Odyssey IX, exemplifies this dynamic perfectly: the first culturally non-Greek encounter that Odysseus has in his recounted adventures is on an unknown island with a savage, giant, hideous, cannibalistic brute who does not fear the gods and does not offer Odysseus and his men the divinely requisitehospitality (xenia). Classicists, psychologists, philosophers, and indeed, theologians have spilt untold barrels of ink articulating this relationship between what a culture thinks of as wild or monstrous and what a culture identifies as second-class, inferior, or dangerous to social cohesion, all of which is worth heeding when deigning to talk about monsters. But there still remains something deeply useful about the category of monstrosity. Monsters can remind us that for all of our philosophical preferences for an anthropic universe that is well disposed to our existence and needs, the natural world is in fact a dangerous, wild place full of beings whose antiquity, magnitude, and narrative arc far exceed our own and indeed dwarf our own self-importance.
This leads me (finally) to Godzilla vs. Kong. Legendary’s MonsterVerse films have been a joy to watch, partly as an attempt to keep interest in kaiju films alive and partly as a winsome, entertaining meditation, in the language of contemporary cinema, on their implications. (I also like the part where the monsters punch each other.) Godzilla (2014), Skull Island (2017), Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019), and the present sequel are all unified by a single motif: nature is bigger and scarier than humans previously realized. Trust in the benevolent protection of the Titans—the megafauna kaiju like Godzilla, Kong, Ghidorah, etc.—is consistently lauded in these films over human attempts to hamper, control, or destroy them, all of which lead only to disaster (to the spectacular joy of viewers). Godzilla is indeed a god because he uses his titanic size, strength, and nuclear power to protect the world—and, as a collateral side effect, humanity—from other Titans; Kong, likewise, is a god because he has an affinity for humans (his distant relations). Ghidorah and Rodan are monsters, by contrast, because they use their power to destroy the world order that allows human flourishing. The films upend this simple dichotomy in a number of ways: Godzilla is capable and willing to turn on humanity when human hubris challenges his divine rule. The Titans remind humanity that the pecking order of the universe does not actually prioritize them the way they are habituated to believe it does: their best shot at survival and flourishing is to adopt their proper place in the divine hierarchy, submissive to those who lead it and grateful for their power to save.
This is a fairly pagan, but also fairly useful, observation: we are nested within a series of dependencies on the fecundity and benevolence of the universe. As C.S. Lewis would have insisted, paganism is a reasonable response to the numinous divinity of the natural world in all its grandeur and severity. But the gods and monsters of the natural world also have a continued relevance for the Christian imagination, too, both as theomachy and as theophany. Godzilla is a good modern double for Leviathan: when we imagine Godzilla in combat, we are close in our own cultural idiom to what ancient Israelites would have been thinking as they imagined YHWH fighting the sea monster. But at the same time, the perspectivism that necessarily constructs our relationship to Godzilla and Godzilla’s to God means that we are also free to see the Titans as theophanic in their own right, witnessing to the infinity and incomprehensibility of the God whose economy it is to create and save through Christ. Those cosmic beings upon whom our contingencies depend—be they gods or monsters—may have power over us, but it is a delegated power, tolerated but also finally subordinated by God. In brief, God becomes more appreciable when we have gods and monsters to contrast and compare him with.
The MonsterVerse has an uncertain future, so Godzilla vs. Kong lacks a post-credits scene teasing any more of the franchise, but for what it is worth, I think it would be a shame for us to move on, culturally, from kaiju flicks. They are too important as reminders of our human mediocrity: literally, our “being in the middle” of the universal order that God creates, neither the noblest nor the most ignoble creatures. Even in the highest theological anthropology which traditional Christianity cherishes—that the human destiny is to be deified to the very extent that God, in Christ, was humanized—human significance and power in this life is not exaggerated or misunderstood to encourage hubris against nature. If anything divides us from the ancients—pagan, Jewish, and Christian alike—it is precisely that we have epitomized our reverent response to creation with a belief in our own human divinity. Our confidence in our human ability to dominate nature, given enough time and resources, has blinded us not only to the benevolent numinous, but also the epiphanic ferocity of creation: we have lost, to our great detriment, not only our gods, but also our monsters.
David Armstrong writes from the greater St. Louis area.
See the discussion in M. David Litwa, We Are Being Transformed: Deification in Paul’s Soteriology, ZNW 187 (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2012), 41-54.
The translations are from George L. Papadeas, trans., Greek Orthodox Holy Week and Easter Services: A New English Translation(South Daytona, FL: Patmos Press, 2003).