“Therefore, my dear friends, just as you have always obeyed, so now, not only in my presence but even more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God who is working in you both to will and to work according to his good purpose.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
Do the things you do matter? How do you know? What is it that gives our lives meaning? These are big questions for a Friday morning, but they are ones the latest offering from Disney+ has me thinking about. The series is the next chapter in the ever-unfolding storyline Marvel has been weaving together on both the big and now small screen for the last 12 years. Like Wandavision and Falcon and the Winter Soldier before it, this one picks up right where Avengers: End Game finished and reveals what happens next with one of the characters. This time, the character is Loki, the villain-turned-hero brother of Thor and a fan-favorite. Let’s talk about the series that bears his name.
This won’t be a full review of the series as we are only a single hour into the six-hour adventure. Rather, I want to briefly explore an idea the series introduces to Marvel fans as it pulls back the curtain and reveals what has been going on behind the scenes.
First a bit of context (and this will have some spoilers for the first episode, so read at your own risk). The major plot device in Avengers: End Game, was that the heroes figured out how to go back to various moments in time and space in order obtain each of the Infinity Stones so they could construct their own Infinity Gauntlet in order to undo what Thanos did in Avengers: Infinity War. They all split up into teams to accomplish their mission. Iron Man, Ant-Man, Captain America, and Hulk went back to the end of the first Avengers film when Loki had been defeated and the Space Stone in the form of the Tesseract, was recovered from him. In that scene, the heist doesn’t go quite as planned and Loki manages to grab the Tesseract and escape. In the context of the scene, it sent the team on a branching adventure which gave Iron Man and Captain America both some nice closure for their character arcs, but other than the fact that Marvel had announced this series, we weren’t left with any clue as to what happened to Loki.
In the opening moment of Loki, we find out. He used the Space Stone and winds up in a Mongolian desert. Just as he starts to get his bearings, a series of portals open and some futuristic law enforcement officers show up and arrest him for messing with the timeline. He is hilariously taken into custody and brought to the Time Variance Authority. As he continues to arrogantly emote, we gradually learn what is happening by way of a cute introductory cartoon the TVA plays for all its new arrivals.
The short version is this: Sometime ago in the distant past (Marvel assumes on a universe that is infinite in scope and not one that came into being via a Big Bang) there was a war among the various strands of the multiverse that threatened to destroy all of existence. As a result, three beings known as the Time Keepers assembled all the fragments into one timeline and created the TVA to keep it on track. Their job is to go to any place where someone creates a branch from the timeline, set them back on track, removing them if necessary, and erasing the branching line. Anything can create a branch from the original line. Even showing up late to work can threaten the whole of existence (so, be on time Monday morning). This has to be done or else the branches will eventually create a chaos that will crack things back into a new multiverse war.
Essentially, the TVA and the Time Keepers function like God. They exist outside and independently of time. They possess technology that is light years beyond even the most advanced technology found in the universe. In the original Thor movie, the Asgardian technology seemed like magic to humans because it was so advanced. The TVA technology seems like magic to Loki, an Asgardian. The moment when it hits Loki just how far beyond anything he had ever even dreamed of imagining is the TVA is when he briefly escapes his escort, Mobius (wonderfully played by Owen Wilson whom my boys quickly identified as Lightning McQueen), and tries to get his hands back on the Tesseract to escape entirely. When he finds it in a drawer in one of the offices around the facility he also discovers several other Infinity Stones—multiples of each one in fact—all just sitting in a drawer. The bureaucrat he threatens to find the Tesseract laughs about the stones and says they have lots of them around there. Some of the other employees use them as paper weights. In other words, the objects Marvel spent 10 years establishing as the most powerful and dangerous in the universe are so far beneath the power of the TVA as to be little more than paperweights to them.
This brings us to the real weighty question of the first episode (ironically titled “Glorious Purpose”): If this group is so powerful that the Infinity Stones are nothing to them, and if they are committed to keeping the timeline the Time Keepers have established firmly on track, then do any of the things we do really have any meaning? Loki takes it all and the ensuing existential crisis fairly well in stride, all things considered, and the story moves on to a shadowy half-reveal of the series villain whom Mobius says is actually another version of Loki. But while the series is moving on and may go any number of directions with all of this, the rank determinism of everything in the universe is and should be an unsettling concept.
Just how meaningful are the things we do is a question everyone wrestles with at some point in their journeys. There is some tension here too. On the one hand, we instinctively lean in the direction of significance. The things we do have to mean something. They have to. Our lives depending on it. People who lose any kind of a sense of meaning to their lives don’t handle it well. When a person reaches that point they either come up with a meaning to give them something to hold or else give in to despair.
On the other hand, various thinkers, theologians, and philosophers over the centuries have openly wondered about just how free we are. Assuming for a moment on a very different universe than the one Marvel has created, if God is really totally sovereign over His creation, and if He knows everything there is to be known about the past, present, and future, how is that any different than the TVA? While a few theologians over the centuries have embraced some form of determinism, most haven’t. And even those that do generally go on to explain how our actions have real significance all the same. At the same time, this kind of deterministic thinking isn’t limited to theism. In fact, it is even more common among secularists who believe our genes determine everything about us. There may be no grand designer pulling the strings behind the stage, but our actions are all nonetheless predetermined by our genetic code. DNA in this case functions as a tiny god dwelling inside of each of our cells.
So then, which is it? Are our lives determined or free? Now, given the choice, we want freedom…sort of. The thing about freedom is that we are then responsible for the choices we make. If we make poor choices, we’re on the hook for the consequences. If, however, things are determined, then we are merely victims of the ministrations of someone else. In this case, good and evil cease to have any real meaning. All things are relative to the arbitrary decisions of the person or group or mindless entity writing the story for us. As Mobius reveals to Loki, he may have intended evil, but he was really just functioning to help the Avengers become the best versions of themselves.
Now, we could keep debating this point back and forth, but we’re not likely to add any wisdom that isn’t already out there. Instead, I want to take you to something Paul wrote that I think helps to frame out the challenge here. As you survey the Scriptures with this matter in mind, two things become clear. The first is that God is indeed totally sovereign over His creation. Not even a sparrow falls to the ground without His being aware of it, Jesus said. From the great to the small, God is fully aware of it all. The second thing is that humans are fully responsible for the decisions we make. We make consequential decisions that have real and meaningful results. If we choose righteousness, we rightly reap the rewards of this. If we choose evil, we rightly face the consequences of this. Do you see the tension here?
The guys who contributed to the Scriptures consistently hold that God is totally sovereign and that people are totally responsible. Or, as Paul put it here in his letter to the Philippian believers, we are to work out our own salvation, but God is the one who works in us to desire, much less do, that work. We are doing it and God is doing it. Both. At the same time. What? How do we resolve this tension?
Not the answer you wanted? Me neither. And yet as you read through the documents found in the Bible, both themes come out again and again. God is sovereign and we are responsible. He knows everything that is going to happen, but we nonetheless make meaningful and consequential choices. How does that work? I’m not sure. There are really smart folks who have offered possible solutions. Middle knowledge, or Molinism, most eloquently advocated by William Lane Craig, is one of the best of the solutions in my opinion, but we’re not going to get into that here and now. Others have offered solutions that lean in one direction or the other. But the Scriptures consistently hold the tension. They don’t resolve it. And if they don’t, we shouldn’t try too hard to do so either. We’ll just wind up wandering into heresy of one flavor or another. So in the end, the uncomfortable answer here is just as I have said: God is sovereign and we are responsible. Our actions really do have meaning. Our lives have significance. We aren’t going to mess up the timeline if we show up late to work. We don’t have that power. (If you think about it, based on the first episode of Loki, the only real power people have is the power to destroy and the TVA exists to thwart this power every time we accidently exercise it.) Marvel may offer another terrifically fun story in Loki, but it is not one that has any basis in any kind of a philosophical or theological reality. Enjoy the ride, as I will, but stay rooted in the truth.