“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
Every worldview has a creation story. After all, we had to get here somehow. No one has ever believed we’ve been here forever (or that we will be here forever, but that’s a story for another time). This verse here is obviously the beginning of Christianity’s creation story. Well, although it’s not actually a worldview anyone believes in because it’s a fantasy story, but this past year, Marvel finally told its creation story on the big screen. This was done in the movie, The Eternals. The Eternals, more than any Marvel movie before it, invites viewers to ask some pretty big questions. It also reminds the perceptive believer watching of just how good the Gospel is. This is a longer post than usual, but there was a lot here to think about. Let’s dig into it.
I’ll start here: I really liked this movie. For me it was good on so many different levels. The story was compelling. The acting was good. The characters were fun and well-developed. The action scenes were well-done. When it released, it received a fair bit of criticism for a Marvel movie. A Marvel review podcast I listen to mostly panned it. Some of those criticisms were pretty fair. It’s a long movie, and unlike most of the other marvel properties, this one is primarily driven by its storytelling instead of its action scenes. That means there is a lot of dialogue and narrative. For some folks that could make it boring. I didn’t think so.
There were a couple more challenges the film faced. There are ten Eternals. That’s ten characters who all need to be given a reasonably equal amount of story time and development. The director managed to do a fairly good job with that, but that’s a big part of why the movie is so long. Also, this is the first Marvel movie that really doesn’t have any heroes or villains. Yes, the Eternals themselves are billed as the heroes, and some of them do save the planet from an extinction-level event, but as the story reveals, their longer story arc hasn’t been one of heroism. What it has been leads to some of those big questions I talked about.
As we discover in the climax of the first act, the Eternals are synthetic beings created by the prime Celestial, Arishem. That statement needs to be explained. Celestials are the beings who created the universe. According to the opening story scroll, they existed from eternity past. They created the first sun and the planets and from this life flourished throughout the universe. Here, though, is where things start to get interesting (and spoiler-filled, so if you haven’t seen it yet and plan to, you may want to go watch it first before reading the rest of this post).
As life began to flourish across the universe, each planet saw the gradual evolution of apex predators that slowed the advancement of the planet’s primary intelligent population – the equivalent to humanity on earth. This was a problem for all of the obvious reasons we can imagine, but from the standpoint of the Celestials, this posed an even greater challenge. Celestials may be eternal, but they don’t live forever. The story doesn’t mention where the first Celestials came from, but from the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, we know they can die. One of the primary settings in that story is Knowhere, which is a little like an interstellar Mos Eisley of Star Wars fame, but set in the head of a dead Celestial (ignore all of the obvious questions for the sake of the story).
Because Celestials can die, they must reproduce themselves. They must reproduce themselves because they are the beings who continue the creation and expansion of the universe. Without the suns they create, planets will not form. If planets do not form, life will not form, and after a while the universe will grow dark and lifeless. In other words, the Celestials are responsible for the maintenance of life in the universe.
The creation of new Celestials, however, takes an incredible amount of energy which Celestials apparently can’t create on their own (as for why the beings that create stars can’t generate sufficient energy to create themselves, we’ll have to just go with for now). Instead, Arishem, the prime Celestial who apparently doesn’t himself die, puts the seeds of new Celestials in the core of specially chosen planets. These seeds germinate and collect energy over the course of billions of years. When the time is right, though, the seeds begin to grow and produce the new Celestial.
The result of this is twofold: A new Celestial is born who will go on to create life throughout the universe. Untold billions of lives will be created because of this Celestial. The birth of this new Celestial, though, destroys its host planet and all of the creatures on it. In other words, the Celestials create life. They serve the function of God in the Marvel Universe. But in the process of reproducing themselves so that more life can be created, whole planets and all the life on them are destroyed.
Because the Celestials need the energy of a highly advanced planet to reproduce themselves, the evolution of various apex predators threatens their energy source. As a result, Arishem created the Deviants. Deviants were simply their own class of apex predator. They were sent to various planets to eliminate the local apex predators (things like dinosaurs on our planet), so intelligent life could flourish there. Unfortunately, Arishem screwed up with the Deviants. Apparently, his infinite power did not also come with infinite wisdom. Over time, the Deviants began to themselves evolve. As they did, they began to hunt the intelligent life on the various planets to which they were sent. There is, of course, a deep irony here. The Deviants (as even their very name suggests) are supposed to be the villains of the story. After all, on earth, they were actively hunting and killing humanity. But, in slowing down the development of an advanced, energy-generating society, the Deviants were actually preventing the new Celestials from being born and destroying their host planet.
To rectify this situation, Arishem corrected his mistake by creating another sort of being – the Eternals. The Eternals are synthetic beings (super high-tech robots), incapable of evolution, whose job was to hunt down and destroy the Deviants. In doing this, they are viewed by the clueless intelligent population of the various planets to which they have been sent as heroes. All of our mythical great heroes of the past are based on the exploits of the various Eternals. In addition to being eternal themselves, the Eternals are each given superpowers by Arishem to aid them in their quest to destroy the Deviants. A little bit of thought here reveals the further lack of wisdom and foresight on Arishem’s part, but we won’t worry about that. The group of ten Eternals that have been on earth for 7000 years have powers including healing (Ajak), flight, super strength, and shooting laser beams from his eyes (Ikaris), complete technological mastery (Phastos), shooting energy balls from his hands (Kingo), eternal youth and the creation of illusions (Sprite), super speed (Makkari), total manipulation of matter (Sersi), super strength (Gilgamesh), super fighting ability and the creation of energy weapons (Thena), and the ability to control the minds of others (Druig). But again, the great irony of the story resurfaces here. In their saving humanity from the Deviants, they allow us to flourish, hastening the day of our own destruction.
This process of creation and destruction variously impeded by the Deviants and hastened by the Eternals has been repeated over and over and over again for millions and millions of years. Each time this process has been repeated, the Eternals have been recollected by Arishem, had their memories removed and wiped, and sent to another planet to repeat the process, a new Celestial now born. On earth, though, this particular group of Eternals has grown so attached to humanity that they rise up to fight and stop the birth of the new Celestial, thus saving the planet from destruction.
We could go more into the characters of the Eternals themselves, or the numerous plot holes and uncomfortable questions the basic facts of the story raise but don’t answer, but that will have to be for another time. This is enough for us to reflect a bit on how the Marvel creation story and what it says about the purpose of the universe squares with the Biblical story and the Christian worldview.
Let’s start here: Arishem is not God. From the opening story scroll, Marvel is consciously setting this story up as a distinct alternative to the Biblical story of creation. But comic book elements aside, the universe Arishem and the other Celestials created could not be more different from the universe the God of the Bible created. And while I could go a long time talking about all the differences, let me highlight just three.
First, Arishem does not love. Across the various millions of planets that Arishem and the other Celestials have created over the course of the universe, there have not been any creatures they have actually valued. We are nothing to them but cosmic batteries. In fact, the great conflict of the film is when the Eternals move to save humanity in the face of Arishem’s insistence we must be destroyed. Arishem has no connection with any of the creatures his or the other Celestials work have allowed to flourish across the universe. We are nothing to him. His concern is only for the continuation of his own species of being.
The God of the Bible, on the other hand, is love. He created us from out of His love moving outward to lavish itself on an ever-widening circle of creatures. When we rebelled against His creation, He did not insist on His will and destroy us entirely (even in the Flood). Instead, He loved us so much that He gave His only Son to die in our place such that if we believe in Him, we can have eternal life along with Him. The Marvel creation story may be fun to tell, but I can tell you, given the choice, which one I want to be true.
Second, on its face, the Marvel Universe’s allowance of intelligent life existing throughout the universe would seem to reduce the importance of humanity itself. We are not unique in the universe. We are simply one of an untold number of species. It is arrogant for us to assume we are more special than anyone or anything else. Again, the great conflict of this film comes when the Eternals insist that we are special and try to save us from our impending destruction. On the Christian worldview, on the other hand, humanity was uniquely created in the image of God. We are utterly unlike any other created being. We were created to rule over them as God’s stewards. That makes us special. Special enough to be worth God’s constant efforts to save us from our own addiction to sin and destruction.
Try as it might, this idea of our uniqueness is not something even the secular world can escape. In the context of this story, the Eternals have been doing this same work for millions of years. They have overseen the destruction of numerous planets and all the life on them, and have never taken a stand to prevent its happening for the sake of the creatures on the planet. But this time is different. What is different about this particular mission that they have developed a loyalty to this planet such that they move to stop its destruction? In a word, us. We are what is so special. It’s almost as if in spite of all the secular efforts to reduce the significance of humanity, we just can’t help from making ourselves just a little bit more special than all the rest of the universe. The beat of the Gospel pulses strong in our hearts no matter how hard we try to escape from it.
Third, and related to this second point, in the Marvel Universe, individual lives don’t matter, and right and wrong are an illusion created merely for the sake of our not utterly destroying ourselves. We have no purpose. That may not seem to be the case given the actions of the Eternals to save us from total destruction, but the point holds. Why does humanity exist? On the story here, we exist solely for the purpose of generating enough energy to create a new Celestial. Once we reach that mark, our purpose is accomplished, and we will be destroyed without thought or concern. Anything we do in our daily lives can only be evaluated from that perspective. Are we moving ourselves toward the creation of a more technologically advanced society? If so, it is good and meaningful. If not, it is wrong. On this view, any individual act of what we would call evil, is ultimately only relatively so. If I murder you, but don’t slow down the overall advance toward the creation of sufficient energy for the birth of the Celestial, I haven’t done anything objectively wrong. Let’s get bigger than that, the Nazi efforts to create a “purer” race were technically aiming in the direction of a more advanced and flourishing society and should therefore be understood as a net good thing on the view of this film. I hope this all sounds as insane to you as it does to me.
The differences between this and the claims of the Christian worldview could not be clearer. We serve a God who created us with a purpose. Every single thing we do is fraught with eternal significance. And it is God’s character that objectively sets out the limits of morality for us. And, because He has pronounced us as having value, our individual value is absolute. Our group value is set in stone. And again, given the choice between this and the worldview Marvel offers, the choice should be obvious and easy.
One last thing here and then I’ll wrap this up. At the end of the day, what The Eternals established in my mind, was just how good the Gospel really is. The world of Marvel is hopeless and meaningless and devoid of any real good news. Yes, the Eternals themselves had come to value us sufficiently to act to stop our destruction, but there wasn’t any objective reason for their actions other than they happened to develop a bond with humanity after being here for 7000 years. In fact, they were explicitly rejecting their given purpose in order to do this. In other words, we weren’t objectively worth saving as a species. And, according to the film’s guiding mythology, our salvation actively prevented the creation of an untold amount of life elsewhere in the universe. It may have been created for us, but in an objective sense (again, on the film’s mythology), it wasn’t a good thing at all.
The Gospel of Christ, though, is truly good news. Our God and creator is no far off observer who values us only in our destruction for the sake of creating his children. He loves us so much that He got involved in our salvation Himself. He took on human flesh – something Arishem could never nor would ever even consider – and then sacrificed Himself in that flesh so that our way to salvation and eternal life (not destruction when the time was right) could be opened. All of our brokenness and hurt can be restored and repaired. Better than that, it will be restored and repaired in Him, in part now and in full when the final day arrives. And, we can take part in the advance of this great restoration when we share this news with those who have yet to hear it such that they can be transformed by it as we have been. That is very good news indeed.
Marvel may be able to tell a fun story, but they don’t offer a universe worth living in as compared with this one. They can’t see the real value and worth of life. They can’t create a purpose worth living for. They don’t understand love and sacrifice and the glory of eternal life. The Gospel is better. When you embrace it in your own life, you’ll experience its wonder for yourself. I hope that you will.