A casual conversation between Iron Man and Dr. Stephen Strange, time traveler:
“I went forward into the future… to see all the possible outcomes of the coming conflict.”
“How many did you see?”
“How many do we win?”
So a few weekends back, I finally caught up to one piece of pop culture and watched, with the encouragement of an enthusiastic wingman, the movie of the summer, “Avengers: Endgame.” Yes, that’s so late spring. I hadn’t been keeping up on all the superhero movies, let alone of the Marvel variety, because I have a job, a family, and a hammock in my breezeway, but I understood the basic premise.
Thanos, a purple guy with a big chin (thus indicating, in the manner of horns in Biblical apocalyptic, “strength”), is the villain. In a previous movie, he wins, and succeeds in space-magically eliminating half of all life in the universe. In this movie, the remaining superheroes return for a rematch to un-do the space magic. They succeed. Yay. The grand victory is celebrated with some well-arranged group shots and nostalgic vignettes. But hold on. What kind of victory is it merely to stop the bad guy? What kind of heroism is it to define good as merely preventing a great evil? What kind of narrative is it if only driven by reactively preserving what is in fact a problematic status quo? It’s tragic.
That’s right. On a philosophical level, “Avengers: Endgame” is a tragedy, because, in the end, good doesn’t actually win. It merely defeats a twisted solution of much greater ills which remain unresolved.
Thanos is clear about his motives. He watched his own society destroy itself due to overpopulation, the resultant violent competition for limited resources, and the forcefulness of the powerful in position to win, and so he travels the universe on a mission to prevent such inevitable suffering… through killing off an arbitrary half of the living beings on each planet he visits. He’s moved planet by planet, but eventually finds a way to enact his idea for everyone, all at once, so that he can “watch the sun rise on a grateful universe.” His approach is a classic Machiavellian scheme (the ends justify the means). Thanos wants peace and contentment, but believes preventative destruction is the only way to stop the madness of uncontrolled destruction. Of course, he displays a stunning lack of knowledge about basic population dynamics, because living beings multiply, and more readily so when resources are abundant, which means that even for Thanos, the basic issues will come around again.
And that’s the trouble with “Avengers: Endgame.” While the good guys stop Thanos from dusting half the universe and pulverize him instead, the underlying questions… We’re shown super-heroes who are heroes because they stop the villain, but these heroes can offer little direction for the ethics of population dynamics, no evaluation of the meaning of mortality, and no justice for the mechanisms of might making right. On top of all that, they accomplish something that could be more devastating than losing half of all life: gaining it back all at once after five years of absence, without any consideration for the unintended consequences.
How should conscious living beings monitor themselves as a species? Should they modulate their numbers with available resources? If the typical pattern of dividing limited resources is that those who can take more get more, what is the alternative? Who is in a position of authority and power enough to enact equity? Is more power what is really needed? Is death actually bad, or is it the natural flipside of too much life?
None of these questions get answers from Iron Man’s technology, nor Dr. Strange’s mysticism, nor the Hulk’s self-integration, nor muscular space Vikings, nor any of the assorted Captains who would lead by virtue and honor. “Endgame” leaves us with a universe still plagued by life locked in struggle to accrue more for its group over against others. Do we then conclude that the resultant suffering is… inevitable? May as well let it come, for the forces at work are too big for us. In a mortal universe, we may as well be grateful while we can. And our idea of the good is chained to the weakness of being “at least it’s not that bad.” Tragedy.
But I don’t blame the movie-makers. They’re only human, and we humans don’t have the resources within ourselves to solve the problems that seem built into us. If there is hope, it won’t be found in us.
We need not only space aliens and righteous superpowers, but an alien righteousness. Someone with a truly different perspective because they’re not limited, because they are in position to determine and enforce right and wrong, and because they understand what we’re up against.
All the kids in the Sunday school say, “Jeeee-sssuuss!!!!”
It’s beyond my reach here to construct any fulsome theories of population ethics, but let me offer some starting points to begin responding to Thanos’ identified problems, so that we might be grasped by a stronger, more heroic, vision of the good.
Jesus is the one by whom all things were made (Colossians 1:16), and who was present when living beings were blessed to multiply and teem and fill the world (Genesis 1). The Creator apparently likes growth and development enough that He built it in. Multiplication is the way things are supposed to be.
The Creator gives human beings their place in a garden, to “work it and take care of it” (Genesis 2:15, which conditions the “subdue and rule” of Genesis 1:28). The human role on earth is not to be crass users of creation, and definitely not consumers getting their piece of the pie while they can, but stewards. What if humans, even the near eight billion of us, saw our role in the world to care for it wisely because we are standing in for God? Would the water troubles of the Western United States or Cape Town evaporate as the desert dwellers learned harmony within the limits of their environment? Would we be more mindful of how our diets affect those who do not have the opulent choice to throw another steak on the grill as desired? What if we monitored on-rushing famines more closely to spend budgets proactively on aid and restoration rather than paying in blood and cash for the wars that result when resources are locally scarce? This we could do if we lived up to what the Creator meant us to be.
Population growth itself isn’t the problem – it’s what that population does as it grows. When that population is a species of sinners, then we make our own trouble. But there is hope.
Jesus, by His Spirit, is also involved in sustaining life. Psalm 104:27-30 shows us a God mindful of His creatures’ needs, but also sovereign in making decisions about how to manage His own world. These verses raise all kinds of questions about the place of death in the natural world, even as we generally think of human mortality as a different kind of thing, more deeply contrary to God’s intent for beings made specially in His image. But we could model our own behaviors after His. What would be sustaining and life-giving to our neighbor, to the migratory whooping cranes that pass over my house, to the Northern Michigan deer that need to be hunted, or to the endemic trees that need to have the kudzu kept off? What would keep life and death for God’s creatures as “natural” as possible, rather than being a compounded burden imposed by the rapaciousness of those supposedly intelligent beings at the top of the food chain?
Those roles of Jesus usually make way for the role Christians know best, that of Redeemer. Even when sin and our deadly wandering from God bring grave consequences to us and to His world, it is rare that we pass a point of no return, when the workings of nature cannot recover. Admittedly, we’re being warned by experts in the field that we are approaching such a point now in the climate, and some productive panic appears to be warranted, but if we are trying to follow a Redeemer, we never have the excuse that the problems are too big. We are also not allowed to give up, because Jesus doesn’t, and He has presented Himself as the turning point for His world. His salvation is total, not limited to human souls, but encompassing their whole selves, their relationships with each other, and all creatures and rocks and trees and skies and seas. God means for us to turn from our lack of stewardship to justice and balance and to adapt our behaviors according to His direction. Redemption includes cleaning up the cadmium in the tailing ponds, figuring out how to need less for ourselves to leave more for the other beings, contributing to generating energy cleanly, gardening, and in general returning our behaviors to what was meant to be so the world can be what it was meant to be. In other words, we are free to do these things not merely as a reaction to problems, but because the Creator built our stewardship into the structure of His creation. If we exercise it, creation begins to flourish as originally intended. Prosperity is not gained by consumption, but regained by redemption.
Finally, we read at the end of the story that Jesus comes and reigns and makes all things new (Revelation 21). Whether we think of this as a change in the twinkling of an eye, or the climax of a long process that began roughly 2000 years ago or even earlier, Christians locate themselves in this story. We are moving toward that renewal, and so our actions in our times have value in how we move toward Jesus the King over God’s restored creation.
This all sums up to a hopeful vision of the good, one which sets its own course and has its own power, apart from the erosions of evil. Good has its own movement, having been from the beginning, and evil exists in the weakness of being derivative. This vision also depends on an authority outside creation, one who can be a guide to how it was all intended to work. In His working, right makes might. We are involved as agents of the world as it was meant to be, not mere victims of population dynamics or resource scarcity. This script offers a much more hopeful ending than “Avengers” because it is bigger than our human story. God’s story has a better inevitability, a more potent promise of the good, and someone better than a superhero.
We have a Savior, after all. He’s looked ahead and told us that there is
one possible outcome of the ultimate future.
It’s the one in which He wins. And
someday, hopefully, He and I and you will watch the sun rise on a newly
 Yes, sometimes hunting is an appropriately virtuous activity. The few serious hunters I know have a much better understanding of ecology, sustainability, and conservation than most city-dwellers I know.