Thanos and Theodicy: How Avengers Infinity War Engaged Questions of God(s) and Justice
**This article contains spoilers.
Marvel has given us one hell of a decade. With most of the world, I’ve loved the ride. It goes without saying that I was hysterically excited to see the new Avengers: Infinity War. This movie did not disappoint. As many have been chattering about its complex components (that ending though…) one of the biggest surprises was how both terrifying and compelling Thanos was as a villain. But why was Thanos was so effective as a villain? Put simply, it’s this: Thanos (form the Greek word θανος, meaning “death”) represents one of the deepest human question—how a good God could allow so much evil, suffering, trauma and abuse in the world.
The obvious countersuggestion: “How could a simple Marvel superhero movie have anything to do with the great question of God and suffering?” It’s obviously under the surface—this is no God’s Not Dead 4 (but he kind of is if you count Loki). Yet, as I break down the “Thanos Solution” to the universe and the Avenger’s response (eerily similar to Bill Burr’s own solution), it’s hard not to get a sense that cosmic and religious implications are at play.
The Thanos Solution
At first, it’s tempting to view Thanos as your everyday, brooding, maniacal villain. But we come to learn that Thanos is pursuing the power of the infinity stones to accomplish a rather simple—and in his mind, virtuous—plan. Backstory: Thanos’s home planet (Titan) was beautiful, but was destroyed by overpopulation. Thanos recommended killing half the population—randomly, and indiscriminately, to avoid targeted genocide. But—the payoff was clear: Save billions of future lives. Titan leaders rejected Thanos as a madman. Eventually, the planet did destroy itself.
The idea is instinctively horrifying. Gamora, one of the Guardian heroes protests: “That’s genocide!” Thanos coolly and rationally disagrees. “It’s not genocide if it’s objectively random.” Thanos proposes that the true solution to human suffering is an objective, dispassionate mechanism that fairly—with no rationale as to which half lives—kills half of the universe. The stage is set.
The Avengers Response
The Avengers naturally team up to fight, and they are driven to repel Thanos’s assault, for the sake of protecting Earth, so that every individual might be free to choose their own life. It goes without saying, after all, that true liberty is the ability to pursue happiness, autonomously, so that you might be the responsive and responsible agent over your own life and destiny. Things start to get ethically sticky for the Avengers. When Vision offers himself up to die so a stone can be destroyed (and therefore countless lives saved), he’s countered by Captain America who proudly insists: “We don’t trade lives.” Captain America is noble, full of integrity. To trade lives would be to become like “them,” the ones who don’t value ongoing autonomy and agency.
Yet repeatedly throughout the film, characters are confronted with the necessity of killing someone they love so that a great purpose might move ahead. Over and over, key characters are confronted to make the same choice Thanos desires to make, but on a smaller scale—to sacrifice one life for the greater good. To trade a life for a life. Peter Quill attempts to kill Gamora at her request. Thanos is forced to sacrifice Gamora, the one person he loved, to receive the soul stone. Scarlet Witch is forced climatically to destroy Vision, her love, in order to prevent Thanos from receiving the mind stone. These ethically murky waters set the grand stage that superheroes (or supervillains) are made for—yet, it certainly undercuts the ethical integrity of Captain America’s absolute claim: “We don’t trade lives.”
The Question of Theodicy
Two opposing positions are presented. On the one side is Thanos, naturally the villain, representing and impersonal, objective, “fair” mechanism to enforce justice, which he, at one point, calls “mercy.” On the other side stands the Avengers, impassioned and protective—fighting to defend the right to life, the right to choose, the right to autonomy. Yet, they are forced themselves to answer the same questions as Thanos: “Who deserves to live? Who must be sacrificed to survive?” Just as Thanos always seems to one step ahead of the Avengers strategically, is there a chance he is one step ahead of them philosophically?
This brings us to theodicy—the question of how a good God can allow evil in the world, if he is truly all-powerful. If there is one question at the heart of the challenge to the Christian faith in the midst of postmodernity, it is the question of evil—of suffering, of trauma, and abuse. How could a good God allow such terrible suffering to happen to so many innocents? The most common reply is that God is not the author of evil—that human agents are the source of evil, and God ought to be praised for producing good out of and in spite of the evil. Yet the contested response inevitably highlights that for God to be truly God, He must be powerful enough to stop suffering—and therefore must be in some way implicated in the suffering that takes place. In other words: If he could have stopped it, why didn’t he?
There’s much to unpack in such an exchange, as theologians have and will continue to do so ad nauseum for eternity (an infinity war of a different sort). As if this conversation were not complex enough, the theodicy dilemma is never fully abstracted, but always personal. We are talking about my trauma, my pain, and the suffering of the world around me. Armed with our stories, and armed with our suffering, we enter into a crucial debate about the very nature of God, and the nature of justice, attempting to discern if there is any way forward, or if both collapse into contradiction. The dilemma pushes us to come to terms with the face that “the greater good” always requires sacrifices with names, stories, and loved ones. Is it, then, still the greater good? It is at this point that Thanos once more enters the scene.
Theodicy and Thanos
Infinity War offers our engagement of theodicy with a choice that invites us to fall on either the side of the theodicy dilemma—on the side of Thanos, or the Avengers. Do you resonate with Thanos’s solution? Does the world in its chaotic vastness need saving, by an objective, effective force? Is it mercy to entrust existence to a dispassionate god, who with the snap of a finger, clears away immense obstacles to the flourishing of life for others? Many who have experienced trauma find relief in knowing a force beyond their control would clear away the debris, so that clean, new life could begin. As the Avengers themselves learn the hard way, sacrifices always have to be made to sustain the good—what about the the sacrifice of one half for the good of the other?
Thanos, as god, seeks a world cleared by natural disasters and plagues, a world of communal consequences where the stakes are fair. A friend confided after the seeing the film: “Though I obviously disagree with Thanos, there’s something that just makes sense to me about his plan.”
On the other side of theodicy is the case of the Avengers, with which we want to agree, because they are the protagonists of the film. Against Thanos, we claim: “Humans must be given the freedom to live. You can’t make that choice for them.” This cause resonates, particularly as Americans, with our Jeffersonian belief in individual rights—in the right to pursue happiness wherever that journey takes us. Yet inadvertently, our liberty becomes the very reason for suffering. We are faced with the implications of our own decisions—or far, far worse, the decisions of others who violate us and leave us wounded and scarred.
The Avengers betray the very liberty for which they fight by repeatedly sacrificing one another—or better put, sacrificing themselves for the greater good. And ultimately, after the dust settles, the universe is left with no god on the throne. Even if victory is won, the Avengers are left with the hope and a promise that no one else will arise with an attempt to abuse the rights of other: “Better to have Thanos on the throne with a clear, fair system of governance,” the other side says, “than to have a thousand, or a million gods on the throne, with no system of justice at all.” Superheroes die, after all—or they fade until we’re left alone again with more villains to contend.
The point is by no means that we ought to take the “Thanos solution” as the answer to theodicy (far from it). Instead, the real point is simply to note that Thanos is compelling because he forces the very questions of theodicy. Marvel has done something truly extraordinary in creating a pop-culture blockbuster that, rather than solve theodicy, asks these vital questions of us: “Is someone on the throne of the universe?” “Should they be?” “How do we believe they should execute justice?” “Who are we to decide?”
If, on the one side, we long for a clear and objective solution that would mitigate all our pain and suffering, we’re contested on the other by a very real need to defend our freedom, agency and choice. As we watch the Avengers wage war with Thanos, we find ourselves drawn into the heart of the conflict—despairing over the choices God has made, seated on the throne, yet dismayed by the violence that takes place when He is off it. Infinity War is certainly no attempt to solve the question of theodicy. But it allows us to wrestle with the stakes of insisting on either extreme: that God should be like Thanos, with his cool, calm, and fair system of absolute justice, or that the throne should be left empty so that we can make our own justice with freedom, liberty, and the incumbent grave risks of human choice.
The question of theodicy in Infinity War is not so much solved as felt. The movie traps us with the two-sided power of the conflict, and then decimates us with the consequences of both realities played out to their nth degree. So we are left to answer for ourselves: “If Thanos is a villain, why isn’t God?”
As our Avengers lie amidst the ruin of defeat, with the dust quite literally settling, Captain America collapses on the ground with the highly loaded response, “Oh God…” On the other side of the stage we receive this heart wrenching exchange: “Did you do it?” the child Gamora asks to Thanos, “I did it.” he replies. “What did it cost?” says the young girl looking up into his eyes. With one word Thanos replies, “Everything."