In the Shadow of Apocalypse: Reflections on Marvel’s “Loki”
“Apocalypses are points of revelation.”
I pulled the above quote from an Instagram post by Rich Villodas, pastor of New Life Fellowship Church in Queens, New York. This quote was not inspired, as you might expect, by the books of Daniel or Revelation. This preaching point originated from the newest addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Loki.
When it comes to questions about eternity, determinism, and cultish religious manipulation, the last place we might expect answers is a streaming show on Disney+. Loki invites us to ask: Do we have a choice in our actions, or has every step been carefully programmed in our own “Sacred Timeline”? Is there some transcendent thing that we can put our hope in? (Or, perhaps, even a trinity of persons?)
As we might expect, Loki answers these questions differently than the Church would…but there are still glimpses of truth to be gleaned from this philosophically-geared fiction.
At the time this post was written, four episodes of the six-part series have been released. (This is your obligatory spoiler warning: don’t keep reading until you’ve caught up!) The show opens with the scene from Avengers: Endgame in which Loki escapes custody in the year 2012. Immediately after escaping, he falls back into custody, this time in the hands of the Time Variance Authority (TVA), who charge him with “crimes against the Sacred Timeline.” His escape, they decide, was not supposed to happen (although, conveniently, the Avengers’ time heist doesn’t violate any of the TVA’s rules).
“If the TVA truly oversees all of time,” Loki asks, “how have I never heard of you until now?”
“Because you’ve never needed to. You’ve always lived within your set path.”
“I live within whatever path I choose.”
“Sure you do.”
This “Variant” Loki has not had the chance of character development past 2012 yet, and as a result, his arrogance rivals the self-assured confidence of this time-transcending Authority.
He scoffs at the idea that some “divine arbiter of power in the universe” is directing his path, that he has been merely allowed to make the decisions he’s made up until now.
It’s not until Loki discovers a drawer full of Infinity Stones, rendered powerless by the TVA, that he is convinced of the organization’s formidability. Only after this realization does he agree to help them with their mission to capture another powerful Variant–another version of Loki himself.
The new Loki Variant – a female counterpart named Sylvie – has learned how to hide from the all-seeing TVA. Everywhere she goes, she creates a branch in the timeline that immediately gives away her location. Her presence alone affects the predetermined course of events, but she discovers that she can go unnoticed by picking hiding spots in settings facing imminent destruction. For example, Loki can create pandemonium in Pompeii immediately before volcanic eruption, because everything will be destroyed before the Sacred Timeline can be altered.
In the shadow of apocalypses, even an individual’s free will cannot change the end of the timeline.
I was surprised to find Loki inspiring so many thoughts about Christian faith. The show’s portrayal of the TVA–an army of brain-washed enforcers making vaguely threatening claims to omnipotence–could (and maybe should) be seen as a cynical-but-scathing commentary on unhealthy religious institutions. But even more interesting, in my opinion, is the way Loki considers sovereignty of the divine in relationship with time.
“I have seen the burden God has laid on the human race. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” (Eccles. 3:10-11)
This burden, even more than Loki’s “glorious purpose,” weighs on the characters throughout the series. Loki and Sylvie’s story thus far has been driven by one underlying goal: to confront the mystical Time-Keepers who uphold the Sacred Timeline. In episode four, they get their chance – and discover that the Time-Keepers themselves are merely androids. Just another smokescreen.
The Teacher of Ecclesiastes appears to be right; humanity cannot fathom, even in fiction, a Being who transcends time itself.
It must be a sham, a manipulative grappling for control even at the very highest level. We ask the question of eternity, but in our limitation can only offer answers of futility.
Faith, however, is the opposite of futility. Christianity upholds the belief, founded in scriptural revelation, in a Creator God who existed eternally “before” the beginning described in Genesis 1:1. (Can He have been “before,” if time began alongside space and matter at the moment of creation? Our language, like our understanding and like time itself, is inadequate to contain His transcendence!) God the Trinity exists outside our “timeline,” but He is also invested and involved in every moment along its stretch.
In thinking about God and time, I often come back to this analogy used by one of my professors at Bible college:
If you happened to be in the streets of New York City on Thanksgiving Day, you might be able to watch the Macy’s parade in person. The floats would pass in front of you, one after the other, in their set order. You might see them coming around one corner, or you might be close enough to the end of the route to see what happens when the parade concludes. If, however, you could get up on top of the Empire State Building (and you had the eyesight of an eagle), you would be able to see the entirety of the parade route – all its twists and turns, all the roads taken and not taken, from the beginning to the very end. You would be “outside” of the parade, able to take it all in at once.
This analogy, like all analogies, falls short, because it fails to account for God’s involvement at every point of the “parade” through His ever-present Spirit. But it does help us imagine what God’s extra-temporal perspective might be like, with emphasis on the fact that it is infinitely beyond our own. It helps us see how
“With the Lord, a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead, he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:8-9)
The Lord can be “slow” in keeping His promise to return because He is outside of time as we perceive it, and because He has such great love for humanity. He wants His Church to have every opportunity to reach those who do not yet know Him, so He is not afraid to delay the fulfillment of our hope for Christ’s return. From an eternal perspective, it is hardly a “delay” at all!
Viewing all of time as a contemporaneous whole, everything occurs in the shadow of the apocalypse.
God already knows how the story of this world ends. In His sovereignty, He not only allows us to make choices in the meantime, but He desires us to exercise our free will!
Of course, His desire is for all to freely choose relationship with Him. But in the times we choose against Him, His plan is still not threatened. Even when people choose to inflict the worst evils imaginable on other people, He is sovereign enough to work redemption out of it. He works in all things to make those who love Him look more like Christ. Not even our freedom can derail His ultimate and predetermined end for the story.
Not even our freedom can derail God’s ultimate and predetermined end for the story.
Continuing with the words of 2 Peter 3,
“The day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare.
Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells.”
For more from Nathan, see ndstorms.com.