In the new film, Avengers: Infinity War, the main villain Thanos seeks the coveted Infinity Stones, which would give him the power to wipe out half of the entire universe’s population with a snap of his fingers. His reasoning? Overpopulation.
In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the universe is accelerating towards overpopulation, which is consuming all of its finite resources at a faster rate than it is providing, leading to chaos, entropy, and starvation. Unlike other supervillains, Thanos takes no pleasure in death for death’s sake. Having experienced the devastating effects of overpopulation on his own home planet (Titan, which was destroyed and whose inhabitants were driven to extinction), he seeks to relieve the rest of the known universe from the same pain and misery, even through genocide. For Thanos, it’s the most humane solution. He argues that for all of the planets he has razed and decimated, the remaining survivors now thrive since the years following his massacres, seeing nothing but “clear skies and full bellies” for their men, women, and children. Therefore, he reasons that sacrificing half of existing sentient life would be for the greater good. The end justifies the means. In the end, it would all be worth it.
Don’t buy it? Apparently, some movie-goers might. A Yahoo article reports that “…more than 20,000 people in the real world agree with him enough to subscribe to a subreddit called /r/thanosdidnothingwrong.” Although it appears that this is mostly a joke, a quick trip to Twitter suggests that some fans might genuinely believe that Thanos might have been on to something:
Did anyone else who watched Infinity Wars find themselves thinking Thanos is right?
— Nate Igor Smith (@drivenbyboredom) May 2, 2018
Thanos is right in his ideological worldview & his methodological approach in solving the collective problems of all creatures in the cosmos. I firmly stand behind him, just as I stood behind killmonger in Black Panther.
People would much rather be emotional thinkers & decry “no
— Psychology Pнιℓσѕσρнυѕ ۞✍۩ (@PsychologyDoc) April 27, 2018
Think about it. This means that potentially hundreds of people would do the same thing given the same circumstance (overpopulation) and opportunity (Infinity Stones).
As the Yahoo article notes, there is an unsettling logic behind all Thanos does. The Yahoo article draws a direct link between this line of thinking (that of Thanos) with a philosophical approach called utilitarianism,* a theory of ethics which seeks to judge the morality of actions by their “utility”–that is, whichever action leads to the greatest amount of happiness or pleasure for the greatest number of people is the best action. Therefore, it is an outcome-based, consequence-based approach. (For an introduction to utilitarian ethics, watch this Crash Course video).
And Thanos, along with his Twitter fans, do the math and find justification for half of the population wanting.
So was Thanos right? Some might respond with an obvious and resounding “No!”. Others might see the exercise of entertaining this question from a Christian worldview as completely pointless (as we are talking about a piece of popcorn fiction, after all). But the fact remains that people are seriously asking this question. And so it is in our best interest to address it. Was Thanos right?
Behind Thanos’ rationale and logic is the desire to play God–that is, to have the power to decide who lives and who dies, right in the palm of his hand. And behind the desire to “play God” is the desire to decide on what is right or wrong depending on one’s own wisdom. For the philosophy of utilitarianism, “right or wrong” depends on what ultimately makes the greatest amount of people happy; there is no absolute good or evil There is no essential “right or wrong”.
The Bible is a record people trying to decide what is “right or wrong” according to their own terms, usually with disastrous consequences. For example, in the opening chapters of the book of Genesis, the first humans are tempted to try to usurp God’s authority by becoming “like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5).
Now regrettably, the phrase “the knowledge of good and evil” gets lost in translation when being read by modern people. We tend to automatically assume that it is simply referring to a state of blissful ignorance. But “blissful ignorance” is actually not what the author of Genesis was talking about. Biblical scholars and anthropologists will tell you that the phrase “the knowledge of good and evil” actually has a nuance in the ancient Hebrew language. To have the “knowledge of good and evil” did not refer to literal knowledge, but to have the power to exercise moral authority in determining what is “right or wrong” or “good and evil” by oneself.** In other words, Adam and Eve were trying to take the place of God by being the ones to determine what was good and evil on their own terms, independent of God. Unfortunately, by cutting themselves off from the Author and Source of life (as well as the personification of everything “good”), they also introduce Death and decay into the world. You can almost hear a passionate cry in God’s voice when He says “What have you done?? …Cursed is the ground because of you!” (Genesis 3:13,17). And finally comes the tragic note when He describes the consequences: “…for dust you are and to dust you will return” (v. 19).
Throughout the rest of the Bible, the attempt to “define good and evil” on man’s terms always leads to more death, decay, and entropy. A recurring theme in the book of Judges is that “everyone did what was right in their own eyes”. And in the New Testament, Paul makes a connection between this tendency in the human condition with death when he writes “…the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23).
“Get off My chair”
It is this power to define good and evil on his terms–to “play God”–that Thanos seeks. And it likewise leads to disastrous consequences. At the end of the movie, Thanos succeeds in his plan. He finds all the Infinity Stones, and with a literal snap of his fingers, half of all intelligent life is literally disintegrated into dust. “From dust you are, and to dust you will return”. Thanos’ exercise of moral autonomy leads to death. It’s no coincidence that his name bears semblance to “Thanatos”–the ancient Greek personification of Death [in fact, in the original comics, Thanos’ real motivation is to please “Mistress Death”, another personification of our fate].
Why should this matter to us? Because as the saying goes, “art imitates life.” Stories, and films, have always been humanity’s way of trying to make sense of the world through thought experiments and what-if scenarios. This film is no different. The philosophy of utilitarianism would have us human beings deciding on what is right or wrong simply by its “utility” (and our fallible understanding of that word), instead of appealing to an absolute moral law (let alone a moral law-Giver). This include who gets to live or die. But the biblical narrative and worldview consistently portrays God as being the only one in the unique position to determine who lives and dies in our fallen world, being the Creator, and the Author/Giver of life. If only He can give life, then only He can take it away. But that is not for us to decide.
In a scene in the book of Job, God invites the titular character to “sit at his desk” for a while, so to speak, and see how Job would fare in running the universe. He proceeds to show Job all the intricacies of time and space that come with this responsibility…and in response Job immediately takes it all back. God says “get off my chair”, so to speak, and Job unhesitatingly scuttles off and says in so many words “I’m so sorry, I obviously had no idea what I was talking about.”
But we seek to sit on the judgement seat of God every time we decide who gets to live or die–for instance, if I may be so bold, in the recent case of Alfie Evans. Before Sin and Death entered the world, God originally created the world as “good”, and we should be seeking to defend life whenever we can, unless God in His infinite wisdom has another plan. We “play God” when we try to determine what is right or wrong by predicting the future–something that only God knows (which is why He is the only One qualified to make such decisions). Thanos tried to determine what was “good” by looking into the future. Interestingly, many time-travel movies actually do a decent job in showing what the consequences may be if (or when) fallen human beings try to control or manipulate time. We put ourselves in a position only God has any business being in.
To Change the World
There was another man who also once sought to change this world for the better a long time ago. But he didn’t do it by wielding power or executing others. Instead, he did it by sacrificing himself and giving his life. Weirdly enough, the Bible describes this man as being God Himself, but in the form of a human. Philippians 2 says that although Jesus was by His very nature God, he “did not consider equality with ‘God’ as something to be used to his own advantage.” Instead, “…as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross!” (v. 9). Jesus absorbed the curse of Sin and Death that started all the way back with Adam and Eve by dying Himself–in our place! Whereas Adam and Eve (and humanity in general) sought to take God’s place by stealing His position, Jesus took our place by surrendering His position.
For those who have seen the film, why do you think that Vision’s sacrifice is so much more moving than Thanos’ quest to “balance the universe”? It is because Vision voluntarily gave his life for others self-sacrificially. And that’s what the Bible is about. Jesus gave His life self-sacrificially for us. And you know what He encourages us to do in response? He encourages us to “have the same mindset” (Philippians 2:5)–to love and serve self-sacrificially. To fight for life, not take it away. To not stand in his judgement seat.
The Bible does tell of a time when Jesus will come to “judge the living and the dead” (the Apostle’s Creed) in order to finally set the world to right, just as it had been before in the Garden of Eden. But only He is qualified to be that Judge. And if He was willing to die for you and me, then I’m willing to trust Him in that. Until then, let’s get off His chair.
*”Utilitarianism, as described by philosophers such as Bentham, Mill, and Singer, is roughly the idea that morality should be based purely on what causes the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people.” Here’s a funny comic to illustrate. http://existentialcomics.com/comic/236
** Stephen Wellum and Peter Gentry, “God’s Kingdom Through God’s Covenants.” (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Publishers, 2015), 90-91. “The best explanation to date is that of W.M. Clark, who carefully analyzed all the occurrences of the phrase in the Hebrew Bible and showed that the ‘knowledge of good and evil’ has to do with the exercise of absolute moral autonomy. That is to say, knowing good and evil means choosing or determining for oneself what is right and wrong independently of God.”
For more on the story of the Bible, visit The Bible Project, a YouTube channel dedicated to (literally) illustrating the biblical narrative one video at a time.