I don’t know about you, but I absolutely love the Marvel movies. I enjoy watching the good guy unequivocally trounce the bad guy. I’m all about truth, justice and the American way! As our culture becomes progressively discontent, confused, even fearful and angry about the concepts of “truth” and “grand narrative” — a larger story (God) behind the smaller stories of life (us) —, and has increasingly embraced a postmodern worldview, Marvel movie story lines are starting to get darker and more dystopian … which isn’t my bent. But up to this point, with the exception of Iron Man 3 (sorry!), I love them. The first Avengers movie is probably my favorite, for a lot of reasons, including some of it’s (perhaps unexpected) theological implications.
One of the scenes that gives me goosebumps every time is the scene in which Loki has come to Germany to steal a necessary component of the doomsday device he’s building — a substance he needs to build a portal by which his waiting army will invade the earth. He gets what he came for, but his ego won’t let him just leave. Unable to pass up the opportunity to coerce worship from the masses, he gears up in full Prince of Asgard, Greek god of mischief garb, walks out into a crowded German street, and starts making speeches. He demands that the crowd bow down and submit to him … at least, that is, until Captain America shows up and busts his chops.
I cheer every time. From the first time I saw it, this scene strikes me as a phenomenal hero moment, in which freedom triumphs handily over oppression and the strong defend the weak. It has always represented for me a little slice of the way things ought to be. Justice! Even, shades of the gospel!
And then, about the 10th time I watched it, it hit me…
Loki is right!
Check out the scene for yourself; then I’ll attempt to explain…
Just to make sure you caught the dialogue (and so that I can add some emphasis)…
Loki: “Kneel before me!”
Frightened, the crowd kneels.
Loki: “Is not this simpler? Is this not your natural state? It is the unspoken truth of humanity, that you crave subjugation. The bright lure of freedom diminishes your life’s joy in a mad scramble for power … for identity. You were made to be ruled. In the end, you will always kneel.”
A single elderly man stands. It is implied that he is a survivor of the Jewish holocaust of World War II or at least that he lived through that era.
Elderly man: “Not to men like you.”
Loki (sneering): “There are no men like me.”
Elderly man: “There are always men like you.”
Captain America appears out of nowhere, defends the people, and puts Loki in his place. The goosebump-inducing line: “The last time I was in Germany and saw a man standing above everybody else, we ended up disagreeing.”
Jeff (typically out loud): “YES!”
And the crowd goes wild!
Okay, now that I’ve got my goosebumps on, what’s all this “Loki was right” nonsense?!
We were made to be ruled
The fact is that God did not create you to be autonomous and independent. He didn’t design you for self-sufficiency and self-determination. He made you to be told who you are from the outside. He created you to be ruled … by Him.
Loki intends to subjugate the people to his rule. Captain America intends for the people to be free from anyone’s rule over them. The truth is that both views are quite inferior to what God intends for us.
I’m sure I don’t have to do much convincing for you to see that Loki is not qualified to rule over you. But I suspect it will be far less natural and easy to acknowledge that neither are YOU qualified to rule over you. Nor is President Obama, or Queen Elizabeth, or your governor or the local mayor or whoever … except to the extent that each of these people is given varying kinds and degrees of power and authority by God to rule over you, on God’s behalf, temporarily in our broken, sin-stained world. But they are only placeholders. In the end, there is only one man qualified to rule over this universe, especially over your heart, and that’s Jesus.
And you were designed by God to be ruled by Him and Him alone.
The bright lure of freedom does diminish your life’s joy
It is not “freedom” to shake off, rebel against, or otherwise deny the righteous rule of King Jesus. It’s not in any sense beneficial to you to strike out on your own. Loki is exactly right… there’s no quicker way to “diminish your life’s joy” than to tell Jesus to pound sand, because you’ve got this “king of my heart” thing sorted.
No doubt that Loki’s rule over the people would have been extremely ungodly and oppressive. So it’s a good thing Captain America showed up to take care of that problem. To fight to throw off the burdensome yoke of someone like Loki is an extremely good idea. But to succeed in overthrowing Loki just to put your own self-indulgent desires on the throne to rule over your life is not the way to happiness. It’s the certain (Jesus called it “broad”) road to agonizing pain and bitter regret — first in this life, and then in the life to come (Matthew 7:13-14).
But, you might ask, “Aren’t those two different things? Don’t we need governments and earthly rulers? We can’t elect King Jesus president in 2016, can we?”
Well, Jesus would certainly get my vote over the other candidates running, that’s for sure. Sadly, though, you’re right … we can’t write Jesus in for the next presidential election. Nor can we live without earthly governments. In fact, God specifically ordains them for our benefit (Romans 13:1-7). Of course, some forms of government are better than others. For instance, I’d far rather live in the US (with all its flaws) than in North Korea, or in 2016 Germany than in 1936 Germany. And for sure, some leaders are better than others. I’d rather live under Captain America than Loki. However, every earthly government and every earthly governor are broken, imperfect and inevitably inadequate. We were not meant to be ruled by Hitler, Loki, Obama, or Captain America. And we weren’t meant to rule ourselves either! But because we too are broken and imperfect, we need rulers and systems of rule to keep things from going totally off the rails. Sadly though, they will always be a difficult and distressful compromise, necessary to stand in the gap until Jesus returns to set everything right and rule over us Himself.
Put another way, our sin has backed us into a corner where we find ourselves in need of rulers other than God Himself to exert authority over us. So, let’s pick the best, most godly, wisest, most humble rulers and establish the best forms of government we can… But don’t think of them as the ideal or the goal (such that if we could just get the right system or people in place, everything will be right and good!). Earthly leaders and governments aren’t the destination; they’re the babysitters on the long journey home (where everything is already right and good).
What we call “freedom” does become the mad scramble for power and identity
Okay, so we’ve fought to establish the best form of government the brokenness of our world will allow, and we’ve worked hard to choose (an incredible privilege known only to a few in the grand scope of history) the best leaders possible. Naturally, that system requires that we have “freedom,” and those leaders must be freely elected to be any good, right? It’s all about liberty within the system, isn’t it?
Well, yes and no.
Of course, I’d rather live in a system in which I get to do what I want when I want to do it, versus being told where to go and what to do by an oppressive overlord. Naturally, I’d rather have a say in who my leaders are, rather than having them thrust upon me by heredity or because they have the biggest guns. Obviously, I’d rather have the opportunity to become a leader myself if I wanted to (instead of seeing power unalterably consigned in the hands of a very few) or become wealthy if I work hard (versus being locked into a cast or class without hope of change, even over several generations). So, yes, in one sense, I definitely do want to be free … from oppression, tyranny, lack of options, and the like.
But the problem is that we expect too much from “freedom”. We define it badly. Well, maybe not “badly,” but too exhaustively. Here’s how Miriam-Webster defines freedom…
Freedom (n.) — the state of being free from the control or power of another: as …
a : the absence of necessity, coercion, or constraint in choice or action
b : liberation from slavery or restraint or from the power of another : independence
c : the quality or state of being exempt or released usually from something onerous
This definition paints for me the following picture of “freedom”…
I (totally subjectively) find a law or a governor to be oppressive. For example, I hate getting tickets from those silly traffic cameras, or I feel that jaywalking is a ridiculous infringement of my rights, or I feel that the speed limit on this particular stretch of road should be considerably higher, or … whatever. My personal power and my right to self-determination are being suppressed or restrained. I desire to be exempt or released or liberated from these onerous constraints in my personal choice or action. I want to drive where I want, walk where I want, and go as fast as I want. I want liberty, independence, FREEDOM!
But the part of this picture we always seem to overlook is that you can’t just be set free from something. You have to be set free to something in its place. There is no world without boundaries. What we in America typically mean when we proclaim that we’re going to “throw off the yoke of our oppressors” or when we picture this “free to do anything I want” kind of freedom … what we’re really saying is that we ourselves, personally, want to be in charge. It’s fine that there’s a president or governor or whatever, but they are only allowed to create rules that I like. I will decide whether or not I stopped completely enough before making a right turn on red, thank you very much. I will decide when and how to cross the street. I will decide how fast it’s safe to drive. President Obama is pretty much just a figurehead … someone to shuffle the paperwork, repair the roads and man the armies. (I don’t have time for that stuff!) Who I really want to be in charge is … ME!
So, just like Loki said, we scramble for power and identity. We rage against “the Man” and demand our rights. We pour endless time, energy and investment into building our personal wealth, prestige or power base, so that we can come out on the top of the heap. We want strong networks so we can get the introduction or the favor we need at the critical moment. We want lots of cash in the back or assets on the balance sheet so we can move with ever-increasing freedom in a limited-resource world. We want the power and prestige to tear down walls, shatter constraints, and open up ever-greater vistas of choice before us. And we rebel against boundaries we don’t like, treating them as if they weren’t even there — like the ridiculous stop signs every 20 feet in the grocery store parking lot. Seriously! One big yellow “yield to pedestrians” zone is really all we need, isn’t it?!
But I digress.
What we don’t realize is that the result of all this clawing and scraping is to assign to our jobs and our bank accounts and our professional networks … and the personal freedom-of-movement in our lives … the power to tell us who we are. Big house, nice watch, and people who recognize me out in public … so I’m important. Big 401k, prestigious law firm, and the right degree from the right institution … so I’m safe. Big pile of disposable cash, coveted vacation home, and enough time away from work … so I’m free.
But it’s not real! These are illusions many people, sadly, spend their entire lives fighting and jockeying to achieve, but never do. It’s like chasing after the wind (Ecclesiastes 2:11).
In the end, you will always kneel
We were made to be ruled — not by oppressive earthly dictators or off-balance Asgardian “gods,” and not by our own wildly flailing desires or emotions … but by King Jesus. But one way or another, we will always kneel. You came into this world designed to be ruled by the King of kings, and to worship Him in return. And if you reject God’s authority and rightful rule over your life, then you’ll put something far less worthy in His place. But something will receive your devotion, your fealty, your worship … even if it’s only YOU, and your selfish, petty desires. There is simply no universe in which you are not ruled by someone or something.
And whatever rules you, whether it’s a modern national government or a hidden addictive desire or a baseline self-indulgent pride … someday whatever it is will be subjugated under the perfect rule of King Jesus. You, your mayor, your favorite military commander, your hobby, your job, your addiction … EVERYTHING will bow down to or be destroyed by Jesus. No third option.
God is, in fact, quite clear…
Therefore God has highly exalted [Jesus] and bestowed on Him [done deal!] the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord [Ruler, King], to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:9-11)
Christ has been raised from the dead [to deliver] the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For He must reign until He has put all his enemies under His feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For “God has put all things in subjection under his feet” … that God may be all in all. (1 Corinthians 15:20-28)
And thereby be fully human
What we don’t understand is that humanity doesn’t consist of some kind of imaginary limitlessness or self-determination. It’s not your right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness that makes you human. It’s being what God made you to be. The God of the universe made you a specific way (in His image) for a specific reason (His glory).
The Bible tells us that, without Christ, we are slaves to sin (John 8:34). The only true freedom comes from Christ, who, by His death on the cross and resurrection from the dead, has conquered sin and death. He defeated these mortal foes, and now we are no longer slaves to them. Instead, we are free. Not free to plunge ourselves back again into sin from which He saved us — to do whatever perverted, self-indulgent, self-directed thing that pops into your mind. Rather, we are free from the sin that entangled us and kept us from being the righteous image-bearing sons and daughters God created us to be.
The Apostle Paul put it this way,
When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6:20-23)
Notice again that it’s not some kind of boundless freedom, which cannot exist for created beings who are confined in a physical universe and subject to the many and varied laws of God, both natural and spiritual. This kind of boundlessness is a myth. Instead, it’s the freedom to be “a slave” to God (leading to life and joy and peace) rather than sin (leading to suffering and sadness and death). No third option.
So, let’s stop thinking of “freedom” as the absolute destruction of all boundaries or the selfish conquest of the world around us so as to put ourselves at the top of our respective heaps, and start thinking of it as right worship. I love this quote by Randy Newman in his book Questioning Evangelism, which I think says it well:
When people reject the Good News [of the gospel of Jesus Christ], it’s because they’re enslaved and addicted to other kinds of news. They’re in love with something unworthy of such devotion, and it won’t let them go.
To let go of the world and be set free from all its glittering entrapments … to bring into check our hope and expectation of earthy rulers and forms of government … to subjugate ourselves under right authorities — King Jesus and the rulers He installs over us — before God forcibly bends our knees for us … and to be bound tightly in the embrace of the God who designed you to be held and ruled by Him …
THAT is true humanity.
THAT is freedom!
Some other resources you might consider checking out…
- From Desiring God: Obey as People Who Are Free (John Piper)
- Francis Chan Urbana 2015 podcast: Living Under the Authority of Jesus (from the Crazy Love podcast)