Sacrifice, Salvation, Death and Power: Provoking Audiences for Thousands of Years

“Hear me and rejoice. You have had the privilege of being saved by the great Thanos. You may think this is suffering. No. It is salvation. The universal scales tip toward balance because of your sacrifice. Smile, for even in death you have become children of Thanos.”

These are the first words the audience hears in Avengers: Infinity War, as we are introduced to Thanos through the priestly monologue of his general, Ebony Maw: Rejoice. Suffering. Salvation. Sacrifice. Death. Children.

Moments later, Thanos speaks: “Dread it, run from it, destiny arrives all the same. And now it’s here. Or should I say, I am.”

Mainstream films rarely present such a dense mosaic of biblical themes, and their placement here, in the first, tone-setting minutes, is certainly intentional. But a less obvious question can be asked: Is Thanos’ cosmic plan the only true path to salvation?

In other words, might Infinity War be a story where the protagonists are wrong and the antagonist is right? The film is shot through with suggestions that this is indeed the case.

If we start with the gospel in mind, we’re drawn toward a cross that is inexorably horrific and captivatingly beautiful at the same time. We naturally rebel against God’s sovereign plan and ironclad will. Trusting in “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes,” we go blind to God’s radical solution. In the words of Captain America, “We don’t trade lives.” Earth and its heroes will never stoop low enough to accept a sacrifice.

But in Jesus, God has humbled every hero by bringing life out of death, choosing the foolish, weak and lowly to shame the wise and strong and esteemed of this world.

Given these conditions, the character of Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War begins to resemble the biblical portrayal of God the Father. And viewing Thanos through this lens may be the key to understanding both Infinity War and the sequel, Endgame, due in theaters this week.

The Narrative Law of Gravity

In 1981, the novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez said that writers rely on their intuition of reality to determine what happens next: “The laws of gravity can be figured out much more easily with intuition than anything else.”

C.S. Lewis described this law of gravity in the creative process like being shown “just how far you can go without knowing God, and that is far enough to force you . . . to go further.”

While our responses can range from love to indifference, and from joy to rage, all people intuitively feel the narrative gravity of the gospel. Audiences respond to it and writers cannot avoid it. Lewis concludes, “Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened.”

As unpopular as this notion might be in a Hollywood writer’s room, authors are far from autonomous or omnipotent over their creation. In fact, many experienced writers have identified a vague sense that they are, in fact, at the mercy of their stories.

For Christians, it comes as no surprise that all the best stories borrow their power from the weight of the gospel itself. But we should be alert to opportunities to see this dynamic play out—and there will be no bigger platform this year than Avengers: Endgame.

Resolving Thanos

Reports last week indicated advance ticket sales for Endgame were five times higher than Infinity War’s presale numbers. Millions of fans are desperate to find out what becomes of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. They are also wondering, “What of Thanos?”

In fact, the audience’s reaction to Thanos may be the whole point.

Thanos, who sacrificed the child he loved to bring about his plan.

Thanos, who was misunderstood as angry and loveless.

Thanos, who called his plan “mercy” when it sounded grotesque and nobody wanted it.

Thanos, whose heroic opponents would kill to stop him.

Thanos, who raised his children to be strong and generous, but never to lie.

Thanos, who changed bullets to bubbles and didn’t return fire.

Thanos, who said, “The hardest choices require the strongest wills.”

Thanos, who rested when his work was done.

Thanos, who was asked what salvation cost him and replied, “Everything.”

On the eve of Endgame, Christians should enter the cinema alert to what the second half of this story reveals about mankind’s posture toward the gospel.

Of course we might be wrong, but we expect to learn something new about Thanos. Because even a faithless writer can often become, in Lewis’s words, “an unwilling witness to the truth.” It’s possible the unthinkable will happen and we will all leave the theater with a full view of Thanos’ mercy.

In any case, Endgame is not a film that will resolve without sacrifice. Bet on it: Themes of salvation, death and substitution sown in Part 1 will resurface in Part 2. The writers are too good, the narrative stakes are too high, and their material is too cosmic to let the scripture-tinged heart of Infinity War go to waste.

Sam Harrell contributed to this article.