We’re running a weekly recap of Loki on Disney+. There are spoilers, duh! You’ve been warned.
Like most people who dabble with open theism, I learned about it back in my Bible college days.
Another lifetime ago, before I eventually finished a degree in journalism, I spent four semesters skipping class at Lincoln Christian University, a school in the Stone-Campbell tradition. And like most Restoration Movement communities, Arminianism reigned supreme as the predominant “theory” at LCU for explaining the intersection of time and God’s sovereignty over it. But there was a time in the early 2000s when open theism asserted its influence on my campus, just like many other Christian campuses and evangelical circles around the globe, after the publication of books like Clark Pinnock’s The Openness of God and Greg Boyd’s God of the Possible.
Arminianism, if you don’t know, places a heavy emphasis on God’s desire for human free will. God doesn’t want automatons as his people, so he does not (typically) force his will upon us. We are free to choose God or not, just as we are free to choose jeans over sweatpants while working from home.
God exists, in the Arminian view, above the lowly temporal plane of existence on which we live.It feels weird admitting that something as trivial as a Marvel movie thrust open theism back to my consciousness.
This would mean God is not only everywhere. He is everywhen. God can see what I’m doing next Friday as if I’ve already done it, just as he can see my yesterday and my present, all at the exact time. And the fact he can see what I’m doing next week doesn’t mean he ordained it, any more than you knowing the end to your favorite movie means you ordained it to happen the next time you watch it.
Well, if you’re like me, and the question of free will runs around in your mind like a squirrel in a cage while you’re trying to sleep, you’ll eventually stumble on the core contradiction of Arminian thought.
Unlike a movie’s end, God can, and does change the flow of time. As all Christians understand him, God is not a passive observer of human events, but through prayer, petition, and redemption, God breaks through to influence our temporal existence. Which means that if God can influence a known future but chooses not to, this is no different in intent and practice from ordaining it. And if it’s no different, then we haven’t escaped our pesky problem of how humans can have free will when God knows every choice we’ll make before it happens.
Calvinists think they have the answer to this problem. They fully embrace the idea of a God who ordains the future. Every whisper in the wind, every drop of rain, every movement of every atom in existence—including the lives and choices of every woman and man through history—are predetermined as God pleases them be, according to his sovereign grace, to the splendor of his name, Hallelujah amen!
But of course, this means some people are predestined to glory, while others are predestined to… the opposite.
That doesn’t feel so good.
And what of free will? After all, we already know that free will cannot co-exist with a sovereign God dictating every atom.
Au contraire, the Calvinist would say, before whipping out his leather bound ESV (does he carry that thing everywhere?) and throwing Romans 11 in your face. “How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” the Calvinist shouts. “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?”
It turns out, the most amusing (and if I’m being honest, most attractive) part of Calvinism is its willingness to see the contradiction between free will and God’s sovereignty, and shrug it off like cold McDonald’s. Of course it doesn’t make sense, any more than an ant can make sense of quantum physics or I can make sense of Skype blowing a 17-year lead to Zoom as the video platform of choice for the pandemic.
That brings me back to little ol’ open theism, the thing most people remember as a weird theological debate from twenty years ago.
It feels weird admitting that something as trivial as a Marvel movie thrust open theism back to my consciousness, but that’s exactly what happened a few years ago when I saw Doctor Strange in Avengers: Infinity War gazing forward to 14,000,605 possible futures until he found the 1 future in where Thanos could be defeated. It’s precisely after seeing these possible futures that Strange, in his role as Sorcerer Supreme, gave up the Time Stone, thereby setting in motion the events that would lead to the Mad Titan’s demise.
If we were to put a little Christian spin on this analogy, we would say something that looks a lot like the openness theory. There is no “inside” or “outside” of time as the Arminians and Calvinists say. God knows all things, yes, but the future is not a “thing” yet. It hasn’t happened!
The future exists in terms of possibilities. And yet God, as the only all-knowing, all-powerful, preeminent Being in existence, knows them all. He knows the 14,000,605 possible futures, times infinity. He works and acts in every combination of time to fulfill his purposes, according to his sovereign grace, to the glory of his name, Hallelujah amen!
Now. Is that really how it all works? Friend, I don’t know. But here’s the funny thing about our little existence on this planet. I don’t think we’d notice a difference either way.
Whether God controls our future choices or simply sees our future choices in terms of an infinite number of possibilities, it all looks and feels the same to us. That means, it doesn’t matter if the chess player controls every move the other player will make, or if he sees every move he will make before it happens, or if he knows every possible move that could happen. He still wins the game.
God is still God, and God will always win.
If you watched the season finale of Loki, you probably have some idea where I’m going with all of this. In the first episode, we were told the Time-Keepers created the TVA to protect and sustain the sacred timeline after a Multiverse War nearly destroyed all of existence. Unfortunately, nexus events on the timeline occasionally cause a new multiverse. Loki created one such nexus event when he escaped with the Tesseract after the Battle of New York. The TVA monitors these nexus events, prunes the Variants who caused them, and resets the branched timelines these Variants create.
In the finale episode, we learned that this is mostly… true!
The difference is, the Time-Keepers didn’t create the TVA. It was all an elaborate trick played by He Who Remains, a man who, along with all of his Variants, discovered the multiverse in the 31st century. A war ensued between these Variants (some Variants were worse than others), until He Who Remains pruned those other multiverses and all of its Variants from existence, thus establishing the Time Variance Authority.
So while it is certainly true that He Who Remains, like most authoritarian dictators, has maintained a sense of order by creating the Sacred Timeline, it is also true that his incessant pruning has meant the obliteration of free will and the imprisonment of unwitting accomplices in the form of Variants-turned-prison-workers inside the TVA.
In the end, Sylvie and Loki were left with a seemingly impossible choice. They could do as they planned and kill the Great and Powerful Oz and let the timeline go free, restore free will, and allow the future possibilities to flourish. But by doing so, they would unleash He Who Remains’s more brutal Variants upon the Multiverse once more.
Or they could keep the Sacred Timeline in order and rule the TVA themselves.
It’s no coincidence these two choices are precisely what each of these Lokis were pursuing in the opening episodes of this series. Loki wanted to rule the TVA and its close proximity to ultimate power, while Sylvie was of the “burn it all down” persuasion.
The problem is, somewhere along the line, they developed feelings for one another, which totally weirds me out after all my sibling talk a few weeks ago. And because he loves Sylvie, when Loki decides he doesn’t want to kill He Who Remains, it has little to do with the promise of a kingdom to rule and everything to do with keeping the woman he loves safe from certain danger.
Meanwhile, Sylvie has wanted the TVA’s destruction her entire life, and no boy is gonna make her stop. Go get it, Sylvie!
So in the end, we had something of an Empire Strikes Back kind of story, which I can tell, upset the Poppe children deeply. “That was it?!” my 14-year-old shouted. “That was terrible!”
And to be fair, it was terrible. Because Loki, our antihero for this limited series, pretty much lost everything he’s wanted. In one of the few spoiler heavy interviews Marvel has allowed, Tom Hiddleston reflected on the finale’s moments. “For perhaps the first time, one of the only times in his life, he was brave and he lost. He made a brave choice, and it didn’t work. The confusion is unprecedented, and it shatters him internally.”
Loki, my man. I feel for you, bud.
But all is not lost. It turns out, a previously unannounced season two is right around the corner, much to all of our surprise, hopefully to give Agent Mobius the ample screen time he deserves (and maybe a jet ski). And it also means the MCU has officially started the new phase we’ve all known was coming since Wanda heard her kids across the multiverse in the closing minutes of WandaVision.
Loki finally rang the Multiverse bell, and for Marvel’s 4th phase going forward, there’s no unringing it.