Theology of Hell in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

shield-repairsIn the first season of Marvel: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.Agent Coulson somehow survived his run-in with Loki in the movie The Avengers and is now back in charge of an elite unit of S.H.I.E.L.D. which is searching for other superheroes either to recruit them or to keep them from becoming bad supervillains. Good stuff!

We previously talked about a depiction of Original Sin in the first episode of Marvel: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Today, we are talking about a depiction of Hell in the ninth episode “Repairs.” (watch episode here | read review here). I believe it’s helpful to see how Hell is depicted in popular media because it is often wrapped in moral lessons that apply whether you believe in Hell or not.

**SPOILER ALERT**

Hell: Punishment by God?

In this episode, a woman named Hannah is blamed for a reactor accident that killed several people and then goes full-out Carrie on a gas station owner, throwing things telekinetically and then blowing up the station.  While we are led to believe that the woman has these powers, she says she isn’t doing things intentionally. In fact, when she is picked up by the team and interviewed in a secure room, she believes there’s a theological reason why:

Hannah: God’s punishing me. He abandoned me. He doesn’t protect me anymore. That’s why this is happening…I’m being haunted by demons.

So Hannah blames demons for her problems. She is cast out to hell for what she thinks she did. While there aren’t any immediate theological reflections from the SHIELD team, one of them summarizes Hannah’s words in this way:

Agent May: People believe what they need to believe to justify their actions.

I like this comment because it parallels my senior paper in undergrad entitled “The Psychology of Satan.” I examined whether a belief in Satan had psychological effects or if psychological effects caused a belief in Satan. Like most terrible undergrad papers, I didn’t find anything noteworthy. However, what stuck with me was the coping mechanisms that people will build up for themselves to address their perceived reality. Whether real or not, a belief in Hell points to the psychological constructs that people create to justify their actions (ie. “Why would a person WANT there to be a demon attacking them? What does that say about them?”).

So in the beginning of the episode, Hell is depicted as punishment by God who abandons the guilty to torment by demons.

Hell: Punishment for Past Actions?

Later in the episode, there IS a theological conversation about whether God exists. I KNOW, Science Fiction AND theology? I  swooned a bit.  Hannah and Skye (depicted in the above picture) are talking through a door about the telekinesis and crazy stuff that has grounded the ship and how it DOES seem like a demonic figure is attacking the team.

Hannah: Do you believe in God?…I do. I know he’s punishing me, and I deserve it.

Skye: No, no you don’t. No one does. I had a few nuns around me growing up and they talked like that, scaring kids with stories of God’s wrath. It made me not want to believe. The only words that stuck with me were something Sister McKenna said. She said “God is love.” It’s simple and a little sappy but it is the version that I like. God is love…the thing that holds us together. And if that is true, I don’t think he would punish you for making a mistake. I think he’d forgive a mistake.

This simple exchange is emblematic of hundreds of stories I heard from people growing up in the “turn or burn” Bible Belt. Rather than convict people like the olden days of people throwing themselves at the feet of Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” sermon, such an emphasis on God’s wrath turns many people off now that they know they are in a marketplace of faith and find other expressions of faith. Skye’s assertion that “the thing that binds us together” is love…that’ll preach!

So in the middle of the episode, Hell is depicted as a mistaken notion of God’s wrath, when in fact God is love and wants to turn you away from punishing yourself.

Hell: Punishment by Self?

Finally, it gets even more epic at the end of the episode. Agent May, Hannah, and Tobias (a lovestruck coworker of Hannah’s who inadvertently caused the explosion that killed their other coworkers and stuck him between two dimensions…yeah) are talking about why Tobias is doing what he is doing:

Tobias: I’m being dragged to hell for what I did…I didn’t mean for anyone to get hurt…I killed them. I know. And even worse, everyone started blaming you. I was trying to protect you from them. I was trying to atone for my sin. Hannah, maybe if you forgive me, I won’t go to Hell.

Hannah: Only God can forgive you.

Agent May: And he won’t. You can’t undo what’s been done. That will be with you forever. But trying to hold onto this life, clinging to the person you thought you could be, that’s Hell. And you’re dragging her down with you. You have to let go…if you care about her and I know you do, let her go. Let the girl go.

Wow.

Remember we aren’t debating whether Hell exists, but instead how Science Fiction approaches this topic.

In SHIELD’s depiction, Hell is unhealthy attachment. Drawing on more Buddhist than Christian tenets, this unhealthy attachment to the person who you want desperately to be but cannot achieve yields incredible anxiety and a sense of failure that is damaging to those still living. While Christians like to say nothing is impossible to followers of a resurrected Christ, while Prosperity Gospel (and Prosperity-lite preachers like Joel Osteen) say you can think or believe your way into health or wealth, the psychological effects of unhealthy attachment to a dream for yourself can be devastating.

Yet also in this depiction, redemption and love is possible. Tobias needed a friend, someone to point the direction, to show that his unrequited love was hurting his love. As the platitude says, “if you love something, set it free.” By turning from this unhealthy vision of who he could have been, and letting his love go free, he also experienced freedom from torment. We don’t know what happened to Tobias, but whether he is in Hell or another dimension, he doubtless has a stronger sense of self and wholeness.

What I take from this episode is that experiencing hell (figuratively–get off my back, confessional Christians) is often avoided in community. A Community that discerns the living God of love and seeks wholeness for all people. A community of whole people dealing with their brokenness that determines what it means to have dreams for one’s self and how they can helpfully and holistically seek them out–no matter how high.

It was this community that Tobias didn’t have before the tragedy, and yet this community did set him free from the guilt and attachment to the life that could never be his. That community can be yours now and you can avoid the hells of attachment beyond reason and living for the past without a proper hope for the future. Collect others around you, seek wholeness as individuals and a community, and while telekinesis may not come to be of your superpowers, the superpower of a whole person nurtured by community can overcome almost anything.

Your Turn

Thoughts?

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Comments

  1. says

    First of all, I have to begin this post by saying that confessional Christians will never get off your back, until such time as you either resort to censorship, violating the ostensibly open source aspects of this blog, or begin to do your duty as a Methodist clergyman and actually proclaim the Apostolic faith, rather than continually seeking new ways to undermine it.

    On a lighter note, before I continue, I should also mention that most of the best science fiction has strong theological undertones. Nineteen Eighty Four, Dune, 2001, and for that matter, many of the best episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, not to mention the Gnostic theology of the Matrix, and so on. You should not swoon when you encounter theology in SF, as awesome as it usually is (except in the universe of the revived Doctor Who, where all religions except atheism are harmful delusions and all clergymen are evil villains), for most of the more distinguished works of science fiction have a strong theological dimension, or at the very least, significant theological parallels.

    Now, much of what you said about the experience of hell is valid. It is possible to suffer a foretaste of hell in this life; I myself experienced such pure horror upon the death of my grandparents, and at other unpleasant life experiences, and this horror does indeed, as the Buddhists suggest, result from the loss of one to whom you have become attached, like a rubber band suddenly snapping back in your face.

    However, it is deeply wrong for a Christian to think that attachment should be avoided, in the manner of the Buddhists. Buddha’s worldview is essentially “Love hurts, and causes hate, so don’t love or hate anything, but renounce attachment.” The end goal of Buddhism, once one has renounced all attachment and attained Nirvana, is to be “blown out”, released from the cycle of reincarnation. Therevada theologian Gunapala Dharmasiri has said that this should be viewed as extinction, as opposed to the attainment of some blessed existence in heaven.

    In contrast, within the Orthodox faith of Christianity, we believe that a trumpet will sound, and all will be resurrected bodily, raised incorruptible, to face the dread judgment seat of Christ. Those who are to be saved will enter the world to come, whereas those damned, through refusing to repent of their sins and to accept the love of God, will spend an eternity in hellfire. Our God is love, but is capable of wrath, where this wrath is defined as a righteous movement of God’s divine energy against sin and evil. The Wrath of God is a holy and divine force that we can interpret as correcting the damage done to His creation through our own sin, and the evil designs of Satan.

    Satan is not a mere mental concept, but our true adversary. Many people fall under demonic influence, which in Eastern Orthodox theology, chiefly manifests itself in the form of prelest, or delusion. Prelest can result from errors as simple as prayer with imagination, and can lead to insanity in this case, argues St. Symeon the New Theologian, among others. The Philokalia advises against extended periods of solitary prayer with the hands extended upward in the orans position (frequently seen in Buddhism, interestingly enough), as this leads to this form of madness.

    Prelest is a truly frightening concept, and like thermal entropy, and death itself, is so disturbing that I cannot help but believe that it is true. Demons can tempt us through false visions, through misleading dreams; our own self-conceit can cause us to easily fall into prelest (this happened to me more than once; I have a tendency to vainglory which occasionally has manifested itself with disastrous effects, but I have been saved in each case through Christ Jesus). Demons may offer us gifts, appearing to grant us insights into the future. In any spiritual matter, an extreme degree of discernment is required to ascertain whether or not one is interacting with the legitimate forces of God (vis a vis his angels, a Christophany, or the action of the Holy Spirit), remembering the warning of St. Paul (“If anyone comes to you preaching contrary to what we have taught, even if it were an angel from Heaven, he should be excommunicated). It is worth noting that several of the most important Church Fathers ultimately fell victim to Prelest, Tatian and Tertullian being the most prominent examples, but one might also possibly include on that list Origen, Eusebius of Caesarea, Theodore of Mopsuestia and Nestorius (although I personally would admit at least half that number from my definition). I was horrified by the way, when I recently conversed with a local Methodist minister who had never read any the writings of any of these church fathers; his ecclesiastical scholarship apparently started with Martin Luther. This was not a conservative preacher either, but rather one of the more liberal pastors in the district.

    As terrifying as prelest is, and as easy as it is to fall into it, it is also easy through Christ Jesus to escape it, through sincere prayer and repentance. Many Church fathers also advise that it can be dispelled by making the Sign of the Cross; these are ancient voices from the early Church, and I am inclined to believe them, and to regret deeply the fact that for some unpleasant reason doubtless related to anti-Roman reactionism, Protestants, with the exception of the Anglo Catholics and a few other related groups, do not cross themselves.

    Now, UMJeremy does say something valid when he says that the Hellish foretaste can often be avoided in community. It worries me that he fears that this is where confessional Christians would take issue; on the contrary, it is the Orthodox doctrine that we fall as individuals, but are saved together, in communion with Christ and the fellowship of saints which Paul refers to, that being, the faithful membership of the Church
    on Earth and in Heaven. However, here is where we must absolutely renounce the Buddhist doctrines, and this is where confessional Christians should take offense: the Buddhist idea essentially does put Satan in our mind, by ascribing all suffering to attachment, and the Karmic cycle. This, to the apostolic faith, is anathema.

    Christians are saved together, as a community, through our attachment to that communion. We must absolutely attach ourselves to our fellow believers; CS Lewis suggested that the same burning, passionate love we experience for those of the opposite gender whom we wish to marry, will be directed towards all of our brothers and sisters in Heaven (albeit bereft of the biological desire for sexual reproduction, and the pain of rejection). Of course, we can reject this love; as CS Lewis also says, the gates of Hell are locked on the inside. This is of course why the Universalist view that all MUST be saved is wrong, and unacceptable. The one thing God cannot do is force us to love him; love that is not freely given is not love at all.

    Consider however the burning attachment to His children that prompted God, in the person of Christ, to allow himself to die. This is the ultimate attachment; for God to be so profoundly attached to his Children as to suffer death itself would have been a concept incomprehensible to the mind of Siddhārtha Gautama, This overpowering attachment in the form of altruistic love is the emanation of God, who is love, and is what prompted God to endure the greatest conceivable pain in order to procure our salvation. Kallistos Ware suggests that Christ, in descending to Hell, did truly experience Hell, as Hell, in the Orthodox view, can be interpreted as the place where God is not. This implies a temporary separation from the Trinity, which, from the standpoint of God, must be the ultimate pain possible, to be disconnected from the unchanging, immutable and eternal unity of the Godhead in order to die as a man. Of course, the Orthodox view about Hell is also rather cheerful, and helps us to dispel both our fears of the terrible impact of prelest and of the pain of Hell. The sting of death is sin, but Christ has treampled down death by death; the Paschal Homily proclaims of Christ that He descended into Hades and took Hades captive! Hell has been swallowed up in Victory.

    Thus, in spite of the horrors inflicted upon us, through the degenerate condition of the world resulting from original sin (whether you interpret this in the Augustinian manner of imputed guilt, or in the environmental manner of John Cassian, I myself personally favor the latter view), through our own evil designs, and through the ceaseless plotting of Satan our adversary against us. The devil works ceaselessly to achieve our derangement, to undermine our faith, and ultimately, to destroy our souls; he delights in misery. “Expect temptation until your last breath!” warns St. Anthony the Great.

    However, through the all-redeeming sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ, we can escape this horrible fate, both in this life and in the life of the world to come, through repentance. “He who endures to the end will be saved.” We must persevere; we must not succumb to the temptation of devils and fall away in the manner of Tatian or Tertullian. Rather, we should consider our life on this earth as a constant struggle, a pitched battle between ourselves and the temptation to sin, the workings of the devil; we are the athletes of God, racing to win the crown of victory, which is life eternal, as St. Paul has said. This is a race we can win, all of us, regardless of race, gender, or physical or mental impairment, for our Lord is merciful and fervently desires our salvation. We are indeed saved in a community, through a divine synergy between ourselves and the Holy Spirit; by attaching ourselves as profoundly to our fellow Christians as Christ did to mankind as a whole.

  2. says

    I do apologize for the lengthy nature of some of my posts; brevity is not my strong suit. Alas, my work here must continue until UM Jeremy and other misguided UMC clery repent of their heresy and commit to preaching the Gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. I lack the episcopal authority to declare something as being heretical, or incorrect, unilaterally, and the theological issues involved are often highly complex, thus it is necessary to iterate over each of them in response, and this does imply both a certain complexity, and a voluminous amount of work. The joy of polemics stems however from seeing the positive effect the work is having; the amount of heretical content on this blog has declined, and many confessional Methodists are posting here with greater frequency. This work is also helping me to shape a treatise on the Catholic faith common to all Christian denominations that I am working on, by structuring it in response to the contemporary misconceptions that are frequently voiced on this blog, as well as on more conservative blogs such as Dave Mosher’s Against Christian Apostasy. At any rate, God bless you, and I hope you have a great week.

  3. Zzyzx says

    I found this blog a while back and have enjoyed many of the posts. I’m glad you’re doing this UMJeremy. It’s nice to see some other Methodist pastors out there writing thoughtful things like this. Sadly, “Agents of SHIELD” doesn’t play in my country. So I can’t geek out with you. It’s cool that they had this interesting exchange about Hell in the episode. I guess I’ll have to stick with classic Star Trek on DVD though…

    I rather like the slightly Buddhist perspective of “unhealthy attachments.” Although that’s not purely Buddhist either. Jesus also speaks of leaving behind things that we are unhealthily attached to. Although… the Gospel According to Biff tells us that Jesus spent some time at a Buddhist monastery… so there’s that

  4. Vera says

    I’ve been watching the AOS show, and felt the theology introduced in last week’s episode was rather weak. I’m used to characters writing off what Christians believe, eg. in a loving God, in God’s existence, in “where was God when I suffered,” in “you are stupid to believe in God” and so on. For most of last week’s AOS episode, that was the level of the writing.

    Where things turned different, though was in the climactic scene where the person who’s the identified sinner realizes his sin, repents, and asks for forgiveness from the woman he’s been stalking and for whom he’s been sinning. The woman (who supposedly is a Christian, although that is never made explicit… all we know is she believes in God, but doesn’t have very good theology) is told by Agent May that there’s no point in her forgiving this guy, even that it’s not her place to forgive him. Agent May confidently explains that “only God can forgive” and then proceeds to tell the repentant guy that God’s not gonna forgive him. The woman then declines to forgive the guy, who sadly and painfully vanishes into whatever the scriptwriters perceive as hell.

    Where I call bad theology:
    1) Christ tells us to forgive, and implies that our forgiveness is somehow connected to God’s forgiveness. The woman should have known that and not listened to Agent May. What kind of faith did this woman actually have?
    2) Agent May is in no position to tell the woman not to forgive, or to tell the guy that God most definitely will not forgive him. The dude is repenting, yes? So the message is that God will not forgive at least some people for their sins no matter how sincerely they repent.

    I always wonder when scriptwriters try to parse Christianity, whether they deliberately get the theology wrong, or they are just too ignorant to realize they’ve done so. In either case, they could have used a theologian as a consultant this week.

  5. says

    SPOILERS, FYI.

    The subplot where Agent May’s backstory (and the origin of her nickname) is revealed also parallels the hell theme. May’s been in her own kind of hell after a past hostage incident, and even Coulson doesn’t know if he can help bring her out of it. But at the end of the episode, May convinces Tobias to let Hannah go by giving him the same advice Coulson had given her in the wake of the Bahrain hostage situation, as you’ve noted Jeremy. And in passing on this gnosis, it seems to transform her. Contributing something that had been a part of her story to the salvation of another seemed to be the key to her release. The coda shows May’s old personality traits start to return, too. If “whatever is not assumed cannot be redeemed” is a correct soteriological principle, perhaps “whatever is not shared is not redemptive” is a corollary.

    As to Vera’s point, I don’t read the episode’s end in the same light—Hannah reaches out & takes Tobias’ hand. She may not have said the words, but her actions spoke of forgiveness. In fact, I think that grace went both ways, as he willingly gave up hunting/haunting her, and she released him for his actions. While I don’t agree with May that “God won’t forgive,” I do think the idea that forgiveness just erases the past is a wrong one, and I’m glad to see it handled in a more nuanced fashion. Forgiveness recognizes that a great wrong has indeed occurred, and cannot be undone. And after that recognition, forgiveness makes the bold move of releasing. I saw that conveyed powerfully from Hannah.

    Thanks for a great thought-provoking geek gospel post!

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