Atheist Apocalypse

“The fascinating thing in the big budget apocalypse films is how atheistic they are, despite the religious language used. In Armageddon it is not God who saves the world, it is us. In 2012 we build ‘arks’ to rescue humanity. The same is true for Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow, and The Matrix; humanity rescues humanity, there is no God saving the day. In ancient stories God’s hand is upon those he has chosen, directly intervening, winning battles, raining down fire, holding back water. Yet this is not true in our modern tales. We see a hint of a sense of divine help in The Stand, but this divine help is seen as death, the mercy of dying before something even worse than death comes. Otherwise, these modern tales of global catastrophe are absent of divine help or presence. This should be celebrated by those who take seriously a theology shaped by the Cross of Jesus of Nazareth. Dietrich Bonhoeffer highlighted the disaster of the deus ex machina god. Before we unpack that, let us hear an extended quote from him,

“So our coming of age leads us to a true recognition of our situation before God. God would have us know that we must live as men who manage our lives without him. The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us (Mark 15.34). The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God and with God we live without God. God let’s himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he helps us, Matt. 8.17 makes it quite clear that Christ helps us, not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering. Here is the decisive difference between Christianity and all religions. Man’s religiosity makes him look in his distress to the power of God in the world: God is the deus ex machina. The Bible directs man to God’s powerlessness and suffering; only the suffering God can help. To that extent we may say that the development towards the world’s coming of age outlines above, which has done away with a false conception of God, opens up a way of seeing the God of the Bible, who wins power and space in the world by his weakness.”


The deus ex machina that Bonhoeffer speaks of is the god of the machine. In ancient Greek and Roman plays a machine was used to lower into the play a person who represented a god or some figure who would come and rescue someone from a seemingly impossible situation. The person playing the god or rescuer would get in a basket and be lowered onto the stage just in the nick of time, as the hero, the rescuer, the god. We see this in modern characters like Superman who is the archetype deus ex machina. Read any graphic novel or watch any film with Superman in and you will notice how often he arrives just in time to rescue a person falling from a building, or save a plane from crashing and killing all inside. This is the god who rescues us when we are convinced we are doomed, the god who swoops in and saves us when all hope has gone. What is ultimately interesting about the 2016 film Batman Vs Superman was how typically un-Superman Superman was. In a court scene where Superman is on trial he fails to save everyone in it from a bomb that explodes, simply standing there in the midst of the fire and carnage and death, recognising his own limitations. It is brilliant Christian theology; the cross of Christ reveals a weak and suffering God who is not a deus ex machina. Whether consciously or unconsciously, many of the Hollywood apocalyptic blockbusters have done away with the god of the machine.”

You’ll Float Too: A Theology of Horror (Due out 2018)


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