As I watched the first episode of Loki last week, I unexpectedly found myself remembering a conversation with a family friend decades ago, who declared himself mightily offended by the idea that God could know everything about his life—everything he would do, everything he would say, everything he would think. “Where’s the freedom in that?” he asked.
I mustered some mild defense along the lines of, “Just because God knows everything doesn’t mean God causes everything,” but he was unsatisfied. “Ridiculous,” he muttered, then laughed. “Just ridiculous!”
I think he might have empathized with the Asgardian god of mischief in this episode, who sits helplessly in Agent Mobius’ office at the Time Variance Authority, literally watching his life—more accurately, the life he would have lived had he not escaped the Avengers’ custody via the Tesseract in Avengers: Endgame—play before his eyes.
Loki: You ridiculous bureaucrats will not dictate how my story ends!
Mobius: It’s not your story… It never was.
For all Agent Mobius’ friendly demeanor toward Loki, for all the familiar banality of the TVA offices (despite glimpses of a larger context that so exemplifies Clarke’s Third Law even Loki thinks it must be magic), this extradimensional agency devoted to enforcing the one and only Sacred Timeline clearly fills a role many people believe God plays in the universe.
Everything Loki did or said or thought—or, again, would have—is all there. “Look,” Mobius tells him, “the TVA doesn’t just know your whole past, we know your whole life, how it’s all meant to be. Think of it as comforting.”
Do You Find God’s Omniscience Comforting?
Sometimes, biblical assertions of God’s omniscience seem meant to comfort.
Take Psalm 139. The psalm-singer praises God because God knows every word on his tongue before he himself does (verse 4). “In your book,” sings the psalmist, “were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed” (verse 16). Clearly, the psalm-singer thinks of it as comforting.
But Loki takes no comfort in the thought that anyone knows the days formed for him because he assumes such consciousness necessarily implies causation.
Loki: I live within whatever path I choose.
Mobius (not unkindly but sarcastically): Sure you do.
The TVA “Minutemen” on Loki’s trail in 16th-century France call him a “devil,” but it’s hard not to have some sympathy for him. (Strictly speaking, as we learn by the episode’s end, they’re on the trail of yet another version of Loki, but work with me here.)
Loki dismisses the idea of freedom as the “first and most oppressive lie ever uttered,” one that invariably “breeds shame and uncertainty and regret.” But, as Agent Mobius correctly discerns, Loki believes in free will as much as all the other “living things” he thinks to whom he thinks himself superior.
He wants—as we all do, to some degree—to believe he has a “glorious purpose” he determines for himself. He wants to be recognized and revered. He wants to write his own book, not follow some predetermined script. He does not want to hear his life must conform to “the proper flow of time” that “happens again and again and again because it’s supposed to, because it has to.”
Given Grace to Actively Shape Our Stories
It’s too early to tell where Loki, the series, will land on the eternally fascinating and frequently pressing question of free will versus fate. Is the TVA telling the truth? Or is it all, as Loki initially suspects it is, some kind of “circus,” some elaborate way in which the trickster god is himself being tricked? “The idea that your little club decides the fate of trillions of people across all of existence at the behest of three space lizards, yes, it’s funny,” he says.
He’s not wrong. Given so much of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, from 2008’s Iron Man right through this year’s The Falcon and the Winter Solider, revolves thematically around our power to shape—and, when necessary, reshape—our own destinies by making morally responsible choices, it seems the TVA’s story probably isn’t the whole truth (no matter how cheerily Miss Minutes tells it in the lobby’s cartoon).
In fact, Mobius’ grim summary of the actual purpose of Loki’s existence—not to rule, but “to cause pain and suffering and death . . . so that others can achieve their best versions of themselves” (cue the iconic “Avengers assembled” shot from the 2008 film)—seems like a thesis set up solely to be disproven by the series’ end.
But I am intrigued by Mobius’ choice to let Loki help chase down the variant of himself who’s gone on a killing spree across the centuries. Mobius denies he’s giving Loki a shot at “salvation,” but to some extent, salvation’s exactly what he’s offering: Loki’s chance to be an active participant in the shaping of his “file”—the show’s graphics practically beg us to rearrange the bright, glowing letters into the word “life”—when he thought he had been forever rendered a passive observer.
Maybe I’m just too influenced by sci-fi and fantasy, but it still makes sense to me that God, as a being outside of time, could and does know everything that happens within time without being the direct cause of it all. In fact, other texts in Scripture might lead us to believe God does not know all the days in everyone’s book before they exist.
- When God asks where Adam and Eve are, is it simply a rhetorical question (Genesis 3.9)?
- Did God’s test of Abraham’s faith truly help God know something new about Abraham, or was it all just for kicks (Genesis 22.1, 12)?
- Was God just joshing with Moses when God threatened to destroy the Israelites, so that Moses felt moved to intercede for them (Exodus 32:9-14)?
And Scripture’s recurring theme of judgment for our deeds (Romans 14.10; 2 Corinthians 5.10; Revelation 20.12) certainly suggests we are responsible for them. If we are to stand in the dock before a judge as Loki does in this episode, stripped of whatever form our own “fine Asgardian leather” takes, whatever we do in this life cannot be explained away or dismissed as what was “supposed to happen.”
God already knows how our “files” will end, but that doesn’t mean we have no part to play in creating their contents. Even Jesus—God stepping in to time as one of us—realized his agency in fulfilling what was written of him “in the scroll of the book” (Hebrews 10.7).
And while our ultimate purpose in life is not to only help others achieve their best versions of themselves, nor even to achieve our best version of ourself, those transformations will happen when we remain faithful to our purpose of loving God and loving others, loving God by loving others.
Then, when we see “END OF FILE” flashing at the end of our lives, we will see how Christ has been at work in and through us, and that our stories never were completely and only ours. By grace, he made our stories part of his own.