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Whatever gods there be: theology in the DCU and MU

If you don’t think about it much, the Marvel and DC universes look like they have Christianity as their operating system.

We’ve seen Heaven, often depicted with pearly gates.

It contains angels and God, though we usually don’t see him. At least in Marvel, he looks a lot like Jack Kirby.

There’s also Hell, ruled by Lucifer, AKA Satan (or in the MU, other hell-lords impersonating Satan).

We’ve even seen Purgatory, a specifically Catholic realm, as in Captain Atom #42.

If you do spend some time thinking about it, however, the theological framework collapses at once. Christianity is a monotheistic religion and the MU and DCU are definitely not monotheistic universes.

For starters, Islam and Judaism appear just as valid as Christianity. DC’s Seraph gets his powers from Yahweh; golems created by Jewish mysticism exist in both the DC and Marvel universes. We haven’t seen as much evidence of Islam being real but the Janissary, an Islamic superhero first seen in JLA Annual #4, battles Iblis, the Islamic counterpart to Satan.

Look beyond the Abrahamic faiths and things get even wilder. The Hindu gods are real, as are the loa of voodoo. Every pantheon of mythology — Norse, Greek, Aztec, Celtic — exists, even if they’re not exactly as mortal myths portray them. Pantheons we’ve never heard of in our world exist in comics. The gods of the Skrulls. The ancient deities who turned the young shepherd Shazam into the Champion. Crom. The Panther God of Wakanda and his ancient enemy the Lion God. Unlike the MCU’s portrayal of the Asgardians as an alien race worshipped as gods, in the comics these beings are apparently real deities, albeit with a “small case g” as they often say. We’ve seen time and again that they can welcome the souls of their worshippers into Valhalla, the Elysian Fields, etc.; as far as I’m concerned that makes them divine.

Even the Christian afterlife isn’t terribly Christian. In most forms of Christianity, getting into Heaven takes more than just being a swell person. You need baptism or membership in the Catholic church or belief in Jesus as the path to salvation. Hell is reserved for unbelievers; you can be good and still be damned, just as a rotten person can attain Heaven. In comics, by contrast, you get into Heaven by being a good person, or Purgatory if you’re a good person who did some bad stuff. If you’re a bad person, you go to Hell.

Case in point, Hal Jordan. He kicked off his Parallax career by becoming a mass murderer but he’s a hero at heart so he ends up in Purgatory. Jonah Hex’s foe El Papagayo, who killed far fewer people, ends up in Hell because he’s evil.

Nor is the afterlife a permanent thing. Ben Grimm and Ollie Queen have come back from Heaven. Physically escaping Hell is not only possible, it may be enough to un-damn you, particularly if you’re a basically decent person who’s learned their lesson.

From a Christian viewpoint none of that makes sense. But that’s not surprising.

As we all know, part of the fun of superhero universes is that they include everything but the kitchen sink (okay, obviously the DCU has kitchen sinks, but you know what I mean). Comics use elements originating in movies, novels,, reality, mythology, religion and folklore — whatever the writer thinks will make a story cool. Satan, of course, is cool. So are angels. And demons. And Greek gods. And Norse gods. And — well, you get the idea.

So why give up any of it? It’s all good storytelling material. The number of people who’ll be annoyed that Avengers can hang with the Son of Satan on Monday and Hercules on Tuesday is probably slim. And the afterlife in comics is not far from what we see in the pop-culture Christianity of countless TV shows. Good gets you into Heaven, bad gets you into Hell. It makes intuitive sense, even if it’s not theologically correct, and it probably pisses off fewer people than asserting that Catholic/Methodist/Suni doctrine holds the one true path to salvation.

As for the in-universe explanation, here’s my theory. Obviously God exists. And (s)he is, as several of the small-g deities say, above them all, supreme. So it’s safe to say God either creates the lesser pantheons or allows them to come into existence (e.g., by the power of the Godwave in the DCU or the Demiurge in the MU). Why? Put it down to those mysterious ways (s)he’s so fond of.

As for the co-existence of Christian, Jewish and Islamic powers, that’s simply God manifesting in different ways to different people. The idea that all three faiths worship the same god is not that radical, though it’s not universally accepted. Or rather than manifesting in different ways, the issue may be how we mortals see “the Presence” and interpret what we see. In Captain Atom #42, Death says that Cap’s arrival in Purgatory means he’s had some Catholic indoctrination: he expects Purgatory so that’s what he gets. Phil Foglio’s wonderful Stanley and His Monster miniseries made the same point, that when you die you see the Hell or Heaven you anticipate.

This explains why believers in the Norse gods wind up in Valhalla or Hela’s domain: they know that’s where they’re supposed to be, so there they are. It also explains why the supernatural universe looks so Christian. Most superheroes are American, and grow up inundated with Christian imagery, even if they don’t believe in it. Small wonder that’s the afterlife they find.

#SFWApro. Art top to bottom by Michael T. Gilbert, Mike Wieringo, Christopher Moeller, Rafael Kayanan, Ernie Chan, John Romita, Romita again and Phil Foglio

28 Comments

  1. When talking about deities in the Marvel and DC universes, you can’t leave out the “Sandman”-related ones; the Gaimanverse, if you will. Morpheus, Death, Destruction, Destiny, etc… And wasn’t Destiny described as the most powerful being, and Death the one who closes the door on the Universe when it eventually dies?
    I think the idea that there is one God above all collapses, and that it’s just chaos, with different gods, Gods and demi-gods fighting for their fiefdom (which is basically what Gaiman’s “American Gods” is about – and in that, the Wodan brought over by emigrants and existing in the USA is a different one than, and coexisting with, the one still in Norway)…

    1. Well Gaiman described them that way. But the Luck Lords stole Destiny’s book and the Captain Atom arc referenced above said Death was just one avatar, co-equal with Nekron and the Black Racer. The price of operating in a shared universe is murky theology, I guess.
      I tried reading American Gods. Made it about 100 pages in before I choked on Gaiman’s pretensions. And I’m always annoyed when writers treat Hindu deities as equivalent to the Olympians or the Asgardians rather than Allah and Jehovah. They’re a living religion with a lot of worshippers (I’m aware paganism is back in fashion, but the Hindus have a deeper and longer-standing tradition).

      1. Edo Bosnar

        Not to digress from the topic at hand too much, but on the topic of Gaiman’s American Gods: I read the whole book and found it entertaining enough, but I was also troubled by which gods he chose to include and which not. Personally, though, I think the most obvious god or gods missing from the story were all of the different versions of Jesus: Evangelical Jesus, Catholic Jesus, Quaker Jesus, Hippy Jesus, Republican Jesus, etc. Seeing them all confront one another in various ways would have made for a very entertaining story.

  2. Jeff Nettleton

    I was raised in a Christian denomination that did not preach that baptism, belief in Jesus, salvation, or even belief in god was a requirement to get into heaven, but living a good life, being compassionate and helping others and doing your best to live a good live, regardless of being a Christian or not. Despite that, I grew up to be an atheist, after many years of reading mythology and studying the beliefs of the cultures surrounding them, including modern religions. All religion has a few basic components; a history of the World and the People, a guide for living in harmony with others in the World, and the stories of the People, which are most often part of the other two aspects. The World is the society and locale of the believers, who are the People. When you compare, you find that the part about living in harmony with others is relatively universal and the part about the history of the World and the People is specific to that group and region. It is all metaphor in some fashion, when you examine it from a storytelling perspective. Therefore, it can all coexist within a storytelling environment. As it is, much of what people believe about their own religious teachings is often based not on their holy scriptures but their literature, interpreting those works. The average Western person’s conceptions of Hell, for instance, are based far more on Dante’s Divine Comedy and Milton’s Paradise Lost, as well as medieval paintings and morality plays. When you actually look through the Bible for a description of Hell, there isn’t much beyond it being a place of damnation, for the wicked. That same concept exists in Greco-Roman mythology, in the Underworld , with sections for the virtuous (Elysium Fields) and the damned (Tartarus) and people caught in between, which is not unique to the Catholic concept of Purgatory. The same thing is happening in those literary works as in religious teachings, as they are using metaphor to tell a story and/or teach a lesson. So, it isn’t much of a stretch to have various mythological beings living alongside one another, not to mention cosmic beings from beyond the world. Whether or not these are big G “gods,” little g “gods,” alien beings, genetically modified prehistoric figures or just plain con artists is in the eye of the beholder; so, anything is up for grabs, so long as the publisher is willing to go that route.

    At Marvel, Tony Isabella was famously stopped from bringing Jesus into Ghost Rider. Satan was okay, since he was established as he wasn’t the real Satan/Mephistopheles/Lucifer Morningstar/Old Scratch or whatever you want to say is the “real” Devil with a big D. Norse Gods as a source of Norse heroes is okay, as are Norse devils, Judeo-Christian devil is okay; but, they didn’t want to make a definitive statement that Jesus was the son of god, for fear of offending their Jewish and other non-Christian readers. They went to great lengths to depict the Norse and Greeks as otherly beings, worshipped by groups as gods, because that was how they could understand them best. That said, different editorial regimes let different writers do stories that flew against this or supported it.

    Personally, I think it is better that these stories are a bit contradictory and ambiguous, as that is the reality of religion. Everyone brings their own interpretation, even within the same religious background. So, Captain Atom’s Purgatory can be interpreted as his person concept of Purgatory, which might actually just be an alternate dimension or a psychological construct. Rather than being dead and in Purgatory, he might be like Sam Tyler, lost in a world that may be a dream, may be the afterlife or might even be time travel (in the cases of Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes). Same with Gaiman’s Endless.

    As for American Gods, I think it is Gaiman’s best literary work and find that it is less about religion as myth and storytelling (which is the same thing, strictly speaking) and about the uniqueness of America, via things like our weird little tourist places, and our habit of bringing the Old World into the New World, in odd fashions. American Gods is as much a travelogue of those weird little tourist stops, like the House on the Rock, in Wisconsin, or Lookout Mountain in Chattanooga, TN, or the Four Corners monument (where the states of Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico all meet). It also takes the reader through those parts of the US where immigrants brought part of the past to the New World, like the Egyptian-named Cairo, IL and Memphis, TN, both of which are found along the Mississippi River (with Cairo situated near the Mississippi and the Ohio Rivers, creating a delta, much like the Nile). So, I didn’t find it pretentious, at all; but, that’s the beauty of literature, prose or comics, as it is open to the reader’s interpretation.

    1. He spells it out at one point. When people in other cultures discover a sacred place that hums with supernatural power, they build a temple or shrine there. Americans put up a tourist trap.

      To me, it’s kind of similar to the way ritual is used as insulation from the scary proposition of encountering primal forces, including visceral emotion. For example, The Rocky Horror Picture Show. I’ve written before about how it has a powerful subconscious message about negative gender archetypes, and I really think that one of the reasons why the ritual of scripted audience participation developed around it was to provide a conscious distraction in order to let that message sink in unexamined. The fun of yelling out all the responses keeps them coming back so that they can continue to internalize the real message without wondering what it is that keeps drawing them back to it.

  3. Jeff Nettleton

    ps, by the same token, I don’t think he was as successful in exploring the myths in Anansi Boys, though that is more a thematic sequel than a direct one. I find that both of those fit right in with the stories he was doing in Sandman, where the faerie mix with the Norse, the Endless, the Judeo-Christian, the Egyptian, Order and Chaos, etc. Pretty much following along in the footsteps of Michael Moorcock, one of his inspirations, as well as people like Lord Dunsany and similar fantasy writers.

  4. Le Messor

    Was that pic of Jack Kirby as God drawn by Neal Adams?

    “In most forms of Christianity, getting into Heaven takes more than just being a swell person. You need baptism or membership in the Catholic church or belief in Jesus as the path to salvation.”

    Jeff Nettleton’s experience notwithstanding, you may find that *most* (not *all*) forms of Christianity don’t believe ‘being a swell person’ will get you into Heaven at all – because you can never be swell enough. Belief in Jesus is the only path of salvation. Which is a good thing, because I know I couldn’t make it on my own ‘goodness’. 🙂

    None of the churches I’ve been to, anyway, have preached otherwise.

    1. Yes, that’s why I said it requires “more” than being a swell person. Though there are churches who say differently — the trouble with writing anything about Christianity is that it’s difficult to say anything truly universal.
      Jeff, I enjoyed Anansi Boys more than American Gods, though I kept thinking Thorne Smith could have made it a lot funnier in a lot fewer pages.

      1. Le Messor

        “Though there are churches who say differently — the trouble with writing anything about Christianity is that it’s difficult to say anything truly universal.”

        I noticed you were being careful. 🙂

        (I did notice the ‘more’ part, too. I’m just saying it kind of takes less.)

  5. Peter

    I’m always a big fan of writers trying to semi-seriously tackle religion in comics (heck, in any fiction) because, whether you have any religious affiliation or not, you still have to recognize that religion has had a pretty big impact on human society and continues to be pretty influential for many. Yet it seems like writers generally shy away from such topics, frequently using little else besides the cool window-dressing (understandably – depicting Hell throughout the centuries has proven to be a reliable wellspring for creativity). I think that the fictional universes of Marvel and DC are a little confusing and contradictory, but it is that lack of coherence which could prove to be a really neat baseline for a writer who wanted to tackle some serious themes about comparative religion using superhero stories as a foreground plot. I think Ostrander has probably come the closest to doing so, but I also really liked Tom King’s “Omega Men” as a study of how religious differences can unify or splinter cultures.

    For a couple of quick asides – I am a practicing Catholic, and I’m not exactly an authority on canon law, but I’m 99% sure that official Catholic doctrine doesn’t say anything about being a Catholic getting you into heaven or the contrapositive. I believe that the official line is that atheists, Jews, Hindus, pagans, etc. can all get into heaven if they’ve lived a good life without actively rejecting Jesus (with the thought being that a truly good life is an implicit acceptance of Jesus’s teachings, whether or not one labels oneself as Christian). Also, the only time I was ever bothered by a comic book’s treatment of religion was a random issue of Fantastic Four by Matt Fraction where Reed Richards professed his atheism. This didn’t bother me as a religious person, though – it bothered me as a continuity guy! The FF literally met God! Reed knows Thor well! I don’t think Reed would be an evangelical, exactly, but he’s got to at least be mildly deist.

    1. Edo Bosnar

      Yeah, any hero saying they’re an atheist in the Marvel or DC universes is generally admitting that they’re pretty damn stupid – it’s kind of like Scully persistently being a skeptic in the X-files universe, even after she’s encountered actual aliens, werewolves and so forth.

      As for Catholic doctrine vis-a-vis who goes to heaven, I’m not sure what the official (Vatican) stance is, but I’m not sure it’s so clear-cut among the congregation. During my 8-year sentence in a Catholic school, the generally conservative nuns that taught me pretty much espoused your ecumenical view on the subject. However, many of my extremely conservative Croatian relatives did not share that view: they insisted that anyone who isn’t a baptized Catholic goes to hell (and I remember my dad saying something like that once as well). I’ve found that view is shared by a lot of the practicing Catholics here in Croatia as well. It’s always seemed to me that there is some kind of ongoing debate among Catholics on this matter (which honestly hasn’t interested me in years, like since my late teens/early 20s, when I realized I didn’t believe in any of that stuff anyway).

      1. Le Messor

        That argument is exaggerated, imo. Scully was nowhere near as skeptical from the end Season 2 on, after she got kidnapped by aliens. She still tried to bring scientific rationalism to the table, but she wasn’t a full skeptic anymore.

      2. I was Catholic once (gave it up for Lent), and my understanding is that the Catholic process of the Sacraments is basically a step-by-step plan to assure salvation. Sure, you can get to Heaven without the Catholic Church, but their pitch is that they can show you how to make sure you get past the bouncer and the velvet rope at the door. For the “Faith vs Works” argument, their position is that going through the process demonstrates that you have the “saving faith” necessary. (See James’ epistle, “faith without works is dead.”)

        1. Peter

          Yes, this is pretty accurate, but the catechism does leave a good deal of wiggle room as to what constitutes some sacraments, particularly baptism – living a life of good works without ever having a dude pour some water on your head could be considered a baptism of conscience. I don’t know if the “foxhole confession” is considered a sacrament, though, or just a neat turn of phrase…

        2. Conversely, a lot of evangelical “saved by faith” talk can (as the liberal evangelical Fred Clark once pointed out) come off as not “you’re saved by faith in Jesus” but “you’re saved by faith in the doctrine of salvation through faith” — if you have faith in Jesus but believe in salvation through works, too bad, so sad!
          Similarly the seminal Rapture film “A Thief in the Night,” while well-meaning, sends the message that the measure of whether you’re a good enough Christian to get Raptured is whether you believe in the Rapture.

      3. David107

        Re: “…Yeah, any hero saying they’re an atheist in the Marvel or DC universes is generally admitting that they’re pretty damn stupid – it’s kind of like Scully persistently being a skeptic in the X-files universe, even after she’s encountered actual aliens, werewolves and so forth…”

        I’m thinking Reed used “atheist” to mean not religious.

        As for Scully, just because she’d encountered aliens, werewolves or whatever didn’t need to stop her from assuming that there would be a rational explanation for the next bit of oddness.

  6. I believe it was Vatican II that made it doctrine that salvation is possible for those outside the church. But no, not everyone accepts that, or anything about Vatican II. Of course, living in the Bible Belt I’ve known no shortage of Protestants who think Catholicism isn’t Christian at all.
    I have no problem with Reed being a skeptic on magic (which he insists on thinking of as another form of tech/metahuman/psi power) but yes, he did meet God. For regular people though, atheism is perfectly plausible. They haven’t met God and we’ve seen lots of people fake supernatural/divine ability. The Eternals have been mistaken for Gods. Deviants have been mistaken for Satan. DC has had a fake Thor. AIM once created a fake Baron Samedi.
    So skepticism is pretty reasonable for Joe Average. Less for superheroes who’ve had more experience. I remember a Brave and Bold where Batman, who’s worked with both Spectre and Deadman, insisted that a dead man coming back from the grave for revenge just wasn’t possible.

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