Four superheroes unite in "The Avengers Initiative" — Thor, The Incredible Hulk, Captain America, and the Iron Man — a collaborative of the world's greatest powers, called together when cosmic evil threatens the planet.
This is the storyline behind the The Avengers (2012), a movie that brought together these superheroes into one allegiance. And audiences have responded. In its first three days in U.S. theaters, the movie earned a record-smashing $200.3 million in box office revenue.
We are attracted to this team of superheroes because they are a response team called on to suppress evil. But when we walk out of the movie theater, we are faced with questions. Why don't we see God destroying evil with sword and hammer and fists? Where is God when it hurts? Where is God when the helpless are abused? Where is God when evil dictators are followed? Where is God when orphans are trafficked? Why does God not break into history and push back the dark forces?
We long for God to enter this world, to grab the proud, self-centered dictators, the false messiahs, and the abusers. We want God to take evil by the feet, like Hulk with the self-proclaimed savior Loki, and whip him violently to the concrete like a rag doll. "Puny god," is The Hulk's one line in the movie, and it rings true. Loki is a puny god in the hands of a living Hulk.
"Revenge" is a noun, "avenge" is a verb, and the Avengers are especially active in their defense against evil. They are the good guys, but they are the ones who remind us that the act of violence is right — sometimes. But when, and by whom?
When necessary the government can unsheathe the sword and avenge as a servant of The Avenger (Romans 13:4). But this is never true for the Church.
Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” (Romans 12:19)
Instead of vengeance, Christians are called to offer both sides of the jaw, to forgive 70-times-7 times, to repay no evil with evil, to avenge nothing. We are free to live with forbearing gentleness because, as Paul mentions, God is the Avenger.
God is the one who repays every evil act of sin and rebellion with his righteous vengeance. For those who have humbled themselves at the cross, the wrath of the Avenger for our sins — past, present, and future — has fallen upon Christ. For the unrepentant and for those who live in continued rebellion against God, the eternal fires of hell will reveal the wrath of the Avenger.
In either case, in the cross or in eternal judgement, God’s vengeance is revealed against every act of rebellion, every act of sin. Ultimately his vengeance is a revelation of himself.
"There's only one God," said Captain America.
"God alone is the Avenger," wrote Martin Luther.
"O Lord, God of vengeance, O God of vengeance, shine forth!" sang the Psalmist (Psalm 94:1).
This is not the Hulk-like rage of retaliation. God's shining vengeance is his level-headed, righteous response to sin. It is his holy sanity. It is a revelation of himself that Christians are called to worship.
And while the Avengers are called on to restrain evil forces, they are a faint echo of the One who has, and will again, break the evil, and break it forever.
God’s vengeance reminds us that none of us escape the power of sin and its just consequences. We would like to shift the focus over to evil galactic dictators, but we cannot escape the reality that we are all guilty of Christ-ignoring rebellion. And God is the Avenger of all rebellion, not least of which is our self-centered mutiny that belittles his well-pleasing Son. The Avenger will "inflict vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus" (2 Thessalonians 1:8).
That judgement is coming. Soon. By faith we see the coming righteous vengeance of God and we flee to the Blood of Christ, to find in Christ the place where the vengeance of God’s holy wrath has been poured out and extinguished so that our joy might be full and complete forever.
For more on the theme of God’s vengeance, see:
- John Piper, sermon, Do Not Avenge Yourselves, But Give Place to Wrath (February 20, 2005)
- John Piper, sermon, God’s Wrath: “Vengeance Is Mine, I Will Repay,” Says the Lord (February 27, 2005)
- John Piper, article, Deciding What We Deserve, Christianity Today 12:2 (October 21, 1977)