Doctor Strange – Alternate Take: Let’s Talk Time Loops (and Atonement Theory)

There are SPOILERS for Doctor Strange below. You’ve been warned.

A time loop plays an integral part in the plot of Marvel’s latest superhero spectacular, Doctor Strange. In an attempt to stop the would-be world-eating eternal being Dormammu from consuming the reality containing earth and all of us, Doctor Strange flies up into Dormammu’s reality through a hole in space-time to have a chat with the god-like face.

That is such a strange sentence, but if you’ve seen the film, you know what I’m talking about.

Before settling in to talk things out, Doctor Strange does a little magic that begins a time loop so that no matter how many times Dormammu kills him, Strange keeps coming back to begin the conversation all over again. This introduces the idea of Time into Dormammu’s previously eternal realm, and irks the god-face considerably. Dormammu repeatedly kills Strange in a hellish Groundhog Day scenario played for laughs (much like the original Groundhog Day time-loop scenario). Like weatherman Phil in that 1993 film, Strange and Dormammu are also able to remember the events of each loop. Dormammu decides he doesn’t like living in this kind of time, so he makes a deal with Strange and leaves Earth’s reality alone. Yay!

For theologically-minded viewers, Doctor Strange’s purgatorial time-loop death pokes at fertile theological ground, but what kind of atonement theology is on display here? Is is a kind of Substitutionary Atonement model common to Evangelicalism, or is there a better atonement paradigm to reference in your sermon illustration this coming weekend?

There are a host of substitutionary atonement theories in the history of Christian theology. The most commonly taught one in the Western, Protestant world is “penal substitutionary atonement.” In Penal Substitutionary Atonement, humanity deserves punishment for disobeying God’s law by sinning, and only by enduring said punishment can God’s wrath be satisfied. Rather than bend His righteous anger upon humanity, God-as-Man, Jesus Christ stepped in and took our place, bearing the burden of God’s wrath on our behalf and satisfying God’s righteous requirement. Humanity is now atoned for in Christ. Perhaps you’ve heard this theory preached this way: “Every time you sin, you crucify Christ all over again.” You could, perhaps, view Strange’s time-loop deaths as a kind of repeated crucifixion on humanity’s behalf appeasing Dormammu’s wrath.

But that doesn’t really hold, does it? After all, Dormammu didn’t establish some sort of inter-reality law that humanity transgressed against thereby welcoming Dormammu’s righteous judgement. And Strange doesn’t enter his time-loop in order to satisfy Dormammu’s wrath. Dormammu is coming to Earth-reality simply because he’s a world-eater hoping to plunge all reality into disorganized darkness. Strange time-loops to torture the god-face, not to placate him. Penal Substitutionary Atonement doesn’t work here.

Another, older theory of the Atonement is the Ransom Theory. In this theory, sin makes humanity subject to the powers of sin and death, powers exercised by the Devil. Christ comes to trick the Devil into killing him. When the Devil kills Christ, the Devil expects Christ to stay dead, but Christ rises from the grave, thereby breaking the Devil’s power and freeing humanity from death, too.

This model seems to map closer to what we see in Doctor Strange. Dormammu is the Devil, Strange, again, is our Christ-substitute, and his time-loop trick is similar to the way the way Jesus tricked the Devil into killing him. Strange’s repeated resurrections also puzzle Dormammu who’s power to destroy worlds is now stifled, just as the Devil’s ability to exact death on humanity is now broken.

The only hiccups here are that Dormammu’s ability to bring desolation on a planet is only partially stymied. He (It?) can still move onto other realities/planets and destroy them all he/it wants. Strange just saved Earth. Also, there’s no insinuation of repeated deaths and resurrections in the Ransom theory of atonement. Christ died and rose again once and for all. There’s no need for a time-loop.

A final atonement theory worth considering alongside Doctor Strange is what’s known as the Moral Influence Theory of atonement. Moral Influence considers Christ’s self-sacrifice and resurrection as the great, inspirational event in history. Christ models the ideal. We seek to mimic Christ. We are reconciled to God as our essential character comes more in-line with God’s character. This realignment is, in some understandings of this theory, motivated and fueled by the Holy Spirit.

On one level, Doctor Strange’s foray into eternal death and resurrection does mirror the kind of life we are supposed to live following Christ’s example. He does become a better person by stepping into his atoning time-loop. He’s the disciple in that instance though, not the exemplar. For the Moral Influence Theory of the atonement to apply to Doctor Strange in total—for its hero to be a Christ figure—I think more of humanity would have to be aware of Strange’s time-loop deaths and resurrections. Only he (and Dormammu) knows about his tribulation. He doesn’t inspire anyone else on earth to follow his example.

Or does he?

After all, you and I and millions of other people sat in theaters and watched Doctor Strange’s pseduo-perpetual self-sacrifice and resurrection over the last few weeks. His time-loop trial was the capstone to his character arc, signifying that he had moved beyond his self-centeredness and was willing to lay his life down eternally for the salvation of the world. Moral Influence theory may not hold for a hermetically sealed narrative universe, but if we expand our consciousness of what happens at the movies to include the audience, there’s a case to be made for a kind of Time-Loop Moral Influence Atonement. Granted, this would require us to elevate a fictional character to the level of Christ, and we shouldn’t do that. Allowing that Christ is real and Doctor Strange is not, it is true that we are first inspired by Christ’s sacrifice and resurrection because we are told stories about him similarly to how we are told this story about the (finally) good Doctor, so maybe Moral Influence theory is the way to go. Maybe it and it alone is the pattern of the Universe…

I’m kidding, of course. Just messing around, having a little atonement theory fun, trying to understand movies and our faith a little better.

None of the theories are perfect either theologically or narratively—Don’t stone me if you adhere dogmatically to one or the other; people have been stoned for this sort of thing before!—but ultimately, I think the Ransom Theory holds up best alongside Doctor Strange with a dash of Moral Influence theory thrown in for good measure. I should add that although director Scott Derrickson is a man of outspoken Christian faith, I wasn’t able to find any interviews in which he discusses Atonement theory. That’s probably for the best, as I doubt it would have helped sell tickets.

You might also find these reviews of Doctor Strange helpful:

Chris Lopez’s orginal review for Reel Spirituality
Decent Films
Hollywood Jesus
Larsen on Film
Reel Dialogue
Reel Gospel
Reel World Theology
Think Christian