What are we here for? Contending Visions for Human Purpose in “Eternals”

Don’t read this if you don’t want the Eternals film spoiled for you!

What does humanity exist for? The question of purpose is a contended if unarticulated question of western civilization today. The lack of purpose altogether is one blight on mental health, and inwardly-focused purpose has deeply altered human behaviour in the modern age. We live in a time when longstanding and religious answers to this question are passing out of fashion. In their place, an assertive and human-centred way of looking at the world has offered alternative answers. Rather than seeing humanity as existing for something bigger than itself, secular-humanism avows that humanity finds its purpose in itself.

Marvel’s 2021 Eternals film upholds this new assertion of human purpose over and against a shallow and somewhat distorted version of an old answer. It does this by presenting two broad ideals of human purpose within its narrative.

One way locates human purpose within a “immanent” framework (“close and within”) – the reason for humankind’s existence is located solely within humanity itself: personal fulfilment, family, serving others, bettering society and so on.

The other way locates human purpose within a “transcendent” framework (“above and beyond”) – humanity exists for the sake of something bigger than itself, usually connected with religion.

The immanent-framework of purpose is easily seen in our culture when you know what to spot. It is seen in people’s preoccupation with human life – the pursuit of personal fulfilment especially in furthering human flourishing as we define it, and the resentment when supra-human concerns interfere. Its clearest and most succinct exposition of this that I have seen is in the 2003 Humanist Manifesto III (read here).

This is a short statement of faith set out by the American Humanist Association that outlines its key tenets – how humanity can know things, what humans are, how they should live, and what gives fulfilment, meaning and happiness. If you want a short and clear summary of how the non-religious and progressive part of western culture ticks, this is it. It is worth being familiar with it for understanding progressive secular culture.

Arishem – the cosmic-sized creator being who stands in as “God” for the eternals

Eternals: What it’s about

The film centres around its namesakes, the “eternals”, a team of ten synthetic human-like beings who have lived on earth for 7000 years with the purpose of protecting the human population of earth from predatory aliens known as “deviants”. They were designed and sent by a “celestial” named Arishem – an enormous cosmic creator being that is analogous to God for them. Partway through the movie it is revealed to them that humanity will be sacrificed in order to create a new celestial, and that they had protected humanity in order for its population to grow big enough for this to happen.

When the characters find out, the team is split. Should they allow this purpose to succeed? Or try to prevent it so that humanity, flawed though it may be, can continue to live and love and thrive?

In favour of sticking with the plan, aligning with a transcendent purpose, it is explained that celestials create suns and that the creation of a new celestial will result in much more new life in the very long run (thinking in terms of many millions of years).

In this rather mathematical assessment, the sacrifice of the current population of earth will indeed be worth it. And after all, this was why the eternals had been on earth all along, even if they didn’t know it – the creation of a new celestial was the purpose they had been unknowingly working toward all along. Arishem is portrayed as wise and impartial – his purpose is not unreasonable when viewed from the distance of space and within the timeframe of millions of years. From that perspective, individuals with their plans, hopes and desires are inconsequential.

On the other hand, the eternals had grown to love humanity; most had made lives for themselves among them. Having protected humanity for so long against one threat, they were unprepared to hand them over to another. Up close and among people, their plans and hopes and desires are worth protecting from bigger purposes. The preferred to preserve humanity for an immanent purpose.

This is the choice the film sets out for the eternals: they must choose between an immanent purpose for humanity, or a transcendent one. Will they protect it for itself, or allow it to be sacrificed for Arishem’s greater purpose?

Most of the eternals opt to align with humanity and protect it from the purpose that Arishem had found for it. They are uncomfortable at the least, if not shocked and appalled. As the lead character Sersei put it, it was “unnatural … archaic and violent”, and Ajak concludes that “the cost of Arishem’s design – it’s not worth it”. However, the character Ikaris becomes the champion of the transcendent purpose option. Ikaris is (coincidentally?) the heroic handsome heterosexual white male, who resolutely holds to Arishem’s plan and purpose. He never really connects with humanity, becomes distant from the other eternals when they “retire” from service, later does awful things to protect the plan, and sacrifices his own happiness for the bigger, transcendent purpose. During the final fight scene of the film, he is bested by the homosexual eternal (though not by combat), and once he has failed in his attempt to uphold Arishem’s plan he admits regret for his efforts and then commits suicide by flying into the sun.  Like Jarvert of Les Miserables, Ikaris is in the end less of a villain than a tragic figure, who self-destructs under the weight of zealous devotion to an ideal he is unable to moderate or let go of.

The eternals – synthetic beings made by Arishem to protect humanity for his own purposes

What matters most in Eternals

Eternals celebrates humanity. It doesn’t celebrate deities with their own plans. The plans of Arishem are deemed by the protagonists to be acceptable only if they can proceed without interfering with human life. In this secular outlook divine concerns are very firmly subordinated to human ones.

The celebration of humanness is seen in the way the eternals had settled into human lives to experience the joys of relationships and the fulfilment of social and cultural participation. The team of ten also displays a wide range of human diversity.

The ensemble (by appearance) hails from Asia, Europe, Africa, Mexico, and India. There is an even balance of males and females, a child, a queer character, a disabled character, and a mentally unwell character. It didn’t include any religious characters, ostensibly because this wouldn’t fit the plot, although Ikaris serves as a (negative) type of religious figure in his unswerving devotion to Arishem’s purpose.

When the team disbands 500 years before the main events of the film, their leader tells them to find lives for themselves, “not with the purpose you were given: find your own purpose. And one day when we see each other again I want you to tell me what you’ve found.” Many of the characters form meaningful lives and relationships, with each other and with humans, learning to cherish and protect those that they come to love. Phastos angrily rejects Arishem as the purpose of his existence, and avers that his existence is for his family. Phastos is an autonomous being who decides for himself who, what, and why he is, regardless of whether he was “born or made” – a very (post)modern individual who has been around for 7000 years!

The eternals were made to be unchanging and unevolving beings who remain steadfast to Arishem’s purpose (unlike the deviants), but in the end they repurpose themselves to love and protect humanity against the plans and purposes of Arishem.

Ikaris and Sersei

The key threat against the humanity which is celebrated by the film is Ikaris’ unswerving devotion to Arishem. When the team “retires” from active service to Arishem, Ikaris struggles to let go. He never showed genuine interest in humans – he learned human languages only to connect with the beautiful Sersei, and later seems puzzled by the point of a smartphone. His faith is self-expressed in an argument towards the end of the film: “I’m an eternal, Phastos. I exist for Arishem, as do you. That’s who you are.” He has no interest in preserving humankind and holds firmly to the transcendent purpose Arishem has for humanity. The film undermines his character by connoting his faithfulness to transcendent-purpose “pathetic” (emotive but inexplicable in the plot), and by having him sincerely and presumptuously volunteer himself as the new leader of the Avengers. His initial impressiveness is tarnished as the film proceeds, no doubt to drag down his position with him in the audience’s estimation. In the end, the immoveable Ikaris is undone and defeated by his love for Sersei – an ironic twist showing that even he cannot resist what the other eternals fight to protect from him.

The internal stresses of several characters also highlight the primacy of immanent over transcendent purposes.

Druig is particularly bitter about true purpose, having wanted been forbidden to prevent human’s from killing each other in the past.

Kingo states that they don’t have the right to stop the purposes of a celestial, and agrees with the logic in Arishem’s purpose, but says he can’t bring himself to hurt anyone for his beliefs.

Thena’s mind cracks under the strain of suppressed memories of past missions where planetary inhabitants had been sacrificed.

Sprite is possibly the most interesting. Like all the other eternals, her character does not age, but given she is in the body of a child she has not been able to connect with humans and bond with them like the adult-bodied eternals. She wonders why Arishem made her that way, and resents that she has been unable to enjoy the experiences of humanness like the others: “Do you know why I hated the humans? Because they reminded me of things I didn’t even know I wanted. Because of them now I want to know what it feels like to grow up. To fall in love. To have a family. And to know in the end, I’ve lived.” She joins Ikaris out of love for him and because she has no connection to humanity to motivate her to save them. Her redemption comes at the end of the film, where she is offered the opportunity to be changed into a real human: now she will age, experience the joys and pains of human life and community, and ultimately die after living a fleetingly short human life. She accepts – humanness is worth forgoing immortality for.

Ikaris, as the champion of the transcendent-purpose which threatens immanent-purpose, can be seen as representative of anti-humanist religion. Instead of his mythical Grecian namesake, he is depicted in the credits’ animations as the biblical archangel Michael via Raphael’s painting St. Michael Vanquishing Satan). In the image Michael wields a spear to slay the dragonic Satan, from the depiction in Revelation 12. Satan, however, is out of view in the picture, leaving us only with God’s warrior – a threatening, dangerous figure. Given that the human element presented as most at stake in the film are the male character Phastos’ husband and son, and the marked antagonism between Phastos and Ikaris, the opposition of religion to same-sex sexuality is easily evoked and likely part of the fabric of the film’s message: supra-human purposes threaten human flourishing.

Another religious echo is at the end of the film where Arishem threatens to return and judge whether humanity is worthy of continued existence. In a scriptural twist at the end of the film, several of the eternals set off into the galaxy with the goal of finding other eternals and “freeing” them from service to the celestials’ transcendent purposes. “Will they listen?”, wonders one character. “The truth will set them free”, affirms the other, citing John 8:32 and switching the orientation of the said truth from a transcendent to an immanent framework.

The Eternals’ Version of Transcendent-Purpose: An Alternative

Between the contending purposes of the film, the transcendent-purpose is set up to be rejected by the audience’s opinion. The immanent-purpose champion Sersei owns the moral high ground as she extends forgiveness to enemies, while theistic faiths like Christianity are implicated in Eternals as proponents of dangerous transcendent-purpose-orientation, and thereby a threat toward immanent-purpose-oriented life. As the deviant leader put it, they are “tools of a god, built to kill.” But the purpose Christianity asserts for humanity differs markedly from the transcendent-purpose depicted in the film.

  1. For a start, the God who defines human purpose has put his own skin in the game. Rather than sacrificing the world for the sake of making his new “Son” as Arishem did, the God of Christian Scripture loved the world and demonstrated this love by giving over his own Son (conceived in Trinitarian terms), as expressed by the popular Bible verse of John 3:16.  
  2. Another point worth taking note of is the expression of human purposes given at the outset of an old Christian teaching manual known as the Westminster Shorter Catechism, stating that the chief purpose of humanity is to glorify God and enjoy him forever – thus locating human purpose within a transcendent ideal without annihilating personal happiness.
  3. The vision of the biblical big story encompasses human diversity and flourishing, and will be evident from a reading of the Bible that reads wider than unpopular biblical commands and prohibitions. The sticking point is of course that human diversity coheres around a centre that secular humanism has no place for, and expects an alignment with the values that God has established for his creation and even more so for his emerging new creation that is his people who belong to Christ. This is where faith, repentance, and obedience to the gospel is factored in. That it conflicts with the alternative vision promoted by secular humanism is to state the obvious. I raise this briefly here only to point out that the biblical vision for humanity does include human flourishing, but within a transcendent purpose and pattern.


Rarely is the tension between immanent and transcendent purposes an either/or, life-and-death matter like in the movie. But the crunch point today can be seen in the social and ethical flashpoints of our modern world. Are divine imperatives permitted to eclipse human-centred values? According to humanism, certainly not. When anything remotely like “God says” intrudes on “I want” or “My rights” or “But I feel”, we see the human-centred orientation of our culture at work. If God is not here to help us in our plans and to affirm our desires, he is irrelevant at best and oppressive at worst. God is alien to his world in such a culture. That is the triumph of humanism and the disposal of real theism, and this is the story behind the narrative of Eternals.