Okay, as usual this is old news, but it bears mentioning because Marvel killed off Nightcrawler as part of the “Second Coming” X-Men crossover event back in 2010, and he’s been out of commission for three years (which, if you follow any kind of superhero comics, is a pretty standard span of dead time). I wasn’t entirely happy with the death when I read it, mostly because Kurt’s been one of my favorite superheroes for pretty much forever, but I let it go as a standard event in the life cycle of a superhero (it’d probably be easier to count off the A-list X-Men that haven’t been killed and resurrected at this point).
For anyone desiring background, the important thing to understand is that Kurt died rescuing Hope Summers, the adoptive daughter of Cable and apparent Messiah to the mutant race (there’s a thing with the Phoenix and Hope’s absurdly coincidental resemblance to Jean Grey) who was also the reason for the eventual schism between Cyclops and Wolverine’s factions of X-Men (basically, Hope’s been the catalyst for major X-Men stories for half a decade). That’s all largely unrelated to the fact that Kurt got killed, and it was for a cause that not even all the X-Men were sure was a good one.
Anyhow, the opening arc of the recently launched Amazing X-Men (I don’t mean to complain, but does anyone else feel like the X-books have been multiplying again?) deals with Nightcrawler’s return to life after he hatches a plan to stop his biological father Azazel (let’s just not get into the thematic problems inherent in making Nightcrawler, a character who’s famous for representing religious and social persecution of minority groups because of superficial physical traits, have a father who is an actual demon from another dimension) from conquering the various planes of the afterlife. The long and short of the arc is that Nightcrawler makes a deal with some hellspawn that have become loyal to Azazel where he promises them his soul in exchange for their allegiance in helping him boot his father back to the material plane. It’s a really good arc and has tons of throwbacks to Kurt’s early adventures (particularly the fact that the whole story is framed as a pirate adventure; Kurt’s an unabashed fan of Errol Flynn and swashbuckling stories), and the scenes where everyone reunites with Nightcrawler are all very touching (I very definitely teared up when I turned to the splash page where Kurt’s hugging Wolverine in the snow).
Now, given that this story arc takes place primarily in the afterlife, it has some really wonky comic book logic at play. First off, we should probably just acknowledge that no theological conclusions can be made from the fact of heaven, hell, and purgatory all coexisting in this story. The Marvel Universe has about ten different versions of the underworld all competing with one another (and Peter David pretty conclusively wrote last year that all forms of hell are now being ruled by Guido Carosella), so a romp through a version of the afterlife loosely based on pop culture ideas about Christianity doesn’t say a whole lot about the subject. What is interesting here is the inclusion of Charles Xavier (a nonreligious man who’s made his share of mistakes) as a spectator in heaven, and the strange status of Wolverine’s soul as he goes from one part of the afterlife to another.
Xavier is probably the textbook definition of a secular humanist; he believes in the innate capacity for human good and his life is dedicated to seeing peaceful integration of human and mutant interests. His presence in heaven signals that we’re not dealing with a cosmology based in any particular kind of faith; Charles goes to heaven because he’s overall a good person. Contrast this with Wolverine, who, in his better moments of characterization, is a man desperately trying to change his nature and come to grips with the mistakes of his past as he continues to find himself making the same mistakes in his present (I think it’s incredibly telling that in the last story arc of Wolverine & The X-Men Vol. 1, Logan confesses to Cyclops that he’s more concerned with leaving behind something good rather than finding redemption for himself). Wolverine gets shunted to heaven, where he fights off one of Azazel’s invading pirate ships, but inadvertently falls (something Xavier warns him not to let happen because… reasons). As Wolverine drops he realizes where he’s been, and there’s an interlude where he considers how much better it would be if he hadn’t seen what he’s never going to get (the implication is that Wolverine knows he’s damned and being given even a glimpse of heaven is a cruel torture).
Based on these examples, the afterlife system we’re dealing with in this story seems pretty straightforward: people who do more good than evil while they’re alive go to heaven, and everyone else has to contend with either purgatory or hell. It’s the standard popular notion that much of Protestant Christianity likes to rail against because it’s based in works, and most Protestants are pretty vocal about grace being received through faith. The fact that Xavier gets into heaven, when he’s done very little in his history to contend with his own mistakes, and Wolverine’s damnation is treated as a foregone conclusion, seems particularly egregious. Nonetheless, this is a comic book we’re talking about, and I can’t find fault with its use of popular notions of heaven and hell in order to tell a story.
Besides that, discussions of Xavier and Wolverine’s status are more just incidental details that make the story more interesting. Kurt’s state after the story concludes is far more useful thematically. In a cosmology where a person can trade their soul for a new physical body, effectively banishing themselves from all versions of the afterlife, what motivates that person to continue to act following their resurrection? I think it’s telling that before he makes the deal with the bamfs, Kurt spends all his time longing to go back to the material world. He finds heaven kind of boring, and despite the one random soul’s comment in the first issue of the arc that it gets more beautiful as you go further inland (thanks for the Narnia allusion), Kurt just can’t pull himself away from the edge of the land. Azazel’s attack on heaven prompts Kurt to make the deal that’s eventually going to revive him, but it seems to be a decision that he’s ready to make as soon as it presents itself; this tranquil heaven devoid of doing isn’t worth holding on to.
I’m curious to see where Kurt’s character goes from here. In a lot of ways, his lack of a soul would mean that there’s a possibility Kurt’s faith could begin to be expressed in a manner that’s very much materially inclined; it’s the kind of attitude that’s popular in progressive circles where that part of the Lord’s Prayer, “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” is a literal exhortation to make our current world more like the vision of the Kingdom of Heaven that Jesus describes. I’d like to see something like that done with Nightcrawler’s character, although I suspect that he’ll first follow the standard trajectory of all resurrected superheroes and have a few years of grim disillusionment as he wrestles with the fact of his mortality. Considering that he’s returning to life after having his questions about the nature of his universe answered (I don’t think most heroes get to remember so clearly what they did while they were dead), writers may choose to have him slough off his faith altogether (what point is there in having faith when you know the answers, and you also know that you’ve lost your soul?), which I think would be a regrettable choice, if only because it’s an obvious one to make narratively. Still, existential questions abound with Kurt’s new status, and I’m looking forward to seeing how he answers them.