By Armond Boudreaux
Thor has been a mainstay of the Marvel comics universe since his creation by Jack Kirby, Larry Lieber, and Stan Lee in 1962. Even though he’s primarily known as a superhero, Marvel has never shied away from his status as a deity. In fully embracing his status as the God of Thunder, Thor’s writers have frequently offered interesting (if sometimes flawed) explorations of serious spiritual questions. One of the most notable of these is the problem of evil, which has been a major theme of the most recent stories about the character.
It is not hyperbole to say that the problem of evil is one of the most persistent and important questions in the history of literature and philosophy. Works of literature as ancient as The Odyssey and the Book of Job ask why evil happens not only to those who seem to deserve it, but also to those who don’t. Is God (or the gods) indifferent to human suffering? Is He unable to do anything about it? Or worse, is He the source of that suffering?
Current Thor writer Jason Aaron launched his foray into the series by asking just those questions using the plethora of deities that exist in the Marvel Universe. The first story arc in that series, subtitled The God Butcher, centers on an alien named Gorr who suffers tremendously while he prays to gods who seem entirely unconcerned about his troubles.
After watching his wife and children suffer and die, Gorr swears vengeance on all of the universe’s deities and acquires a weapon called the Necrosword, which is capable of killing gods. He takes the name “The God Butcher” and sets out to achieve his dream: “the dream of a godless age” (Thor: God of Thunder #4).
Though his actions are reprehensible (“I go to explore new horizons of deicide,” he tells Thor at one point), Gorr seems to have a legitimate claim to make. The Marvel Universe teems with deities from nearly every known mythology (as well as many created in the imaginations of Jack Kirby and others). Not all of them are benevolent, but many are. With so many gods on hand, why should Gorr’s family have to suffer the fate that they do?
But this is where Aaron’s exploration of the problem of evil breaks down. The beings that are called “gods” in the Marvel Universe are very much like their mythological counterparts: they’re powerful, but they’re not omnipotent or omniscient. Most are immortal in the sense that they don’t die of old age, but they can certainly be killed. And though they often shape the course of the universe’s history, they are not its creators. They’re creatures, part of the universe—immanent, not transcendent. Therefore, while it might be reasonable for Gorr to be angry at his planet’s gods for not alleviating his family’s sufferings, it is completely unreasonable for him to expect the immortals of the universe to rid it entirely of suffering.
The God Butcher story arc ends with Thor defeating Gorr and answering the prayer of a being who calls to him for help, signaling that he will work to prove Gorr wrong about the deities of the universe. But far from bringing a resolution to the problem of evil, the story serves instead to highlight why the problem of evil is a problem at all. If the universe were populated with powerful but fallible beings called gods, evil would be a problem only because it is unpleasant. But in the real world, the answer to the problem of evil remains in some sense mysterious to those who believe in a transcendent, omnipotent God. The Marvel deities are neither all-powerful or infallible, so they can’t completely erase evil from the universe. But the God of monotheism can destroy evil once and for all. (As C.S. Lewis notes in The Problem of Pain, God’s existence creates the problem of evil.)
But while The God Butcher doesn’t quite manage to address the problem of evil for people who believe in one God, one of Aaron’s later Thor stories does indeed present us with a kind of theodicy—one that sounds suspiciously like the Christian answer to evil (though probably not intentionally so):
Three years ago, Aaron wrote a story in which Thor became unworthy of his mighty hammer, Mjolnir. As it is well-established in Marvel history, one’s worthiness to wield Mjolnir depends on one’s virtue. Humility is especially important. No matter how strong or brave a person is, he (or she; the current wielder of Thor’s hammer is Jane Foster) cannot lift Mjolnir without humility.
Thor becomes unworthy at the moment when another character whispers to him three words: “Gorr was right.” Almost paradoxically, Thor’s humility is destroyed by the words—even though common sense might say that they ought to make him more humble. But humility doesn’t mean a low self-esteem; it means thinking less about oneself, and these words make Thor think more about himself. The idea that Gorr was right makes his attention turn inward. After losing Mjolnir, he spends days trying desperately to lift it—not so that he can use it for the good of others, but so that he might feel worthy again.
In a later story arc called The Unworthy Thor, Thor goes on a quest to find a Mjolnir from another universe that now exists in the main Marvel universe (this is comics, after all; there are all sorts of complicated multiverse-spanning stories). When he finds this new Mjolnir, he reaches out to take it for himself, but stops just short of lifting it. Just as his own hammer once called to him, he can hear this new hammer calling to someone else, the Thor of another universe. “It’s not mine to lift,” he decides, and instead of taking it, he protects it from a group of villains who want to take it for their own. Though he desires the hammer so that he can feel worthy again, he chooses not to take it because the hammer doesn’t belong to him.
Paradoxically, then, Thor proves his worthiness and virtue by choosing not to take up power, and in doing so, he acts not unlike another God who similarly refused to take up power when it was offered to Him. In doing so, he proves Gorr wrong. Some of the universe’s deities might be “vain and vengeful creatures” (The Unworthy Thor #5) who are only considered gods because of their tremendous power. There are others, however, who prove their goodness and justify themselves by their humility.
Armond Boudreaux is a writer and assistant professor of English who lives in Georgia. He is the author of That He May Raise, Animus: Little Gods, and the forthcoming Titans: How Superheroes Can Help Us Make Sense of a Polarized World. He will be a contributor to the upcoming Doctor Strange and Philosophy, and he regularly contributes to the And Philosophy blog. He writes about superheroes, politics, and philosophy at http://www.aclashofheroes.wordpress.com. You can read more about him at http://www.armondboudreaux.com.