By Corey Patterson
If Marvel fans were expecting a continuation of the dark tones from the sequel to Thor and Thor: The Dark World, they would find themselves in a losing bet. The latest installment, Thor: Ragnarok, brings to life a world of color and humorous scenes, more akin to Guardians of the Galaxy than the earlier movies in the series. Of course, any fan of director Taika Waititi’s film arsenal knew what to expect.
We expected the nutty and zany humor, the brilliant space fights, and a few pitchers of Asgardian mead from Waititi’s masterpiece. However, most of us didn’t plan on encountering the overt spiritual and theological themes throughout the movie. In fact, it’s clear that Ragnarok focuses much of its time uncovering the spiritual underpinnings of our world. And the clearest example in the movie revolves around the concept of “Kingdom of God.”
One theologian and scholar who developed a better way to understand the Kingdom of God was Rudolph Bultmann. His book Jesus Christ and Mythology makes the case that “the heart of the preaching of Jesus Christ is the Kingdom of God.” Bultmann argues Jesus saw the ushering in of God’s Kingdom as a sign of the end times (another important theme in Ragnarok). This Kingdom is unlike other kingdoms in that it lies within the people, rather than outside of them. In addition, it’s a reality that is both “coming” and “here,” as Bultmann describes in Jesus and the Word:
“The future Kingdom of God, then, is not something which is to come in the course of time, so that to advance its coming one can do something in particular…. Rather, the Kingdom of God is a power which, although it is entirely future, wholly determines the present.”
In Bultmann’s understanding of the Kingdom of God, our circumstances are determined by a power that gets rid of the present reality in exchange for a new one. We see this dynamic taking place in Ragnarok when Surtur announces his plan to destroy the realm in defiance of the Asgardians. The kingdom is thus connected to destruction of the old, but it also signifies something new.
The Kingdom in Parables
The Kingdom of God is alluded to often throughout the Christian New Testament by Jesus of Nazareth, who claims the Kingdom is both present and in the future. He explains it further by telling allegorical stories, including the parable of the hidden treasure and the parable of the sower. I believe the themes in these parables play out in the scenes of Ragnarok, and we can have a better understanding of how faith and spirituality permeate popular culture by analyzing them.
Parable of the Sower: Odin the Gardener
Early in the film, Thor and Loki are summoned to see their father, Odin, who had been missing from Asgard for quite some time. When they find him in Norway, the aged king tells the brothers a tale of Asgard’s early history. In the story, we learn Odin’s early conquests throughout the nine realms were accompanied by Hela, his firstborn child. Hela led Asgard’s armies to numerous victories and seemed unstoppable. Fearing her quest for power, Odin made the heartbreaking decision to seal her away in a prison for millennia. Then he tells his sons to protect Asgaard from her power just as he passes away, and then all hell breaks loose.
After watching this scene I couldn’t help but think of the parable of the sower, a story told by Jesus, in which a gardener spreads plant seeds across good and bad soil. Each seed grew based on the soil they were planted in: good soil produced good plants and bad soil hampered the seeds from growing. If we then view Odin as the sower figure, we can see how his children represent each type of seed.
Thor, who was sent to earth in order to become more humble, grew to be a respectable hero. Hela, on the other hand, was locked up in a prison for millennia and sought to destroy her own people after being freed. Each child of Odin was placed in either good soil (earth) or bad soil (Asgardian prison), which shaped them in different ways.
This isn’t to say that Hela’s destructiveness is all Odin’s fault, but it does show how he is partly to blame. He led her on a path of death and destruction, and then locked her up afterward out of fear. And Asgard reaped the destruction he sowed.
Parable of the Hidden Treasure or, Hide-And-Seek with Heimdall
Hela proves to be more than a match for the two brothers in their confrontation. Her rage fuels an already formidable set of powers, leaving Thor no choice but to use the Mjölnir’s full might. Unfortunately, Hela catches the hammer in mid-flight and crushes it with her bare hand.
Soon after Hela begins her takeover of Asgard, but all hope is not lost. The film cuts to a scene where we see Heimdall (who had been missing) return to steal the bifrost sword from Skurge, who had recently been controlling the Asgardian bridge. Heimdall then gathers the remaining Asgardian citizens and hides in a remote location.
This theme of hiding something precious and valuable is found in stories since the beginning of time, but it particularly resonates with the New Testament’s parable of the hidden treasure. The parable is short: a man finds treasure, hides it in a field, and then sells all he has to own that field. However, the same archetype is found in Heimdall’s “finding” and “hiding” of the Asgardian people. The former gateman recognizes the value in his people, so he “sells” his position and standing in society in order to keep everyone hidden.
Viewing the scene through this lens, the Asgardians serve as the “treasure” i.e. Kingdom of God. This idea is made clear by Heimdall’s insightful dialogue with Thor after the two are reunited. Thor expresses his worry of the kingdom’s destruction at the hands of Hela., and with a calm tone in his voice Heimdall states, “Asgard isn’t a place; it’s a people.” This assures Thor that even if the land of Asgard is destroyed, the kingdom of Asgard will live on in its people.
The Kingdom is in the People
There are many ways to interpret Ragnarok through the lens of Christian spirituality, but the main takeaway from this film is the similarity between Asgard and the Kingdom of God. God’s kingdom is found where God’s people are, just as Asgard within its own people. Too often we think of God’s Kingdom as an external reality pushing our own out of the way. But the Kingdom is a force inside of the people. It is only through our lives that the Kingdom of God is fully realized: it goes where we go. In Ragnarok, we see a beautiful display of this concept when the Asgardians flee their home world in hope of new beginnings. Asgard’s kingdom will always be within the people.
Corey Patterson is a writer and webmaster. He is passionate about the synthesis of theology and geek/pop culture stories. His interests lie primarily in superhero and fantasy genres. Check out his blog here.
Waititi, T. (2017). Thor: Ragnarok, Marvel Studios
Gunn, J. (2014). Guardians of the Galaxy, Marvel Studios
Bultmann, R . (1958). Jesus Christ and Mythology, Prentice Hall
Bultmann, R. (1934). Jesus and the Word, New York, London, C. Scribner’s sons