The answer to suffering that only Christians have

“I am Gorr, the last of your disciples,” says the last member of a dying race in the 2022 movie, Thor: Love and Thunder.

“We have lost everything, my Lord. The land is dry; all life is lost. But our faith in you never wavered, and now we await the promise of the eternal reward.”

Rapu – the ‘Bringer of Light’ – scornfully watching his miserable suppliant, suddenly roars with mocking laughter.

Bewildered, Gorr (Christian Bale) continues to plead, recounting his daughter’s death in the heat of his barren homeland, despite his fervent prayers.

Gorr (Christian Bale) is bewildered by Rapu’s cruelty. Marvel Studios

But Rapu’s cruel, indifferent response deals a fatal blow to his follower’s faith.

“You are no god,” Gorr spits.

Rapu, lounging in a lush garden surrounded by decadent fruit, is instantly on his feet, lifting Gorr off the ground by his neck. But before Rapu can strangle the last wretched member of the race he is meant to protect, a mythical god-slaying sword offers itself to Gorr in exchange for his vow to kill all the gods. The consequences of this ‘deal with the devil’ make up the rest of the movie.

Is god lounging in paradise, indifferent to our prayers and pain?

As Taika Waititi’s films often do, Thor blends hilarious one-liners and self-aware satire with profoundly troubling themes and questions.

What do we make of a world full of suffering and tragedy? Is God lounging in paradise, indifferent to our prayers and pain, while we endure the brutal blows of suffering and evil? What sort of god lets an innocent little girl die?

In a word: Why?

Suffering and the gods

The highest-grossing movie franchise of all time, doubling the second-highest (Star Wars), the Marvel Cinematic Universe is an empire built on the lucrative foundations of epic battles, likable characters and feel-good endings.

In fact, Thor is a relatively Disney-ready character. As well as the god of thunder and lightning, Norse sources portray Thor as the protector of gods and humans, the provider of favourable weather, and the patron deity of agriculture and fertility. Pendants depicting Thor’s hammer, Mjölnir, were widespread among the Norse peoples, and even our calendars testify to his immense popularity, with ‘Thursday’ derived from ‘Thor’s Day’. In surviving poems and inscriptions, Thor is invoked as a powerful protector who reliably shows up when called.

But even the people’s champion had his flaws.

Marten Eskil Winge, Thor’s Fight with the Giants (1872) Public Domain

The trope that Thor alone can lift the hammer Mjölnir because he alone is ‘worthy’ is an invention of Marvel; in Norse mythology, Thor alone can wield the weapon simply because only he possesses Herculean strength. In addition to defending the realm, Thor – whose eyes ‘blazed like fire’ – spent his time smashing heads, cheating on his wife, and (his favourite pastime) relentlessly wreaking havoc on the giants.

The gods caused at least as much trouble as they resolved.

Still, Thor was the best of the Norse gods, who were relatively tame compared to the gods of other pagan nations. From the merciless murderousness of Artemis to the vindictive persecution of Aeneas by almost every god he encounters, from the despicable depredations of Zeus to the divine disputes that supposedly triggered the Trojan War, the Graeco-Roman gods caused at least as much trouble as they resolved.

But the most blatant example of the pagan gods’ indifference to human affairs comes in the creation myth of Babylon.

The story goes that once the god Marduk had killed the primordial chaos represented by the ocean goddess Tiamat, earning supremacy over the rest of the gods and forming the heavens and the earth from her corpse, the first human was created.

The metaphysics is a bit sketchy, but one thing is absolutely clear: the reason for the creation of humans. As the poem puts it, “[Ea, the god of wisdom] created mankind, on whom he imposed the service of the gods, and set the gods free” (Enuma Elish, tablet VI.33-34).

From the beginning, the Babylonians were clear: humans were not created in an act of divine benevolence or love but an act of divine laziness. Humans were created to serve the gods – to release them from their burdensome labour and to ensure a constant supply of food and drink.

God is not indifferent towards us – not embroiled in cosmic dramas, leaving us to pick up the pieces – but deeply invested in us.

One lesson of these myths is that sceptics who criticise the Christian God for being ‘aloof’ and ‘harsh’ demonstrate not only that they have missed (or not heard) the essence of the Christian gospel but also that they would not have fared well in any other culture.

From the beginning, the Jews and Christians were clear: humans were not created to provide for God. “If I were hungry,” he reminds us, “I would not tell you, for the world is mine, and all that is in it.” (Psalm 50:12). Instead, we were made as an expression of God’s loving creativity, to bear his image in the world, to glorify and enjoy him.

God is not indifferent towards us – not embroiled in cosmic dramas, leaving us to pick up the pieces – but deeply invested in us. And just as the Christian account of creation reveals our God’s unique character and care, the Christian answer to suffering provides a hope that nothing else can.

Suffering and idols

A few thousand people still believe in the Norse gods, and even more follow the ancient Greek and Roman religions. But I suspect you and I will never meet them.

We do, however, still meet countless people who offer their allegiance – their sacrifice and devotion, their hopes and dreams, their hands and hearts – to more mainstream idols. We ourselves are tempted to turn away from God towards pleasure and money and status, perhaps especially during our darkest nights.

Deep down, we know that turning from the Lord is irreverent and foolish, that God will care for us, and that idols will only lure us in and let us down. We know deep down that when we pursue idols (to borrow a line from evangelist Sam Chan), even if we find them, they won’t fulfil us, and if we fail them, they won’t forgive us.

But what about when it feels like we’re the ones being failed? When it feels like the only explanation for our suffering is God’s cruel indifference? What about when we don’t care how our God stacks up against the alternatives; we just feel betrayed – lured in and let down?

Suffering and God

We get into all sorts of trouble when we neglect the truths of the gospel. But we also get into trouble when we water them down. A half-truth can do just as much damage as an untruth.

There is a version of hope, notes pastor and cultural commentator Benjamin Windle, that ignores harsh realities. As an example, he suggests that we tend to downplay the ‘uglier side’ of the story of Job. “It’s a more uncomfortable way of reading the story,” he says, “to recognise that not all of the pain is resolved in this man; not all of the questions are answered.”

“God seems to present himself as the ultimate solution.” – Ben Windle

We need a hope tough enough to survive our feelings and questions and doubts – a hope we can hold onto even as we endure the tragic trials of suffering and evil. We need an indestructible hope, demonstrating that God is on our side no matter how impossible it seems in our rawest moments.

The hope offered to Job is the same hope offered to us: “More than any belief, idea, concept or explanation,” says Windle, “God seems to present himself as the ultimate solution.”

When we, like Gorr, wonder what sort of god could let an innocent little girl die, the only worthwhile answer is the same God who sent his beloved, innocent son to die for us.

Far from being indifferent, God knows our pain and suffering intimately, no matter what we face. On the cross, he demonstrated his commitment to us with such finality and at such a cost that, whatever else we cry out to him, we never need to question his heart for us.

I will never put the incomparable hope that only Jesus offers more beautifully than the English minister Edward Shillito already has:

“The other gods were strong; but Thou wast weak;
They rode, but Thou didst stumble to a throne;
But to our wounds only God’s wounds can speak,
And not a god has wounds, but Thou alone.”
– Jesus of the Scars

The Norse trusted Thor because he was the only one who could carry his hammer. You can trust Jesus because he was the only one who could carry your cross.

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