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Gorr the God-Butcher and the Problem of Evil

drawing of Thor battling silhouettes in storm

This article contains spoilers for the film Thor: Love and Thunder (also known as Thor 4).

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has long been criticized for its “villain problem” — with a few notable exceptions (like Thor’s Loki, Black Panther’s Killmonger, and Thanos from the Avengers series),

the antagonists of most Marvel films are generally unremarkable “bad guys” whose narratival existence seems to be justified mostly by giving the heroes something to punch.

But the latest movie in the MCU — Taika Waititi’s Thor: Love and Thunder — breaks this pattern by introducing Gorr the God-Butcher, played by Christian Bale.

Because, unlike Ronan’s fanaticism (in Guardians of the Galaxy) or Yon-Rogg’s toxic masculinity (in Captain Marvel), Gorr the God-Butcher’s divine bloodthirstiness might actually be justified.

The film opens by introducing Gorr before he gains his god-killing powers. Destitute and starving, he stumbles through a desert wasteland, carrying his young daughter while praying to his god, Rapu, for help. When the deity fails to appear, Gorr’s daughter dies. As Gorr prepares for his own death, an oasis suddenly appears nearby where Gorr discovers Rapu celebrating the defeat of a would-be assassin. Gorr confronts Rapu, pleading for the answers and assistance long-promised by Gorr’s faith, but Rapu just laughs and ridicules the man, telling him that Gorr’s people are irrelevant and that the gods don’t actually care about anyone — they just expect to be worshiped. Enraged, Gorr picks up the dead assassin’s weapon and murders Rapu, vowing to avenge his daughter by cleansing the universe of the gods.

Although the movie never explains what kind of god Rapu is (as Zeus is the god of lightning and Thor is the god of thunder), Gorr clearly expects him to be both extremely powerful and benevolent to his worshipers.

This means that the opening scene of Love and Thunder portrays Gorr’s painful confrontation with what philosophers and theologians often refer to as the Problem of Evil.

Basically, many theistic traditions hold that God is both omnipotent (or “all-powerful,” able to perform all logically-possible actions) and morally perfect (or “all-good,” maximally loving and kind). But the existence of evil poses a problem for this view of the divine: if God is omnipotent, then God would be able to prevent any evil action or event from occurring; if God is morally perfect, then God would want to prevent that evil — so why, then, does evil exist? As the 18th-century British philosopher David Hume puts it (ostensibly quoting the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus): “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then from whence comes evil?”

Responses to this problem generally take two forms:

the defender of a classical theistic picture might offer a nuanced definition of either the divine properties or the concept of “evil” such that God could be properly omnipotent and omnibenevolent while still allowing evil to exist.

For example, it might be the case that God is all-powerful and morally perfect, but that evil exists necessarily, either on its own or as a consequence of something else (“creaturely free will” or “the possibility of genuine growth” are common suggestions) — it would then not be logically possible for God to fully prevent evil (no more so than God could make a triangle have four sides). Sometimes, theodicies — the technical term for purported solutions to the Problem of Evil — suggest that “evil” is a misnomer because what appears evil to individuals in the short-term can only be fully appreciated from a broad perspective over the grand picture of reality (as it is sometimes put, “God has a plan” or “God’s ways are not our ways”).

But such explanations were no comfort to Gorr: he became the God-Butcher precisely because the plans of the gods, at best, required the death of his daughter (at worst, they hadn’t considered her plight at all).

In this way, Gorr’s reaction is akin to (though considerably more violent than) that of Ivan Karamazov from Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov: in the famous chapter “Rebellion,” Ivan tells his brother Alyosha that he has lost his faith in God, not because he believes God does not exist, but because he no longer cares to worship someone so numb to the pains of the world. After listing a series of terrible stories about tortured children (and imagining that one day all tears might be wiped away by God’s harmonious plan granting tickets to heaven), Ivan cries, “I renounce the higher harmony altogether. It’s not worth the tears of that one tortured child who beat itself on the breast with its little fist and prayed in its stinking outhouse, with its unexpiated tears to ‘dear, kind God’!…It’s not God that I don’t accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return Him the ticket.”

Gorr went one step further, returning his ticket while removing Rapu’s head.

To be fair, the picture of God in classical theism is considerably different from the gods that Gorr kills in the MCU. While beings like Thor and Odin are extremely powerful, they are still limited by space and time, by material needs (like hunger and sleep), and by mortality (just on a much longer scale). St. Anselm of Canterbury described God as “a being than which nothing greater can be conceived” — certainly “Rapu who cannot be beheaded” is conceivable, which means that the actual Rapu we see die in Thor 4 fails Anselm’s definition.

But notice how the most extreme picture of omnipotent (and omnibenevolent) divinity only sharpens the Problem of Evil: maybe Rapu was very powerful, but he was clearly not all-powerful (or else he, by definition, would not have been defeated). If fans think that Gorr’s actions might be justifiable, then it’s worth thinking more about the implications that has for theodicies in the non-fictional world.

Can moral laws exist without God? A brief introduction to “Robust Ethics”

Last week we published the abstract of Erik Wielenberg’s new book, Robust Ethics: The Metaphysics and Epistemology of Godless Normative RealismIn this guest post, Wielenberg, Professor of Philosophy at DePauw University, follows up with a more in-depth discussion of the book and some of the philosophers that have influenced his thinking on moral realism and God’s existence.

In 1977, two events that would significantly impact my life took place. First, the film Star Wars was released. Second, two prominent philosophers, J.L. Mackie and Gilbert Harman, unleashed some influential arguments against moral realism.  My book is about the second of these two events.

In his famous argument from queerness, Mackie listed various respects in which objective values, if they existed, would be “queer.” Mackie took the apparent queerness of such values to be evidence against their existence. One feature of objective values that he found to be particularly queer was the alleged connection between a thing’s objective moral qualities and its natural features: “What is the connection between the natural fact that an action is a piece of deliberate cruelty — say, causing pain just for fun — and the moral fact that it is wrong? … The wrongness must somehow be ‘consequential’ or ‘supervenient’; it is wrong because it is a piece of deliberate cruelty.  But just what in the world is signified by this ‘because’?” (1977, 41)  Mackie was also dubious of the view that we could come to have knowledge of the objective moral qualities of things. He wrote that friends of objective moral values must in the end lamely posit “a special sort of intuition” that gives us knowledge of objective values.

Harman, for his part, noted an apparent contrast between ethics and science.  He compared a case in which a physicist observes a vapor trail in a cloud chamber and forms the belief “there goes a proton” with a case in which you observe some hoodlums setting a cat on fire and form the belief “what they’re doing is wrong” (1977, 4-6).  Harman was happy to classify both of these as cases of observation (scientific observation and moral observation respectively), but he noted that the moral features of things, supposing that they exist at all, seem to be causally inert, unlike the physical features of things. Harman thought that this feature of moral properties suggests that we ought to take seriously the possible truth of nihilism, the view that no moral properties are instantiated (1977, 23).  But others have drawn on Harman’s premise to support not nihilism but rather moral skepticism, the view that we do not (and perhaps cannot) possess moral knowledge. It is the latter kind of argument that I discuss in my book.

Some have suggested that theism provides the resources to answer these challenges. Mackie himself, although an atheist, suggested that theism might be able to answer his worries about the queerness of the alleged supervenience relation between moral and natural properties. In his 1982 book The Miracle of Theism, he suggested that “objective intrinsically prescriptive features, supervening upon natural ones, constitute so odd a cluster of qualities and relations that they are most unlikely to have arisen in the ordinary course of events, without an all-powerful God to create them” (1982, 115-6). More recently, Christian philosopher Robert Adams suggests that the epistemological worries that arise from Harman’s contrast between science and ethics can be put to rest by bringing God into the picture (Adams 1999, 62-70).

Thus, an interesting dialectic presents itself. Mackie and Harman, who do not believe that God exists, see their arguments as posing serious challenges for moral realism. Some theistic philosophers argue this way: if we suppose that God does exist, then we can answer these challenges to moral realism. Without God, these challenges cannot be answered. Since moral realism is a plausible view, the fact that we can answer such challenges only by positing the existence of God gives us reason to believe that God exists.

I accept moral realism yet I believe that God does not exist. I also find it unsatisfying, perhaps even “lame” as Mackie would have it, to posit mysterious, quasi-mystical cognitive faculties that are somehow able to make contact with causally inert moral features of the world and provide us with knowledge of them. The central goal of my book is to defend the plausibility of a robust brand of moral realism without appealing to God or any weird cognitive faculties.

A lot has happened since 1977.  A number of increasingly mediocre sequels and prequels to the original Star Wars have been released; disco, mercifully, has died. But there have also been some important developments in philosophy and psychology that bear on the arguments of Mackie and Harman sketched above. In philosophy, the brand of moral realism criticized by Mackie has found new life. In psychology, there has been a flurry of empirical investigation into the nature of the cognitive processes that generate human moral beliefs, emotions, and actions. As a result of these developments the challenges from Mackie and Harman sketched above can be given better answers than they have received so far — without appealing to God or weird cognitive faculties. That, at any rate, is what I attempt to do in my book. In short, my aim is to defend a robust approach to ethics (without appealing to God or weird cognitive faculties) by developing positive accounts of the nature of moral facts and knowledge and by defending these accounts against challenging objections.

Works Cited
Adams, Robert. 1999. Finite and Infinite Goods. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Harman, Gilbert. 1977. The Nature of Morality: An Introduction to Ethics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Mackie, J.L. 1977. Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong. New York: Penguin.
Mackie, J.L. 1982. The Miracle of Theism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.