An Audience With the “Big Man in the Sky”

Loki, Philip K. Dick, and the Problem of Suffering

Bryan J. / 7.28.21

Imagine you’ve reached the pearly gates, and you have the opportunity to pick a bone with “The Big Man In The Sky.” What would you say?

It’s a fascinating question, a scenario that many have imagined in their own time. Why, God, did you allow this terrible thing to happen? What purpose could there be in all my/our suffering? Elie Wiesel, writer and holocaust survivor, shared how he witnessed rabbis in a concentration camp put God through a Beth Din, a Jewish religious trial. Dostoyevsky famously put Jesus on trial in his Grand Inquisitor parable. Who wouldn’t like to pick a bone with the great power in charge of the timeline? Who wouldn’t like some closure with the one standing behind the curtain?

Having an audience with the man upstairs is common science fiction motif, employed to great effect in the finale of Loki, the latest Marvel Comics TV show. As Loki and Sylvie reach the end of the timeline, the opportunity for answers grows near. Loki, the beloved Marvel villain from the first Avengers movie, has discovered that his ultimate purpose in life is to be a perpetual loser. He is destined fail in all his endeavors and die an early and unremarkable death. Sylvie, his partner and female foil, has had her world derailed as well. At a young age, and without explanation, Sylvie was marked as a threat to the stability of the cosmos. Seemingly powerless over their fates, the show’s leads have managed to reach The Citadel at the End of Time, and approach The Big Man In The Sky (“He Who Remains”) overseeing their destiny. Is there any answer that this timekeeper could give which would satisfy Loki and Sylvie’s suffering?

The new Loki series exists in the world of serialized comic books, but don’t let the absurd characters, colorful costumes and pulp-drama fool you. Behind the comic book wonkery about Time Variance Authorities and magic wielding demi-gods, the TV series entertains important philosophical and, ultimately, theological questions. Is there an architect of the knowable universe? Is it benevolent? What about suffering? The show asks big questions about the nature of God: not the little-g gods of Asgard, of course, but the big-g God behind the scenes.

Loki fits into a larger genre of philosophically minded time-bending sci-fi. It’s the same theme brought forward in the Tom Cruise hit Minority Report (2002), a film about clairvoyant humans able to predict murders and the agents who intercede to stop them. Another film in that same genre is The Adjustment Bureau (2011) where time police try to keep Matt Damon from falling in love with Emily Blunt. The first suggests that humans are incapable of playing God, and that free will makes our omniscience impossible. The second suggests that free will is a liability without some sort of divine intervention, with the exception of a handful of virtuous people whose wills are not so self-centered. What these films have in common with Loki is their critique of authoritarian power structures restricting freedom for safety.

Both Report and Bureau were based on writings by Philip K. Dick, and it’s not a stretch to say that Loki is saturated in his trademark postmodern anxieties too. Dick is known for his dystopic sci-fi visions, which sprung from a life defined by mental illness, suicide attempts, political activism, hallucinogenic drugs, and failed marriages. Though he dabbled in eastern religions and the paranormal with the rest of 60s counter culture, he counted himself an Episcopalian and sought out pastoral care for his mental instability. In 1963, Dick had a supernatural vision where he saw a massive metal face with no eyes looking down on the earth, taking up the entirety of the sky. Whether hallucinogens were involved or not, we do not know, but the vision had a lifelong impact on him. It was a “vast visage of perfect evil,” he would later write, despairing at the thought that the evil face was God himself. An Episcopal Priest was later able to convince him it was actually the face of Satan.

It’s little wonder why a man of Dick’s constitution would have trouble imagining benevolent authority structures. Both Minority Report and The Adjustment Bureau seem like extensions of the giant metal face of Satan filling the sky, revealing that the world is controlled by malevolent forces. “What if I was a robot and didn’t know it?” asks Loki in the show’s first episode as he kicks against the bricks of his time variance prison. Could there be a more “philipdickian” line in a TV show?

As the season concludes, we are not entirely sure who Loki and Sylvie find in The Citadel at the End of Time. He Who Remains claims to have organized the universe with benevolence, but the choices he offers our two leads seem tailor made to destroy affection and love. Perhaps Loki and Sylvie have found a face of Satan at the end of time, one that takes up the sky and controls with ambivalence. If He Who Remains is actually a good guy, as he claims, we don’t have much evidence to that end right now. Loki presents a vision of the world where the heavens are not controlled by total benevolence. The man in the Citadel at the End of Time is not quietly building a utopia, as the TVA had hoped. At best, we have a cosmic Omelas, where the vast majority of people live in utilitarian comfort at the expense of a few pruned variants. At worst, we have a flippant authoritarian primarily concerned with his own power and control.

It’s not as if Christians don’t have their own struggles comprehending the benevolent nature of God. Too much ink has been spilled about the problem of suffering and divine omnipotence; it’s not worth rehashing here. The same goes for the implications stemming from predestination and double predestination and Calvinism and Arminianism. Underneath the bible-soaked infighting between we Christians is a need to prove that God is good despite some “philipdickian” evidence to the contrary.

To my mind, the only good answer to the heavenly questions posed by Loki and Philip K. Dick is the theology of the cross. In the death and resurrection of Jesus, we have solid evidence that the purported benevolence of heaven is actually benevolent. Rather than revealing the timeline and getting our consent for future events, God offers instead a resonating image of trust. “If I embrace a terrible suffering with (and for) you, will you trust me that there’s a way in which all this makes sense?” Jesus’s death and resurrection is a compelling answer to the questions we ask God about suffering. One does not imagine He Who Remains dying a substitutionary crucifixion for Loki or Sylvie.

I wonder if Philip K. Dick ever saw any of Salvador Dalí’s religious paintings. Dalí was probably about as Catholic as Dick was Episcopalian. He considered himself an atheist until a private meeting with the Pope changed his life. In his most famous painting of Jesus, Dalí gives an equally surreal but existentially opposite vision of Dick’s terrifying visage. His Christ of St. John of the Cross imagines a surreal sky filled, not with the metallic face of Satan, but of the crucified Jesus, positioned horizontally so that gravity pulls him painfully down toward a laconic boat and fisherman at the bottom of the frame. Were I to see such an image in real life, the Big Man On The Cross instead of The Big Man In The Sky, I would be just as frightened as Dick was with his vision. And yet, despite that terror, I might also take some comfort and courage from such a vision. The great revelation of the cross, after all, is that behind the scenes, it was love the whole time.