[Warning: Contains Spoilers]
Two of the biggest topics of debate concerning the new Superman movie, Man of Steel, are the controversial ending and the use of imagery connecting Superman to Jesus Christ. The controversial ending merits some good discussion concerning ethics, but it seems the conversation has centered predominately on a “proper” understanding of Superman’s character. Opponents of the ending with Superman slaying the villain, argue that Superman does not and should not kill. It is not his nature. Therefore, it undercuts the very character of Superman. It is this understanding of Superman as the perfect ideal that leads naturally to the explicit connections to Jesus Christ.
There have not always been such overt links between Superman and Jesus. The story of Superman was originally created by two Jewish writers, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, as a type of Moses. Obviously there are strong ties between Judaism and Christianity that there might be some overlap, specifically in regard to the concept of “messiah,” but it appears that Superman has a much more explicit focus on the person of Jesus Christ in the Man of Steel. Here is a brief list of some of the possible allusions to Christ:
- Mentions he is 33 before he is handed over
- Born a child of two worlds
- Raised by a human “carpenter”
- Sent by his real father to earth
- Real father tells him, “You can save them all”
- Stretches out his hands in the figure of the cross
- While talking to a priest about giving himself up, there is a painting of Christ at Gethsemane in the background
Now the question is “How do we understand these apparently intentional connections between Superman and Jesus Christ?” I figure there are a variety of ways in which we can choose to understand these images.
First, we could see these connections, whether intentional or not by the creators, as simply part of the story, which should have no bearing on our watching experience. I find this to be lazy and even irresponsible, especially for a Christian.
Second, we could see the creators trying to communicate that Superman is the type of savior that humanity wants and needs in contrast to the Savior found in Jesus Christ. There have been some to suggest this theory, stating that Superman has no “problem of evil” issue because he actually saves people from natural disasters. However, such an argument is unconvincing in light of the problem many people have with a Superman who kills, and who essentially destroys an entire mega city as collateral damage in his fight with Zod.
Third, we could see the Christ images applied to Superman in order for the audience to relate Superman’s inherent goodness and selflessness to the Son of God. In this way Christ is the standard of goodness and his image is used positively as a reference point to Superman’s goodness. I believe this to be the intention of the creators (though there could be a more monetary motivation as well).
Now for a Christian we should delight when a hero is used to point beyond himself to the person of Jesus Christ. Every superhero at some level is a type of Messiah who saves humanity. Some characters portray Christ better than others. Superman happens to be the clearest and strongest pointer to Christ. But we must remember that all analogies break down and there can be no one-to-one correlation between any example and Jesus Christ.
Maybe this is where such strong, clear, and explicit images of Christ to Superman could be dangerous. They might impute expectations not for Superman to be like Jesus Christ, but rather for Jesus Christ to be like Superman. Let’s be clear: though Superman is portrayed as inherently good, incorruptible, selfless, and indestructible, he is not Jesus Christ. To be perfectly honest, Superman is far from it.
Superman works well as a type, but a type is always meant to point beyond itself. Whenever a type becomes the end in itself, we have settled for far less than the true Object of our affections and worship.
Even with this necessary caution, I still believe that comparisons between Superman and Jesus Christ can be incredibly edifying for the believer. The author of the New Testament epistle to the Hebrews understood how such comparisons could be employed to show the greatness of Jesus Christ. In Hebrews chapter 3, the author takes one of the Israelites’ greatest heroes, Moses, giving him full honor and respect, but then argues that Jesus Christ is still much greater. The effect of the comparison is much more potent because the author uses a positive or strong type instead of a negative or weak type.
In the same way we could take a positive look at Superman, respecting him as one of the greatest superheroes ever created, to illustrate how Jesus Christ is much greater in every way than Superman. Let’s take a look at in what ways Jesus Christ is better than Superman even in his best attributes.
One of Superman’s trademark powers is his strength. His superhuman strength has been described as “more powerful than a locomotive” and in later comics his strength has grown to move planets making him the strongest superhero in the DC Comic Universe. Impressive to say the least.
Let’s see how Jesus Christ’s strength is measures up.
Colossians 1:15-17 says, “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created in heaven and on earth, visible, and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”
Jesus Christ is the second person in the Trinity, which means he is fully God. Being fully God means that his strength is unlimited. He is not just strong enough to move planets, but all that is material (planets, suns, moons, stars, galaxies) and immaterial (unseen spiritual realm) was created by him. Moreover, he continually “holds all things together.” It is easy to overlook this incredible statement but don’t miss it. It is by his incomprehensible strength that there is even a universe. Every molecule owes its existence to Jesus Christ and is ever desperate for his mercy to continue to be. Of course Jesus can move mountains, raise the dead, heal, and walk on water, but that is only a hint of a shadow of a glimpse of the power he displays every second the universe exists.
Though Superman is strong Jesus Christ is far superior, far better, far greater in his infinite, inexorable, incomprehensible power.
As I mentioned in my review of Man of Steel, what makes Superman great is not his powers, but what he chooses to do with his powers. Really there are two choices for someone with such superpowers as Superman: rule through service or rule through oppression. Knowing how absolute power corrupts absolutely, Superman is greater than the other superheroes in that he is motivated to do good from an inherent goodness, when he could have had the whole world submit to the strength of his hand.
Two aspects of his goodness are worth mentioning. Even though Superman was born on a different planet, meaning he is not human, he still sympathizes with humanity to the point of loving affection. That loving affection leads him to sacrifice his own interests, and specifically in Man of Steel, he ends up sacrificing his own people.
Now looking at Jesus Christ, the trait he is probably most known for is his goodness. Most probably would not use that word, because it falls short of the more precise word, perfection. He was blameless, completely without sin. Even in all of his goodness, Superman cannot claim perfection, especially as he is portrayed in Man of Steel.
What makes this even more unfathomable is that Jesus Christ was fully man. He did not only sympathized with humanity, he actually became human. Superman, being an alien could only sympathize. Jesus Christ, being fully human, was able to empathize in every way. Hebrews 4:15 says, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.”
Superman was willing to sacrifice his life, his own interests, even his own people. Jesus Christ came to earth to be the sacrifice. The punishment for every sin of every person who ever lived was placed upon Christ and only infinite goodness and infinite power could fully pay the penalty. What Christ fully accomplishes on the cross, through his death and resurrection, is that he gives his goodness to those who believe in him, making them fully good. This aspect of Christ’s goodness can be summed up in Romans 5:6-8:
“For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
Though Superman is good, Jesus Christ is far superior, far better, far greater in his beautiful perfection.
There is a poignant scene in Man of Steel, when Jor-El is talking to his son for the last time. Lois Lane is falling out of control needing to be rescued, and the father says to the son, “You can save her…you can save all of them.” Superman floats back, arms stretched out in the fashion of a cross, and flies to earth to save.
It is without question that Superman’s job is to save. It was a full time job just saving Lois Lane in Man of Steel. But an important question to ask is, “What is he saving and to what extent?” Of course he saves lives from physical death, and I am certain that new “lease on life” could be an impetus to live out the remainder with joy and purpose. And maybe a selfless life of saving could motivate the whole world to be good and be selfless and good, bringing about a Utopia.
But, then what? Eternity is before every single person on the other side of death and Superman’s ability to save ends there.
Jesus words are important in this regard. He says, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” This principle on the other side of this coin is just as true: “Do no revere those who can save the body but cannot save the soul.” If Superman saves the physical body (though not every time in every situation), Jesus saves not only the soul, but gives a new perfected body at the resurrection. This leads us to our last comparison:
Though Superman is saves people from danger Jesus Christ is far superior, far better, far greater in his saving power of both body and soul, perfecting that person for glorious future forever at the right hand of the Father.
Man of Steel has given us a Superman with overt allusions to Jesus Christ that are difficult to ignore. They definitely are not neutral. As believers these symbols can serve a good purpose if we allow them to carry us to the Supreme Object. Otherwise the symbol will become the object, distorting the perception of the true Savior.
Superman is a great superhero, but as any type (whether it is Moses or David) falls short of the ideal found in Jesus Christ. Superman is strong, but not strong enough. He is good but not good enough. He saves, but his salvation is not enough.
Hopefully this article has provided an accurate (albeit brief) comparison between Superman and Jesus Christ. It has been an edifying exercise for me to reflect upon the incredible, life transforming attributes of Christ and how even the greatest superhero man has ever created cannot even hold a candle to the true Savior of the world.
May our affections, imagination, and worship be drawn further and deeper into the perfect, beautiful majesty of Jesus Christ, Lord and Savior, who is preeminent above all.