2013-06-07

Man of Steel – Why Superman Isn’t Jesus

by Yo Snyder

For 75 years, Superman has been a symbol, an icon. He’s been
a source of inspiration and hope. He has thrilled fans not only with his
amazing exploits, but with his enduring goodness and his unshakeable belief in
truth, justice and…well, you know the rest. He was the first, great superhero.
For his 75th birthday, Superman is returning to the big screen,
hoping to once again capture the imaginations of audiences to inspire them to
believe that good can still be counted on to win the day, and that the world
doesn’t have to be viewed in shades of gray. Even in the early trailers for Man
of Steel
, it’s been clear that the film would stick close to one of the central
conceits that’s been a part of the character from the very beginning; mainly
that Superman is a modern-day Christ archetype. However, while there are many
parallels and similarities, there is one very important reason to remember why
Superman isn’t Jesus, or vice versa.

Now, I know that seems like a fairly obvious statement to
make, but I still think it’s an important one; Superman can’t be a substitute
for Jesus any more than John the Baptist could be. If anything, Superman is
nothing more than a 21st century herald who, like John did, is there
to point us in the right direction. Still, Superman so often looked to as a
Christ-like figure that we sometimes forget there’s one very key area that set
the two apart. I think I noted most clearly when I was watching the excellent
animated movie Superman vs. The Elite.
The movie is based on just one issue Action
Comics
published way back on 2001 that was called “What’s So Funny About
Truth, Justice and the American Way?” It tackles some big questions about what
the right way to solve today’s problems may be if one has the power to truly
make changes, and most interestingly of all, whether or not Superman’s boy
scout, goodie-two-shoes act is still relevant in the harsher reality of today’s
world. Is there still room for an inspirational figure of good, or do we need
to be more pragmatic? That’s always been one of the challenges of bringing
Superman to life on the big screen; there’s some who feel he’s so good and virtuous
that he’s bland and uninteresting. In short, real good guys are boring, and more conflicted, brooding
anti-heroes are the truly compelling characters; which in my mind is akin to
saying good itself is boring. That’s a scary thought that deserves some
exploration all its own, so perhaps another time.

So what is that sets apart Superman from Jesus? Well Early
in Superman vs. The Elite, Superman makes an interesting statement. He talks about
how he believes in humanity, how he believes that deep down people are all
basically good and what they need is an example to inspire them to reach for
that goodness within and use it to accomplish great things. It’s an aspect of
the character that looks like it will be explored in Man of Steel as well. In
the trailers, we hear Jor-El talk about the example Kal-El will set, how he
will be an inspiration for the people of earth, how he “will give the people of
earth an ideal to strive towards. They will race behind you. They will stumble,
they will fall, but in time, they will join you in the sun. In time you will
help them accomplish wonders.” That right there is where Superman is separated
from Jesus in a very big way. Superman believes in the inherent goodness of
humanity, that all they need is an example, an ideal, a figure of inspiration
to show them the way, and if they’re given that, the true goodness of their
nature will eventually conquer and they will indeed accomplish wonders for the
good and benefit of all. Unfortunately, Superman is very wrong about that.

Although it may sound a bit harsh, Jesus didn’t have any
such notion about humanity being good because he knew that just wasn’t true.
It’s not something we really like to hear, but the Bible is very clear on this
point. Psalm 14:3 clearly states “All have turned aside, they have together
become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one.” This is further
emphasized and repeated in Romans 3 as Paul states quite clearly “all have
sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). So Jesus never
thought that people were “basically good”. Jesus didn’t come to help unearth
the goodness that lay within each of us, he came to perform a transplant,
taking out our sin nature and replacing it with his own nature. Then, and only
then, can we aspire to anything which might truly be called good. This leads to
the next point that separates Jesus from Superman; Jesus didn’t come to
inspire, he came to change.

So many times I hear people talk about what an inspiring
teacher Jesus was and what a great moral example he was. If that was all he
was, then sure, he’s actually a lot like Superman. Superman wants to inspire
goodness in others by setting the example, by showing people what it looks like
to be “better”. Jesus didn’t come here for any such thing. He knew that
inspiration wouldn’t be enough because the fact is the nature of humanity isn’t
basically good, it’s sinful. In order for people to truly be better, to be
good, they didn’t need inspiration, they needed a change of nature. Jesus came
as God in the flesh, died on the cross to take care of sin since we couldn’t
solve that problem on our own, rose from the dead, ascended into heaven and
sent the Holy Spirit to be with us. All of this makes true change possible,
allows us to truly experience goodness and righteousness, and allows us to
truly be “better” in a way that mere inspiration could never provide. As 2
Corinthians 5:17 states so well, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new
creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” 
That’s something that even Superman just isn’t capable of. The Man of
Steel can save a body from a moment of immediate peril, but only Jesus can save
a soul and save it for eternity. Which isn’t to say that Superman isn’t a good
Christ-like figure, he is. However, that one aspect, that belief that people
are good and can attain goodness and righteousness on their own is a pretty big
difference that keeps Superman from being anything more than a mere shadow of
the Truth.

However, there’s still the question of whether or not a
figure like Superman is still relevant at all; is he still pertinent as a role
model? I was talking about this with someone the other day and they said that
although the idea of an inspiring figure like Superman is a great idea, but the
reality is he just isn’t viable. Well, I’d have to agree with that… to a
certain extent. Superman as a role model isn’t viable because the fact of the
matter is we just can’t live up to his example. That was the whole point Jesus
came to illustrate. No one can ever be good enough, it just isn’t in us. Yet,
with the right help, we can live up to the example of the Man of Tomorrow, so
in that sense, I think he’s a very viable and relevant hero. No we can’t do it
on our own, but through Jesus, we can achieve those ideals that Superman
represents. As a model for what’s possible character-wise for us through the
death and resurrection of Jesus, Superman is a very viable role model and one
we shouldn’t give up on or want to see changed in order to be more “gritty,
dark and relevant”. One of my least favorite trends is that of the morally
ambiguous, dark “anti-hero”; something that all sounds like a big oxymoron to
me. We need good examples, we need true heroes, but more than anything we need
Jesus’ help if we ever hope to see any sort of true goodness. It’s far too easy
to give in to the whole “might makes right” type of thinking, and quite
frankly, to get focused on our own narrow self-interests. Concepts such as
nobility, honor, and chivalry may be are and perhaps unpopular, but they aren’t
unattainable. Superman inspires us to reach for them, and Jesus helps us
actually attain them and live them out.

Superman is not Jesus, or vice versa. While there are plenty
of parallels, the few things that set them apart really set them apart. The difference between the need for
inspiration and the need for change is the difference of eternity.
Nevertheless, films Superman vs. The
Elite
and hopefully Man of Steel do a great job showing Superman as he
should be even as they raise the question of whether or not we even need a Superman,
or a Savior for that matter. The answer is; yes, we do. In fact, on the last
point, we can’t be emphatic enough. It’s nice to have a Superman, but it’s
absolutely essential to have a Savior, and there’s only one Hero who can fill
that role, and he came on the scene long before Superman or anyone else ever
donned a cape.