Throughout the history of the Church there have been bad ideas, misconceptions, and heretical presentations of Jesus. Each one of these heresies fails to present Jesus as the Bible reveals him. In Superheroes Can’t Save You, Todd Miles demonstrates how these ancient heresies are embodied in contemporary comic superheroes.
Miles compares something everybody already knows (who the superheroes are) with what they need to know (who Jesus is), in a book that makes vitally important Christian truths understandable and applicable to a wide audience.
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About the Author
Todd Miles is assistant professor of Theology and Hermeneutics at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon, where he earned the M.Div. He also holds a Ph.D. from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Read an Excerpt
Superman Can't Save You: The Dangers of Docetism
Your name is Kal-El. You are the only survivor of the planet Krypton. Even though you've been raised as a human, you are not one of them. You have great powers ... — Jor-El in the motion picture Superman (1978)
Now listen: You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of his father David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and his kingdom will have no end.
— the angel Gabriel to Mary (Luke 1:31–33)
When I was young, I had a fascination with telephone booths, largely because of the number of Supermancomics I had read. You remember Superman's MO. Whenever a crime was being committed in his vicinity, he would run to the nearest phone booth to shed his suit and tie, revealing his Superman cape and clothes underneath. He would then fly out to save the day. I remember peeking into such booths, hoping against hope that I would see a discarded suit and tie, proof positive of the existence of Superman. I often wondered how many suits Clark Kent went through, and what people thought when they came upon an abandoned but perfectly good suit of clothes in the phone booth. The homeless in Metropolis must have been well-dressed!
Let's pretend, for the sake of illustration, that you did find a suit and tie in a telephone booth, proving that the comic book world is real and that Superman does exist. Now, let me ask you a critical question: Was there a human being named Clark Kent?
The answer is ... no. The human being named Clark Kent did not actually exist. Clark Kent is Superman's alter ego, but he is not a human being. Clark Kent is really just Superman in disguise. According to Superman lore, Superman was born Kal-El on the planet Krypton. His biological father, Jor-El, in an effort to save his son's life, jettisoned him from Krypton shortly before the planet exploded. The space vessel crash-landed on planet Earth near the small rural town of Smallville, Kansas, where the baby Kryptonian was found by Jonathan and Martha Kent. The Kents raised Kal-El as their own, giving the child the name Clark.
By all appearances, Clark seemed like any other human boy, but his adoptive parents knew better. They saw their child perform superhuman feats of strength on the family farm, away from the gaze of others. If the fact that the Kents had found Clark in a crash-landed rocket ship was not enough to tip them off, their young son hoisting tractors around the farmstead probably convinced them that Clark was no ordinary boy.
Jonathan Kent, Clark's adoptive father, looms large in the Superman narrative. He models and teaches the young Clark such virtues as charity, compassion, righteousness, and nobility. He teaches him about justice while pointing him toward his ultimate destiny, which was to use his superhuman powers for the common good. Mr. Kent also teaches the young Clark to blend in with others, to appear as normal as possible. For if Clark is to maximize his impact on the world, he must appear to be an ordinary human, no different from anybody else. Clark learns those lessons well and incorporates traits into his persona that are almost the opposite of who he truly is — acting the part of a clumsy, bookish young man. No one would ever suspect that Clark Kent is the future Man of Steel.
After graduating from Smallville High and having kept his true identity secret, Clark moved to Metropolis. The big city is the ideal place to fight crime as Superman, while still maintaining his seemingly human alter ego. Strategically taking a job as a reporter with a newspaper, the Daily Planet, Clark is ideally positioned to be quickly alerted of criminal activity. To all appearances, Clark is nothing more than a mild-mannered reporter. Certainly, at least initially, his coworkers, Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen, do not suspect that the still clumsy and rather nerdy Clark Kent is actually Superman in disguise.
But that is exactly what Clark Kent is. Clark Kent is just a persona, a costume, a charade, that conceals the reality beneath the facade. Clark Kent trips and falls. He is not strong enough to do the simplest of acts. He gets tired and sick, often feigning exhaustion from overexertion. And when danger threatens, Clark Kent cowers and runs away (usually to the nearest phone booth to shed the suit and tie). But it is all an act. Superman is the most powerful being on the face of the earth. He is, as we well know, "faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound." He is not weak. He is not clumsy. He is not foolish. And he is not afraid. Not one bit. He is, in every sense of the name, Superman!
Did you know that many in the church, both now and in the past, have the same idea about Jesus? Some read the Gospels in the Bible and dismiss all the talk of the humanity of Jesus, because Jesus was really "God in disguise." There was no human named Jesus, not really. That was just a persona, a costume, a charade, that concealed the reality beneath the disguise. Jesus just appeared to be human. He just seemed to be a man.
Is this your picture of Jesus?
Stronger than demons! Craftier than a Pharisee! Able to clear out temples with a single whip!
Look! Up on the mount. It's Moses! It's Elijah! It's Son of God-Man! Yes, it's Son of GodMan — strange visitor from up above, who came to Earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. Jesus Christ — who can walk on water, multiply a few loaves and fishes into a meal for thousands, and who, disguised as Jesus of Nazareth, mild-mannered itinerant preacher from Galilee, fights a never-ending battle for truth, righteousness, and the kingdom of God!
I suspect that many Christians, even well-meaning ones, may have this exact notion of Jesus. But it's actually far from what the Bible reveals to us about Jesus. Now, many Christians are very good at arguing for (and rightly so) the deity of Jesus Christ. We believe that Jesus Christ was absolutely and fully God. Unfortunately, we are often so adamant about affirming the deity of Jesus that we ignore or even discount his humanity. I would go so far as to say that many Christians today do not know what to make of the humanity of Jesus. After all, how can humanity and deity coexist in one person anyway? We know that Jesus was the Son of God. Perhaps, like Superman, he just seemed to be human. Such thinking, though well-intentioned, is dead wrong. I call it the Superman heresy, but it has been around a long, long time.
The early church was quick to recognize the deity of Jesus. But it was not long before the question arose, how can Jesus be both human and divine at the same time? Obviously, one very easy way to answer that is to deny that such a combination is even possible. Eliminate either the true humanity or true deity of Jesus and there is no more difficulty. And if you are committed to the deity of Christ, then you really only have one option: deny that Jesus was ever actually human. Oh, sure, Jesus might have looked like a human, but he wasn't really. Jesus only seemed to be human. Much like the way Clark Kent wore glasses, a suit, and a tie, his human disguise, so Jesus wore the first-century garb and disguise of humanity. The church eventually called this way of thinking Docetism, from the Greek word dokein, meaning "to seem."
Why would such an idea enter into the theology of the early church, and why would it gain any traction at all? The answer lies in understanding the world of the church in the first and second centuries. That world had been strongly influenced by GrecoRoman philosophy. A prominent teaching, based loosely on Platonic dualism, was the radical ethical and essential separation between the spiritual and the material. To the dualist, the material world was ignoble, shameful, and evil, while the spiritual world was noble, pure, and good. Not every Roman citizen of the first century shared this view, but enough did that such thinking quickly wormed its way into the young church. Dualism was such an issue that the apostle John had to go out of his way to affirm the humanity and physicality of Jesus to the early church:
What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have observed and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life — that life was revealed, and we have seen it and we testify and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us — what we have seen and heard we also declare to you ... (1 John 1:1–3)
In this passage, John tells his Christian readers that he was an eyewitness to the incarnation of the Son of God. You can almost hear John saying, "Jesus really was human. He really walked the earth. I saw him. I touched him with my very own hands. It is this very human, very real Jesus that we preached to you." John was adamant: Jesus really did come in the flesh.
Docetism later got a big boost from a false teaching that crept into the early church, called Gnosticism. (In fact, many believe that John's and even Paul's New Testament letters addressed early forms of Gnosticism.) Gnosticism was a syncretistic (or Mulligan stew-like) religion, borrowing and combining elements of Greco-Roman philosophy and religion, Christianity, and Judaism. Gnosticism's core tenet was that a secret knowledge (Gnosis) was necessary for salvation, and that God, who was good and spiritual, could have no direct interaction with the material world. The goal of humanity was to escape the confines of the material world, both now (through rigid asceticism) and in the life to come. A full-blown Gnosticism did not arrive on the scene until the second century, but Docetism, an essential part of Gnosticism, had arrived in the church much earlier.
Now, this kind of dualism, the teaching that the material is inherently evil and the spiritual is inherently good, is completely at odds with biblical Christianity. The Bible teaches that God created the world directly, speaking it into existence (Genesis 1). He created Adam and Eve in his image, imago Dei, and an essential part of Adam and Eve was their bodies. This does not mean that God has a body. Jesus was clear that God is Spirit (non-corporeal); he has no body (John 4:24), but when God created man and woman in his image, he gave them bodies. I suspect this was to enable the first man and woman (and all others after them) to image (or represent) God in this world the way he wanted it done. Just as importantly, the Bible teaches that an essential aspect of our salvation is the resurrection of our bodies. The destiny of saved humanity is to dwell in the presence of God forever, and we will do so with real material bodies (1 Cor 15:35–49). These will be new bodies, again designed, I believe, to do those things that the Lord wants done in the new heavens and new earth. But such biblical truths did not stop the false teachers, and by the late first century, some churches were infiltrated by those who claimed that the true Son of God could never have had an actual, physical body. Jesus could not have actually been human. He only seemed to be so. Just like Superman.
Who Commits the Superman Heresy Today?
Do we think of Jesus the same way? I suspect that there are not many card-carrying Docetists out there (if you meet any, please let me know). Very few people today would go so far as to deny that Jesus was really human. In our Western world, where naturalism holds sway at the philosophical and scientific levels, you are more apt to find those who would deny that Jesus was supernatural and divine. But I am concerned that some Christians, without thinking, will lapse into the Superman heresy when they consider how Jesus did the things that the Bible tells us he did.
We can fall into the trap easily. It happens every time we assume that when Jesus was confronted with a difficult issue, be it temptation, sickness, demon possession, or the like, he overcame the obstacle by virtue of his deity. It is almost as if we think that when Jesus was tempted by Satan in the wilderness, he found the nearest telephone booth and pulled off his first-century Jewish robe, revealing the "Son of God-Man" insignia emblazoned on his chest. He then went off to do battle with Satan, laughing, "Who do you think you're kidding, deceiver? I am Son of God-Man! I cannot be tempted. Be gone!" and then, using some sort of cool, divine superpowers, he vanquished Satan until the next episode. That is how all the Superman comics and television shows went. The seemingly feeble Clark Kent transforms into Superman and then easily defeats the bad guys. I wonder if some of us have the same idea of Jesus.
Of course, when we look in detail at the actual narrative of Jesus's temptations in a later chapter, we will find that Jesus did not do any of the things I just mentioned to stand against Satan. The means that Jesus used to battle the tempter were, well, quite ordinary. That is, they were common — the sort of tools that any human who loves the Lord could use.
A number of years ago, the "What Would Jesus Do?" (WWJD) movement was in full force. The idea behind it was that Christians (or anybody else, I suppose) who were faced with a difficult situation were to ask themselves, "What would Jesus do?" The question was supposed to bring clarity, insight, and guidance. For a while, you could not swing a tattered comic book without hitting someone wearing a WWJD bracelet, sporting a WWJD cap, eating from a WWJD lunchbox, doing schoolwork in a WWJD notebook — I could go on and on.
At any rate, Christians were supposed to stop in the moment of difficulty and ask, WWJD? I suppose there is some merit in asking the question. After all, the Bible teaches that Jesus left us "an example, that you should follow in his steps" (1 Pet 2:21). But the entire WWJD enterprise was flawed from the beginning at various levels, and rather than being illuminated by the exercise, I often found it to be discouraging. Here is how it worked out with me.
Let's say I was in a sticky situation. Maybe I was battling a temptation and couldn't figure out how to beat it. Maybe I was trying to share the gospel with a friend and attempting to think up the right words to convince him of his need for Jesus. Or maybe I saw someone in desperate need, and I wanted to help that person. What to do? Ask, WWJD! But after pondering on what the risen and conquering Lord of the universe would do for a few moments, I usually came up with something like, "Jesus would laugh at Satan and say no to the temptation because he was the Son of God." Or, "Jesus would know the exact thing to say that would confound even the smartest Pharisee, because he was the Son of God." Or, "Jesus would multiply loaves and fishes into a feast. And he could do that because he was the Son of God." And then, growing discouraged, I would think to myself, I can't do any of those things, because I am not the Son of God. The question was absolutely no help. In fact, it actually made things worse.
And here's the thing: I was lapsing into the Superman heresy and I didn't even realize it. Jesus can be a help in temptation. He can guide us, teach us, and empower us, and we will discover why as the book proceeds. But the reason is not that Jesus is "Son of God-Man."
What the Bible Says
The Bible could not be clearer that Jesus was fully human. His humanity was prophesied long before his birth in Bethlehem. He was born like any other human (really!). He lived, grew, and did all the things that humans do.
Jesus Was Predicted by the Prophets. The prophets anticipated long before Jesus was born that God would work his salvific plans through a man who was to come.
Approximately 1,000 years before Jesus was born, David, the second king of Israel, had it in his mind to build a really nice temple for the Lord. David recognized that the Lord had blessed him in myriad ways, not the least of which was a fantastic palace that made the simple tent that housed the ark of the covenant of God look like, well, a simple tent (2 Sam 7:1–2). The Lord responded to David's offer by sending the prophet Nathan to tell him that rather than David building a house for him, the Lord would build a house for David. The Lord went on to say, "When your time comes and you rest with your fathers, I will raise up after you your descendant, who will come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He is the one who will build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever" (2 Sam 7:12–13). Theologians call this the Davidic covenant, and it is one of the most important events recorded in the Bible, because in the covenant God committed to work his plan of redemption in and through the house of David. The substance of the promise is that David would have a son who would eventually assume the throne and reign forever. That son would also build a temple for the Lord. Questions arise immediately: How can a son of David reign forever? What about David's son Solomon? Isn't he the fulfillment? Didn't he build the temple? Solomon did reign over a more prosperous kingdom than his father, and he did build a temple. But his reign did not last forever (he died), and the temple he built was destroyed (by the Babylonians in the 500s BC). The fulfillment awaited someone else, from the line of David, a future son. And that is what we need to emphasize: God's promise would be fulfilled by a boy being born, from the family of David. A human boy.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Superheroes Can't Save You"
Copyright © 2018 Todd L. Miles.
Excerpted by permission of B&H Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of ContentsAcknowledgments
Chapter 1: Superman Can’t Save You—The Dangers of Docetism
Jesus Was God in Disguise
Chapter 2: Batman Can’t Save You—The Liability of Liberalism
Jesus Was Just a Remarkable Human
Chapter 3: Ant-Man Can’t Save You—The Menace of Modalism
Jesus Was One of Three “Costumes” of the One God
Chapter 4: Thor Can’t Save You—The Risks of Arianism
Jesus Was Created by God
Chapter 5: Green Lantern Can’t Save You—The Agonies of Adoptianism
Jesus Was a Good Man Adopted by God
Chapter 6: The Hulk Can’t Save You—The Perils of Apollinarianism
Jesus Had a Divine Mind in a Human Body
Chapter 7: Spider-Man Can’t Save You—The Tyranny of Eutychianism
Jesus Was Part Man and Part God
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
By using superheroes to illustrate the Christo logical heresies, Todd Miles provides not just an informative but entertaining theological work on the person of Christ.
Reasons I love this book: 1. Ancient Christian doctrine is communicated creatively. 2. The writing is clear and concise. 3. Each chapter includes questions for individual meditation and group discussion. 4. Each chapter also ends with a guide to considering a pertinent Scripture text further. 5. The book breaks the current, tired mold of evangelical hunting for so-called gospel echoes in pop culture. For a full review, check out the blog, Taking Every Thought Captive.