The Gospel in Hollywood – Part 1
God has told us in His Word how the universe began, how it came to be the way it is today, and how it will end. This is the ultimate true story. It is history – literally His story. And it is the Gospel. The Gospel message doesn’t begin in Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. It begins in Genesis. This is where the problem of sin is introduced into a world that was once perfect. Genesis is where we learn that death is the penalty for sin (Genesis 2:16-17). And it is where humanity was first promised a Messiah, who would crush the serpent’s head (Genesis 3:15).
God’s story comes to a climax in the books we call the Gospels. The promised Messiah has finally come and paid the penalty for our sin, but at a very great cost: His own life. Just when all seems lost, Jesus rises from the dead, victorious over death itself. He promises that on the last day He will return and raise up everyone else, and death itself will be destroyed (John 5:28-29, 6:40, 6:44; Revelation 20:14-15). Evil will be forever vanquished, and paradise will be restored.
Since human beings are made in the image of God, His story naturally resonates with us. The Gospel is good and it is true. And for this reason, when we create stories, they often parallel the Gospel. I believe this honors the Lord (Ephesians 5:1). Even unbelievers create stories that illustrate the Gospel in many respects. For the most part, I suspect that this is unintentional. Most Hollywood producers are not Christians and have no desire to advance the kingdom of God. They use the biblical formula because it works; it makes a great story because it parallels the truth of God’s Word. But Christians can see how such stories reflect the Gospel. Consider how many movies follow this biblical formula:
The situation begins with everything good – paradise (either directly or by way of backstory). But an evil person (or several) enters the scene and acts wickedly. All the other people suffer as a result; paradise is lost. As suffering grows, a hero is born – a Christ figure. The hero is good and innocent, and he is full of compassion and feels sympathy for the suffering of the people. The hero grows in wisdom and strength, and eventually confronts the evil person despite seemingly overwhelming odds. The hero must endure great hardship. He suffers, but not for his own crimes. He experiences great pain on behalf of others. His suffering takes him to the point of death (either literally or symbolically). And just when all seems lost, He recovers, defeats the evil person, and rescues the people. Paradise is restored.
One of my favorite movie genres is that of the comic-book superhero: Superman, Spiderman, Batman, the Flash, and so on. The biblical analogies in these stories are striking. And the Christ-figure is usually easily identified as the superhero himself. Superhero movies are very popular in today’s culture. Why is this? Let’s explore a few of these movies and see how the Gospel message is told in the form of allegory. We begin with the most iconic superhero of all time: Superman.
Consider the parallels between Superman and Christ. Both do miraculous things far beyond the abilities of ordinary men. Superman is very powerful and almost godlike. Yet, he is humble, fundamentally good, and uses his godlike abilities to save people (physically). Likewise, Christ is Almighty God. Yet He humbled Himself the point of death on the cross (Philippians 2:8). Christ is truly good and came to earth to save people from sin (John 10:11; Luke 19:10).
Both Superman and Christ have a dual-identity, one as an ordinary man (Clark Kent / the Son of Man), the other as an extraordinarily powerful being (Superman / the Lord). Clark keeps his identity as Superman a secret except for family. Likewise, for most of His earthly ministry, Jesus kept His identity as the Messiah a secret except for His disciples (Matthew 16:20, 17:9).
Superman is not from Earth, but from Krypton (a planet in the heavens). He was sent to Earth by his father. Likewise Christ was sent to Earth from heaven by His heavenly Father. Superman grew up on earth as if an ordinary human to human parents in a humble setting – much like Christ. Superman’s earthly father died before Superman had done any miraculous feats, but his mother lived to see him save the world. Christ’s earthly father apparently also died before Christ’s public ministry, but His mother lived to see Him save the world. Superman fights for truth, justice, and the “American way” (freedom). Jesus is the way the truth and the life (John 14:6).
Even Superman’s birth name “Kal-El” and his father’s name “Jor-El” may be significant. The suffix “El” is perhaps an allusion to the Hebrew word “El” the shortened name for “God” (the longer version being “Elohim.”) as if to symbolize God the Son, and God the Father. After the resurrection, Jesus could somehow appear in a form where no one recognized Him (Luke 24:15-16). Similarly, Superman disguises himself as an ordinary man that no one recognizes as a hero.
Superman’s powers also seem to parallel Christ in some ways. Superman can defy gravity, as Christ did on at least two occasions (Matthew 14:25-27, Acts 1:9). Superman has heat vision – essentially flames that shoot from his eyes; this is interesting considering how Christ’s eyes are described in Revelation 1:14. Superman has X-ray vision which allows him to see through solid matter; likewise, God sees through outward appearance into the heart of man (1 Samuel 16:7), and no one can hide from God (Jeremiah 23:24, Hebrews 4:13). With advanced sight and super-hearing, Superman sees and hears far beyond what a human can, much the way God sees and hears all (Psalm 94:9, 139:21). And of course, Superman is exceptionally strong and cannot be stopped, as God is strong/mighty and unstoppable (Psalm 29:1, Joshua 22:22, Revelation 18:8, Isaiah 14:27).
The 1978 movie “Superman” (the good one) starring Christopher Reeve highlights these Gospel points very effectively. I suppose it is merely a coincidence that the actor playing the Christ-figure has a name that literally starts with “Christ.” But the director and writers deliberately made several allusions to Scripture in this film.
The baby Superman (Kal-El) is wrapped in “swaddling clothes” by his birth parents, and placed in a space-age “manger.” The ship carrying Kal-El to Earth was designed to look like the Christmas star that guided the magi. Kal-El emerges from the ship as if newborn, with his outstretched arms in a crucifixion posture.
Before Christ began His public earthly ministry, He spent a period of time fasting in the wilderness, away from other people, in communion with His father (Mark 1:12-13). Likewise, before beginning His public service, Superman spends a period of time in the Fortress of Solitude away from other people, communing with his “heavenly father” Jor-El. Jor-El says that he sent Kal-El to Earth to be a “light to show them the way”, just as Christ is the light of the world (John 9:5). Jor-El says to Kal-El “For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you, my only son.” It is quite reminiscent of John 3:16.
Christ was about 30 years of age when He began His public ministry (Luke 3:23). Kal-El enters the Fortress of Solitude at age 18 and spends 12 years there; thus he begins his public service at age 30. In his interview with Lois Lane, Superman reveals that He never lies. Jesus never lied of course and often stated, “Truly I say to you…” (e.g. Matthew 5:18,26; 6:2,5,16; 10:15).
In the movie, Clark Kent is portrayed as an exceptionally humble man, despite his god-like power. This reminds us of Christ who is God but was “gentle and humble in heart” (Matthew 11:29). Superman delights in helping people because of his great love for them. Likewise, we often read in the Scriptures of Christ helping people because of His compassion (Matthew 9:36, 14:14, 15:32, 20:34). After Superman would save someone, he ascended into the sky leaving the other people looking upward. It seems very similar to Christ’s ascension as described in Acts 1:9-10.
And what of a death and resurrection? One parallel occurs when Lex Luther puts a chain holding Kryptonite around Superman’s neck. This robs Superman of his powers and begins slowly killing him. Luther leaves him for dead in his indoor swimming pool. After Superman is freed from this Kryptonite, his great power returns, as if resurrected, and he flies off to save the world. Another example comes later with a slight departure from the formula; the death and resurrection happens not with the Christ-figure but with someone he loves. Lois Lane is killed in the third act of the film. Devastated by this loss, Superman flies around the world so fast that he turns back time. This brings Lois back to life – a resurrection.
After saving the world, Superman captures and incarcerates the villains responsible for all the death and destruction. Thus, justice is served and paradise is restored. The film ends with Superman ascending back into heaven, with the end credits promising his return (in Superman 2), reminiscent of Acts 1:10-11.
Gospel Elements in the Sequel
A very wonderful irony in the Gospel is that the Messiah should come into the world as a helpless baby. It must have seemed like Satan finally had the upper hand. The normally invincible God had become a mortal human: and an infant at that! Surely, this would give Satan his only opportunity to kill the Lord of Glory. The wicked King Herod used his political might in an attempt to assassinate the Christ child. It’s the ultimate underdog story. All the powerful forces of darkness are raised up against a helpless baby. But they are stymied at every turn.
Finally, Satan manages to kill the Christ. For a moment, all seems lost. But, in another wonderful irony, the seemingly fatal blow was part of God’s plan all along. Far from defeating Christ, the crucifixion accomplished the salvation of all God’s people. God used the wickedness of man as part of the means to save His people, thereby undoing the wickedness of man! Then Christ rose again, having conquered death itself.
These Gospel elements are very evident in the 1980 movie, Superman 2. It is an underdog story where the hero is able to use the wicked actions of the villains as the very means to defeat them. Like the Messiah who entered the world in a seemingly helpless state, the odds seem to be stacked against the hero throughout this film, until the triumphant ending.
Superman faces three Kryptonian villains, each of which has the same power he has. Furthermore, these supervillains are wicked beyond reason and have contempt for all mankind. If Superman is the Christ-figure, then the three villains represent a type of antichrist: an unholy “trinity.” In one scene, Zod (the leader of the villains) walks on water – a sort of false miracle that parallels Christ walking on water. The (wonderfully acted) arrogance and hatred of these supervillains, along with the odds being three to one in their favor, make Superman’s final victory very satisfying.
The supervillains constantly refer to Superman as the “Son of Jor-El” just as Christ is the Son of God (Matthew 8:29, Luke 4:41, 8:28). They want to destroy him because they hate his father who (rightly) cast them into the “phantom zone” – an eternal prison. The fallen angels hate the Son of God for essentially the same reason (2 Peter 2:4, Jude 1:6).
Superman 2 also features a love story. Superman reveals his secret identity to Lois, who confesses her love for him. But by Kryptonian law, Superman must relinquish his great power and become human if he is to marry a human. So, a godlike being becomes a mortal human for the sake of his bride. Sound familiar? In a sort of Kryptonian wedding, Superman enters a chamber which removes his power, essentially killing “Superman” as Clark becomes a mortal man. Indeed, a faint image of Superman dying in the chamber is visible as Clark emerges. Likewise, Christ died in order to redeem His bride – the Church.
Only later does Clark learn of the three super-villains, who are wreaking havoc upon the world. He must therefore regain his power in order to defeat them. So he returns to the Fortress of Solitude where he finds a green crystal containing the power and wisdom of his heavenly father. By this power, Superman is “resurrected.”
This movie also contains the same type of twist ending as the Gospel: what seems like the defeat of the Christ-figure by wicked men actually turns out to be the moment of victory. Threatening to kill innocent humans, Zod coerces Superman to return to the chamber that removes his powers, essentially “killing” Superman. He then demands that the defeated and powerless Superman bow down to him (compare with Matthew 4:9) and swear loyalty to him. But the twist is that Superman had reversed the chamber so that it protected his power, while removing the powers of the villains. In attempting to defeat the Son of Jor-El, the villains actually enable his victory.
Space does not permit such a thorough analysis of all the other superheroes, though I will mention one more below. In any case, most of them do strongly resemble Christ in many ways. Not all Gospel elements are in every movie of course. However, often a particular Gospel theme stands out strikingly. One example of this is from the Batman movie “The Dark Knight.” This movie illustrates the Gospel theme of double imputation more explicitly than any other I have seen.
To “impute” is to ascribe responsibility (credit or blame) to someone. Christ lived a perfect life, yet He was punished for our sins. So we say that our sins were imputed to Christ; it was as if He had committed such sins and thus had to pay for them, even though in reality He is innocent. Conversely Christ’s righteousness is imputed to believers. God rewards us as if we had lived Christ’s perfect life, even though in reality we are sinners. The imputation is double because it occurs in both directions. Namely, Christ was imputed with our sin bearing our punishment, and we are imputed with His righteousness (2 Corinthians 5:21; Isaiah 53:4-6).
At the end of “the Dark Knight” movie, the Christ-figure (Batman) is faced with a difficult dilemma. The city hero Harvey Dent had fallen into wickedness to become the villain “Two-Face.” But this was not generally known, and would be devastating to the community who looked up to Dent as an incorruptible advocate of justice. In all likelihood, the criminals he prosecuted would be released if his fall were known. In the end, Batman is forced to fight and defeat Two-Face/Dent, resulting in the villain’s death. To protect the community’s iconic image of Dent as a hero, Batman is willing to take responsibility for Dent’s crimes, including five murders. Furthermore, the good that Batman actually did is credited to Dent. This is the same type of double imputation manifested in the Gospels.
Commissioner Gordon reluctantly agrees, and puts out an arrest warrant for the innocent Batman. Batman is forced to be chased by the police in disgrace as if he had committed Dent’s crimes. Gordon’s son knows the truth and is confused. He says, “He didn’t do anything wrong.” This is very much like Christ who never sinned and yet bore sin’s penalty (Hebrews 4:15) in order to save the people.
Is it possible that the reason superhero movies have become so popular is because they parallel the Gospel? At first, we might think that this would only explain why Christians enjoy such films. But non-Christians have a need for the Gospel as well. All people know that they have fallen short of God’s standards, and rightly deserve His wrath – though they suppress that truth in unrighteousness (Romans 1:18-20). All people know in their heart of hearts that they need a Savior. It seems that the Gospel rings true even when illustrated by a fictional analogy.