July 13, 2006

Jesus Christ Superhero

Jesus Christ Superhero
Overheard snippet of real-life philosophical discussion among three apparently earnest twenty-something males over fare at Taco Bell: “If I were Superman, I’d never be able to do good all the time!”
Whether we believe in a literal Superman—or any other superhero for that matter—the existence of such a being in the human imagination seems to be universal. This may be because of our need for myth: “A traditional, typically ancient story dealing with supernatural beings, ancestors, or heroes that serves as a fundamental type in the worldview of a people.1
Flying in the face of centuries of Classical scholarship, Walt Disney’s animated version of Hercules (1997) provides some intriguing twists on a timeless myth. But, of course, that’s what the Disney worldview has been doing since the introduction of Steamboat Willie (the prototype for Mickey Mouse).
Toward the climax of Disney’s animated version of Hercules, the mythological hero has descended into Hell to confront Hades, his father’s reviled adversary and “overseer of the underworld,” so to speak. Hades is attended by two sniveling lackeys: Pain and Panic. Hercules, the son of the all-powerful Zeus, has descended into Hell itself to bring back to life a woman named Meg, whom he has fallen in love with—and who, incidentally, appears only in Disney mythology. Meg has been crushed by a toppling marble column, just as she pushed Hercules out of its way. And now she is swirling in the currents and eddies of the ghostly green River Styx among countless other lost souls in Hell.
“Take me in Meg’s place,” Hercules demands. This is an offer that even Hades could not have anticipated. “Hmm. The son of my hated rival trapped forever in a river of death,” he mumbles. “Is there a downside to this?”
After quick and desperate consideration, he agrees, and without hesitation Hercules turns and throws himself into the river. “Oh, you know what slipped my mind?” Hades calls after him. “You’ll be dead before you can get to her. That’s not a problem, is it?”
1519 SwansonHercules doesn’t hear. He is swimming furiously against the current of the river toward Meg, each stroke aging him dramatically. Clearly he is dying.
Scene change: The Fates, three impossibly ugly hags, stretch out a thin thread, representing Hercules’ waning life, and prepare to cut it with a nicked and rusty pair of shears. When they clamp the blades of the shears together on the thread, however, it suddenly turns golden, and they’re unable to cut it—even after several tries.
And now we’re back in Hell and Hercules is rising from the river of death with Meg in his arms. “This is impossible,” Hades blusters. “You can’t be alive. You’d have to be a . . .” He can’t bring himself to finish the thought himself, but Pain and Panic complete it in unison for him: “God!”
Some thinkers have suggested that the universal human need for a hero, expressed in so many diverse myths throughout the ages, is an expression of the truth that humanity cannot ultimately save itself, that something superhuman is going to have to step in to do that for us. “The heart of Christianity,” C. S. Lewis said, “is a myth which is also a fact.”2
And Disney’s version of the Hercules myth repeats some of the themes of this ultimate truth that are so familiar to Western culture because they echo some of the cardinal characteristics of Jesus the Christ:
First, He is the Son of God, born of a human mother. When the High Priest demanded: “ ‘Tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God’ ” (Matt. 26:63, NIV), Jesus answered flatly: “ ‘It is as you say’ ” (verse 64, NIV).
A son of God could reasonably be considered as somewhat subordinate to God the Father, but this is not the case with Jesus. “ ‘I and my father are one,’ ” He says in John 10:30 (NKJV). As such He is our Creator, our Sustainer, and our Redeemer.
Second, as a result of his “mixed” parentage, He is both divine and human. He is divine enough, if you will, to save us, yet human enough to have experienced every possible pain and disappointment and temptation as any of us could ever be subject to—yet without sin.
This coexistence of the divine and human in one being is one of the truly greatest mysteries of the universe that will challenge our thinking for eternity. He is both “Lord of all” (Acts 10:36, NKJV); and, according to His genealogy as it is carefully outlined in Matthew 1, He is truly—and forevermore will be—human.
Third, He is able to conquer death. “ ‘I lay down My life’ ” He said, “ ‘that I may take it again. No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of Myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again’ ” (John 10:17, 18, NKJV). “He brought life and immortality to light, and made a bright, clear pathway from earth to heaven, that those who receive him should follow where he leads the way.”3
And fourth, He did all this for love! He “descended into the lower parts of the earth” (Eph. 4:9, NKJV) for all who are there imprisoned with a life sentence, but He would have done it if only one person had accepted His offer. There is no minimum in Jesus’ willingness to lay down His precious life for us. But when He returned from the River Styx on the third day, He carried with Him the ultimate salvation of the countless number whom He will take home with Him some day very soon.
That’s a superhero!

1 The American Heritage Dictionary.
2  God in the Dock (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1970), p. 66.
3 The Youth’s Instructor, November 18, 1897, par. 5.

Gary Swanson is the Associate Director of the General Conference Sabbath School and Personal Ministries Department.