Stan Lee, the legendary Marvel Comics creator, died in November of this year, aged 95. He was the genius behind colourful superheroes like Spider-Man, Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, The Fantastic Four, Thor, The X-Men, Black Panther, Ant-Man and the Avengers.
We’ve seen all of his creations grace the silver screen and go on to become some of the most successful movies of all time. Lee himself had cameos in almost every single Marvel movie made under different studios.
This year alone, Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War became the two highest grossing films of 2018. The Marvel Cinematic Universe itself is the highest grossing film franchise of all time.
The shift in emphasis and ideology from DC comics to Marvel comics
Stan Lee revolutionised the comic industry and the way we view superheroes. With the Fantastic Four in 1962, he ushered in the Marvel age of comics.
Prior to that, superheroes had been almost godlike in stature and characterisation. We saw classic characters like Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman from DC comics. They fought for truth, justice and the American way. However, they were almost distant from the rest of humanity.
Superman, had many nicknames such as the Man of Steel. However, one of his nicknames was “the big blue boy scout”. This was because he was an incorruptible force of justice who always did what was right. In many ways, he transcended mere mortals.
Stan Lee’s superheroes became far more human, eschewing many of the divine-like traits which were seen as negative.
Stan Lee created flawed and human superheroes who had very real, everyday problems. Unlike Superman or other DC characters, not everyone loved the Marvel heroes. In some cases, like the X-Men, people were afraid of them because they were different.
One Marvel character in particular came to represent the most human everyman of all. He went on to become Marvel’s most famous creation: Spider-Man.
Superman and Spider-Man were quite literally worlds apart. However, both came to epitomise the two opposite approaches of DC and Marvel comics.
The contrast in the two approaches also mirrors much of the history of theology since the early church.
Superman vs Spider-Man: Explaining the Incarnation
In theology, the study of Jesus Christ is known as the doctrine of Christology. One of the typical questions people ask when studying Christology is:
How can Jesus be both fully God and fully man?
When theologians explore this particular concept, it’s known as the doctrine of the Incarnation. Although we don’t find the word itself in the Bible, the underlying concept is there, such as in John chapter 1 which talks about how the Word of God became flesh.
The doctrine of the Incarnation states that Jesus is both fully God and fully man.
Many theologians, and other people in general, have found Christian doctrines like these difficult to wrap their heads around.
The very concept seems to be a contradiction. Logically, the two sides shouldn’t exist at the same time without cancelling each other out. You would either have to choose between one or the other, or at least emphasise one aspect over the other.
Superman and Spider-Man epitomise the more divine or more human approaches of DC and Marvel Comics respectively. However, the two characters are helpful in illustrating the way theologians over the years have tried to explain the doctrine of the Incarnation.
For example, some theologians tried to argue that Jesus only appeared to be human but was in fact only divine. This paints Jesus in similar terms to Superman. Superman is actually Kal-El, an alien from the planet Krypton. His parents sent him to earth as a baby when his planet was dying.
The baby lands in the fictional town of Smallville in Kansas. A childless couple named Jonathan and Martha Kent take him in and adopt him, naming the boy “Clark”.
Superman only has the appearance of a human. However, he actually has extraordinary super powers inherent to him. These enable him to fly, have super strength, x-ray and heat vision, and many other fantastical abilities.
Some theologians see that Jesus did all of his miraculous works purely as the result of his divine nature. It is as if he were operating with super powers like Superman.
On the other hand, other theologians have suggested that Jesus was only a mere human being. He was either possessed or taken over by God’s spirit, or gained divine powers later on.
They suggest that Jesus did all of His miracles as a spirit-filled human who was empowered by God. As if his divinity were repressed.
In contrast to Superman, these theologians paint Jesus more like Spider-Man.
Spider-Man is fully human in his civilian identity as Peter Parker. Peter was originally a nerdy teenager and science student. One day he gains super human powers when he is bitten by a radioactive spider. This gives him the proportionate strength of a spider, super agility, speed and an uncanny spider sense that alerts him to danger.
Both Superman and Spider-Man represent two contrasting Christologies.
The Superman approach, where he comes from the heavens and disguises himself as a human is known as Christology from above. He is never fully human, but more divine in nature. Proponents of this approach are Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel or Rudolph Bultmann. The early Greek group called the Docetics (basically Gnostics) circa 325 AD also subscribed to this view.
In contrast, the Spider-Man approach is where he starts off as human. However, he’s imbued with amazing powers that almost give him a kind of semi-divinity. This approach is often referred to as Christology from below. Proponents of this are Karl Rahner and Friedrich Schleiermacher.
Also in this group is Wolfhart Pannenberg, who was responsible for the now very comic book phrase, “retcon” or “retroactive continuity”.
Both of these approaches are problematic. When we over-emphasise one aspect over the other, we arrive at a theology that is unbalanced and unbiblical.
What happens when we emphasise one aspect over the other?
According to traditional Christian doctrine, Jesus is always both fully God and fully man. He also does his works as this unified person.
When we focus on one side too much, it causes problems for how we understand salvation.
If Jesus is not fully human, then he hasn’t really suffered on the cross. As such, He can’t relate to our sinful human condition. His agony and torture would have been merely a sham. He wouldn’t know all of our human temptations, desires, feelings, because he could always fall back on his divine nature.
On the other hand, if he is not fully God, then how can Jesus really be one with the Father? It creates many issues when contemplating the Trinity, which is a discussion for another time.
There are many other problems that arise, but these are just a few here to think about.
The problem of talking about Christology “from above” or “from below”
When we start using terms like Christology “from above” or “from below”, we have to remember that these terms are very metaphorical in character. In practice, it’s a bit artificial to only see things originating from one place or the other.
Classical Greek thought often had many dualistic concepts. The Greeks viewed people in terms of physical and spiritual, good and evil, or divine and human. They would often reject one while praise the other.
In his book The Mediation of Christ, Scottish theologian T.F. Torrance discusses how Greek thinking influenced the way theologians and have tried to explain Jesus and his nature. Unfortunately, this results in a false dichotomy or unnatural division. It effectively splits Jesus into two – a divine aspect and a human aspect.
When you look at Jesus from this starting point, you end up either beginning from his humanity and then ending with his divinity, or vice versa.
As we’ll see below, this is the wrong starting point.
The concept of a paradox
Take a look at the image above. What do you see?
If you’re like me, the first thing you might see is the Marvel character Wolverine in his classic comic costume. But look at it again. Can you also see two figures of DC’s Batman facing each other?
You might find only see one image first of all until someone points out the other one to you. Once you see the second image, it’s not that the drawing has changed, but that your perception has shifted.
But these optical illusions don’t only demonstrate how our perception shifts. They’re also illustrations of a paradox, albeit imperfect ones.
The Oxford dictionary defines a paradox in the following way:
1. A seemingly absurd or contradictory statement or proposition which when investigated may prove to be well founded or true.
1.1 A statement or proposition which, despite sound (or apparently sound) reasoning from acceptable premises, leads to a conclusion that seems logically unacceptable or self-contradictory.
1.2 A person or thing that combines contradictory features or qualities.
In the above image, it’s both Wolverine facing forwards, and two Batmen facing each other at the same time. It’s not one or the other. Both images exist simultaneously. However, the two combined concepts would appear to be contradictory to one another.
You’ve probably come across many examples of paradoxes in science fiction.
The Bootstrap Paradox is a common theme found in everything from Star Trek to Doctor Who to The Flash. It’s essentially when someone is caught in a time loop. Eg, someone or something from the present or future goes back to the past. It raises the question of how they came into being in the first place. They appear to be both the cause and effect of an event.
The concept of paradoxes is a huge one, so I won’t go into it anymore here.
The Incarnation as a paradox
Many of the concepts in the Bible are what are paradoxes. Its distinctive feature is that two seemingly contradictory concepts can and do co-exist without cancelling each other out. Although the Bible doesn’t use this term anywhere, scripture is full of paradoxical concepts.
One of these is the doctrine of the Incarnation. For Jesus to be both fully God and fully man at the same time, it would seem almost contradictory. Yet the miracle is that He does exist in that way. Anything less than the way we describe Him here would not be the Jesus from the Bible we all know.
Many of the Biblical truths appear to be illogical or contrary to non-Christian’s worldview. By nature, we cannot accept concepts such as a paradox. It doesn’t fit with what we usually consider to be rational, logical or “true”.
However, the Bible operates on a logic of its own.
In 1 Corinthians 1:18, Paul writes:
18 For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing,but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
In order to come to terms with a paradox, we must undergo a paradigm shift. A change in the way we see things. Unless we’re able to do so, many of the theological concepts such as Christology or the Incarnation could appear to be either complete nonsense or extremely contradictory.
Asking whether Jesus is like Superman or Spider-Man is the wrong question
When we look at Jesus and ask whether he is more divine with human qualities, or more human with divine qualities, we’re starting from the wrong place.
In his book on Christology, Dietrich Bonhoeffer suggests that we sometimes look at Jesus’ divinity in isolation of His humanity or vice versa. In other words, we draw a distinction between Christology from above or below. When we do this, it’s tantamount to asking Jesus “How can you be the Christ?” This, Bonhoeffer argues, is essentially asking a “godless question.”
In Matthew 16:13-20, Jesus asks his disciples “Who do you say I am?”
Simon Peter replies in verse 16: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God”
Peter’s response was a profession of faith, but something that Jesus notes was only revealed to him from God.
When we start to ask questions such as “How can you be the Christ?” or “What nature are you?” or “What is Jesus Christ?”, then that makes the whole concept of the Incarnation impossible for us.
In other words, we end up asking ourselves: Is Jesus more like Superman or like Spider-Man. The answer is that He is not like either of them.
Instead, as T.F Torrance writes, the proper way of understanding Christ is to begin “right from the start in his wholeness and integrity as one Person who is both God and man.”
The proper question we need to ask Jesus is: “Who are you?”
When we do that, we’re looking at Him as a unified whole. He is the one who is both fully God and fully man. He also does his miraculous works as that very person.
Have you ever found the Incarnation difficult to understand?
Did you ever think of Jesus as more divine (like Superman) or more human (like Spider-Man)? Has anything changed in your thinking after reading this article?
Which did you prefer? DC or Marvel, and why?
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Robert is the founder of Drawing on the Word. He has a Bachelor’s degree in Theology and a Master’s degree in Systematic Theology. He also has a degree in Law and was called to the Bar. Robert previously taught religious studies and was a theology lecturer. He is an artist, musician and writer, and has created a graphic novel version of Luke’s gospel. You can follow him below.