A program of the Center for Inquiry
You say that you believe in Jesus. I don’t. I believe in Superman.
Just about everything we know about Jesus comes from four short Gospel stories that were made up two thousand years ago and contradict each other. We don’t even know who wrote them or what people originally called them. Frankly, these stories are weird. Worse, they keep referring back to something even weirder called the “Old Testament.” These first accounts of the life of Jesus were written during a time when people were gullible and uneducated. No wonder everyone believed them! Today, we know better. That is why the relatively recently written life story of Superman is so much more credible.
We have lots of evidence for Superman: zillions of comics published over the last seventy-five years, numerous weekly radio broadcasts, six movies released since 1978, including one just last year, and two television series. While we hardly know anything about Jesus before he was thirty, we have hundreds of hours of video-recorded testimony about Superman growing up in his hometown of Smallville, Kansas, from a television documentary that just ended after ten seasons. Talk about proof: we even have recent videos of Superman flying!
Now, I know that all our evidence about Superman is not fully consistent, but no better can be said of our evidence for Jesus. And I know that because Superman is reputed to be able to perform miracles, some people think he is made up. But at least Superman doesn’t make a habit out of raising people from the dead, changing water into wine and wine into blood, feeding thousands from bread in original amounts enough for only five, destroying temples with a glance, and resurrecting himself from death.
The real model for Moses and Jesus is Superman. Too late to save themselves from the predicted destruction of their planet, Jor-El and Lara place their infant son Kal-El in a small spaceship (the origin of the basket of bulrushes in the Moses story or the manger in the Jesus story) and launch him toward Earth. His adopted parents, Jonathan and Martha Kent, discover him in a cornfield in Smallville (similar to being discovered in the Nile River by a daughter of Pharaoh). On Earth, because of the energy of its yellow sun (not miracles!), Kal-El develops special physical powers (like Jesus’s miracle abilities or Moses’s special relationship with God).
Superman spends his childhood and teenage years struggling with suspicions about his true identity and finally discovers that he is actually an alien from the planet Krypton (replayed as Moses’s discovery that he is born of Jewish parents and Jesus’s apparently gradual realization that his real father is not Jewish or even human). As Moses is called by God in a burning bush to lead his people out of slavery (Exodus 3:1–14)—and as Jesus is called to his destiny by God in his baptism and transfiguration (Mark 1:9–13; 9:2–8), mistakenly thinking that the highest virtues are “faith, hope, and charity”—Superman is called by a computer-generated hologram of his biological father Jor-El to fight for “truth, justice, and the American way.” Instead of saving us after we die so we just have to take his word for it, Superman spends his typical day saving humans not from their sins but from all manner of real earthly perils. Could the stylized S on his chest stand for “savior”? The 1978 film, Superman: The Movie, unabashedly declares Superman to be the real Messiah sent by his father, as Jor-El, who looks a lot like Marlon Brando, reveals to his son, age eighteen, in the Fortress of Solitude:
I am Jor-El; I am your father. . . . Your name is Kal-El. . . . Even though you have been raised as a human being, you are not one of them. You have great powers; only some of which you have yet discovered. . . . By the time we return to the confines of your galaxy, twelve of your years will have passed [Superman will be 30]. . . . It is now time to rejoin your new world, and to serve its collective humanity. Live as one of them, Kal-El. . . . You will discover why your strength and power are needed. . . . They can be a great people, Kal-El, if they wish to be; they only lack the light to show the way. For this reason, above all—their capacity for good—I have sent them you, my only son. [Superman: The Movie]
These uncanny parallels between Jesus and Superman just get us started.* For example, both Jesus and Superman hail from inconsequential small towns, Nazareth and Smallville. Like Jesus who comes to Jerusalem at age thirty, Superman emerges from relative obscurity in his adulthood, also at thirty, when he comes to Metropolis. In their day jobs, Jesus masquerades as a well-meaning itinerant preacher and Superman as a “mild-mannered” reporter. Each contends with an evil nemesis: Jesus with Satan and Superman with Lex Luthor. The disciples spend much of their time wondering who Jesus is; in the 1978 film, everyone wonders if Superman is for real. A stunned Lois Lane asks Superman, “Who are you?” In both cases, a straight answer is not given; both figures hide their true identities and lead double lives. Each is a hybrid of man and God. Each has three names: Emmanuel/Jesus/Christ versus Kal-El/Clark Kent/Superman. Finally, the suffix to Superman’s Kryptonian name is El, the ancient Hebrew word for God.
So, if you are looking for the real thing, not a copy, look no further: it is Superman. Seriously, would you settle for a hero whose best is walking on water or dividing the water to be able to walk on dry land, when another actually flies through the air?
*A thorough treatment can be found in the article by Anton Karl Kozlovic, “Superman as Christ-Figure: The American Pop Culture Movie Messiah,” Journal of Religion and Film 6, No. 1 (April 2002).
Mark Rubinstein is professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, and a past president of the American Finance Association. He has previously contributed articles to FREE INQUIRY. This is his inaugural regular column.