The Ultimate Savior: An Examination of the Christian Symbolism within Superman
The religious symbolism within the character Superman is quite easy to see. A father's only son, sent to humanity from a world beyond, raised by two, kind, hardworking parents, who grew to one day become mankind's greatest savior, and a symbol of hope and truth throughout all the world. Blessed with miraculous abilities far beyond those of mortal men, he would grow in humility and strength, sacrificing his life to save humanity from ultimate evil, but would rise again leaving behind an empty tomb, and returning to save us once again. That is the story of Superman, modern image of the ultimate savior, and one of the greatest Christ allegories of the modern age. Although, it is important to remember, that Superman is an allegory, a symbol. He is not Christ, but is simply a representation of something greater, and he, like all symbols, is only useful insofar as it reminds us of that which it represents, and helps us to understand that which is beyond us. It is also important to remember, that if this magnificent character is but a allegory, a faint image of something far grander and more magnificent than itself, how extraordinary must that something, or in this case, someone, truly be.
Sent From The Heavens
Superman's journey begins as a baby on the planet Krypton, a majestic and powerful world beyond the stars. It is a place bigger, more powerful and grander than earth. In Richard Donner's classic film, Superman: The Movie, which is considered by most people to be the definitive incarnation of the character, Krypton is presented as a brilliant, shining place. It is a glowing world brimming with light and majesty. Superman's father, Jor-El, in particular, appears to continually radiate light. He is represented as a wise and white haired man, who's story begins, not with his decision to send his son to earth, but with an act of justice. We first see Jor-El condemning General Zod, a ruthless Kryptonian madman and rebel bent on establishing a new world order, with himself as sole dictator of the planet. But Zod was not always a villain, Jor-El establishes that, before the rebellion, Zod was once a great leader among the people of Krypton and protector of the very citadel in which he stands condemned. Zod fell from glory through avarice and pride, seeking power above all things. In punishment for their crimes Jor-El condemns Zod and his followers to eternal imprisonment within the mysterious and hellish void, known as The Phantom Zone (Donner). This story of the fall of a great leader into madness, darkness, and rebellion, ultimately condemned to eternal punishment for his crimes echoes very deeply of the traditional story of the fall of Lucifer. A great and noble angel who became consumed by pride, and launched a doomed rebellion against GOD, and was cast out from Heaven, and to eventually, at the end of days, be cast into eternal imprisonment in Hell. But Jor-El's story does not end with Zod, for the defining moment of his story comes next.
In a last desperate attempt to save his son's life, Jor-El sends his son to earth. While the predominate reason for sending his son starkly contrasts with the story of Christ (Superman was sent to earth so that he could be saved, conversely, Christ was sent to earth so that we could be saved), the general concept of a savior being sent to earth from a place beyond earth, resonates deeply with that spectacular story of Christ coming to earth. In showing us Superman's journey to earth, Donner once again provides his audience with profound biblical imagery. When explaining to his son, via holographic projection of himself, why he chose earth for him Jor-El says "They can be a great people Kal-El, 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."
The Incarnate God Among Man
Superman is a representation of the idea of the God among men. He is a being from a place far beyond humanity, a being far more than human, who came to earth as a hero and savior of mankind, and it is here that the whole concept of Superman as an image of Christ truly begins to hit home, so to speak. Phil Cousineau, author of the book "The Once and Future Myth" pointed out how quickly, upon Superman's creation that Christian groups began seeing Superman as a Christ figure, representing that "the world is being redeemed from the outside." (Sackett) There are other characters in the pantheon of superheroes who represent such an concept. The Silver Surfer, for instance, is a profound Christian allegory as a savior who comes from beyond, and sacrifices all to save us. The Surfer is an outsider and a godlike being of near moral perfection, whose first defining act is an act of sacrifice for the salvation of humanity (Lee). Superman, however takes this concept further. He too is an all powerfulll being from beyond us, coming down and sacrificing all to save us, but, unlike Silver Surfer, he is also a very human character. Superman is both beyond human and more than human simultaneously. Where as Silver Surfer is a representation of the God among men, Superman is representation of the incarnate God among men. This particular aspect of his character is what makes Superman such an interesting and unique figure among Christian allegories. He is not only a perfect, all-powerfull savior from outside of the world, but also a very human person raised as one of us, experiencing life as one of us. The central claim of Christianity is that Christ was the incarnate form of GOD, fully GOD and fully man, the infite creator in human form, experiencing life as a human, and seeing the world through our eyes, fighting our battles, feeling our temptations, but never, ever giving in, . Superman offers us a tiny shadow of a glimpse of this by giving us an all powerfull alien being, beyond the scope of all humanity, raised as a human and struggling like a human, but never, ever giving in.
Death and Ressurection
Among the most straightforward aspects of the allegorical nature of Superman is in the incredible similarities between the story of the death and return of Superman, found in the DC Comics story lines "Death of Superman, A Funeral for a Friend, and Reign of the Supermen, and the story of Christ's death and resurrection. The tale of Superman's demise begins with the arrival of a monstrous creature called Doomsday, an unstoppable behemoth imprisoned deep within the earth. Doomsday raged across the planet destroying everything in his path. Many of earth's great superheroes tried to stop him, but, one by one, each fell, until finally, Superman rose to stop him. Superman alone could overcome the monster's terrible onslaught, and end it's rampage. In many ways, Doomsday is an image of sin. Ultimate evil raging across the earth, an evil that none could overcome. Just as many great superheroes fought and failed to defeat Doomsday, many great hero's and servants of GOD came before and failed to overcome sin. Just as it took a great, otherworldly savior to save mankind from the ultimate evil that was Doomsday, so it took GOD himself to come to this world to redeem mankind and save us from sin, never failing, never faltering, perfect unto death. But neither story ended with a death, for there are some heroes that not even the grave can hold.
The allegorical parallels continue. As death takes their greatest hero, Superman's friends morn, and believe that all hope is lost, until one day, some of Superman's closest friends go to his grave site to find an empty tomb. Superman then, ultimately, returns in full glory, leading the charge against a new evil, and saving the planet once more. The amount of elements and imagery of the Christ story that are used in the tale of Superman's death and return are astounding: the sacrificial death, the hopeless period of waiting, the empty tomb, and the triumphant resurrection. But, as with all allegories, it is also important to remember the differences. As with the image of the incarnation, Superman only offers us a shadowy reflection of an eternal truth. The major difference between the story of Superman's death and the story of Christ's death is what they died to save us from. Doomsday was an alien being imprisioned on the earth, he was an outside force coming to destroy us. Sin, on the other hand, is something within us. Superman died to save us from an outside force threating to destroy our bodies, Christ died to redeem humanity from something that is within us, to not only save us but to set us right with GOD.
In conclusion, the astounding amount of Christ imagery and themes are easily appearant within the character and world of the Superman mythology. Superman offers us a small, shadowy glimpse of the staggering reality of the story, and the infinite wonder of Christ.
Donner, Richard, dir. Superman: The Movie. 1978. Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc., 2006. Disc 1. DVD-ROM.
- Jurgens, Dan, et al. The Death and Return of Superman: Omnibus. New York: DC Comics, 2007. Print
Lee, Stan, and Jack Kirby, “The Startling Saga of The Silver Surfer!” Fantastic Four May 1966: 50. Print
Sackett, Micheal, prod. The Mythology of Superman. Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc, 2006. Disc 13. DVD-ROM.