We live in a culture that is absolutely fascinated with superhero stories. Whether portrayed knocking out the evil villain in the traditional comic book sketch or flying at supersonic speed high above the earth in a CGI enhanced motion picture, the superhero has captured the heart of people across the globe.
However, at the same time that the superhero conquers the box office and captures the imagination of millions worldwide, a deepening problem persists in the Church across North America: the abandonment of theological reflection and imagination. This is particularly the case when it comes to eschatology: the study of the “last things.”
Far too often, Christians subscribe to either a misled or shallow understanding of God’s eschatological mission. They either fall into the trap of believing in the popular (yet ungrounded) fundamentalist claims of a premillennial rapture followed by apocalyptic destruction or equate God’s final plan for humanity solely to a state of eternal heavenly bliss disconnected from the rest of creation. However, the Bible makes it clear and orthodox evangelical theology affirms that God has a much more hopeful and imaginative plan for His creation, in particular, for human beings.
The imagination of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien
In his biography, Eccentric Genius. Reluctant Prophet: C.S. Lewis, A Life, Alister McGrath tells us that J.R.R. Tolkien inspired C.S. Lewis, not by convincing him that Christianity solely offered the rational truth about God and the world, but that it also provided a framework where reason and imagination could be integrated to provide people with meaning in life and a way to express and fill their deepest longings. Of course, Tolkien and Lewis found Christianity best expressed as a true story about humanity. Focusing on the story, both were able to express Christian truth about the world in a way that appealed (and spoke) to the longings that every human has for a loving God in a world that so often points to the opposite reality.
But neither would completely write-off human culture. Yes, human culture is broken and flawed, but that doesn’t mean we can’t find insights about reality in human culture. In fact, McGrath contends in the biography that they both believed strongly that “Christianity brings to fulfillment and completion imperfect and partial insights about reality, scattered abroad in human culture” (All McGrath quotes hereafter are from the biography sited above). This leads us back to our culture’s fascination with the superhero.
What attracts us to superhero stories? I think it is fair to say that what attracts us has a lot to do with human longing.
If you look at some of the “superhuman” qualities of popular superheroes like Superman and Wolverine, for instance, you find an intense and imaginative story filled with eschatological undertones that point to humanity’s longing for things like immortality (Wolverine can’t die), angelic ability (Superman can fly), and other bodily “enhancements” that humanity longs for in our current broken and suffering state. As Paul cries out in 2 Corinthians 5:2, “we groan, longing to be clothed…with our heavenly dwelling.” Could it be that culture’s intense interest in the superhero reflects this deeper longing Paul talks about in the Bible for “immortality”? (1 Cor. 15:53). For a new “imperishable” body? (Ibid). To become “like the angels in heaven”? (Matt. 22:30). If so, McGrath contends that Lewis and Tolkien give us great insight into how the grand story of Christianity, like no other story in the history of human existence, indeed fulfills the “imperfect and partial insights about reality” that human culture has reflected on for ages.
So what does the Bible say about God’s final plan for human beings, that is, those who are called to believe in Christ? To be sure, culminating God’s eschatological mission will be the creation of a “new heaven and a new earth” (Rev. 21:1). This is the cosmological environment in which God’s renewed creation will live. For human beings in particular, the Bible tells us that God’s plan (within this restored cosmos) consists of at least two eschatological promises: (1) bodily resurrection and (2) bodily transformation/glorification
The Christian promise is that, just as God raised Jesus from the dead, those who believe in God’s Son will also be raised to life “on the last day” (John 6:40; 1 Cor. 6:14). In an age where scientific reason (an empiricism) continues to shape our culture’s beliefs about reality, the idea of human resurrection upon the parousia (Greek for “arrival”) of Christ is dismissed by many as ancient superstition. Yet, at the same time that God and Christianity are pushed out of the “rational” and accepted confines of secular culture, we see hints of a deeper longing within that culture for resurrection and victory over death.
I recently watched the Batman vs. Superman movie, and nothing speaks more to our culture’s longing for a god-like savior and the possibility of resurrection than this movie’s thematic undertones. In the movie, Superman sacrifices himself to save humanity from a monstrous creature focused on destroying everything in its path. The Man of Steel succeeds in saving the world, but in his act of selfless love, he loses his own life. The next day the front page of the Daily Planet reads, “Superman is Dead” — sending the city of Metropolis and Clark Kent’s loved ones into deep mourning at the tragic end of its fallen hero and friend. But will he come back from the dead? Will Superman resurrect and return to his people? That’s certainly what the audience is left thinking might happen when the movie ends. This is a cultural story that points at our human longings for God and resurrection in a way not to different than the Christian story.
It’s almost as if human culture wishes resurrection were possible, that is until “the religion of reason” slaps them in the face with militant force to knock out any form of longing or imagination that might lead to a reality beyond this world. But you see, Christianity isn’t superstition. Rather, it’s a reasonable way to look at the world and to make sense of the stories we tell about our longing for life, justice, renewal and victory over death. It gives us permission to imagine, to be creative and to see our story as a meaningful part of the grand narrative of God.
Not only does the Bible promise to resurrect those who believe in Christ, but it also promises that God will “transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like [Christ’s] glorious body” (Phil. 3:21).
Teleportation is the movement of objects or elementary particles from one place to another, more or less instantaneously, without traveling through space.
When we look at what Christ’s body was capable of after the resurrection, what might this mean about our resurrection bodies? John tells us in his Gospel that twice Jesus actually “came and stood among [the disciples]”, even “though the doors were locked” (John 20:19-21). The implication being that Jesus somehow miraculously “teleported” (to put into our culture’s language) into the room the disciples were gathered in. Whatever it was, if this power were possible for Jesus in His resurrected body, will our future transformation include the same kind of capability?
The imagination of John Wesley
Writing in 18th century, John Wesley was one of the most balanced and orthodox Christian thinkers of his generation. However, his orthodoxy didn’t restrict him from embracing imagination when reflecting on eschatology. Commenting on Christ’s teaching that human beings will “become like the angels in heaven” (Matt. 22:30) in their resurrected and glorified state. In his sermon, “The New Creation,” Wesley writes:
“For all the inhabitants of the earth, our Lord informs us, will then be… ‘equal to angels’; on a level with them in swiftness as well as strength; so that they can quick as thought transport themselves or whatever they want from one side of the globe to the other.”
Like Wesley, at this point we can only speculate whether human beings will be able to teleport across the globe, or through walls for that matter. However, we can imaginatively hope for such an exciting future capability and, more importantly, we (as Christians) can today engage with human culture’s fascination with things like resurrection and teleportation (to name a few) as depicted in countless superhero stories.
If we follow Lewis’ and Tolkien’s lead, which tells us that the grand story of Christianity fulfills and completes the imperfect and partial insights found in culture’s stories (like the superhero) about reality and human longing, we will learn how to embrace theology in a suffering and sinful world that longs for immortality, renewal and yes, even the power to teleport!
If Christianity is a true story about humanity, it opens our eyes to the reality of God and our human condition. It gives us permission to imagine and re-imagine our own stories in God’s grand-narrative. It gives us hope and light in a desperate and dark world longing for new creation and the tender mercy of a savior who loves us. Christianity is a story to believe in and imagine our human existence in the hands of a creative, suffering and resurrected savior-God.
In his book, Is Theology Poetry?, Lewis leaves us with the image of the rising sun and its illuminating attributes as a metaphor for the Christian faith:“I believe in Christianity as I believe the sun has risen. Not only do I see it, but by it, I see everything else.”