Our culture today is fascinated with superheroes. In this interview, professor Todd Miles creatively shows how some of the most common misconceptions of Jesus are embedded in contemporary superheroes such as Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, Thor, and so on. Professor Miles makes important theological truths about Jesus both understandable and memorable. This is a fun and insightful interview you won’t want to miss!
More About Our Guest
Todd Miles is a professor of theology and director of the master of theology program at Western Seminary in Portland, Ore. He has multiple graduate degrees including a Ph.D. from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of the recent book Superheroes Can’t Save You.
Sean McDowell: Welcome to the podcast, "Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture." I'm your host, Sean McDowell, professor of Christian apologetics at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University.
Scott Rae: And I'm your co-host, Scott Rae, dean of faculty and professor of Christian ethics, also at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University.
Sean McDowell: We're here with a guest today named Todd Miles. He's a professor of theology and a director of the master of theology program at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon. But to me, what's so interesting about Professor Miles is a book that he wrote, and it's called, Superheroes Can't Save You. The moment I saw this book, my first thought was, "Why didn't I think of this?" And second, "We've got to get this guy on the show." So Professor Miles, Todd, thanks for joining us.
Todd Miles: Oh, it's really good to be here. Thanks.
Sean McDowell: So I read the opening of your book. I read your whole book but at the beginning, you described the story of going and reading comics as a kid, and it brought me back to elementary school and junior high. And you found a way to wed two loves that you have: superheroes and theology. Can you tell me about the story behind the book?
Todd Miles: Well that's essentially what it is. I grew up a little bit of a comic book nerd. Now true comic book nerds would call me a bit of a poser. So I'll just confess that right now. But to non-comic book nerds, I would be a comic book nerd. There's no doubt about that. And what I found when I was teaching church history and the doctrine of Jesus Christ is that when we approach the topics of the person of Christ, who he is — thinking about the hypostatic union, how Jesus is both fully human and fully divine — it's really difficult to wrap your mental arms around that because there's really nothing that approaches that in nature. You know there's no ready illustration for that.
But what I found was that as we're working through the heresies, because as you know often times it's easier to describe what something isn't than what it actually is. As we looked at the Christological heresies, it sure seemed like they were all perfectly embodied in some comic superhero or another. And it started out with Superman, with Docetism. And then Spider-Man with eutychianism. And before long, all the students in my classes were coming to me with their own ideas. And it just built and built and built.
Todd Miles: And what I found on the exams is I might say something like, you know, "Tell me what eutychianism is." And they'd say, "Ah, that's the Spider-Man heresy." And it would go from there. So that's how it came about. I taught the content in a Sunday School class, ages like teenagers up through octogenarians. And in about ... like two months after the class was over, I had an elderly lady come up and talk to me. She's in her 80s, like mid-80s, and she said, "Todd, I just saw an advertisement for an Ant-Man movie." And I said, "Well yeah, Nedra, are you going to go watch it?" And she said, "I don't think so but that's Modalism, isn't it?"
Sean McDowell: Wow.
Todd Miles: Yeah. Yes. If I have octogenarian ladies who remember what Modalism is based on this that maybe there's a book in this. And so I started writing it up and it was fun.
Scott Rae: Let's encourage our listeners here at this point. We will get to some of those details that Todd mentioned — Eutychianism, Modalism, things like that. I love how you put it in the book that superheroes illustrate every bad idea about Jesus. And we'll get to some of those in just a moment. Here's what I'm particularly interested in is I think the superhero movie genre has just exploded in the last decade or so. I think part of that may have been because we finally had the visual technology to be able to portray a lot of the comic book scenes in motion pictures. But this has exploded sort of parallel to the way we I think culturally we've always been fascinated with these superheroes. Why do you think that is and what do you think that tells us about ourselves and about our culture?
Todd Miles: Well I think it tells us probably a number of things. One, that we love hero stories, for starters. And even though some of the superhero comics are of the anti-hero nature, for the most part in the popular comic book series, good and evil are clearly defined. I think having some moral clarity is helpful for people, especially in the hero stories that they enjoy. And maybe even to go a little C.S. Lewis on us here, that if what I'm experiencing in my life cannot satisfy me or if the things around me can't satisfy me, maybe it tells me that I was created or built for another world. And so maybe there's a little bit of that in it as well.
Sean McDowell: Let me ask you this, Todd. Why don't superheroes and even Superman measure up to Jesus? To hit the title of your book, why can't they save us and why don't people want a superhero really more like Jesus?
Todd Miles: Yeah. Well I think that the reason that superheroes can't save us obviously apart from the fact that they're not real is that even in their ... like if we entered in the reality of a comic book world, they don't actually possess ... that is possess ontologically ... they are not what it takes to actually save us from what we most need saved from, I guess, to put an awkward sentence together. That is, you know, that the main point of my book was that in order for Jesus to do everything that the Bible says that Jesus did and does for us, he has to be everything that the Bible says that he is. And that would be fully human, 100% absolutely human. We could even argue more human than even we are. And he has to be simultaneously fully divine. And it takes all of that. It takes a fully human Jesus and a fully divine Jesus to actually save us from ourselves, save us from our sins, save us from God, right? Save us from the wrath of God himself. And there's a logic to the gospel that requires everything that Jesus is.
Todd Miles: And then I suppose to answer the last question, why don't people want Jesus as a savior as compared to maybe Superman or Batman ... you know, Superman could sweep in and save the day. You know he'd save us from whatever was accosting us at that moment. But then he'd fly away and he wouldn't ask anything of us. But Jesus isn't like that. He's a savior who saves us and buys us and then owns us and desires us and expects things of us. He gets into our business and he requires that he not just be the one who saves us from sin, but he requires that he be our Lord as well. And maybe that's just asking a bit too much for people. You know? I suspect that's the reason why more people aren't interested in Jesus. I think he just asks too much. He promises a lot, too.
Scott Rae: Hey, let's ... I think our listeners are probably wondering by this point, when are Sean and Scott going to get to the details of ... get to the specific superheroes themselves? So let's do that. The first one you describe is what you call the Superman heresy. And a heresy simply is I would say just a bad idea about Jesus. That's how you mean it here. So what is the Superman heresy and what's the bad idea about Jesus that it reveals? And why does it matter today?
Todd Miles: Yeah. Good. So a heresy is ... it's minimally like a bad idea about Jesus. But you know I could probably add to that. It's a really bad idea about Jesus. It is such a bad idea about Jesus that it undercuts the very logic of the gospel, right? To where by the end of the day a heretical view of Jesus can't actually save us. It can't ... he can't do what the Bible says that Jesus in fact actually did.
Scott Rae: I stand corrected.
Todd Miles: Well-
Scott Rae: I appreciate you doing that graciously.
Todd Miles: No, because you were quoting me. I mean, you were quoting me there, you know, so that's totally fine. But so the Superman heresy. Early in the church, early in church history, the Christians are trying to figure out, okay, Jesus was a human apparently. But the Bible makes big claims about him being divine. And they kind of latched on to this divinity. But how do divinity and humanity coincide in one person? How is this even possible? And so one of the ideas that was floated was something call Docetism or Docetism or however you pronounce it, where coming from the Greek work [foreign language 00:09:44], that is Jesus just appeared or seemed to be human. He wasn't actually human. He was just God in the appearance of a man. And so you have a Jesus that is 100% divine, fully divine, but not actually human. And I suggest from that that this is really a lot like Superman.
Todd Miles: And so I often ask, you know, if I'm talking about different classes how many of you think that Superman ... and you have to enter into the comic book world with me here. How many of you think that Superman or that Clark Kent, sorry ... or that Clark Kent was a real human being? And of course most people raise their hand at that point, because they're playing along. It's the comic book world and Clark Kent was a real human being, you know? He was the mild manner reported for the Daily Planet, grew up in Smallville, all of that. But in the comic book world, of course, Clark Kent wasn't a human being. He was Superman in disguise. He was actually kryptonian with amazing powers. Clark Kent was just a persona, right? He was really just ... he wasn't a human. He was Superman in disguise.
Todd Miles: And the point I make there is that sometimes throughout the history of the church, people have had the same exact idea about Jesus. He wasn't really human. He was just God in disguise. And even though there aren't that many card carrying Docetists running around. You know there aren't that many people that say, "Well I'm a Christian of the Docetist variety." You know I've never met anyone like that. But I do find that especially for Evangelicals, you know, our history is coming off the fundamentalist liberal wars where we were defending the deity of Jesus. And Evangelicals are taught from a young age to defend the deity of Jesus. It's really important that Jesus be divine. And it is. It's like matter of life and death that he be divine.
Todd Miles: But we're so quick to affirm the deity of Jesus that I think sometimes a lot of Christians don't know what to make of his humanity. And we become effectively functional Docetists. We unwittingly buy into this Superman heresy, what I would call it, because we don't know what to make of his humanity. And we don't think he really was like us. We're told that Jesus is our help in temptation and that sounds great until we think about it for a while. We think, "But Jesus was God. Of course he's not going to be troubled by my temptations. Of course he's going to know exactly what to do in every single situation. He's God after all." And we don't know what to make of his humanity. But the gospel depends upon Jesus being fully human. All of the benefits that accrue to us because Jesus is our brother, we are co-heirs with him, they come to us because Jesus is fully human. He is our great high priest who can sympathize with us in our weakness because he actually was fully human. And so ... everything in the Christian life depends upon the full humanity of Jesus Christ.
Sean McDowell: Todd, the flip side of the Superman heresy would be the Batman heresy. Can you kind of explain what that is again? And tie it back to Christian living, just as you did with Superman.
Todd Miles: Sure. So you know Batman ... he's one of my favorites. And he's one of everybody's favorite superheroes.
Sean McDowell: That's right.
Todd Miles: Spider-Man and Batman are the biggest selling comic books out there right now. And have been for a long, long time. But you think about it. Batman doesn't have any super powers. You know in the Justice League movie, when the Flash asks Batman, you know, "Now tell me what your super powers are again?" And you know Bruce Wayne says, "I'm rich." Right? That's who Bruce Wayne is. He's filthy rich, trained by ninjas, incredible scientific mind, and is the world's greatest detective, right? But he's just human. He's the most ... in the comic book world I would say he's the most remarkable human being who has ever lived. And of course some people have the same exact idea about Jesus, especially in more liberal areas of Christianity. And maybe outside of the church, probably outside of the church. I you know it's still pretty poor form to talk smack about Jesus, you know. You walk out on the street, people don't like Christians, they don't like the church, but Jesus is still held in some high esteem. Most people who aren't followers of Christ they would of course deny that he was divine but he was a remarkable human.
Todd Miles: And of course the gospel depends upon Jesus being fully divine. Not just the most remarkable human who ever lived. And I would argue that's exactly who Jesus was, right? He absolutely was the most remarkable human being who ever lived. But he was necessarily so much more. He was fully divine. And you know why is this important for Christian living? We need a fully divine Jesus Christ, don't we? We need a fully divine Jesus Christ to die on the cross, to atone for sins. We need a fully divine Jesus Christ to be the heir of the world when he sits eternally on the davidic throne, who recreates the cosmos and rules over it as King of kings and Lord of lords. We need a great high priest who doesn't just ... isn't able to just sympathize with us, because he's fully human. But in the words of Job, who needed an advocate, someone who would put his hand on him and his hand on God and intercede.
Todd Miles: And in Jesus Christ that's what we have. Someone who is fully human, just like us. He can put his hand on us. And someone who is fully divine, the Son of God who can put his had on God and who can advocate for us. Who can act as our arbiter and our in between. And just like everything in the Christian faith and Christian life depends upon the deity of Jesus ... or the humanity of Jesus Christ in many of the same ways. Everything depends upon his full deity as well.
Scott Rae: All right, Todd, let's go back for just a moment to your octogenarian woman who told you she understood Modalism as a result of your Sunday School class. I think of all of the bad ideas about Jesus and about the trinity, that's the one that I hear as most commonly used as an explanation to try and understand what I think is a pretty difficult concept anyway in the trinity. But you make the claim in your book that the Ant-Man movies are actually a pretty good illustration of Modalism. How is that so and then what's really the problem with Modalism?
Todd Miles: Yeah, so I mean I think you're exactly right. I think Modalism is the defacto heretical view of most orthodox Christians, if you can call them orthodox having a heretical view. Because the trinity really is difficult to wrap our minds around.
Scott Rae: And I say intending to be orthodox.
Todd Miles: Oh of course, yeah. Just like you walk into a church and ask them to explain, you know, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Chances are you might hear something that sounds a lot more like you know Modalism or Sabellianism from you know 1800 years ago or 1900 years ago. So Ant-Man. So Hank Pym is the original Ant-Man. He comes up with this scientific way of shrinking the distance between atoms and the molecules and he can shrink down. He marshals them and puts them in a costume, an outfit, and becomes Ant-Man. A little later on, Hank Pym, same guy, figures out how to reverse that whole process and expand the space between you know the atoms and his molecules and such and so on, and can become Giant-Man then. So he becomes Giant-Man. A little later on he has a bit of a nervous breakdown, becomes Yellow Jacket. It's kind of this semi-evil alter ego that he has. Fits him with wings, the whole bit. And so Hank Pym has three personas. Ant-Man, Giant-Man, or Yellow Jacket.
Todd Miles: And the thing is that because Hank Pym is all three of these, he can't be Ant-man and Giant-Man at the same time. If Ant-Man is there, there's no hope whatsoever that Giant-Man is going to appear. If Yellow Jacket is there on the scene, there's no way that Ant-Man or Giant-Man are going to appear. He cannot be all three simultaneously. Because they're just personas, they're just costumes. And that's pretty much exactly what Modalism is. The idea that there's one God, one God, who at different times wears different costumes. Some people broke it down Old Testament, it was God the Father. Gospel period during the incarnation, God appears as Jesus. And then after the ascension and at Pentecost moving forward, God is the Holy Spirit. But he's not all three persons simultaneously. He's not the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Todd Miles: And the interesting thing about this heretical view or bad idea about you know God and Jesus is that even though it persists because it's so easy to understand is it didn't take a big church council to discount this. It just took people reading their bibles, you know? They read something like the account of the baptism of Jesus, where you have Jesus going in the water, God the Father speaking from heaven, and then the Spirit like a dove descending down and landing upon him. So you have all three members of the trinity right there simultaneously. And you know I suppose ... I think I joke in the book that it's possible that Jesus could have been a dove whispering ventriloquist or something and just faked everyone out. But the easiest reading of that would be, well, apparently God the Father and God the Spirit and God the Son are not the same person but they are three persons who exist simultaneously, all being fully equally the one God.
Todd Miles: And then, you know, again why this is important? Well even something like Christian prayer has a logic to it. Jesus taught his disciples to pray. He said, "Pray to the Father." And you know approach that throne of grace. But when you go, go in my name. I'm paving a way for you to go to the Father in my name. So when you ask things in prayer, ask them in my name. And then how do we actually go about this? Well the rest of the New Testament fills it in that we do this in the power of the Spirit. Sometimes the Spirit just prays for us because we don't even know what to pray. And so you know the biblical model of prayer is thoroughly Trinitarian. It's pray to the Father in the name of the Son in the power or in the Spirit doing it. So there's a logic there where each member of the trinity is actually doing something different in this one act of prayer. So it actually matters. It matters a lot.
Sean McDowell: I have to ask you at least one more about these because you mentioned that your favorite superheroes were probably Spider-Man and Batman. At least they're the most popular. I've always loved Spider-Man. He's relatable. And even like these different characters have different ethics they live by. And you know of course Spider-Man is with great power comes great responsibility. It's kind of a biblical idea. He who's given much, much is required. And yet you look at this idea of Spider-Man and his character and explain another common kind of christological heresy through it. We were watching Spider-Man 1 last night and it just came to my mind again but share it with our listeners.
Todd Miles: Okay. Yeah, well, so I should say, too. I said I was a comic book geek. I like the comic book heroes and they were not developed by the writers and the artists by, you know, to subvert the Christian faith.
Sean McDowell: Right.
Todd Miles: Not at all. So you know Spider-Man ... interestingly enough, Spider-Man is I think last time I checked was the most popular, in terms of comic book sales, comic book character out there. And he's very relatable especially to teenagers, you know? Because he's so awkward, he has girl problems, he can't get out of his own way. He just seems imminently relatable. But the interesting thing is that he's not as relatable as what we might think because he's really not human like anyone else is. He's got altered DNA, he's got you know spidey powers, this kind of thing. You know there's different origin stories depending on what era you're in. But it usually has something to do with a radioactive or genetically altered spider that then puts enough venom into him that it alters his own DNA somehow. And so Spider-Man, or Peter Parker at any rate, is like ... he's not fully human and he's not fully a spider. He's this weird hybrid of the two. He's got his own unique nature.
Todd Miles: And in the same way, there was yet another in church history there was this idea that Jesus didn't have two natures, fully human, fully divine. Rather there was a merger of the two. Another guy that would probably illustrate this really well would be Aquaman right now. If people saw the last Aquaman movie, he's you know he's half Atlantian and half human and he can't really find a place anywhere else because everyone knows ... the humans know he's not like them and the Atlantians know he's not like them. And the same way with Spider-Man. And of course then the idea with Jesus is that he has a hybrid, a fusion, of two natures. But when you fuse two natures together, you don't have those two natures anymore, do you? You have something of a unique kind.
Todd Miles: And that presents all sorts of problems for Christianity and the gospel, because it's really important that Jesus be absolutely authentically fully human if he's going to substitute for us, if he's going to be our great high priest. If he's going to do pretty much anything the Bible says that Jesus does. And it's equally as important that he be fully divine. And you know because if he's not, then he can't actually atone for all the sins of the world by anyone's model of the atonement. It's the deity of Christ is hugely important. Nor can he do any of the things that we are counting on Jesus to do going forward.
Todd Miles: It's you know the language of Chalcedon, you know it's one of those ecumenical councils from 451 where there's this creed that most Christian's aren't even aware of. If you ask them are you a Chalcedonian Christian they'd probably look at you like you'd asked them if you had some disease or something.
Scott Rae: Right.
Todd Miles: But of course everyone ... we all are Chalcedonian Christians, right? We believe that Jesus Christ contained in his one person two natures. Two natures. A fully divine nature, a fully human nature. Those natures are not mixed up. They are united but they're not separable in his person. It's just ... and a language of this is, as difficult as it is, the church struggled for a while. But they hammered it out at Chalcedon and it's guided the church ever since. And I think the reason it's guided the church ever since is because it makes the most sense out of all the biblical data. And it rests upon the gospel. The logic of the gospel is at home with Chalcedonian language, the two natures in the one person of Jesus Christ.
Sean McDowell: Well Todd, your book is excellent. I have a ton more questions I would love to ask you about. The Thor heresy, Green Lantern, The Hulk, and so on. But it'll give me an excuse to encourage our listeners to check out your book Superheroes Can't Save You. And I'll really say you've managed to take these historical questions, theological questions, make them interesting, make them relevant, and make them memorable. So just kudos to you for writing a great book and I really hope our listeners will pick it up. I was sharing with you offline that last night, before the interview, at dinner with my kids who ... I have three kids but my 14 year old and my six year old were there. I said, "Hey, guys, take a look at this book. Do you realize Superman teaches this?" You know I had their attention for 12 or 15 minutes, but enough for them to kind of-
Todd Miles: That's like forever.
Sean McDowell: I know. For a kid, I actually ... I said, "Well what about Spider-Man? And Thor?" And it really was just a wonderful teaching tool. So again I hope our listeners will check it out. But thank you for writing a great book and for coming on this show.
Todd Miles: Well thanks so much. It's really encouraging. Thank you.
Sean McDowell: This has been an episode of the podcast Think Biblically, Conversations on Faith and Culture. To learn more about us and today's guest, Professor Todd Miles, and to find more episodes go to Biola.edu/ThinkBiblically. That's Biola.edu/ThinkBiblically. If you enjoyed today's conversation, give us a rating on your podcast app and share it with a friend. Thanks for listening and remember, think biblically about everything.