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Have you ever wondered why we find certain superheroes so appealing? Take Spider-Man for instance. You start with Peter Parker, a normal guy who snaps pictures for the school paper. He sees the world much like we do, albeit through a camera lens. Suddenly the mother of all spider bites sends him climbing the walls battling evil. Oh, he's still Peter Parker. He eats, sleeps and puts on his red and blue jumpsuit one leg at a time just like the rest of us. But he's special.

Or how about Superman? While not a native of Earth (he was sent here as a baby from another galaxy), he's mortal, speaks perfect English and looks like a GQ cover boy. Yet mild-mannered Clark Kent also possesses amazing strength, plus the ability to fly and see through things. Like Spidey, Hulk, Flash, The X-Men and countless other beloved characters, he is simultaneously human and superhuman—a person who can intimately relate to mankind, yet is uniquely empowered to save humanity from its current malaise.

Sound like anyone you know?

A Champion for the Ages
I believe we are wired by our Creator to resonate with that kind of hero. Jesus Christ arrived on this cosmic dirt clod as a baby, fully divine, yet fully man. He got hungry, thirsty and tired, just as we do. He was a blue-collar laborer. He laughed, loved and cried. He knew betrayal and pain. Hebrews 5:15 says, "For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet without sin."

At the appointed time, Jesus shed his secret identity—a carpenter whose time had "not yet come" (John 2:4)—and began working miracles, displaying amazing spiritual strength and yes, even seeing through things (including a Samaritan woman in John 4:16-19). He came to rescue us. Not by soaring through town in a flashy red cape, but by humbly enlisting us into his own heavenly Justice League before heroically laying down his life. He is the one uniquely empowered to save humanity from its eternal malaise.

Throughout history, cultures have concocted second-rate saviors that tap into people's inherent need for a man-god. The most popular hero in Greek mythology was Hercules, sired by Zeus and born of a mortal woman. Destined to be the lord of his people, Hercules looked, walked and talked like your rank-and-file Athenian, yet exhibited extraordinary strength and went on to rule as an immortal god on Mount Olympus. Or so the story goes.

I'm not suggesting that Superman and his comic book peers are dangerous mythological counterfeits out to distract us from the one who truly deserves our affection. We simply need to connect the dots back to Jesus. After all, He's the genuine article.

Iron Man: A Stark Contrast
Of course, not every colorful hero of biblical proportions is a metaphor for Christ. One recent example—with an origin story that reads like Acts 7:51-8:3 and 9:1-31—resembles the spiritual journey that turned Saul of Tarsus into the apostle Paul.

Before becoming Iron Man, millionaire playboy/inventor Tony Stark simply cruised casinos, consumed alcohol and amassed sexual conquests as cavalierly as James Bond. Unlike 007, however, he didn't thwart warlords; he armed them. That is until a missile demonstration ended with Stark's capture by a murderous Middle Eastern dissident who ordered him to build a weapon of mass destruction. He escaped by using the materials to forge tricked-out battle armor. In the process, Stark had the Marvel Comics equivalent of a Damascus Road experience. He repented of his past and pledged to help the very people he'd been hurting, aided by a novel power source and high-tech exoskeleton that conforms to his body Transformers-style.

Something else about Iron Man's unique origin story makes it special: No radioactive spider bite. No exposure to gamma rays. Stark wasn't accidentally endowed with new skills. Rather, his heroic journey mirrors an arrogant sinner coming to grips with his own depravity, choosing to change and battle forces of darkness.

The Ultimate Supervillain
Speaking of forces of darkness, the parallels between fact and fiction don't stop with the good guys. Nearly every superhero must contend with a supervillain, usually a disgruntled megalomaniac bent on ruling or destroying mankind. Just as Spider-Man battled the Green Goblin high above the city streets, the Lord and his angels war against forces of darkness on our behalf in heavenly realms. There has never been a more ambitious, frustrated or vengeful supervillain than Satan, the scheming, lying adversary of Jesus who himself wears disguises to conceal his true identity (2 Corinthians 11:13-15). Just as we shouldn't lose sight of Christ's ultimate heroism, it would be equally unwise to underestimate the real supervillain currently at large.

With Iron Man 2 on everyone's mind right now, our children and the culture at large are once again primed for a conversation about the deeper significance of superheroes. Hollywood has handed us a golden opportunity to help fans of all ages see the power of redemption and how modern heroes can point to mankind's inner longing for rescue by the real Savior.

Published May 2010