Comic books aren’t just for kids. You probably know that, but sometimes, a guy just needs to defend his reading list. As part of my attempt to have a balanced Summer, I’ve been reading some books on discipleship, prayer, theology, technology, and comic books. To that end, I just finished Brian Azzarello’s 2004-05 Superman run For Tomorrow, and I thought that it makes a really great point about the nature of salvation and the universe’s need for hell.
The story takes place about a year after a million people suddenly vanish from the Earth. Superman, overcome with guilt because he was away when this all occurred, takes to confessing/confiding in a parish priest. Over the course of the comic, the source of the “Vanishing” turns out to be one of his enemies—who didn’t see that coming?—but there’s still quite a twist to this. Now, without giving away too many spoilers, one of the plot lines involves Superman trying to save the world, and he makes this incredible statement:
“I felt [Jor-El] didn’t do enough [in saving me and not Krypton] and now I’ve done too much. For I’ve learned, what doesn’t want to be saved, can’t be.”
Superman had once again tried to save humanity only to have his intentions questions and his actions reviled. In fact, some of those who had been saved were so furious at the Big Blue Boy Scout that they decided to wage war against him. It’s in this context that Superman made his realization about saving those who don’t want it.
The World’s Demand for Universalism
No one likes the idea of hell and understandably so. However, most people believe in some form of the after life. Generally, they proclaim “heaven” as their final destination, describing it as a paradise open to all good people—though the definition of “good” is quite subjective. You see, almost all of those who believe in heaven also believe that they’re good enough to get in. It seems that “good,” in the public sphere, is a pretty broad category. Probably, the only folks to not make the divine cut are serial killers, mass murderers, and everyone involved in 2011’s Green Lantern.
The general public want/expect God to be a universalist. They’re banking on the idea that everyone will somehow make it into heaven, that everything they’d heard in church ended up being a bluff, a threat to make them behave while living here. Everyone thinks they want everyone to be saved, but that’s the opposite of what’s going to happen.
Comic Book Comparisons
Superman has long been compared to Jesus, so I won’t a lot of time repaving that road. I will, however, use what Superman did as a preview of what might happen if the universalists get what they want. Superman’s plan to save humanity worked, but not everyone liked it. They saw his mercy as an imposition upon their free will. Suddenly, these “good” people were upset with the one who’d saved them and began to express that anger in the form of rebellion. They began to wage a war against paradise and the very person who’d brought them to it.
You see, Superman had physically saved these people. They’re location changed, but their hearts remained the same. People aren’t good by nature, even though we want to believe that. Most people want to be good, but in their heart of hearts, they know that they struggle with selfishness, anger, lust, etc. Superman can save lives, but he can’t saved souls.
Paul says in Colossians 1:13 that God has saved us, rescued us, or delivered us from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light of Jesus. Our location has changed spiritually: God saves and changes the inside first. He will, however, come back to rescue us physically, as well, bringing us to a new world, a second paradise to replace the one we lost when we sinned.
The issue here is that most people, including Christians, are semi-materialists: they think of the physical first and the spiritual second, if at all. These people think to themselves, “I’ve never stolen or killed someone, so I’m a good person.” They think that sin or evil starts with the action, but Jesus made it clear to us in Matthew 5 that sin starts in the heart. I doubt that many, if any, of you reading this have murdered anyone, but as much I doubt that, I’m sure that all of us have committed murder in our hearts. Or adultery. Or theft. Or a whole host of other despicable acts that we’d be embarrassed to admit to ourselves or others.
Superman’s paradise turn into hell because the people brought their brought the sin and wickedness of this fallen world with them. If God were to allow everyone into heaven, the same would happen because not everyone has been prepared for eternity. Their hearts have to be changed, turned from small, inwardly-focused hearts to huge, outwardly-focused hearts eager and excited to love others. Heaven would not be heaven if even part of its population didn’t want to be there. Furthermore, to even think of heaven as merely a paradisiacal setting for the after life is to miss a key component—no! the only component—of eternal life.
In John 17:3, Jesus said that eternal life is to know (relationally) God and Himself. Heaven isn’t paradise because it’s a perfected version of this word; it’s a perfect world because it’s where God resides and that perfection extends to us via relationship with Him. Beyond all of this, in the very first place, we call it “eternal life,” not because we become eternal when we leave this world but because we enter into eternity, God’s eternity, when we are finally restored to a full relationship with Him.
We need a savior, not just a super hero. Heroes might save lives, but they can’t change us, can’t save our souls from the implosive power of sin. We all want to go to heaven, but we won’t all make it there. That might sound depressing, but the real tragedy is not that we all won’t enter into paradise but that so many will refuse to enter into paradise because it would mean surrendering to God’s authority and accepting Him as their King. The way has been made clear so that all who will accept His terms can enter in; He will not force them. For in doing so, in forcing the unrepentant, unregenerate sinner into heaven, would make it hell—for the sinner and for the saint.