Many were upset by Batman v. Superman because their heroes seem to become corrupted. (After all, why would Batman be fighting Superman?) But this movie addresses more theologically rich questions about God, evil, and our culture than any other Batman film.
As one reviewer put it, “It may be a good movie, a bad movie, or anything in between, but it is without question an important film today, and a quintessential product of the America we inhabit.”[i]
To see why, let’s start with Superman.
Superman is probably the superhero most obviously patterned after Christ. Superman’s father (Jor-El) sends his only son to earth to save people from a rebellion, although he knows that humanity will almost certainly reject his son. He comes as an infant and stays disguised as Clark Kent until his appointed time to save the world (age thirty-three), at which time he helps people by using his other-worldly powers and abilities. He experiences suffering and death before rising from the dead to save the world. (And there are several other parallels).[ii]
So why are people against Superman? And why are Lex Luthor and Batman trying to kill him?
The answer lies in one of the most vexing questions of all time: If there is a good God, why is there evil? Why doesn’t He stop it! The film states this question and explores it directly.
After we see flashbacks to the murder of Bruce’s parents, Bruce is racing through Metropolis trying to save people from the explosions and falling buildings that are the collateral damage from Superman’s battle with General Zod at the end of Man of Steel. He comes across one of his employees, Wallace Keith, whose legs are pinned under a steel beam. After removing the beam, he races to save a young girl from falling debris.
Bruce looks angrily up at the flying Superman, the supposed cause of all this mayhem. The look on his face questions the goodness of Superman. He’s supposed to be a savior? He’s causing all of this damage and would have let this girl die. What kind of a god is he? Despite the fact that Superman is trying to save the world from General Zod, Bruce comes to see Superman as a threat to humanity.
Bruce Wayne: He has the power to wipe out the entire human race, and if we believe there’s even a one-percent chance that he is our enemy, we have to take it as an absolute certainty . . . and we have to destroy him.
Alfred: But he is not our enemy!
Bruce Wayne: Not today. Twenty years in Gotham, Alfred; we’ve seen what promises are worth. How many good guys are left? How many stayed that way?
It makes sense to be concerned about someone getting too much power. They are likely to abuse that power and use it for evil. History confirms that. Abraham Lincoln put it well: “Nearly all men can handle adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” Lex Luthor sounds the alarm about granting too much power when he says to Senator June Finch, “Do you know the oldest lie in America, Senator? It’s that power can be innocent.”
Although, curiously, few of us think that truth applies to us personally. We are not distrustful of ourselves when we get power. Lex Luthor is not concerned that he has too much power. We all think we can handle it—that we can use it innocently. It’s all those other people we need to watch out for.
Meanwhile, Wallace Keith, who not only lost his legs but his family in the fallout, climbs up and spray paints “False God” in big red letters on the city’s Superman statue. If anyone considers Superman a god, you’re now warned that he’s not a good god.
Lex Luthor has the same negative assessment of Superman and God. After throwing Lois Lane off the top of a building to attract Superman to his location, Lex launches into a scathing putdown of Superman:
We’ve got problems up here—the problem of evil in the world . . . the problem of YOU on top of everyone else; you above all; because that’s what God is!
Lex reveals he’s upset that God didn’t save him from his abusive father. This motivates his rebellion against God and Superman, who both put themselves over human beings. Next, Lex cites the classic problem stated by the Greek philosopher Epicurus (341–270 BC): “I figured out way back, if God is all powerful, He cannot be all good. And if He is all good, then He cannot be all powerful.”
He then applies it to Superman as if he’s the god of this world, “And neither can you! [The people of this world] need to see the fraud you are with their eyes—the blood on your hands!”
According to Lex and Wallace, Superman is a false god who needs to be exposed for the fraud that he is. Lex eventually gets Superman to bend to his will, which is a satisfying turn: God bends to him rather than the other way around. He also tells Senator June Finch that “devils don’t come from beneath us, they come from the sky.”
Notice that Lex and Wallace have disdain for God based on their personal experience with evil. A good God would have stopped my abusive dad; a good God would have protected me from injury and my family from death.
This is such a common expectation that the Bible writers raise the same complaints to God, especially in Job and the Psalms. The New Testament writers, and even Jesus Himself, address the problem of evil in different ways as well. We don’t have space to address all of that here,[iii] but we can point out here that evil does not disprove God—it actually shows that God does exist.
How so? Because evil can’t exist without good, and good can’t exist without an objective standard of good, which is God’s nature. This began to make sense to the great Christian scholar Augustine (AD 354–430) when he realized that evil can’t exist on its own. Evil only exists as a lack or a deficiency in a good thing.[iv]
Evil is like cancer: if you take all of the cancer out of your body, you have a better body; if you take the body out of the cancer, you have nothing because cancer can’t exist on its own—it needs something good (a body) in which to exist. Evil is like rust on a car: if you take all of the rust out of a car, you have a better car; if you take the car out of the rust, you have nothing. In other words, evil is a parasite in good. That’s why we often describe evil as negations of good things. We say someone is immoral, unjust, unfair, dishonest, etc.
We could put it another way: the shadows prove the sunshine. There can be sunshine without shadows, but there can’t be shadows without sunshine. That is, there can be good without evil, but there can’t be evil without good; and there can’t be objective good without God. So evil may show there’s a devil out there, but it can’t disprove God. Evil actually boomerangs back to show that God is real.
Now, we can certainly question why God allows certain evils, as the biblical authors and Lex Luthor do. But to answer that God is not good would defeat the objection itself. Without God there is no good, which means there would be no evil. If there is no evil, then what is Lex Luthor complaining about? The objection evaporates. Only by stealing the standard of good from God can anyone even know what evil is.
Notice that Lex Luthor complains that God did not stop his father from hurting him. But Lex does not complain that God hasn’t stopped him from hurting Lois Lane, Martha Kent, Batman, or Superman. Lex expects God to stay out of his business when he is hurting others. He only wants God to stop people from hurting him.
We do the same thing. We ask God to stop other people from doing evil, but we rarely ask God to stop us.
What about God not being all-powerful? That claim doesn’t square with the facts either. First, we have other grounds for believing God is all-powerful (like the fact that He created the universe out of nothing and fine-tuned the universe with unimaginable precision).
Second, being all powerful doesn’t mean that God can do contradictory things. For example, God can’t force free creatures to never do evil because then they wouldn’t be free. And if we are not free, then we wouldn’t have the ability to love or be morally responsible. Good and evil wouldn’t even exist in a robot world.
Third, we can’t see how the trillions of interacting choices in this world ripple forward to impact time and eternity. God might have morally sufficient reasons for allowing evil to continue. It might bring forth good down the line, even though we can’t see the ultimate outcome from our limited perspective.
The claim that evil exists because God isn’t all-powerful or all good ignores another aspect of God’s nature—the fact that God is all-knowing. In other words, God is all-wise. Since He knows how things are going to turn out eventually, God wisely allows events that don’t make sense to us right now to take their course.
In fact, God’s character and power guarantees good will come from evil to those who love Him (Romans 8:28). That’s why a former pastor at Notre Dame in Paris once said, “If God would concede me His omnipotence for twenty-four hours, you would see how many changes I would make in the world. But if He gave me His wisdom too, I would leave things as they are.”[v]
[i] Matthew Rosa, “‘Batman v. Superman’ isn’t a flop: A superhero movie that questions absolute power is tailor-made for 2016,” Salon, March 29, 2016, https://www.salon.com/2016/03/29/batman_v_superman_isnt_a_flop_a_superhero_movie_that_questions_absolute_power_is_tailor_made_for_2016/.
[ii] See Austin Gentry, “Superman Parallels Jesus in 11 ways,” AustinGentry.com, June 15, 2013, https://www.austingentry.com/superman-parallels-jesus-in-11-ways/.
[iii] For more, see my (Frank’s) book, Stealing from God: Why Atheists Need God to Make their Case.
[iv] Since evil is a privation in good, the ultimate Being, God, cannot be evil. And there cannot be two co-equal opposing forces of good and evil. In chapter two of Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis writes: “To be bad, [the devil] must exist and have intelligence and will. But existence, intelligence and will are in themselves good. Therefore he must be getting them from the Good Power: even to be bad he must borrow or steal from his opponent. And do you now begin to see why Christianity has always said that the devil is a fallen angel? That is not a mere story for the children. It is a real recognition of the fact that evil is a parasite, not an original thing. The powers which enable evil to carry on are powers given it by goodness. All the things which enable a bad man to be effectively bad are in themselves good things-resolution, cleverness, good looks, existence itself. That is why Dualism, in a strict sense, will not work.”
[v] This quotation is attributed to Jacques-Marie-Louis Monsabré.