Ancient mythologies and modern-day superheroes spring from a common source: humanity’s deep aspiration to understand and control the world around us.  But how has science changed our view of superpowers? And what is the point of miracles in a scientific age?

How has science changed superheroes?

The ability of today’s superheroes to manipulate natural forces often surpasses the powers of the classical deities.  Storm from the X-Men, for example, has far greater power to control lightning and weather than the Greek god Zeus.  But while the gods and goddesses of ancient mythology served a dual purpose – explaining how nature worked and having magical powers to control it – today’s superheroes have lost part of their job description.   The original Thor served as an explanation of thunder, as well as being able to fly and wield a magical hammer.  As a modern superhero, Thor retains his control and magical powers, but he has lost his explanatory role.

This transition from a desire to explain and control nature, to one of just control is a natural result of the scientific revolution. Once we understand how storms really work, we no longer need “magical” explanations.  But we still have superhuman desires: to be stronger, faster, flying, and invisible.  It is partly these desires that have kept superheroes alive.

Magic, or just hard science?

Superpowers divide into two categories: the “truly magical” – violations of physical laws – and the “technologically challenging.” For example, the superpower of flight does not violate any laws of physics.  We have plenty of examples of flight from birds, to insects, to airplanes, to helicopters. The challenge with flight is how to enable flight for a single human being with no obvious form of propulsion or lift!

The physics of invisibility is challenging, but surprisingly doable. The key is the ability to bend light. This is at the forefront of technology, with advances in our understanding occurring at a surprisingly rapid pace. The invisibility cloak may not be so far away!

But then there are the superpowers that just violate too many laws of physics and must be assumed to be impossible. Shapeshifting of almost any type falls into this category.  At its core, it runs into issues of conservation of mass and the Second Law of Thermodynamics that put very strict limits on the processes that would be needed to shapeshift.  Shifting to a blob may be possible, but getting back your original shape is not going to happen!

Jesus: mythical god, superhero, or neither?

What does all this mean for Jesus – the miracle working figure most widely believed in across the globe today?  First, it is critical to understand that the miracles of Jesus are different from the powers of ancient gods. Jesus’s miracles are not used to explain nature. In fact, most miracles in the Bible are not explanations of how nature works, but explanations of God and God’s relationship with us. Second, while Jesus’ miracles take the classic formulation of “magical” occurrences that were either used, like superpowers, to resonant with our desire to control nature, or in a more traditional sense as a sign of a person of power, they add a twist.  Jesus turns power on its head and uses miracles not primarily as a sign of control over the physical, but as a sign of his power to forgive and to transform lives.

Perhaps one of the clearest examples of this is the story in Luke’s gospel of the people who lower their paralyzed friend through the roof of the house for Jesus to heal (Luke 5:17-26). Jesus shocks everyone, not by healing the person, but by forgiving his sins! In fact, when Jesus does heal the man, He explicitly states that He is doing so that everyone there will understand that He has the divine power to forgive sins!

So what?

As a Christian, the realization that Jesus’ goal with His miracles was to transform lives, not just to control nature, presents me with a challenge. Instead of focusing on Jesus’s miracles as magical moments or puzzles to try to explain with science, I must answer this question: what challenge is Jesus presenting to me to transform lives?

If our contemporary superheroes still inspire us to push the boundaries of technology and contemplate flight and invisibility, how much more should the miracles of Jesus inspire us to forgive unconditionally and to lead transformed lives?

Michael Dennin is a Professor of Physics and Astronomy and Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning at UC Irvine.  He has appeared on a number of television programs, including Spider-man Tech, Batman Tech, Star Wars Tech, and Ancient Aliens.  He is author of the book, Divine Science: Finding Reason at the Heart of Faith.

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