Lex Luthor vs. Maximus the Confessor: An Apophatic Response to Atheism


Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor in Batman vs. Superman

Warning: This Post Contains Spoilers

As nerds around the world fume over, what many agree is “a crime against comic book fans” and “the worst superhero film of all time“, one aspect of Zack Snyder’s controversial new film, Batman vs. Superman, has yet to be analyzed. I am, of course, referring to: (SPOILER ALERT) Lex Luthor’s argument for the nonexistence of God.

Moments before the film’s climatic battle between two of the worlds most beloved heroes, the insidious Lex Luthor–portrayed in this film as a sort of morbid cross between Mark Zuckerberg, Victor Frankenstein, and Jim Carrey–delivers a good-ole-fashion super-villain monologue. One that explains his motivation for seeking to destroy Superman (a seemingly all powerful, godlike, being who writes the sports section at a local newspaper) and reveals the movie’s true meaning. That’s right folks, Batman vs. Superman is not merely a superhero flick; it’s an allegory.

Lex Luthor is the personification of New Atheist Post-Enlightenment ideology: a zealous scientist hellbent on proving to the world that God (i.e., Superman) is neither omnipotent nor omnibenevolent and, thus, a sham. Batman represents man’s struggle (unwittingly spurred on by Luthor’s ideology) to overcome and ultimately defeat the God delusion; a delusion that many claim is harmless–and even beneficial–yet has the potential to destroy humanity. In short, Luthor’s speech reveals that the true conflict in this film is not between Batman and Superman; but, between man and God . . . or, at least, a particular conception of God.

As a philosopher, I found this subversive underlying theme intriguing. Not the least of which, because it affords me the shameless opportunity to use pop-culture as a platform for having a serious philosophical discussion. Also, because it affords me the chance to correct several common misconceptions.

Stated succinctly, Lex Luthor’s idea of God is so far removed from traditional Classical Theism (CT) it’s laughable. To demonstrate this, I will contrast Luthor’s conception of divinity with that of one of the greatest ancient exponents of CT: St. Maximus the Confessor. Then I will show how St. Maximus’ apophatic approach to theology provides a powerful response to Luthor’s argument for the nonexistence of God.

We shall begin by examining Luthor’s conception of the divine, and his argument, a little more closely.

God as Man Writ Large

Lex Luthor holds a grossly anthropomorphic view of the Divine Essence. His picture of ‘God’ is simply ‘man writ large’.  In other words, he imagines God is something like a human being; only with unlimited power, unlimited knowledge, and unlimited goodness.

These are all attributes Superman appears to possess: he is virtually an unstoppable and indestructible being, he can listen to any conversation, or radio transmission, or TV broadcast, around the world, and has unlimited access to a Kryptonian super computer–containing virtually all the knowledge in the known universe–and seems completely unimpeachable.

Luthor’s conception of God–which I’m going to call the omniGod thesis–entails the Divine attributes are essential properties of the Divine Essence.  In other words, for Luthor, what it is to be God is to have: unlimited power, unlimited knowledge, and unlimited goodness.

Copy of Lex Luthor's God2It is precisely this conception of the divinity (or something like it) that many contemporary arguments for the nonexistence of God are aimed at. One popular line of reasoning goes like this: If we identify something from general experience that conflicts with the notion that a single being possessing one or more of the divine attributes actually exists, then we can show that God (who, just is, a single being possessing all of the divine attributes listed) does not exist.

Atheists, utilizing this type of argument, typically point to the fact of gratuitous evil to demonstrate that no omnipotent and omnibenevolent being actually exits. According to them, if such a being actually existed, it would, necessarily, ensure there was no gratuitous evil. In other words, if the omniGod thesis where true there would be no gratuitous evil. Since, however, we do experience evil, we can only conclude that God–conceived of as an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent being–does not exist.

Lex Luthor's God

The argument above is what philosophers call the problem of evil. Interestingly, Lex Luthor utilizes a similar line of reasoning in his climatic rooftop monologue. In this speech, it becomes crystal clear that his stupid-elaborate plan to wrangle Batman and Superman into a gladiator style battle is motivated by his determination to prove the Man of Steel does not posses the essential properties needed to be divine.

If Superman loses, and Batman kills him, he is not omnipotent. If Superman wins, and brings Batman’s head to Luthor, he is not omnibenevolent.  As a backup plan, Luthor also hacks into the source of Superman’s omniscience (i.e., the Kryptonian super-computer) and uses it to create an abomination that will totally obliterate the Man of Steel; thereby proving he is neither omniscient nor omnipotent. No matter what, the outcome of Luthor’s allegorical battle will prove, definitively, that: God is Dead!

St. Maximus and the Apophatic Way

In stark contrast to the omniGod thesis, Classical Theism (CT) has never pictured God as ‘man writ large’. Rather, it says God is so radically distinct, so different, so transcendent, that he is literally beyond understanding. Which is just another way of saying: we have no idea what God is! In fact, because he defies all human categories, and human thought, we can never know what God is. St. Maximus put it like this:

“God is one, unoriginate [i.e., he has no beginning or end or cause or explanation], incomprehensible . . . altogether excluding notions of when and how, inaccessible to all, and not to be known through natural image by any creature.”

When he says God is “inaccessible to all”, he is not claiming it is impossible to have a relationship with God. Remember, he is using metaphysical language. What he means is, ‘God’s Essence’ or ‘Divine Nature’–what it is to be God–is inaccessible to the human intellect. Rest assured, St. Maximus strongly emphasizes the fact that we can enter into a direct personal relationship with God in his other writings. The point, in this passage, is to establish that we have no idea what God’s essential properties are.

He goes on to explain that the Divine Essence stands in marked contrast to created being which, according to St. Maximus, can be understood and lead us to believe God exists:

“Created beings are termed intelligible because each of them has an origin that can be known rationally. But God cannot be termed intelligible, while from our apprehension of intelligible beings we can do no more than believe that He exists. On this account no intelligible being is in any way to be compared with Him. Created beings can be known rationally by means of the inner principles which are by nature intrinsic to such beings and by which they are naturally defined. But from our apprehension of these principles inherent in created beings we can do no more than believe that God exists.”

In other words, creation (which encompasses everything in existence outside of God) is fundamentally intelligible. This means it is possible for the human intellect to grasp it, to define it, and to explain it. The Creator, however, exists outside of the universe; and we simply can not grasp the nature of something outside the universe. We can, according to Maximus, know that the Creator exits; but we can’t say what he is.

Classical Theism: Radical Ontological Distinction Between Creator and Creation

classical theism

 

An Apophatic Response to Atheism

It may have occurred to you, by now, that CT is completely immune to arguments for the nonexistence of God like Lex Luthor’s. Why? Because Lex Luthor style arguments are aimed at the omniGod thesis; which assumes God’s attributes are His essential properties.

According to proponents of CT like St. Maximus, this couldn’t be further from the truth. For him, the attributes are either negative statements (with no positive content) or grounded in God’s energies (i.e., his active presence in the world). For example, to say that God is omnipotent is really just to say: God does not lack power. This is a negative–or, apophatic–statement with no positive content.

Positive statements can be made, but are made in reference to God’s energies (not to His essence). For example, when we say that God is good or just, we are not referring to His essence but to His energies. We come to believe God is good or just because he reveals Himself as good or just through His real presence and interaction, in history, with people and in the world.

All things considered, Lex Luthor is, not only, a disappointing super-villain, but a lackluster philosopher.

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There is no “Us or Them”


“We reject the either or
They can’t define us anymore
Cause if it’s us or them
It’s us for them
It’s us for them”

– Gungor

Last year Gungor released a delightfully dark, lyrically deep, and musically sophisticated album entitled I Am Mountain. Michael Gungor, the band’s founder and front man, also wrote an honest and insightful blog exploring his doubts about biblical literalism and fundamentalism. As a result, they were heavily criticized and even anathematized by many conservative evangelicals (Cf. Ken Ham, Q90 FM Radio, & Al Mohler).

On a personal note, I was living in Wake Forest at the time the controversy broke out and very disappointed when, at the last minute, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary canceled a Gungor concert I had been planning to attend for six months.

Gungor recently released a new song entitled “Us for Them” (which is embedded above). I find the song both moving and inspiring; especially in the wake of the tragedy in Charleston and the backlash regarding the recent Supreme Court ruling on same sex marriage. Nevertheless, I suspect, it will only embroil Gungor in even more controversy.

The reason for this is simple: it calls for us to love unconditionally. 

Rejecting the Either/Or

Gungor’s song decries our fallen tendency to divid people into categories (e.g., white/black, cool/uncool, rich/poor, educated/ignorant, gay/straight, etc.), to stigmatize and judge, and to segregate and hate. This is the either/or that Gungor rejects and which fuels their declamation against those who would “define us”. Many, however, will misunderstand the message. They will, instead, interpret it as an attack on objective truth.

After all, one might argue that, to reject the either/or distinction is to violate the law of non-contradiction; literally to say that A is both A and Not-A at the same time and in the same sense. If this is true,”Us for Them” advocates the logically absurd and is, ultimately, a misguided call for us to embrace moral relativism.

To interpret the song in this way, however, would be misguided. For Gungor is not attacking the laws of logic, nor are they denying the possibility of objective truth. They are, in fact, doing the exact opposite. They are affirming the objective existence of the God who is love and who loves all men unconditionally; and calling for us to follow His example. 

Two Ways of Viewing Humanity

Broadly speaking, there are two ways of viewing humanity. The first way denies that human beings have an essential nature–i.e., a “what-it-is” to be human. According to this view, humanity is merely a random collection of accidental properties and what it is to be human is contingent upon the vacillating whims of society and individuals.

The second way affirms human beings have an essential nature–i.e., that there is a “what-it-is” to be human. According to this view, humanity is more than a mere random collection of accidental properties and what it is to be human is an objective feature of reality. This means that what it is to be human does not depend upon accidental features of individual human beings (e.g., the color of your skin, your social status, your sexual orientation, etc.).

Christianity views humanity in the second way.  It maintains people are essentially good, in as much as they are made in the image and likeness of God. For the Christian, all human beings are intrinsically valuable and worthy of love in spite of their accidental properties. This means that you are valuable, you have dignity and worth, and are lovable, in spite of the way you look, the level of your IQ, or the things you’ve done.

It is the second way of viewing humanity, through the eyes of Christ, that Gungor’s new song champions. As such it stands squarely against those who define and judge other human beings in terms of some accidental feature of their existence. It is, thus, opposed to any worldview that would cause us to hate another human being due to their race, age, religion, or sexual orientation.

“Our Only War is Love”

To reject the either/or–i.e. humanities fallen tendency to divid, categorize, and judge others based upon accidental features of their existence–is to call for us to love one anther as Jesus does: unconditionally.

To embrace the way of love is literally to wage war on our fallen dispositions and against the fallen world system. It is to stare in the face of ISIS with open arms, as Jesus did on the cross: praying for the very people who murdered him.  It is to look at all of humanity, regardless of their sins, and to see the very image of God; to see that there is no “us or them.”

It seems appropriate to close with these words from St. Maximus the Confessor:

“For him who is perfect in love and has reached the summit of dispassion there is no difference between his own or another’s, or between Christians and unbelievers, or between slave and free, or even between male and female. But because he has risen above the tyranny of the passions and has fixed his attention on the single nature of man, he looks on all in the same way and shows the same disposition to all. For in him there is neither Greek nor Jew, male nor female, bond nor free, but Christ who ‘is all, and in all”

The Cosmic Importance of the Incarnation


Why did God become man?  Was this simply a reaction to Adam and Eve’s fall into sin?  Is the Incarnation merely contingent upon this event?  Or is there more to this story?

When I was a Protestant I often focused exclusively on one aspect of the Incarnation–namely its leading to the death of Christ and the atonement for sins.  While this is obviously of central importance (Christ most certainly did come to lay down his life for the world) it can lead to some misconceived and even detrimental notions.  One of them being that the Incarnation was simply an “accident”; namely, that it was not absolutely essential for the redemption of creation.  For many Protestants (not all) the Incarnation is viewed as merely a reaction to a particular event – the Fall of man into sin – rather than part of the cosmic destiny of creation itself.

I had this conversation in a course in philosophical theology I took last Fall.  Having read multiple essay’s written in defense of Calvin’s notion of penal substitutionary atonement we engaged in a rather lively class discussion.  Several of my classmates seemed to view the Incarnation itself as superfluous to our salvation and destiny.  Everything, for them, hinged upon Christ taking our sins upon himself, dying on the cross, and satiating the wrath of God.  Some didn’t even seem to find the mode of Christ’s death necessary–it was merely the “best possible way” to both satiate God’s wrath and offer an example for us to live by.  To be fair, this view was not held by everyone in class, but did seem to be the predominate view of the author’s we were discussing.

This stands in marked contrast to the Catholic (and I include here Eastern Orthodox as well) tradition which understand’s the Incarnation to be more than a contingent event; a mere accidental happening in the history of the world.  Consider this statement made by Peter Kreeft:

“Jesus is not merely the universe’s savior; He is the universe’s purpose.  The Incarnation was not a last-minute fix-it operation.  And it was not undone in the Ascension.  He is still incarnate, still with us.  He is with us in different ways.  He is with us through the material things, for He created them and He sanctified all matter by incarnating Himself in matter.”

From the perspective of Catholic theology it has always been God’s intention to unite creation to Himself in an intimate way.  In this sense the Incarnation was inevitable.  Consider this, often neglected passage, from St. Paul:

“For he [Christ] has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fulness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Ephesians 1:9-10).

While the Incarnation clearly has soteriological implications, leading to forgiveness of sins and personal salvation, it is also a cosmic event.  It is God’s plan to unite all things, in heaven and on earth, to perfect creation, and to offer creation a share in His eternal reality.

In the words of St. Maximus the Confessor:

“Because of Christ–or rather, the whole mystery of Christ [i.e., the Incarnation]–all the ages of time and the beings within those ages have received their beginning and end in Christ.  For the union between a limit of the ages and limitlessness, between measure and immeasurability, between finitude and infinity, between Creator and creation, between rest and motion, was conceived before the ages.  This union has been manifested in Christ at the end of time, and in itself brings God’s foreknowledge to fulfillment . . .”

Christ is not only the creator of the universe but its telos, its end and purpose.  From this standpoint the Incarnation has much broader implications than the forgiveness of sins (although this is surely a central part of it).  The Incarnation is not simply a reaction to the Fall of mankind but is mankind’s destiny.  It is only from this perspective that we can arrive at the necessity of the Incarnation and appreciate the full scope of God’s redemptive work.