Not long ago, I had the chance to interact with a college sophomore, the son of a friend of mine. The conversation turned to religion, and I asked him what his experience at college so far had done to the Christian faith in which he had been raised. Nothing good, it seemed. He said that his thinking on religion had been changing, and that he now viewed Christianity as largely well-intentioned but a mixture of myth and metaphor.
In my last post, I outlined a few ideas about how one could respond to the first part of his challenge – that the resurrection accounts were meant as metaphor. The writing and actions of the earliest Christians make abundantly clear that they believed – whether they were right, of course, is always a separate issue – that Jesus had risen in a physical, resurrected body. That same historical record answers the challenge that Christianity is the retelling of some earlier myth.
The first step in assessing the challenge is to determine what the skeptic means when he uses the word “myth.” If he means simply an account of events from the distant past that generated interest and adherents over time, then in a sense Christianity would fit the definition. But that’s not what skeptics mean. Instead, the term typically conjures up images of a story whose origins are obscured in the distant past, and which often incorporate supernatural elements to explain or rationalize events in the physical world. These stories help establish and promote the cultural worldview of the people who adopt them. The Greeks and Romans, for instance, developed a worldview and system of worship around mythic “god” figures.
Considering this definition more specifically, it is apparent that Christianity would not fall within this category. The origins are not obscured in the distant past, but are established through a written record that reaches back to the earliest days. The “story” of Christianity wasn’t hidden and forgotten, only to be remembered when some mythic figure had a divine revelation or discovered golden tablets that bore the story. No, the historical record makes clear that Jesus actually lived and died, and that he had followers immediately after his death whose lives were transformed by his message, and who eventually put their accounts into writing. The transformation of their lives was in many cases so profound that they chose to accept death rather than to renounce what they believed to be true. With thousands of fragments dating back as far as the second century, our confidence in the accuracy of the New Testament documents is well-placed.
The point, of course, is that accounts and writings occurring so soon after the life of the figure in question could easily have been refuted by those living at the time who knew the “true” facts. This is especially significant when considering that the first oral transmission of the basic creed, as set forth in 1 Corinthians 15, began within a few years of Jesus’ death. Luke corroborates this early oral tradition in the Acts of the Apostles, which was also written quite early, as it does not include Paul’s death in 64 A.D. and so likely preceded it. Acts was a continuation of Luke’s Gospel, which must have been written earlier still. Mark predates Luke, so Mark’s Gospel was likely written in the early 50’s, just over twenty years after the crucifixion. In sum, there was simply not enough time for myth and legend to take hold, especially when so many were still alive to refute false claims.
The second reason is a related one: who would follow a Jesus that is simply a myth? The early Christians time and again made the ultimate sacrifice because they believed he rose from the dead. There is no reason to believe that so many would have been willing to follow to their deaths a storyteller whose claim to deity was put to rest when he remained in his tomb. These were not stories about people or super beings who lived centuries earlier; they were claims about some extraordinary events which had happened in the recent past. Christian apologist J.P. Moreland sums it up in this way: “[The myth claim] requires the assumption that someone, about a generation removed from the events in question, radically transformed the authentic information about Jesus that was circulating at that time, superimposed a body of material four times as large, fabricated almost entirely out of whole cloth, while the church suffered sufficient collective amnesia to accept the transformation as legitimate.” This is simply not plausible.
Finally, the myth claim does not stand logical scrutiny. The argument essentially seeks to explain why Christianity is wrong – it is borrowed from other earlier myths – before first establishing that Christian truth claims are false. For example, there is a novel written in the 1800’s about a ship named the Titan, which hit an iceberg and sank on its maiden voyage, killing numerous passengers because there were not enough life boats. When discussing the account of the actual Titanic, you could say that it too was a myth, as it appears to have borrowed heavily from the novel. This argument would only make sense if you first established that the Titanic story is false, and are then seeking to explain how the story arose. It would make no sense to ignore the overwhelming evidence of the Titanic’s sinking and instead argue that the similarities between it and the fictional account “prove” that it did not occur. Similarly, if Christianity is proven false, arguing that its “authors” borrowed from earlier myths may have some explanatory power. (As an aside, while these earlier myths may involve resurrection, they are different in many respects from the account of Jesus death and resurrection – see for instance Jim’s detailed explanation in connection with the Mithras myth.) But using the existence of earlier myths to “disprove” Christianity is logically unsound. It begs the question, by essentially assuming what it seeks to prove, and also involves the genetic fallacy, by attacking motives rather than evidence.
Christianity may, of course, be wrong, but that requires an assessment of the historical evidence. Dismissing it as myth is not a wise approach to a topic of such ultimate importance.
Posted by Al Serrato