It’s the holiday season, and you know what that means: egg nog, wrapping paper, decorations… and posts like this on your social networks:
Or maybe something like this:
Before you know it, you’re traveling down a long, windy road of conflicting information and Christian/atheist internet debates. And as in all debates, no one is trying to discover the truth, but just convince the other person of their point of view.
I remember the first time a young Christian girl I knew came to me because her atheist boyfriend had showed her an internet video “proving” that the story of Jesus was untrue because it was similar to other, even older stories. She was pretty shaken. Maybe you have experienced something similar. There you are, young in your faith, and someone brings up a question you can’t answer, or challenges you with some scientific information that you can’t refute, or points out an apparent contradiction in the Bible.
You are in good company. Once, long ago, Moses brought his faith before the Pharaoh and tried to prove the reality of God by turning his staff into a serpent. And Pharaoh was impressed by this miracle, repented of his actions and turned to serve the living God…
Well, no. What actually happened was Pharaoh had his court magicians turn their staffs into serpents too, countering Moses’ miraculous argument with a wonder of their own.
You’re going to meet people that are smarter than you. There will be people that argue better than you, and know things you don’t know, and can give an answer to every statement of faith you can make. The internet and various books introduced me to this particular challenge to the Gospel story.
Someone once told me that the heart cannot hold on to what the mind rejects. If the Christian cannot find a way to make sense of these things, doubt will seep into their heart and eventually damage their faith. But there’s no reason for that to happen when it comes to this particular issue.
That girl’s relationship with her boyfriend didn’t stand the test of time, but her relationship with God did. And as for Moses, his serpent devoured the serpents of the magicians, so he won his conflict with the Pharaoh that day. In the end, the truth will stand. But until the ultimate victory comes, we still have to find a way to keep our faith when it’s challenged, and that means having some sort of answer to the questions raised by all those debates and carelessly researched memes.
“…but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect” (I Peter 3:15).
Will an answer to the question satisfy those that don’t believe? Probably not. But that’s okay. It’s not your job to convince anyone of anything (John 16:8). All you have to do is be able to tell the good news. I have never encountered a Christian that was debated into the faith.
So why do all these ancient myths that predate Jesus bear so much similarity to his story?
The modern academic answer is that Jesus, the man, likely lived and was crucified, but the rest of the story has been filled in by pagan myths and ancient stories that were, over time, adopted into the canon story of Jesus.
By that line of secular reasoning Mary could have just had a child out of wedlock, but the writers of the gospels of Matthew and Luke tell this fantastical story of the Virgin Birth, which was not unheard of in pagan myth, to legitimize Jesus as the Messiah.
As for the miracles, myths are full of them.
The story of his death (Matt. 27:50), descent into the underworld (Acts 2:17), and his resurrection (Matt. 28:6)? In academia, such events are common heroic motifs. The hero, often associated with the sun, is foretold by prophecy, goes on a journey, dies literally or symbolically, journeys to the underworld, and emerges triumphantly. The Egyptian god Horus and the ancient hero Hercules are good examples of this sort of mythic figure, which is why they are often cited as evidence for the pagan underpinnings of Christianity. Joseph Campbell is famous for his book, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, which is all about the similarities between mythic hero stories across cultures.
These stories have been told for ages, and will continue to be told. I’ve written before about modern “Christ figures” in fiction, but these don’t bother us as much because we can see the influence of the story of Jesus on them rather than the alleged reverse (i.e., how these myths have impacted the story of Jesus). In fact, we often call them “Messianic Heroes.”
So what are we to do with pagan “Messiahs” whose stories were told before Jesus ever lived? For example, I just reading the excellent play The Bacchae for school. In it the god Dionysus, who was born of a kind of “virgin birth” himself, took on mortal form, was taken prisoner, ultimately proven to be a god, and was associated with wine to the point that the author stated “So when we pour libations out it is the god himself we pour out to the gods…” How far is this from the Communion table? This was written 400 years before the time of Jesus. And this is just one pagan myth.
So did such myths really influence the story of Jesus that we know and believe in?
No, not exactly.
Before Jesus ever stepped into our world, clothed with flesh, there were prophecies about his coming. In fact, that’s a rule God has about doing things in the earth; he reveals what he’s doing to his prophets first (Amos 3:7 ).
The earliest Messianic prophecy in the Bible was given to the serpent when Adam and Eve were exiled from the garden. The Bible says, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Gen. 3:15).
And the Enemy of God heard it.
Then he did what he’s always done with the Word of God. He twisted it until it became a half-truth but an entire lie. This is the earliest Biblical prophecy of the Virgin Birth, the Mother and Child, the Defeat of the Serpent, and the Sacrifice of the Messiah, and it was given thousands of years before Jesus arrived.
What did the Enemy do with it? He sowed his twisted version of the prophecy into cults and religions of his own creation, until when the Truth came in the flesh, there were already countless precedents, and the Anointed One seemed like only one more copy.
Jesus said, “All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them” (John 10:8).
When someone says that the story of Jesus is taken from pagan religions, they’re not wrong, but where did the pagan stories come from? They all have an ancient origin in the message of God given to all of humanity to tell us a Savior is coming.
Every nation of the earth was waiting for Jesus, not just Israel, but every nation, every culture, every human being in the entire world.
“For thus saith the Lord of hosts: Yet one little while, and I will move the heaven and the earth, and the sea, and the dry land. And I will move all nations: AND THE DESIRED OF ALL NATIONS SHALL COME: and I will fill this house with glory: saith the Lord of hosts” (Haggai 2:7-8, Douay Rheims).
Jesus is the one we have all waited for, the one desired by all nations.
If the Enemy has bent the message of God to lead people away from him, God has infiltrated pagan culture and religion to lead people back to him.
“But I ask, have they not heard? Indeed they have, for “Their voice has gone out to all the earth, and their words to the ends of the world” (Rom. 10:18)
Yes, the ancient pagan religions of the world have Christ figures, but it’s not just because the devil was deceiving them. God has been trying to get his message to everyone, but they all saw it as through a glass, dimly. Just as Biblical figures like Isaac and Moses were shadows of Jesus, living prophecies whose lives echoed the future, so pagan myth is also full of shadows that are meant to lead to Jesus. Jesus may have come later, but his coming was revealed to everyone, even if God had to shine his light through the muddy lens of twisted beliefs.
The biggest Biblical example of this is the story of the wise men, the magi, that came to visit Jesus as a child (Matt. 2:1-12). They were not Christians (which didn’t exist yet), nor Israelites. This latter detail is vital because Jesus told the Samaritan woman at the well “salvation is of the Jews” (John 4:22) because the Jewish people were the ones practicing real biblical worship that was undiluted by pagan ritual. Howevere, the magi were pagan visitors, and astrologers on top of that. Isn’t astrology an occult practice, something believers should stay away from?
Even so, with their pagan beliefs and practices… they were led to Jesus.
God has tried to lead everyone to Jesus. We have resisted his lead and denied the clues that he left us, or became satisfied with the shadows and never went beyond them to the substance (Col. 2:17). But the message is there.
When someone tries to undermine your faith by pointing out the similarity of the story of Jesus to pagan myth and fiction, you don’t need to try to show how they aren’t really similar at all. They are similar. They are supposed to be similar. God has been trying to play “Telephone” with humanity for ages. And just as the Pharisees who actually had access to the undiluted prophecy of the Messiah missed him when he stood among them, some pagans that had a muddied, twisted version of the message actually found the genuine Savior.
These things do not need to be blows to our faith. They are evidence of the work of God in every culture. His message is given to “whosoever” (John 3:16). Even modern Christianity is full of pagan tradition. All sorts of things, from Christmas trees to the Jesus Fish have pagan origins, but these traditions do not negate the Real Thing underneath. Just as God’s miracles to the Egyptians were duplicated by magicians…until they couldn’t imitate the Real Thing any longer, so the message of God may be muddied, twisted and copied for a while…but in the end, the Truth will stand.
“…for if this plan or this undertaking is of man, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them…” (Acts 5:38-39).
[Note: This view of history is faith-based and will not satisfy those that approach the subject from an academic perspective, which seeks to uncover history as empirically as possible. So when different possibilities present themselves, they go with the one that is most probable from a tangible view of the universe. Prophecy and the influence of God are dismissed. But to those that have seen the improbable work of God in their own lives, looking at history through the lens of faith, and seeing God’s influence in all of it, the Gospel makes perfect sense.]