C.S. Lewis also struggled with Myth: Isn't Christianity just one myth above many?
Some people believe that Christianity is just a myth, a legend, a nice story made up by some well-meaning religious folks. This was one of the major objections that C.S. Lewis had when he was an atheist. He saw Christianity as “one myth amongst many.”
In his biography Surprised by Joy, Lewis wrote that one factor that contributed to his atheism was the similarity between Christianity and pagan mythology. In his secondary education it was assumed that pagan myths were false and Christianity true. He wondered on what basis Christianity could be exempt from the same critical judgment that was passed on myths.
In 1916 (at age 18), Lewis wrote to his friend Arthur Greeves and said, “You ask me my religious views: you know, I think I believe in no religion. There is absolutely no proof for any of them, and from a philosophical standpoint Christianity is not even the best. All religions, that is, all mythologies to give them their proper name, are merely man’s invention.” He continued, “Often too, great men we regarded as gods after their death - such as Hercules or Odin: thus after the death of a Hebrew philosopher Yeshua (whose name we have corrupted into Jesus) he became regarded as a god, a cult sprang up, which was afterward connected with the ancient Hebrew Yahweh worship, and so Christianity came into being - one mythology among many, but one that we happened to be brought up in.”
It was in such a state of mind - regarding Christianity as one myth among many - that Lewis went to teach at Oxford University ... where he met .R.R. Tolkein (1892 – 1973) at a faculty meeting on May 11, 1926. Through their friendship, Tolkein was able to influence Lewis in showing him that there is at least some truth in all myths - like splintered fragments of the true light of God's reality. Tolkein believed that one of the common elements to a good story is a ‘good catastrophe.’ This is a tragedy in the midst of the story that ends up being a good thing, leading to the 'happily ever after' at the end.
For example, in Snow White, the heroine's eating from the poisoned apple and seeming to die only provides the opportunity for the kiss from her Prince Charming. They then live happily ever after in their castle in the clouds. Without the catastrophe there is no happy ending. Many stories contain this element. In fact, Tolkein argued that the mark of a good story is this 'eu-catastrophe' leading to a happy ending.
Tolkein went on to argue that people sense that such stories point to some underlying Reality. As we read or watch them, we are being told that the world IS certainly filled with danger, sorrow and tragedy but that nonetheless there IS a meaning to things, there IS a difference between good and evil, and above all, there WILL be a final defeat of evil and even an ‘escape from death’ – which Tolkein said was the quintessential happy ending. Tolkein argued that the gospel story of Jesus is NOT simply one more great story, pointing to the underlying Reality. Rather, the gospel story of Jesus IS the underlying Reality to which ALL stories point. It gives us more than a passing inspiration because it is THE true story it happened.
This happy ending, far from being naive and unrealistic, denies that the universe will end in final defeat. The happy ending is 'good news,' giving a fleeting glimpse of joy. Tolkein went on to argue that the gospel of Christ is the greatest 'eu-catastophe' of history. The worst has already happened - the Son of God died on a cross. But of course, that is not the end of the story. The crucifixion led to the resurrection: great joy and victory over death. Tolkein also argued that the gospel is not just a nice story; it is FACT. The gospel of Christ was 'myth become fact.' The difference between Christ and pagan mythology was that the Gospels were historically true and not just fiction.
When Lewis examined the Gospel narratives, having already become an expert in mythology, he was surprised that his literary judgment told him that they were more than myths. He said, “I was by now too experienced in literary criticism to regard the Gospels as myths. They had not the mythical taste. And yet the very matter they set down in their artless, historical fashion ... was precisely the matter of the great myths. If ever a myth had become fact, had been incarnated, it would be just like this. ... Here and here only in all time the myth must have come fact: the Word, flesh; God, man.”
Not long after this, Lewis came to believe that Christ was the Son of God. He later wrote, “... the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened.” In even pagan myths, sometimes the 'gods' die and rise again ... yet Christ is the only one of these who is historical.