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.
C.S. Lewis on Biblical Criticism
Of course, there are theologians who insist that the Bible contains much that is mythical. The miracle stories in particular are regarded as “myth,” meaning in this case unhistorical and fictional. In effect, this means that much of the character and personality of Jesus was invented. Jesus did not create the narrative; the narrative (written by some early individuals) created Jesus.
In Lewis’ day the scholars who maintained this view were Paul Tillich and most prominently, Rudolf Bultmann. Today this view continues to be advocated by the Jesus Seminar and assorted others. It has become the liberal theological orthodoxy: for someone of the persuasion to question this theory is to lose credibility and respect in their community of scholars. In some circles, this view is put forward as the only responsible intellectual option, and all other views are ridiculed. It is as if all conservative alternatives do not exist except to be rejected out of hand as not worthy of attention.
Lewis was educated as an expert in literary criticism (with an inclination towards mythology) more than as a theologian or in biblical criticism. Lewis argued that he distrusted these biblical critics as literary critics. He wanted to know, when these liberal scholars called a biblical story a myth or a legend, how many myths and legends they had read. Reflecting on the Gospel stories about Jesus, Lewis said, “I have been reading poems, romances, vision literature, legends and myths all my life. I know what they are like. I know that not one of them is like this.”
Lewis also confronted the modern view that the real purpose and teaching of Christ was soon forgotten, misunderstood and misrepresented by the early church, but now discovered by modern scholars. Biblical critics imagine a free-flowing situation in the first and second centuries that allowed and even encouraged the easy invention of stories about Jesus. However, such a picture is totally contrary to the Middle Eastern and Jewish environment out of which these stories come.
In the book Memory and Manuscript Birger Gerhardsson thoroughly documents the importance of memorization for the Jewish mentality. The good Jewish student was not to lose a drop from the cistern of the master’s teaching. To this day the best Jewish student is the one who can recite the rabbinic tradition verbatim on issue after issue. No one was encouraged to play fast and loose with the formal tradition. You were not allowed creative freedom. You must recite word for word; you would be immediately corrected if a single word was wrong.
Such feats of memory continue in the Middle East today. Memory is still vital in Middle Eastern culture. Even an illiterate peasant knows thousands of proverbs and lines of poetry by heart. A game that is sometimes played has a large number of participants sit in a circle. The game begins when the first person recites two lines of poetry. The next person has to use the last letter of the last line as the first letter of two other lines of poetry, and so on. Sometimes a game like this can travel several cycles around the circle (of 10-15 people) before anyone is stumped or mistaken in quotation. Everybody knows when you make a mistake, and you have to sit out.
Some youth leaders tried to bring the American game of “telephone” to the Middle East, but it did not work. In this game a short message is given to the first person, who then whispers that message into the next person’s ear and so on around the circle. The results are often funny because the message comes out garbled at the other end. In the Middle East, however, the message came back exactly the same. The Middle Eastern kids could not see the fun in the game, since they were trained to hear carefully and repeat exactly.
This extreme care and remarkable accuracy need to be taken into account when we consider that Jesus died around AD 30. The Gospel of Mark was written in the 60s if not the 50s. The evidence is that the people of the first century meticulously preserved the exact words and accurately passed on the stories about their founder Jesus Christ.
The accounts of Jesus Christ began very early, before mythology could contaminate the accounts. In fact, when the apostle Paul mentions that Jesus appeared to 500 people at one time, he says many of the 500 were still alive. In effect, Paul was saying, “If you don't believe me, go ask the witnesses. They're still around.” The proclamation that Jesus Christ is the resurrected Son of God began virtually immediately after his death. It was not a product of mythology.
So to the charge that Christianity is only one myth among many, Lewis would say:
1. Myths are not outright lies. They contain truth. Given the structure of the human mind and the structure of God’s creation, we should not be surprised that there are similarities among myths.
2. We must ask, “Are any of the myths truer than any of the others?” or more precisely, “Are any of these myths also fact?” Christ is the myth become fact.
[Summarised from chapter 5 of Art Lindsley's book C.S. Lewis' Case for Christ]
Next - Objection #4: Myth.