Monday, February 17, 2014

The "Jesus Myth"

Q: Unfortunately, I stumbled across some pagan god named "Mithra" while looking at pinterest posts regarding "redemption" which I thought shouldn't be simply looked over just because I don't want to deal with it.

I have never heard of this pagan god and am alarmed at how many similarities it has with Jesus Christ. I know I should do my own research, but frankly I just do not feel comfortable delving into that area.

The similarities that I read are things like this... they were both born on December 25th ( I know Jesus was not actually born on this day), they are both born of a virgin, both have 12 disciples, both called "the way", "the truth", "the light", "the life", "the redeemer", "savior", "messiah", both sacrificed themselves and "ascended into Heaven".

Of course no one is directly saying these things to me face-to-face, but I am wondering how you would go about responding to this without having to read all that mysticism garbage online?

A: Those familiar with "Apologetics" (essentially, the "defense of the Christian faith") have likely heard of the Lord, Liar, Lunatic Trilemma made popular by C.S. Lewis and thoroughly presented by Josh McDowell in his Evidence That Demands A Verdict.

The gist of the argument is this: people have to do something with the person, Jesus of Nazareth, simply because of his impact on history and culture. The decisions that people can make are one of the three - they can either dismiss Jesus as a real person who made all of his claims up (i.e. he was a Liar), or he was a real person who thoroughly believed all his claims, but his claims were still false (i.e. he was a Lunatic), or he was a real person who believed everything he claimed and his claims were all true (i.e. he is Lord).

Of course, those who deny the Lordship of Christ are not always convinced by such arguments, and have entered a fourth option to the famous Trilemma, which makes the conclusions of that apologetic argument moot. What if Jesus wasn't a real person at all? What if he was just a myth or a legend? What if he was a real person, but never claimed any of the things his current followers believe, but was a simple man whose legend ran amok?

The question at the top of this post has hints of the "Jesus Myth" problem, because clearly the Questioner doesn't believe that the pagan god Mithra is real or worthy of worship, yet the similarity between this false god and the true God, specifically in the person of Jesus Christ, is raising some concern.

It's important to raise the Jesus Legend problem, whether or not the Questioner actually cares about addressing the issue, because if we deal only with the claims of Mithra, then what about those who point to other mythological figures/deities such as Krishna and Osiris? Although the particulars are slightly different, for the sake of completeness I want to open the box a little more than just for Mithra, because cases are made that "the Jesus Myth" borrowed from all of these other myths and is, therefore, no more reliable than any of them.

I commend the Questioner for their desire to actually "deal" with this confrontation to the faith, instead of simply over-looking it because they just "don't want to deal with it." In fact, that is the basic premise of this blog. We have to be wise about how we spend our time - and certainly reading a bunch of false beliefs about made up people, places, and things is not always a valuable investment of time! However, this is the same objection that many people make about reading the Bible on the basis of dismissing Jesus as simply another made-up god along the lines of Krishna, Osiris, and Mithra.

So, the question is how would I respond to this?

First, I would have to point out that similarities may be significant in some cases, but more important are differences. For example, microwave ovens and jet airplanes have many similarities: they are made with metal, glass, and electric wiring. Both have moving parts. Both require electricity for proper functioning. However, the differences are fairly significant (duh!).

If I tried to convince you that microwave ovens were really no different than jet airplanes because of the 5 similarities I mentioned above (and I could come up with more) and yet I failed to acknowledge the myriad differences, then I would be the fool. You would only be a fool if you were convinced by such poor reasoning!

The fact of the matter is that the differences are significant. This is where we should spend our time. And, we must remember that the Jesus of "faith" is not exactly the same as the Jesus of "history."

The Questioner mentioned it already, but the "fact" that Mithra is similar to Jesus because they were both "born" on December 25 is failure by those making the claim to realize that neither was actually born on that day - Mithra, because he's imaginary and was never born and Jesus, because the celebration of the birth of Christ on December 25th is not a reflection of his actual date of birth, but a decision made by men much after the fact to assimilate worshippers of other false gods into Christianity! We must never make the mistake of comparing the "Jesus of faith" - that is, the person that many people believe Jesus to be - because in many cases, this "Jesus of faith" is a legend! The birthday of December 25th is a perfect example, since the historical Jesus was certainly not born on that day, so the "Jesus of faith" whom people believe was born on this day (to be clear, not everyone who celebrates Christmas on Dec. 25 also believes that this is Jesus' actual birthday) is not real, and the "similarity" is pointless.

The Questioner expressed a desire to not spend a lot of time reading about Mithra (or Krishna or Osiris), but you'll find if you decide to read everything you can about them, that these stories read much differently than the biblical narratives concerning Jesus of Nazareth. The most important difference, is that the narratives about Jesus claim to be written by eye-witnesses of his life, ministry, death, burial, and resurrection! In stark contrast, the writings about Krishna, Osiris, and Mithra all read much more like legend and myth, with no eye-witnesses writing what they "saw" and "heard."

Sometimes a big deal is made about the dates of these "stories" - saying that most of these legends pre-date Christianity, so the "Jesus Legend" incorporated elements from these other stories and attributed them to Jesus. Perhaps he was a real person, but the legend of Jesus does not tell who he really was because his followers "borrowed" from Mithra, Krishna, and Osiris to make Jesus seem more important than he really was.

However, the prophecies concerning Jesus go back thousands of years before the historical person - Jesus of Nazareth - was born, crucified, and risen from the dead. It becomes much more difficult to claim which came first when we take into account the fact that belief in "Jesus" didn't start with Christianity... the people of God were proclaiming the coming Messiah for millennia prior to his actual coming! In fact, the first prophecy concerning the coming Messiah is made at the Fall of humanity in Genesis 3:15 - meaning that every culture to come afterward would be influenced by the Judeo-Christian perspective.

Of course, skeptics won't accept this time-line. As a result, it is better to focus our attention upon the historical person of Jesus, because if his claims were true and he is, in fact, Lord, then the rest falls into place. The historicity of the person of Jesus is difficult to deny - yet people still try. In the same way, there are those who claim that the Holocaust never happened. Given enough time, future generations will point to these voices from the past and say, "See! The Holocaust was just a myth!" Just because some people make foolish claims, doesn't mean that they are credible. The historicity of Jesus is easy to prove through Jewish, Roman, and Christian sources.

Read through passages like Luke 1:1-4; John 1:14; Acts 1:3; 2:22-24, 32; 4:20; 17:31; 26:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:5-8; Galatians 3:1; 1 Timothy 1:4; 4:7; 2 Timothy 4:4; and Titus 1:14. How could such documents have gained any credibility historically if the people who lived during the time Jesus lived were confronted with statements like these unless Jesus was a real person who made these amazing claims? If someone wanted to convince you of events happening within your lifetime about Krishna, Osiris, or Mithra, would it be easier for them to claim it was happening now or a long time ago in a place far, far away? With Jesus, although the claims were difficult to believe, the ones promoting the view that Jesus was risen from the dead were brutally executed and tortured for their claims - a sentence they could have easily avoided had they just said, "whoops ... just kidding!" Instead, they took their sentences to death and torture with joy, continuing to proclaim the reality of the events that they witnessed with their own eyes.

The differences are significant.

To deny that similarities exist would be foolish and it would be a waste of our time to try and diminish or eliminate any and all similarities to the life, ministry, and teaching of Jesus with others. Instead, one last example should be noted to demonstrate the failure of similarities between fiction and reality to diminish the truth of reality: the fictional sinking of the Titan and the historical sinking of the Titanic.

If you're not familiar with this example, there was a fictional novel written 14 years prior to the sinking of the Titanic with many similar details. Clearly, the fact of a fictional story pre-dating the historical occurrence does not invalidate the historical fact that the Titanic sank and was a great historical disaster. No one could find a copy of Futility, the fictional book, and convince you that the Titanic didn't sink simply because this false story has some comparable details and came before the Titanic sunk, right?

In the same way, no matter how many "similarities" can be trotted out, we must always focus our attention on the differences, because they are most significant. Many have claimed to be the Savior of the world, but only Jesus stands the test of scrutiny. The historical resurrection demonstrates with power that He was, and is, who He claimed to be (Romans 1:4). And there is forgiveness of sin and redemption available in no one else. Jesus alone, after investigation, can claim to be the way, the truth, and the life. Truly, no one comes to the Father except through Him.