Many cultures and religions have produced stories than contain elements like those which skeptics regard as unbelievable in the Bible. There are talking animals, miraculous healings, control of the weather, even the death and resurrection of the hero. Why do Christians regard the Bible’s accounts as reliable and true when we do not accept similar stories from other sources? How is the story of Jesus different from that of King Arthur or of Robin Hood?
These questions are not new. Skeptics noticed such similarities already in the 1600s, a time period they called the Enlightenment. Thinkers in Europe were willing to accept the moral code of the Bible even while they discounted all the miracles it describes. Out of this approach came a philosophy called Deism. Deists say that God is responsible for creating a world, for giving it natural laws and moral laws, but they insist that God is no longer involved in his creation. Like a watchmaker, he assembled the pieces and started the machinery, and he has since stepped away. From Deism only a single step was needed in the nineteenth century to advocate the idea of evolution, that living things gradually change over time, adjusting to the environment, and that no belief in God is required to explain everything that exists.
The study of biology includes the idea of evolution, and so does the study of religion. Since the Enlightenment, a few scholars have suggested that religion began in primitive humanity out of awe toward the natural world and a desire to explain things that happened. Beginning with a sense of spirits in every tree and river and mountain, humanity began to develop stories about gods. The first monotheistic religions, Zoroastrianism and Judaism, were further steps away from primitive thought, only to be further enhanced by Christianity and Islam. Deism and atheism are viewed as the final steps on that road of progress.
Far more people believe that the earliest people knew the true God and that the many religions of the world grew out of distortions and devilish manipulations of that one true religion. Conservative Christians and observing Muslims share that belief in a primal true religion and in many paths of de-evolution. Neither approach is more scientific or more reasonable; each of them has many loyal adherents.
One of the most famous works describing the evolution of religion and the similar accounts found in various religions is James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough. First published in 1890, Frazer’s book describes many stories and ceremonies from all over the world. He presents numerous examples of human sacrifice, either done in reality or feigned to act out a story. Many Christians, Including C.S. Lewis, have responded to Frazer’s suggestion that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is one of many versions of the same ancient story.
First, to say that the earlier versions of a hero who dies and returns to life cancels the truth of Christ’s death and resurrection is equivalent to saying that ancient accounts of travelers such as Jason and the Argonauts and Odysseus disprove the accounts of Columbus’ four trips across the Atlantic Ocean. The existence of the earlier stories does not speak against the truth of a similar historic event. In fact, the many versions of the story of death and resurrection of a god or a hero might confirm the reality of Christ’s death and resurrection, since it appears that people all over the world expected such an event to occur at some time.
Second, we see Old Testament accounts of what Jesus would do being shared since the day of the first sin, when Adam and Eve were told that a descendant of Eve would crush the serpent’s head. It comes as no surprise that distorted versions of that promise would appear all over the world as religion de-evolved among various cultures. C.S. Lewis presented this thought—that the promise of a killed and risen Savior was hidden in the hearts of people everywhere and appeared in various forms and appearances all over the world. One could go further and suggest that when Abraham and Isaac acted out the sacrifice of a son by his father (Genesis 22), they were preparing their own family to believe in the coming Savior. Their Canaanite neighbors, however, got the wrong idea from this event and began sacrificing their own children to gods.
Third, the death and burial and resurrection them is often associated with agriculture. Persephone disappeared into the underworld, prompting autumn and winter; when she returned, she brought spring, and summer followed. The common religious themes of a hero who dies but then returns to life could be drawn from the life of the land, planting and tending and harvesting the crop each year. One could argue that the image of Jesus dying on a cross and rising to life again echoes these ancient agricultural stories. One could also argue that the natural and agricultural pattern was set by a God who already knew what he must do to redeem sinners and to reconcile them to himself. He planned the death and resurrection of his Son to happen in the springtime precisely so nature would be telling the story in its own way while the center truth of the story—the sacrifice of Jesus and his return to life—were happening in Jerusalem. (And the annual celebration of this sacrifice and resurrection likewise correspond to the change in seasons, not by coincidence, but by divine plan.)
As I wrote yesterday, the career of Jesus is linked in its earliest descriptions to historical times and figures. When Paul wrote to the Corinthians some twenty years after Jesus died on a cross and rose again from the dead, Paul gave a list of witnesses to that resurrection, most of whom were still alive. (For cultural reasons, Paul omitted the women who first saw Jesus but included the men.) His assertions could have been disproved at that time, and Christianity would have been stomped out before it had started. If Christianity had arisen in the British Isles or in Persia, describing events in Jerusalem, we would have much reason for doubt. But the first Christians gathered in Jerusalem, the very place where Jesus was killed. If the account of his resurrection was false, the evidence would have been easy to produce. The inability of enemies of the Christian faith to counter its key event with proof of the lie proclaims the truth that Christ indeed has risen from the dead.
Later this week, I will discuss the historical documents that describe this resurrection. J.