People sometimes argue that believing in Jesus is as rational as believing in Zeus. Here are some quick thoughts on why that’s a silly view. (Disclaimer: I probably uttered a weak version of this statement when I was an atheist. When I say something is a “silly view” I don’t mean only silly people hold it. I’m saying the view is silly, upon examination.)
==> I’ve never heard someone make the argument in reverse. That is, I’ve never seen atheists spend a lot of time criticizing followers of Zeus, lamenting the role that Zeus plays in our society, and wishing Zeus’ disciples would see that his doctrines are as unsupported as those of Jesus Christ.
==> There is far more evidence (outside of the Bible itself) for the existence of Jesus than for Zeus. I don’t want to open up this line of argument right now (though people will no doubt go at it in the comments), but it’s odd that there would be early Christian martyrs, if His closest disciples knew that He actually hadn’t come back from the dead. I realize atheists will dismiss this evidence–though I think deep down you aren’t even really considering it, you “just know” the story can’t be true so you don’t need to really parse the arguments–but let’s at least admit that there is more here for a Christian to stand on, than anything analogous for Zeus.
==> The gospel accounts are not stand alone. They connect with the earlier books in the Bible, so that the entire Bible was written over the span of more than a thousand years by different writers in different languages.
==> If you read the gospel accounts, they are amazing in terms of the realism of the characters. When I was younger, I didn’t appreciate this, because at that time I didn’t realize how awful people were. But the older and wiser I get, the more I believe the characters in the gospel accounts. (For example, the hypocrisy and jealousy of the Jewish leaders, and the weakness of Jesus’ top apostles–falling asleep outside the garden, let alone running/denouncing Him when He was in custody.)
So in that context, the character of Jesus is a towering presence, dwarfing everyone else in the story. At least to me, the gospel accounts now read as very realistic (in terms of characters, not the physical events) stories of characters, EXCEPT for the one Jesus, who is “too good to be true.” As Napoleon reputedly said, “I know men, and I tell you Jesus Christ is no man.”
So my point here is that in terms of literary style, the gospel accounts describe humans very accurately–except this one character, Jesus, who is like nobody you’ve ever met. These are not simply mere tales of miracles; it’s not just stories about some guy healing the sick and then promising, “If you follow me, you will have paradise.” There is way way more to it than that; there is an internal logic and beauty to the accounts.
For example, just consider the single chapter of Matthew 22. In it we have Jesus teaching in parables–again, this is intricate, where a character in the story is Himself teaching the other characters through a set of very memorable stories (think of the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan).
After the parable, Matthew 22 then describes how the scribes and Pharisees try to repeatedly trap Jesus with religious riddles, and His ability to flip things–this is extremely clever and would take a genius who is expert in the Mosaic Law to invent.
THEN we get a statement of the greatest commandment, and after that–as a flourish for style points and a flawless finishing move–Jesus shuts up His critics by posing His own riddle (based on their own belief system, in which they are supposed to be the world’s greatest living experts) that stumps them.
I’ll post (and end) with the chapter in full, but in reference to the original topic: What is there like this in Greek mythology? I’m not belittling it; it certainly teaches valuable lessons about hubris, and there are some clever things like the Sphinx’s riddle and Odysseus’ schemes. But even if we put aside any historical evidence for the life, death, and resurrection (!) of Jesus, I think it is simply silly to say that today’s Christians are following a mere book of superstitions comparable to any myths.
Before I post Matthew 22, here is a discussion of C.S. Lewis and his views on myth:
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.”
If you liked the above, you should read the whole thing (it’s not too long). It talks about C.S. Lewis starting out as an atheist, and thinking Christianity was a myth like any other. Then he met Tolkien who opened up his perspective, by first showing him that actual myths, though not historically accurate, did contain important truths.
Matthew 22New International Version (NIV)
The Parable of the Wedding Banquet
22 Jesus spoke to them again in parables, saying: 2 “The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son. 3 He sent his servants to those who had been invited to the banquet to tell them to come, but they refused to come.
4 “Then he sent some more servants and said, ‘Tell those who have been invited that I have prepared my dinner: My oxen and fattened cattle have been butchered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet.’
5 “But they paid no attention and went off—one to his field, another to his business. 6 The rest seized his servants, mistreated them and killed them. 7 The king was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city.
8 “Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come. 9 So go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.’ 10 So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, the bad as well as the good, and the wedding hall was filled with guests.
11 “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. 12 He asked, ‘How did you get in here without wedding clothes, friend?’ The man was speechless.
13 “Then the king told the attendants, ‘Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
14 “For many are invited, but few are chosen.”
Paying the Imperial Tax to Caesar
15 Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. 16 They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. “Teacher,” they said, “we know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are. 17 Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax[a] to Caesar or not?”
18 But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? 19 Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, 20 and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”
21 “Caesar’s,” they replied.
Then he said to them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”
22 When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away.
Marriage at the Resurrection
23 That same day the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to him with a question. 24 “Teacher,” they said, “Moses told us that if a man dies without having children, his brother must marry the widow and raise up offspring for him.25 Now there were seven brothers among us. The first one married and died, and since he had no children, he left his wife to his brother. 26 The same thing happened to the second and third brother, right on down to the seventh. 27 Finally, the woman died. 28 Now then, at the resurrection, whose wife will she be of the seven, since all of them were married to her?”
29 Jesus replied, “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God. 30 At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven. 31 But about the resurrection of the dead—have you not read what God said to you, 32 ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’[b]? He is not the God of the dead but of the living.”
33 When the crowds heard this, they were astonished at his teaching.
The Greatest Commandment
34 Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together.35 One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: 36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’[c] 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[d] 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
Whose Son Is the Messiah?
41 While the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them, 42 “What do you think about the Messiah? Whose son is he?”
“The son of David,” they replied.
43 He said to them, “How is it then that David, speaking by the Spirit, calls him ‘Lord’? For he says,
44 “‘The Lord said to my Lord:
“Sit at my right hand
until I put your enemies
under your feet.”’[e]
45 If then David calls him ‘Lord,’ how can he be his son?” 46 No one could say a word in reply, and from that day on no one dared to ask him any more questions.