The Gospels: Mere Myths or Myth Made Fact? CS Lewis’ Unexpected Journey

In his book Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis talked about a moment that pushed him towards atheism. He saw a striking similarity between Christianity and pagan myths. Back in his school days, everyone saw pagan myths as mere fiction, but Christianity was treated as something different, as actual history. Lewis wondered why the Bible got a free pass while other myths were questioned.

Lewis wrote back and forth with his friend Arthur Greeves, saying, “You ask me about 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, or mythologies as they should rightly be called, are merely human inventions.” He went on to explain, “Often, great men are regarded as gods after their death, such as Hercules or Odin. So, after the death of a Hebrew philosopher named Yeshua, whose name we’ve now corrupted into Jesus, he was seen as a god, leading to the rise of a cult connected with the ancient Hebrew Yahweh worship, thus giving birth to Christianity – one mythology among many, but one that we happened to be brought up in.”

When I talk with some of my skeptical friends, they often echo the thoughts of a young Lewis. Lewis began his teaching career at Oxford University with this perspective that Christianity was just one myth among many. It was at Oxford that he met J.R.R. Tolkien during a faculty meeting on May 11, 1926. The two became friends, and Tolkien, who was a Catholic, influenced Lewis. Tolkien showed Lewis that there’s a thread of truth in all myths, like fractured fragments of God’s true reality. Tolkien also introduced the idea of a ‘eucatastrophe’ in storytelling, where a tragic moment ultimately leads to a ‘happily ever after’ ending. For Tolkien, the death and resurrection of Jesus was the ultimate eucatastrophe.

Lewis on modern Biblical criticism

As Lewis took a closer look at the Gospel stories, he used his knowledge of mythology to analyze them. He came to a conclusions that surprised him: these narratives were more than just myths.

Later in Lewis’ life, he reacted to the widespread acceptance of modern biblical criticism, particularly the higher, liberal approaches of scholars like Bultmann, Tillich, and Vidler. This acceptance was causing some clergy within the Church of England to lean toward more liberal positions, where the Gospels were regarded as partly legendary. However, Lewis, having read the critics’ works, found himself less than impressed. In an essay, he, as a layperson, directly addresses these leaders, emphasizing, “I am a sheep, telling shepherds what only a sheep can tell them. And now I begin my bleating.” Drawing on his literary expertise, Lewis wrote the following about the genre of the Gospels:

I have been reading poems, romances, vision literature, legends, myths all my life. I know what they are like. I know that not one of them is like this. Of this text, there are only two possible views: either this is reportage, though it may no doubt contain errors, pretty close up to the facts, nearly as close as Boswell, or else some unknown writer in the second century, without known predecessors or successors, suddenly anticipated the whole technique of modern novelistic, realistic narrative. If it is untrue, it must be a narrative of that kind. The reader who doesn’t see this has simply not learned to read.

CS Lewis, Christian Reflections, Essay: Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism

Talk about not pulling any punches. As an author himself, Lewis was particularly critical of many reviewers who attempted to reconstruct the origins of texts, as he often felt they were overconfident in their endeavors. He expressed his deep skepticism about their methods, emphasizing that these reconstructions faced significant challenges. Here’s what he wrote:

First, while I respect the learning of the great Biblical critics, I am not yet persuaded that their judgment is equally to be respected. But, secondly, consider with what overwhelming advantages the mere reviewers start. They reconstruct the history of a book written by someone whose mother tongue is the same as theirs; a contemporary, educated like themselves, living in something like the same mental and spiritual climate. They have everything to help them. The superiority in judgment and diligence which you are going to attribute to the Biblical critics will have to be almost superhuman if it is to offset the fact that they are everywhere faced with customs, language, race characteristics, class characteristics, a religious background, habits of composition, and basic assumptions, which no scholarship will ever enable any man now alive to know as surely and intimately and instinctively as the reviewer can know mine. And for the very same reason, remember, the Biblical critics, whatever reconstructions they devise, can never be crudely proved wrong. St. Mark is dead. When they meet St. Peter, there will be more pressing matters to discuss.

Furthermore, Lewis acknowledged that the extraordinary events in the Gospels, including prophecies, miracles, heroes, references to angels and demons, heaven and hell, the concept of dying-and-rising gods, and victory of good over evil, possessed a certain mythical quality. However, Lewis no longer viewed this in rigid black-and-white terms as he did in his earlier days, so this aspect no longer posed a significant obstacle for him. Lewis argued that these critics had a significant bias against the supernatural, which limited the kind of conclusions they could draw. He chided this prejudice, saying:

“I find in these theologians a constant use of the principle that the miraculous does not occur. Thus any statement put into our Lord’s mouth by the old texts, which, if he had really made it, would constitute a prediction of the future, is taken to have been put in after the occurrence which it seemed to predict. This is very sensible if we start by knowing that inspired prediction can never occur. Similarly in general, the rejection as unhistorical of all passages which narrate miracles is sensible if we start by knowing that the miraculous in general never occurs”

Jesus: Myth became fact

The Gospels, according to Lewis, struck a unique storytelling balance. They combined elements of straightforward historical accounts, thanks to their realism, with the mythical aspects of the profound theological story they conveyed. This dual nature bridged the everyday and the extraordinary, making the narrative both down-to-earth and spiritually profound. You can get a great sense of Lewis’ view on the Gospels from an excerpt in his famous 1944 essay, “Myth Became Fact“:

“…What flows into you from the myth is not truth but reality (truth is always about something, but reality is that about which truth is), and, therefore, every myth becomes the father of innumerable truths on the abstract level. Myth is the mountain whence all the different streams arise which become truths down here in the valley; in hac valle abstractionis. (trans: ‘In this valley of separation.’) Or, if you prefer, myth is the isthmus which connects the peninsular world of thought with that vast continent we really belong to. It is not, like truth, abstract; nor is it, like direct experience, bound to the particular.

Now as myth transcends thought, Incarnation transcends myth. The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens—at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical Person crucified (it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle. I suspect that men have sometimes derived more spiritual sustenance from myths they did not believe than from the religion they professed. To be truly Christian we must both assent to the historical fact and also receive the myth (fact though it has become) with the same imaginative embrace which we accord to all myths. The one is hardly more necessary than the other….

Those who do not know that this great myth became Fact when the Virgin conceived are, indeed, to be pitied. But Christians also need to be reminded … that what became Fact was a Myth, that it carries with it into the world of Fact all the properties of a myth. God is more than a god, not less; Christ is more than Balder, not less. We must not be ashamed of the mythical radiance resting on our theology. We must not be nervous about ‘parallels’ and ‘Pagan Christs’: they ought to be there—it would be a stumbling block if they weren’t. We must not, in false spirituality, withhold our imaginative welcome. If God chooses to be mythopoeic—and is not the sky itself a myth—shall we refuse to be mythopathic? For this is the marriage of heaven and earth: Perfect Myth and Perfect Fact: claiming not only our love and our obedience, but also our wonder and delight, addressed to the savage, the child, and the poet in each one of us no less than to the moralist, the scholar, and the philosopher.”

C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock, pp. 66-67.

As I mentioned, a lot of skeptics today share the same doubts that a young C.S. Lewis had once. They assume that Christianity is just another myth among many. But let’s think about it: if God intended to convey an important message through a historical miracle, wouldn’t it naturally have a touch of the mythical? I mean, when you consider the idea of God becoming human, dying, and then rising again, what kind of testimony would you anticipate? Something as straightforward as a modern Associated Press report? Lewis argued that such an approach would be quite limited for God to communicate such a significant message:

Just as God is none the less God by being Man, so the Myth remains Myth even when it becomes Fact. The story of Christ demands from us, and repays, not only a religious and historical but also an imaginative response. It is directed to the child, the poet, and the savage in us as well as to the conscience and to the intellect. One of its functions is to break down dividing walls.

Miracles, p. 305

The inadequacy of arguments from pagan parallels

When people argue that the Gospels might be legendary because they share similarities with pagan or Greek stories, they’re essentially suggesting that these similarities make the Gospels seem more like fiction than actual facts. But to judge this properly, we need to consider whether these similarities are equally likely if the Gospels are genuine historical accounts.

In reality, if the Gospels are indeed accurate history, it’s perfectly reasonable to expect that they might have some common themes with other ancient stories. The people documenting these events lived in a particular cultural and literary environment, so it’s natural that they might incorporate some of the existing storytelling conventions of their time. If the Gospels contain supernatural events, it’s not surprising that we might find similar elements in other tales and myths. It would also not be surprising if God would perform miracles in a way that mirrors stories they were familiar with. (For instance, compare Jesus feeding the 5000 with Elisha feeding 100, found in 2 Kings 4:42-44) So, these similarities are equally plausible whether the Gospels are true or legendary.

Simply waving your hands and saying, “Hey, look at all these similarities!” doesn’t really prove that the Gospels are just legends. To do that, we’d need more evidence and reasoning that can’t be easily explained by the idea that the Gospels are historical. These similarities, on their own, don’t strongly support the idea that the Gospels are legendary. It is entirely possible to find parallels from Greco-Roman literature in actual historical events if you look hard enough, and so this fact alone does not invalidate the historical authenticity of events described in the Gospels or other ancient texts.

Even if you collect more examples of parallels and get a bunch of Ph.D. scholars in New Testament to agree with this view, it doesn’t make the argument stronger. The key thing is that good reasoning needs evidence that clearly points to one idea being better than the other. In this case, just finding similarities isn’t strong enough evidence.

Evaluating reliability

To really decide if the Gospels are historical or not, we’d need to look at a lot of other things that can be said against the Gospels and consider them together. Can we attribute these Gospels to their traditional authors? Can we know when were they actually written? What kinds of evidence do we have for the honest, unembellished nature of the Gospels? Do the Gospels exhibit realism in character portrayal, unexplained references, and incidental allusions that are indirectly and naturally confirmed by sources outside the Bible?

If I were to play the devil’s advocate and challenge the reliability of the Gospels, I wouldn’t rely on pointing out alleged “common mythical tropes and parallels.” Instead, one thing I’d do is seek instances where the evangelists seriously contradict one another or made serious factual errors that would put their narratives in serious doubt. The goal would be to demonstrate that they were not present at the time and place of the events they are describing, and didn’t have access to people who were, either.

The one true myth

In a nutshell, as Lewis grew older and wiser, he realized his old view of the Gospels as just another myth was too simplistic. Influenced by Tolkien, he understood that myths contain grains of truth, and shared themes with real-life stories are quite common due to our thinking patterns and the way God’s creation works. This leads to a crucial question: Can some myths be based on actual historical events? Lewis believed the answer lay in Jesus, God Incarnate, who embodied a myth turned into reality. Lewis, with his literary knowledge, could distinguish between various storytelling types, even when they seemed similar, and see the Truth within the One True Myth.

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