The truth about CS Lewis, Tolkien and Pagan Christs: Christian Parallels in Mythology

Last Month Chuck Colson – Christian leader, cultural commentator, and former Special Counsel for President Richard Nixon – commented on my book, Jesus Potter Harry Christ. His central criticism of my book is weak, desperate and unfounded – in fact I write quite a bit about CS Lewis and Tolkien in the book so I doubt Colson has read more than the introduction or summary. But I’d like the opportunity to address the issue, which is of absolute importance to the debate over the historical Jesus, and something that every Christian AND Atheist should be familiar with.

Chuch Colson’s Review of Jesus Potter Harry Christ:

Well, Murphy is certainly right in recognizing a common thread through pagan religious beliefs. As C. S. Lewis writes in Mere Christianity, the heathen religions are full of “…those queer stories…about a god who dies and comes to life again and, by his death, has somehow given new life to men.”

But what Murphy misses — and Lewis got — is the fact that the human longings for sacrifice, resurrection and redemption are stamped on our hearts for a reason: They point us straight to the God who stepped into history to fulfill them!

In a letter to a friend, Lewis recounts a conversation he had J. R. R. Tolkien, the author of The Lord of the Rings — and a close colleague of Lewis.

“The story of Christ,” said Tolkien, “is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened…The Pagan stories are God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using such images as He found there, while Christianity is God expressing Himself through what we call ‘real things.’”

The fact is, Murphy appeals to the bad reasoning which skeptics of the church have used for years: that simply because cultures around the world tell stories which remind us Christianity, Christianity itself must be just such a story.

But for Lewis and Tolkien, it was this universal fascination with the savior-god myth that made Christianity so convincing. To them, the historical fact of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus rouses our deepest longings in the same way as the tales of Isis, Horus — and even Harry Potter do. But unlike these stories, Christianity is true — the reality to which all of the best stories of history point.

My Responses:
As I point out in my book, literature and mythology is full of dying and returning figures that came before Jesus. Colson, Lewis, Tolkien and I are all agreed on this point. Early Christians, having no way to explain this baffling circumstance, blamed it all on Satan – who did it so that when Jesus came he would appear as indistinguishable from all the other myths (which is exactly what happened). Then in the 1950’s, when a century of biblical criticism had pretty much destroyed the historical Jesus and no serious scholar would claim that the Bible was historical fact, Lewis turned it all around and blamed it on GOD – that we should expect pagan Christs as totally natural, as some sort of echo of the True Jesus.

If you’re a Christian and for you Jesus is the truth, then you don’t give a DAMN about these troubling inconsistencies – just as you don’t give a damn about dinosaurs or evolution or science or anything else that appears to conflict with your faith. Colson puts it this way:

The fact is, Murphy appeals to the bad reasoning which skeptics of the church have used for years: that simply because cultures around the world tell stories which remind us Christianity, Christianity itself must be just such a story.

Bad reasoning? The problem is not that stories around the world remind us of Christianity. The problem is that these stories were told in the same geographic location that produced the story of Jesus, and that they came centuries, before Jesus, that the gospel writers knew the stories, and that some of the original terms and language used to write the gospels copy directly from pagan texts. It is also true that these similarities have always been and continue to be a painful thorn in the side of the church; the biggest affront to Christian claims. Not the kind of thing a smart God would set up. Why would Jesus come and physically, historically do the exact same things that other pagan gods had already been given credit for? The surrounding pagans were already celebrating an annual death and return of a vegetation god like Attis or Dionysus – why would the Jews set up Jesus as such an obvious pagan myth? (They wouldn’t – which is why the Jews never accepted Jesus). Instead, the only logical conclusion of any reasonable study is that Jesus was a pagan-Jewish synthesis that copied and repeated an already successful spiritual template. (Which, by itself, doesn’t prove Jesus didn’t exist – only that we need to separate all of the pagan elements from him; elements which include his death and resurrection!)

Tolkien and Lewis were responding to biblical criticism which BEGINS with these similarities and ENDS with the idea that Jesus was mostly literary or mythical; the only move for apologists at that point was to accept this and widen the scope of Christian apologetics to include all literature in the history of the world as reflecting God’s ultimate Christian plan; as such it is no different from the original diabolical mimicry argument which likewise deals with these vexing similarities by relying on supernatural explanations. Tolkien and Lewis (and Colson) in short, accept that the similarities between Jesus and pagan mythologies do exist; but they have enough faith to allow God the power of authoring every text in the history of the world as literary foreshadowing of his own story of salvation which he would ultimately make true.

Why is it that the similarities between Jesus and mythology can make every myth or fable Christian – reflecting the One True Story of Christ – but the same similarities cannot work the other way around; revealing Jesus as similarly mythical?

Chuck Colson criticizes my mistake in reasoning by glibly deferring to Lewis and Tolkien, who are 50 years outdated and didn’t have access to have the extraordinary ancient texts that are available today, apparently without actually reading my book (a substantial portion of which is used to quote from, explain and undermine the position Colson pushes forward).

To learn more about CS Lewis and Tolkien’s theology of Pagan Christs, click here to download the first four chapters of Jesus Potter Harry Christ for free!