While the similarities between Jesus and the “divine” mythological characters that preceded him are grossly overstated, we ought to expect some parallels between Jesus and the imaginative creations of those who lived prior to Christ’s appearance on earth. As ancient people began to consider the possibility of God’s existence, a series of reasonable inferences certainly must have guided the fabrication of their mythological deities. Consider the following reasonable conclusions one might draw when thinking about the possible existence of God:
A Creator God would be incredibly strong and likely emerge in our world in a way that defies the natural order of things.
A Creator God would have the power to perform miracles and control the forces of the natural environment.
A Creator God, if He wanted us to know Him, would likely provide us with some form of mediator.
A Creator God, if He was to come to earth, would certainly draw attention to Himself, gathering disciples.
A Creator God would be powerful enough to defeat death.
A Creator God would want to save his children and come to their rescue, particularly if they are facing an eternal threat.
A Creator God, if He loves us, would likely make it possible for us to join Him in his eternal life.
A Creator God would likely have infinite wisdom and be the master of our lives.
All of these expectations are reasonable. If there is a God, we could sensibly expect him to possess these characteristics. So it really shouldn’t surprise us when we find ancient mythological descriptions of pre-Christian gods who emerge into the natural world in some unnatural way, perform miraculous deeds, intervene as mediators, gather disciples, defeat death, rescue believers, provide a path to eternal life and serve as the source of all wisdom. I would expect those who are dreaming and thinking about God to describe these common features in the gods they create; these characteristics emerge from reasonable expectations. This is largely why there are any similarities at all (even though they are minimal and exaggerated) between ancient mythologies and Jesus.
Paul recognized this inclination to create Gods from our expectations. Addressing the people of Athens on Mars Hill, two thousand years ago, Paul told his listeners that while they had imagined the nature of God, there was actually a true God, Jesus Christ, who came into the world and exceeded their expectations:
Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you. “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’ “Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone-an image made by man’s design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17:22-31)
Paul seemed to recognize that God had an answer for those who had been dreaming about His nature. God was aware of all the mythologies that preceded His true appearance. He was aware of the dreams and expectations of these ancient people; He knew how they had shaped their gods. It shouldn’t surprise us, then, that God would eventually appear and prove He was the one true God by meeting our expectations, point for point, and then dramatically surpassing these expectations in a demonstration of power and glory. In Paul’s words on Mars Hill, I hear the faint echo of God’s encouragement: “Children, I know you have imagined me to be a certain way. In some small measure you have imagined correctly. In many other ways you have been very far from the mark. Let me show you who I am. Watch me meet all the expectations you had about my nature. Let me assure you by pointing you to the miraculous life I lived among you. Let me show you how I rescued you in a way you could never have dreamt of.”
In the end, it was the powerful eyewitness confirmation of the Resurrection that Paul highlighted in an effort to convince the Athenians that Jesus was the one true God who met their expectations. Jesus was described as the true God who would “judge the world with justice”, and Paul said that God had “given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.” How do we know Jesus is not just another mythological creation of ancient men who had reasonable expectations? Because (according to Paul) we have a reliable eyewitness account related to the Resurrection. That’s why this historic eyewitness claim became the focus of my investigation as a skeptic, why I spent so much time investigating the claims of the gospels as eyewitness accounts, and why I have such confidence today. The accounts are reliable under any template we might use with witnesses in the courtroom, and if they’re reliable, Jesus is the true God who met our expectations and then surpassed them in a way we could never have anticipated.