I can still remember the first time I took high school students to Berkeley on a missions trip that put them in direct contact with prominent local atheists and atheist students groups on the campus of UC Berkeley. In one of our first lectures with an atheist presenter, the students were told that Jesus never lived and was nothing more than a re-creation of prior mythologies. The speaker used Mithras (the ancient Persian and Roman god) as his “case in point”. He listed a number of striking similarities between Mithras (whose worship began several centuries prior to the birth of Christ) and the person of Jesus. Luckily, I was familiar with the claim and the true nature of Mithras; I was able to help our students sort through the evidence. Movies like Zeitgeist have popularized the atheist objection that was offered by our atheist visitor in Berkeley, but if you take the following steps, you too can make sense of the evidence:
Take a Closer Look at the Mythology
Pre-Christian mythologies are far less similar to the story of Jesus Christ than critics claim. The gods of mythology were not born of a virgin as Jesus was born to Mary, they did not live a life that was similar to Jesus in detail, they did not hold the titles attributed to Jesus, and they were not resurrected in a manner that is remotely similar to the resurrection of Christ. Primitive mythologies simply fail to resemble the Biblical account of Jesus when they are examined closely.
Take a Closer Look at the Strategy
Critics typically “cherry pick” from the mythological attributes of a variety of pagan gods and exaggerate the supposed similarities to construct a profile that is even vaguely similar to Jesus. Skeptics search for singular similarities to the Christ of the Bible and then assemble these similarities from a variety of gods spanning the centuries and originating in geographically diverse regions. Given this strategy, nearly any person from history can be said to be a recreation of preceding characters, either fictitious or historical. There is no single prior mythology that is significantly similar to Jesus.
Take a Closer Look at the Expectations
Many alleged similarities are extremely general in nature and would be expected from anyone considering the existence of God. The primitive cultures that were interested in God’s nature reasoned that He would have the ability to perform miracles, teach humans and form disciples. These are universal expectations that fail to invalidate the historicity of Jesus. As Paul recognized on Mars Hill (Acts 17:22-31), men thought deeply about the nature of God prior to His arrival as Jesus. Sometimes they imagined the details correctly, sometimes they didn’t.
Take A Closer Look at the Influence
It is unreasonable to believe that Christian conspirators would create a story designed to convince Jewish believers that Jesus was God by inserting pagan mythological elements into the narrative. Judaism is a uniquely monotheistic religion, and the God of Judaism provides strict prohibitions against the worship of pagan gods. It is unreasonable to think that the New Testament authors would utilize pagan mythology in an attempt to influence adherents of Judaism.
The more you examine the nature of the gods who were worshiped before Jesus, the more you will notice their dissimilarities and the dishonesty of trying to compare them to the historical Jesus. Take the time to examine the evidence, you’ll be glad you did.
For more information about the reliability of the New Testament gospels and the case for Christianity, please read Cold-Case Christianity: A Homicide Detective Investigates the Claims of the Gospels. This book teaches readers ten principles of cold-case investigations and applies these strategies to investigate the claims of the gospel authors. The book is accompanied by an eight-session Cold-Case Christianity DVD Set (and Participant’s Guide) to help individuals or small groups examine the evidence and make the case.
J. Warner Wallace is a Dateline featured Cold-Case Detective, Senior Fellow at the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, Adj. Professor of Christian Apologetics at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University, author of Cold-Case Christianity, God’s Crime Scene, and Forensic Faith, and creator of the Case Makers Academy for kids.
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