Thursday, February 19, 2015

7 Reasons Pagan Myths Can't Disprove Christianity

Often, in online conversations with atheists, I run across some variant of the following argument,
Horus was born of a virgin like Jesus was (he wasn't1, but let that slide), therefore Jesus never was born of a virgin. It's all made up!
Sometimes the atheist will add up a bunch of supposed similarities, thinking multiple (bad) examples will somehow transform his essentially bad argument into a good one. Whether it is one example or many, however, makes no difference to the underlying assumption of the argument, that something fictional coming before something historical proves the falsity of the historical event. This is absurd for a couple different reasons.

1) It Proves Too Much - The Practical Test
If we accept the assumption of this argument, that finding a fictional account of a later historical event proves the later historical event was "made-up," we can disprove all sorts of things. The moon landing can be shown to be "made-up" by appealing to the Jules Verne novel From the Earth to the Moon, which tells the tale of a group of weapon lovers who, in post Civil War America, decide to launch three men on the first ever voyage in outer space. Verne wrote his fictional account of a trip to the moon from the United States (even having the men "blast-off" from Florida) in 1865, over a century before Americans actually landed there. Does this "prove" the Apollo program was nothing more than NASA "stealing" Verne's plot? Have we refuted the real moon landing? Of course not. The moral of the story? Things that are parts of fictional stories can happen later in history, it, therefore, is no argument against any historical event to point to an earlier fictional account that mirrors the historical event under question. Whether or not the historical events surround Jesus of Nazareth are similar to fictional events from stories told in earlier times has as little relevance to the question of whether those events actually happened with Jesus as pointing to the From the Earth to the Moon has in answering the question whether men have ever actually visited the Moon.

2) Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc - The Logical Test
If this weren't lethal enough to this type of objection, our atheist's argument here also commits a material logical fallacy - post hoc ergo propter hoc ("before this, therefore caused by this"). Just because thing "X" happens temporally before thing "Y" doesn't prove that "Y" caused "X." This is obvious in the natural world (does the rooster crowing before dawn cause the sun to rise?) but holds true in all other fields of knowledge. Just as it isn't enough to establish the temporal priority of From Earth to the Moon in regards to the Apollo program to prove the moon landings were fake, so too it isn't enough to point to the temporal priority of some pagan myth with a, usually overstated, similarity to the life of Christ to disprove the Gospel accounts.

3) An Exception for the Miraculous? - The Circular Reasoning Test 
Some atheists will argue that, unlike the Moon landing, Christ's miracles must be fake because miracles don't happen. This might, at first glance, seem like an importance difference, but it is nothing more than a circular, and therefore invalid, argument. The argument amounts to nothing more than asserting that Jesus' miracles didn't happen because no miracles happen, when Jesus' miracles are exactly evidence for the possibility of miracles. The argument then assumes miracles can't happen to prove that miracles can't happen. It is absurd. C.S. Lewis, an ex-atheist himself, saw through this charade and I direct the reader to pick up his book Miracles and read, if not the entire thing, then at least the third chapter in which Lewis destroys the idea that we could possibly know that nature is a "closed-system," that miracles are impossible.

4) Were the Authors of the Gospels Deliberate Liars? - The Motive Test
Claiming authors of the Gospels "stole" stories from pagan mythology and either appended them onto the life of a historical Jesus or used them to create an entirely fictional Jesus (the latter option for atheists who are completely historically illiterate) runs into yet another problem, why would anyone have done this? It might be easy to imagine a group of conspirators gathering together to "gain power" or wealth (whichever the atheist supposes religion in about) over the masses for someone who looks at the current status of Christianity in our society, but the earliest Christians, the ones who would have "borrowed" from the myths, had nothing to gain from so doing. They were Jews. Jesus was a rejected Messiah. By professing belief in Him they were not shrewdly positioning themselves to gain power or wealth, rather they were faced rather with a bleak future, one summed up nicely by Saint Paul,
I have... been in prison...been flogged...been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked... I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow jews, in danger from gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. (1 Corinthians 11:23-27)

Not exactly the benefit package one would craft an intricate lie to gain for oneself.

5) Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up? - The Historical Evidence Test
And, assuming the original history of Jesus was corrupted by the addition of stories from old myths, we must wonder where any trace is of the original, uncorrupted, "historical" Jesus without the "added myths." The idea that the Gospels were "corrupted" has long been popular with people who seek to deny some inconvenient truth contained within. St. Augustine recounts his experience of this line of arguing in his Confessions, as the answer the Manicheans would give to explain the paucity of support their doctrines have in the Scriptures,
the answer they gave seemed to me feeble - indeed they preferred not to give it in public but only among ourselves in private (remember Augustine was a Manichean before his conversion) - the answer being that the Scriptures... had been corrupted... yet the Manicheans made no effort to produce uncorrupted copies2
Augustine's challenge, produce historical evidence of a Jesus who didn't do what the Gospels report, remains unanswered sixteen centuries on.

6) That's Not How Myths Work - The Time Test
Anyone who is at all familiar with mythology, who's actually read mythology rather than simply reading about mythology on atheist websites and blogs, knows the myths are set in times remote, even "shady," from the days in which they were composed. The myths happened "once upon a time." Such distance in time is necessary to establish their credibility. If I composed a myth about the sun turning blue yesterday, no one would believe it for we all saw the sun remain yellow yesterday. However, a myth about a time "long, long ago" when the sun was blue could be believed. The Gospel accounts of Christ, however, were not written about events that had happened long before the authors penned them, rather they were about events that had just happened. Dr. Peter Kreeft points this out nicely,
The dates for the writing of the Gospels have been pushed back by every empirical manuscript discovery; only hypothesizing pushes the date forward. Almost no knowledgable scholar today holds... what (is) necessary to hold in order to believe the myth theory, namely, that there is no first-century textual evidence that Christianity began with a divine and resurrected Christ, not a human and a dead one.3
In other words, there simply isn't enough time for the myths to have been plausibly added to the historical life of Jesus or for the authors of the New Testament to make Jesus out of whole cloth.

7) What is the Real Relationship Between the Myths and Christianity? - The Alternate Explanation Test
Father Longnecker, a Catholic priest and blogger, provides another objection to our atheist's argument by giving an alternative explanation for the resemblance between the myths of old and the history of Jesus.
On Sunday night I had been reading Mircea Eliade’s history of religion. So many of the themes present within Christianity echoed through the myths and rituals of the ancient pagan world.
Here a god descended to take incarnate form. There a god battled with the powers of darkness. Here a god descended into the underworld to redeem the dead, there a god is brought back to life in the Springtime of the year. Here a king is sacrificed to atone for the sins of the people, there a god ascends back into heaven. Here an innocent warrior is sacrificed, there a scapegoated victim.
The atheist critics say, “You see? Christianity is merely paganism warmed up. All those ancient myths are simply swept up, re-hashed and mashed with added spices and forced into Christianity….kind of like making sausage..."
How little he understands.
Of course this is just where the Catholic needs to stand the whole argument on its head.
Catholicism is not a re-hash of the old paganism. It is a correction and fulfillment of the old paganism. (read the whole article there)
The dim prefigurements and dusky shadows of Christ echoed in the world's psyche to be an argument against Christ, rather it is precisely an argument for the truth of the Gospel. If what Christians believe is true, if man was made for relationship with God and this relationship was broken at the very outset of our common history and the only possible fix was the Incarnation and Resurrection of God Incarnate, we'd expect all men at all times in all places before the coming of Christ to have some faintly expressed hope that such a thing might some day happen. We'd expect to see little signs pointing in the direction of Christ all over the pre-christian world as guideposts, as lights in the darkness, guiding man's thoughts, dreams, and aspirations in His direction. We'd expect to see little "protoevangelions" nestled into the various religious traditions of man. It is exactly this reality that the Father's of the Second Vatican Council referred to when they spoke of the complex relationship the Church has with people in various religious traditions including paganism,
Nor is God far distant from those who in shadows and images seek the unknown God, for it is He who gives to all men life and breath and all things, and as Saviour wills that all men be saved4
If there are "shadows and images" of "the unknown God" scattered throughout pagan religions, we'd expect to find some myths that point us in the direction of Christ. The evidence the atheist presents, then, confirms rather than opposes what we believe.

It's important to note here that it doesn't do for the atheist to simply assert his view or reject our view of the source of the similarities between some pagan myths and Christianity. That there can be another rational explanation for the existence of these similarities is enough to defang his argument.

In the end, this argument simply is a non-starter. If interested in reading more about this and similar issues, I'd recommend the following books.

Recommended Reading (purchase through our link to support the blog at no cost to yourself!):

1. Horus was actually born when his father's penis was severed and thrown into the sea. Hardly similar to the Nativity narrative of Jesus. Many such "similarities" are manufactured to make pagan myths seem much more similar than they really are to Christianity.
2. Confessions, Book V
3. Handbook of Christian Apologetics, 191
4. Lumen Gentium, 16


  1. Of course prior, similar stories don't disprove Christian stories. I've never heard an atheist claim this. In my experience atheists are pointing out that there are stories of the same ilk out there that the Christian sees as myth and that some of them precede the bible. It's a question of consistency and creativity.

  2. Grundy, Is the "same ilk" of myths and Christianity supposed to lead us to any conclusion or is it no different than pointing out that mythical flowers in stories are yellow and real flowers are yellow too?