Though most readers are aware that C. S. Lewis spent many years as an atheist before becoming a Christian at the age of 32, fewer know that his conversion occurred in two distinct stages. Before embracing Christ as the only-begotten Son of God, Lewis spent over a year as a theist, believing in the existence of God but still rejecting the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation. Among the events and influences that led Lewis to make the leap from theism to Christianity, the most important was a long evening talk he had with a close friend, a devout Roman Catholic named J. R. R. Tolkien.
As Lewis and Tolkien walked along the grounds of Magdalen College, Oxford, Lewis confided in Tolkien, author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, that his knowledge of mythology prevented him from accepting the gospel narrative as true. After all, the mythologies of the world were filled with stories of gods who came to earth, took on human form, died violent deaths, and returned again to life: Adonis, Osiris, Tammuz, Mithras, Balder, etc. Was not Christianity just another such myth, albeit a more sophisticated one? In response, Tolkien acknowledged the prevalence of god-men in pagan myths and legends, but then went on to suggest a different way of interpreting this phenomenon. What if, Tolkien challenged his skeptical friend, the reason the story of Christ sounded so similar to the pagan tales of dying and rising gods was because Jesus was the myth that came true?
Tolkien’s challenge revolutionized Lewis’ way of viewing mythology and not many days would pass before he would surrender his life to Christ, the historical God-Man. No longer a stumbling block, the ancient Greek, Roman, and Norse tales that Lewis so loved would become for him one of the mainstays and bulwarks of his new faith. Rather than dismiss the miraculous elements of Christmas and Easter as having no more historical validity than the scapegoat tales of Oedipus or Prometheus—as many moderns do—or reject the myths themselves as either irrelevant to faith or lies of the devil meant to deceive—as many Christians do—Lewis came to view the myths as glimpses, road signs, pointers to a greater truth that was someday to be revealed literally and historically in a specific time and place.
For Lewis, it is just as vital that we proclaim and accept the full historicity of the Christian gospel as it is that we celebrate and experience its full mythic power. Yes, Lewis asserts, Christ is more than Balder, or Hercules or Dionysus, in the sense that His death and resurrection occurred in real time and had real consequences. But we must not allow His status as the historical Dying God to rob Him of His mythic splendor. Christ should speak not only to our rational, logical side, but to our sense of wonder and awe as well.
If Christianity is true, then it means that the God who created both us and the universe chose to reveal Himself through a sacred story that resembles more the imaginative works of the epic poets and tragedians than the rational meditations of the philosophers and theologians. The historical enactment of the Passion did not render the old pagan tales unclean; on the contrary, it had the reverse effect of baptizing and purifying them.
The relationship between Mary and the baby Jesus has made potentially sacred the relationship between every mother and child, both B.C. and A.D.; in a like manner, the gospel story spreads out its light both forward and backward to uplift and ennoble all stories that speak of sacrifice and reconciliation, of messianic promise and eschatological hope. It was through the poetry of the Psalms and the Prophets, as well as through the more “epic” tales of the Old Testament—Abraham’s long, circuitous journey, Joseph and his brothers, the Passover and Exodus—that Yahweh prepared the hearts and minds of His people for the Incarnation of the Christ. Does it seem so unbelievable that He should have used the greatest poets, storytellers, and “prophets” of antiquity to prepare the hearts of the pagans?
Indeed, as these pagans were without the Law and cut off from the direct (special) revelation given to the biblical writers, how else could God have reached them? Yes, God certainly spoke to them through the natural world (general revelation), but how was He to reach them at the deeper levels of their being? As Lewis argues in Book II, Chapter 3 of Mere Christianity, before the full revelation of Christ, God communicated with men in three basic ways: through their consciences, through His historical struggles with a single, chosen race of people (the Jews), and through what Lewis calls “good dreams: I mean those queer stories scattered all through the heathen religions about a god who dies and comes to life again and, by his death, has somehow given new life to men.”
Perhaps the most famous example of a pagan writer catching a glimpse of the myth that would become fact is to be found in Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue (c. 40 B.C.), which celebrates the coming of a divine child who will bring peace and order to earth. Throughout the Middle Ages, Virgil’s pre-Christian, Isaiah-like poem was interpreted as a pagan prophecy of Christ.
In the twenty-second canto of the Purgatorio, Dante introduces us to Statius, a first-century pagan poet whom he portrays as having converted to Christianity late in life. Statius ascribes both his early yearnings for Christ and his final conversion, not to the Christian martyrs and theologians, but to Virgil. In an ecstatic, magic moment in which pagan myth reaches out to Christian fact and the two embrace, Statius exclaims:
“You [Virgil] were the lamp that led me from that night.
You led me forth to drink Parnassian waters;
then on the road to God you shed your light.
When you declared [in the Fourth Eclogue], ‘A new birth
has been given.
Justice returns, and the first age of man.
And a new progeny descends from Heaven’—
you were as one who leads through the dark track
holding the light behind—useless to you,
precious to those who followed at your back.
Through you I flowered to song and to belief.”
Statius goes on to add that when he first heard the gospel preached, he hearkened to it immediately, for it agreed so well with what he had read in Virgil.
In this lovely testimony of Statius, Virgil emerges as almost a Christ-figure, as one who sacrifices himself for others, who devotes his life to uncovering truths that, though useless to him, will provide light and guidance for those who come after. He is a bearer of good news, not of the full gospel of Christ, but of a lesser gospel that yet points to the greater: a candle that directs our eye to the moon; a moon that directs our soul to the sun.
And what of today? Do we who live on this side of Calvary still need such mythic candles? I would say we do, that we need them even more, for the secular, rationalistic, post-Enlightenment world in which we live has dissected, demythologized, and denied many of our most cherished myths. To make matters worse, Christians are often the first to distance themselves from that which is mythic, not, as they try to convince themselves, because they are believers, but because they have absorbed, usually unconsciously, the modern world’s suspicion of fairy stories.
Yet the hunger remains. Despite 250 years of Enlightenment rationalism, people still yearn for myth, and, if they yearn, then they can be wooed back: perhaps not directly to Christ, but at least to a pre-Christian mindset that will open the door for a later embrace of the historical God-Man. Childhood precedes adulthood as the seed the tree: just so, the pagan mind, whether B.C. or A.D., cannot perceive God face to face until it has first peered darkly into the crazy glass of myth.
This essay is adapted from the conclusion of Louis Markos’ From Achilles to Christ: Why Christians Should Read the Pagan Classics, available from Memoria Press.