As I sit down to write this week’s blog essay, Easter is almost upon us.
Well, traditionally Easter is the most sacred celebration in the Christian calendar but for most of the population it has become little more than a very long weekend and a spurious opportunity to indulge children with Easter eggs and such trifles and to kill each other on the roads.
Easter represents the culmination of the Christ myth. Christianity proposes we are all born in sin. The traditionalists maintain it was all as a result of Adam and Eve’s transgressions in the Garden of Eden. But nevertheless we are born in sin and deserve to be punished accordingly. But God came to our rescue and sent his own son, Jesus to suffer a horrible death on the cross in order to atone for our sins. Accordingly, the dogma proposes, that if you believe that Jesus came to earth and suffered so on our behalf and then was resurrected and went to heaven, then God would forgive our sins and give us access to eternal life as well. Such believers would ascend to heaven as well and enjoy eternal bliss in company with equally gullible folk. In this mythology Jesus’ resurrection is a paramount event. It provides evidence that we too might be saved from death.
(It is interesting that A Course in Miracles suggests sin is merely a manifestation of ignorance, and would seem both futile and unjust to punish people for that!)
Of course the down side is that if you don’t believe this most improbable story you are then assigned to hell. And there with the other sceptics, unbelievers and those whose circumstances never gave them knowledge of the Jesus myth, you will suffer eternal torment which I am sure the God of love only imposes on you for your own eternal benefit.
As I have written previously, many Christians are heartened by the fact that they believe their religion provides a unique story which other traditions cannot match. Most religious believers fall into this very same trap, whatever religion they adhere to. It mostly comes about because very few people actually choose their religion and know very little about other belief systems. They mostly accept the religious beliefs of their families, their communities and their societies without question.
Most Christians would be unaware that the resurrection myth was common in many pagan societies and that it is more than likely that the early Christians appropriated the myth to embellish their own.
But we should step back a little here, because even before the Jesus myth culminates in his crucifixion and resurrection the whole tenor of his story is underpinned by a preceding Greek tradition. In ancient Greece, well before Christianity, there was a tradition of making a particular individual into a “scapegoat” who symbolically took on the sins of the people and was expelled from the city or put to death. In Greek history, such a person was called pharmakos.
(Indeed even in Egyptian mythology Osiris fulfilled such a role. An anonymous Egyptian poet, in adoration of his sacrificed and resurrecting saviour Osiris wrote:
Have they sacrificed thee? Do they say that thou hast died for them? He is not dead! He lives forever! He is alive more than they, for he is the mystic one of sacrifice. He is their Lord, living and young forever.
Now I would be surprised if that didn’t sound familiar to you.)
It is interesting that the great British historian, Arnold Toynbee believed that Christianity evolved as an Hellenization of Judaism, specifically designed to engage the Greek and Roman populace.
And if you look a little further indeed the “Lamb of God” belongs to a flock of such scapegoats from pagan mythology.
Now I could give you many references to show that the mythology of sacrificial death followed by resurrection is a pervading theme in pagan philosophy. But I won’t bore you with that. Let me just give you one (rather protracted) quote from the famous American mythologist, Joseph Campbell.
Campbell quotes the second century Greek philosopher Celsus refuting claims about the uniqueness of Jesus. He is amazed at the Christian’s literal interpretations of what to him are obviously myths.
Is your belief based on the ‘fact’ that this Jesus told in advance that he would rise again after his death? That your story includes his predictions of triumphing over the grave? Well, let it be so. Let us assume for the present that he foretold his resurrection. Are you ignorant of the multitudes that have invented similar tales to lead simple-minded hearers astray? It is said that Zamolix, Pythagoras’s servant, convinced Scythians that he had risen from the dead, having hidden himself away in a cave for several years, and what about Pythagoras himself in Italy – or Phampsinitus in Egypt? Now then who else: what about Orpheus among the Odrysians, Protesilaus in Thessaly and above all Heracles and Theseus? But quite apart from all these risings from the dead, we must look carefully at the question of the resurrection of the body as a possibility given to mortals. Doubtless you will freely admit that these other stories are legends, even as they appear to me, but you will go on to say that your resurrection story, this climax to your tragedy, is believable and noble.
(For other references to pagan myths about resurrection see The Laughing Jesus by Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy particularly pp52-55.)
The Jesus myth was constructed in the first two centuries of the Common Era. There were initially two responses to it. One group, the literalists, were inveigled to believe that it was the actual truth. The competing forces were the Gnostics who believed that the Jesus myth was a profound metaphor. Unfortunately, in the succeeding centuries the literalists prevailed As a result the literal truth of the Jesus story became embedded in the Christian dogma. Consequently people came to believe that literally:
- Jesus was the Son of God,
- Jesus was born of a virgin mother,
- Jesus performed miracles,
- Jesus died to atone for our sins,
- Jesus suffered on the cross, and
- He was subsequently resurrected and ascended into heaven.
Now, I ask you if you had not been indoctrinated into the Christian Church is this a plausible set of statements?
Let us quickly look at the Gnostic interpretation of the Jesus myth.
The Gnostics, as we have previously seen, believed the Jesus story was a wonderful allegorical myth. The culmination of the life of Jesus in the resurrection is of particular importance. In Greek, the word for resurrection can be interpreted alternatively as awakening. For the Gnostics the culmination of religious practice did not lead to the possibility of the physical resurrection of the body but to an awakening to an awareness of life as it is. One Christian text called The Treatise on the Resurrection (referred to by Freke and Gandy) declares:
The world is an illusion. The resurrection/awakening is the revelation of reality.
This in fact is the knowledge (gnosis) that underpins Gnosticism.
Let me again quote Freke and Gandy:
According to Tertullian the Gnostics teach that ‘Those without gnosis are the dead.’ Resurrecting is awakening to gnosis. It is the discovery of what Paul calls the ‘Christ’ who represents our shared essential nature as the oneness of awareness. As a Gnostic teacher he sees his job as ‘working until the Christ arises in you’. He urges:
‘Wake up sleeper. Rise from the dead. Let the Christ enlighten you.’
So what can we learn from this allegorical myth? Just as in other religious traditions to goal is to seek awakening, awareness or enlightenment. Heaven and hell are not places you go to as a reward for your goodness or as punishment for your sins. Heaven is what you experience in this life through awakening; just as hell is what you experience in ignorance.
There was a lovely little Buddhist parable that paraphrased this learning.
Once a samurai warrior approached a little monk and asked him, “Master, can you explain to me the concepts of heaven and hell?”
The monk looked at the samurai who was a brute of a man and had a reputation for his prowess as a warrior. He seemed to be ruminating on the warrior’s request.
Finally, he raised his voice and spoke impertinently to the big man. “Why would an ignorant uncouth fellow like you want such knowledge? It would be a waste bestowing such knowledge on an ignoramus!”
The samurai warrior was immediately angered, and overwhelmed by his emotion drew out his sword and was about to smite the monk.
As he did so the monk said quietly, “That is hell.”
The warrior paused. It occurred to him that the monk had deliberately provoked him, perhaps putting his own life at risk to teach him a lesson. Tears came to his eyes as he contemplated the bravery and dedication of the little monk. He slowly lowered his sword and let out a sigh.
“And that,” said the monk quietly, “is heaven.”
So perhaps the intended message of Christianity before it was hijacked by the literalists is that we are all asleep in our life-dream and obsessed with separateness and ego. And in this state we are essentially dead and lost in the wilderness of separation and suffering. But if we were “resurrected” (awakened) we might begin to understand our oneness. And consequently we would treat others as ourselves, bestow love and experience heaven on earth.
So at Easter when we traditionally celebrate the resurrection of Christ, let us put aside the claims of the literalists, for which there is no credible supporting evidence, and join the Gnostics in taking something positive from this allegorical myth.
Happy Easter. May you awaken to love!