If I only committed venial sins, I would go to Purgatory, and then after a period there, shortened if people prayed or paid, offering Masses on my behalf, I would go to heaven. Just as if Jesus had not died?
And when–after a six year period in my twenties of not really believing anything very much–I decided to recommit to following Christ, I went to serious Bible-believing Protestant churches.
And when the Atonement was first explained to me, I am afraid I did not really believe it.
Why? Because it could not really be proven.
I had, similarly, not really believed in heaven and hell for those six years, because, for all I knew they were theological inventions, theological fairy tales. I had decided not do anything for desire for heaven or fear of hell, because there was no proof for either of these.
* * *
As an undergraduate at Oxford, I had listened to lectures on Lord Raglan’s The Hero and was struck at the resemblances the life of Jesus bore to these mythical heroes across cultures.
1. Hero’s mother is a royal virgin;
2. His father is a king, and
3 4. The circumstances of his conception are unusual, and
5. He is also reputed to be the son of a god.
6. At birth an attempt is made, to kill him, but
7. he is spirited away, and
8. Reared by foster -parents in a far country.
9. We are told nothing of his childhood, but
10. On reaching manhood he returns or goes to his future Kingdom.
14. For a time he reigns uneventfully and
15. Prescribes laws, but
16. Later he loses favour with the gods and/or his subjects, and
17. Is driven from the throne and city, after which
18. He meets with a mysterious death,
19. Often at the top of a hill,
20. His children, if any do not succeed him.
21. His body is not buried, but nevertheless
22. He has one or more holy sepulchres.
Numerous heroes fit into this archetype, including Krishna, Moses, Romulus, King Arthur, Perseus, Heracles, Mohammed, Beowulf, Buddha, Zeus, Samson, Achilles, and Odysseus.
And so I wondered: Was Jesus God? Was there a God?
* * *
When C.S. Lewis was troubled by the same thing, in Oxford, 45 year earlier, Tolkein sorted him out by explaining that Christianity is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened:
Lewis writes to his friend, Arthur Greeves,
My puzzle was about the whole doctrine of Redemption: in what sense the life and death of Christ “saved” or “opened salvation to” the world. I could see how miraculous salvation might be necessary. What I couldn’t see was how the life and death of Someone Else (whoever he was) two thousand years ago could help us here and now — except in so far as his example helped us.
And the example business, tho’ true and important, is not Christianity: right in the centre of Christianity, in the Gospels and St Paul, you keep on getting something quite different and very mysterious expressed in those phrases I have so often ridiculed (“propitiation” — “sacrifice” — “the blood of the Lamb”) — expressions which I could only interpret in senses that seemed to me either silly or shocking.
Now what Dyson and Tolkien showed me was this: that if I met the idea of sacrifice in a Pagan story I didn’t mind it at all: again, that if I met the idea of a God sacrificing himself to himself, I liked it very much and was mysteriously moved by it.
Again, the idea of the dying and reviving god (Balder, Adonis, Bacchus) similarly moved me, provided I met it anywhere except in the Gospels. The reason was that in Pagan stories I was prepared to feel the myth as profound and suggestive of meanings beyond my grasp even tho’ I could not say in cold prose “what it meant.”
Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened: and one must be content to accept it in the same way, remembering that it is God’s myth where the others are men’s myths: i.e. the Pagan stories are God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using such images as He found there, while Christianity is God expressing Himself through what we call “real things”. Therefore it is true, not in the sense of being a “description” of God (that no finite mind could take in) but in the sense of being the way in which God chooses to (or can) appear to our faculties.
The “doctrines” we get out of the true myth are translations into our concepts and ideas of that wh. God has already expressed in a language more adequate, namely the actual incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection. At any rate I am now certain (a) That this Christian story is to be approached, in a sense, as I approached the other myths. (b) That it is the most important and full of meaning. I am also certain that it really happened…
Ah, but I then had no Tolkein to sort me out!
* * *
In my mid-twenties, I yearned to return to faith because my life was not working elegantly, and I thought I had made rather a mess of it. Surely I would do better if I followed Christ, I thought.
When I longed for faith again a North Star to guide; when, you might say, I missed Jesus; a friend, Peggy Goetz, suggested I try to do what Jesus said, and see if it was true or not.
“If anyone chooses to do God’s will, he will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own,” John 7:17 was Jesus’s own apologetic, the proof he offered of whether his words were from God, or his own.
So I started giving to everyone who asked of me; lending and not asking back; praying and keeping a list of my prayer requests. And there was a tidal wave of answers, sweeping me into the Kingdom. Little odd things: I had just moved into an unfurnished house for my Ph. D and realized I’d need to buy a mattress. What a hassle without a car! I prayed I’d be given one, and a student returning to Korea offered me hers the next day. Several coincidences like that! Wow!
And so, real faith slowly slipped into place like pieces in a jigsaw.
* * *
Does anyone become a Christian and then instantly believe all its doctrines? Or do they fall into place, step by step as they did for me? Do we construct our creeds gradually? Yeah, I believe in the Resurrection. Yes, I believe in the Atonement. Yeah, I believe in Hell, because Jesus talked so much about it, though I am uncertain of its demographics. Yeah, I believe in Heaven–ditto!!