Saturday, April 03, 2010

Easter and the Resurrection Mythic Archetype

At the conclusion of Holy Week for Christians comes Easter and the celebration of the Resurrection of Christ. With this post I share a post that brings together reflections on the Resurrection as it intersects with aspects of contemporary Western culture. In this instance it is a summary of Leon McKenzie's thesis from his very helpful book Pagan Resurrection Myths and the Resurrection of Jesus. It is presented for readers from a variety of religious traditions and perspectives to reflect on:

Following publication of several recent books characterizing Jesus' resurrection as just another myth - the most prominent written by A.N. Wilson (1992), Barbara Thiering (1992), and Episcopal bishop John Spong (1994) - it was bound to happen that disavowals of the resurrection would make it to the Internet. "If you believe in the resurrection," barked one message, "have I got a bridge to sell you!"

Most who deny Jesus' resurrection base their speculations, consciously or inadvertently, on the assumptions of a philosophical naturalism that rejects any supernatural dimension of reality. Any interpretation admitting the possibility of the actual resurrection of Jesus from the dead is ruled out before speculation begins. How explain, then, the New Testament accounts? Those who deny the resurrection fall back on the "nothing but" fallacy in their arguments.

We are instructed the resurrected Jesus is "nothing but" another dying and rising god in a long line of mythic gods. This "nothing but" reductionism is noted very briefly here to enable readers to evaluate anti-resurrection writings more critically. More importantly in this electronic essay, the origin of pagan resurrection myths is clarified with some interesting results.

The characterization of Jesus' resurrection as a myth must be evaluated only after a thorough consideration of the genesis of myths of so-called dying and reviving gods. The fruitfulness of such a study, of course, is dismissed a priori by those who reject the resurrection because of their ideological presuppositions.

The modern secular imagination in this instance is prejudiced to such a degree that the analysis of the origin of fabled deaths and risings is considered a waste of time. The origins of the myths has already been "discovered" by rationalist-secularist scholars. Nothing more needs to be added. The resurrection of Jesus is a myth, they say. Case closed.

It is my thesis that the resurrection of Jesus is not explainable by mythic fables of dying and reviving gods. On the contrary, mythic resurrection stories make sense only in the light of the resurrection of Jesus. To develop this proposal, it is necessary to begin with the notion of the resurrection archetype.

The Resurrection Archetype

Carl Jung wrote of a resurrection archetype. I do not use the concept precisely in a Jungian sense. For me, the resurrection archetype is a meaning structure in the human psyche based on universal human experience. It is not something innate as Jung averred. Nor is the resurrection archetype limited to psychological applications.

The archetype is associated principally with the Christian imagination in that it supports and energizes the Christian imagination. (This is something Jung would never have admitted). This meaning structure, furthermore, is the primary model for the death-revival myths of antiquity. The resurrection archetype began developing in the memory of the human race, I suggest, from ancient times. Resurrection myths also began emerging early on out of this archetypal matrix.

Experience of the resurrection theme in the natural world led to the formation of a resurrection archetype in the collective unconscious of the human race. This archetype is the source of myths of dying and reviving pagan gods. All in all, in God's providence the resurrection archetype prepared human beings for God's decisive action within human history: the bodily resurrection of Jesus from death. This thesis requires further elaboration.

The Resurrection Theme in the Created World

Out of what frequently repeated human experiences did the resurrection archetype originate? There are at least seven major and often-occurring phenomena that shaped our collective unconscious. "Death and resurrection" themes were associated by the ancients with: 1) vegetation; 2) the sun and climate on an annual basis; 3) the sun on a daily basis; 4) constellations in the night skies; 5) awakened states from sleep; 6) tribal fortunes; and 7) human moods.

Many other resurrection motifs manifest themselves in the created world. It is relatively easy to identify these motifs when someone begins looking for them. The seven listed here seem to be the most significant.

Seven Resurrection Themes


Concern for the success of the harvest in ancient times was suffused with a powerful sense of wonder. Not much was known about why things died and grew again. All that was known was that the planting - the burial - of seeds in the Spring conduced later to a harvest, if other conditions such as weather were congenial. For the pagans (our ancestors who were also God's children), if the gods took care to "resurrect" mere buried seeds, might the gods not also be solicitous for dead members of the tribe who were buried? One of the effects of this focus on the mysteries of the decay and growth of vegetation was the construction of the resurrection archetype.


It did not take long for our ancient ancestors to associate agricultural cycles with climatic cycles. When the sun seemed to die at the end of the year, vegetation also died. The death and resurrection of the crops had something to do with the annual death and resurrection of the sun god. Did the death and rising again of the sun god on a yearly basis have anything to do with the genesis of the resurrection archetype? I think this repeated universal human experience helped fashion the meaning structure we call the resurrection archetype.

The Daily Death and Rising of the Sun

The sun god died and lived again, on an annual basis. The sun god also died every evening and arose again every morning, according to the perceptions of ancient peoples. The demise of the solar disk and its reappearance each day must have had a tremendous impact in the unconscious realms of the human psyche. This daily reminder of the death and resurrection of the powerful sun etched the resurrection archetype in the collective unconscious of the human race.

Stellar Phenomena

One of the great pastimes of the ancient world was the study of the night skies. Navigators, shepherds and sages marveled at the starry vault. They took particular interest in the constellations. A constellation is a configuration of relatively bright stars based on imaginary figures. These constellations, at particular seasons and from particular perspectives on the earth, died each night but were born again on the following night. The wonders of the night skies disclosed - as so many other experiences revealed - the resurrection motif in the cosmos. The resurrection archetype that came into being was based on our ancient ancestors' reflective experience of repeated resurrection patterns in nature.

Sleep and Wakefulness

Sleep has been compared to death in many literary works. We lose our consciousness in sleep and regain it when we wake. During thousands of years this pattern of losing oneself in sleep and gaining a new, refreshed self in the morning, has been an essential component of shared human experience. Sleep and the awakening from sleep reinforced the emergence of the resurrection archetype. This experience of the death and resurrection motif each night and morning was a powerful occasion for the development of the resurrection archetype.

Tribal Fortunes

For untold years every tribe and/or local community experienced the wane and wax of good fortune. Durations of drought or defeat in battle could mean the death of an entire community. A fruitful harvest or victory in tribal combat could mean literally the continuation of the life of the community. The community was especially important in the ancient world. Without a community a person could not live physically or emotionally. Rugged individualism was unthinkable. The making of the resurrection archetype was something that affected everyone.

Mood Changes

The world each of us sees each day depends to a certain extent on our moods. Our moods, Martin Heidegger claimed, affect our very being-in-the-world. If I have a dark mood, the world appears to be a melancholy place. When my mood changes from sad to glad, the world becomes a joyful place. The taste of renewal that comes from a sad to glad mood change may well be compared to a sense of deliverance from the belly of the beast. This taste of "death" and "resurrection" in respect to moods may be likened to a foretaste of one's own resurrection. Even mood changes, then, contributed to the formation of the resurrection archetype.

Pagan Myths as Proleptic

The resurrection archetype has been operative for unnumbered ages in the psyche of the race. This archetype exerted a great influence over tribal myth makers and story tellers. This fact is central to any informed understanding of the origin of myths of death and revival. Sometimes such myths were constructed around the deeds of a local hero who brought great boons to the community after undergoing severe tests. That is, years after the death of a local hero, myth makers embellished his legend with stories of some kind of revival from the dead.

This, according to the late Joseph Campbell, is the great monomyth, the myth that sums up the lesson of all myths. Later, the myths were redacted and retold regionally. Some of the myths of so-called dying and rising gods became accepted by entire peoples in larger geographical areas.

Pagan revival myths, in their own ways, prepared the way for the message of Jesus' resurrection from the dead. The word prolepsis is attributed to anything that represents a future event as if it had already taken place. Myths of dying and reviving pagan gods (which are essentially different from the announcement of Jesus' resurrection in crucial ways), were products of the common human experience of the death and resurrection themes manifested in the natural world.

The death and rebirth myths about the gods, it was noted, are essentially different from the heralding of Jesus' resurrection. First, the resurrection of Jesus occurred at a particular time and place in history; stories of gods are ahistorical, they happened "once upon a time." Secondly, there is a "fairy tale" character identifiable in all revival myths, i.e., these myths are saturated with elements of the fantastic. The resurrection of Jesus may be construed legitimately as wondrous, but is certainly not certifiably ridiculous as are the myths. Those who state Jesus is "nothing but" a mythic hero certainly have not studied hero myths critically.

Finally, the effects of the heralding of Jesus' resurrection are well known after two millennia. The Good News has had staying power and produced powerfully good consequences for humankind. The myths of Attis, Adonis, Osiris, Dionysus, and others are hardly known and the fruits of these myths are nonexistent. One would be hard put to identify a hospital dedicated to the memory of Attis.

Yet something good can be said about the myths that grew out of the thematic resurrectional structure of the natural world via the resurrection archetype. Pagan myths, always enormously ambiguous and often morally disreputable, nonetheless pointed the way obscurely - by way of hint and insinuation - to the key event of history, the resurrection of Jesus.

The Credibility of the Kerygma

When people heard the Good News heralded for the first time, many were moved by the ideas and images of the resurrection archetype - under the prompting of the Holy Spirit - to affirm the message they heard. They might well have said to themselves, "Yes, the announcement of the resurrection of Jesus is in accord with what I have sensed deep down in my heart all of my life. Also, the resurrection of the Son of God seems very real because of the intimations contained in ancient myths that preceded Jesus' resurrection. These myths were faint and garbled whispers of what was to occur at a central point in history. The resurrection of Jesus is worthy of belief because of the truthfulness of those who bear the message and because the message itself has about it the ring of truth. The Good News finds resonance in my soul. The resurrection of Jesus validates my lifelong experience of the world and the seeming 'messages' the world has often spoken to me."

A young man once stated at a conference that he accepted God and morality, but could not accept the resurrection of Jesus since it was redolent of ancient structures of imagination and thinking. The resurrection of Jesus may be unacceptable to some because it evokes ancient meaning structures at a time when only the newest ideas are assumed to be correct. The resurrection of Jesus, however, would be unacceptable to many of us, if it was not redolent of ancient meaning structures.

The same God who raised Jesus from the dead is the God who created the ancient structures of imagining and thinking. He is the same God who filled the cosmos with images of death and resurrection and enabled us to interpret these images in terms of Jesus' resurrection.

Why Resurrection Motifs in Nature?

There remains one more interesting question raised by this brief summary. Why was the world created containing, as it were, the death-resurrection motifs that appear everywhere in nature? Here is an answer worth pondering: The very act by which God created the world was an act referable to the death-resurrection theme. He created the world out of a nothingness similar to death and brought it into a dynamic being comparable to life.

The very act of resurrecting cosmos out of chaos is the fundamental pattern of death-resurrection that is repeated everywhere in the workings of the cosmos. The eternal Word in whom all things were created is the same eternal Word incarnate in Jesus who was raised from the dead, and the same eternal Word who will come again. Not only is this Word the Alpha and Omega, but also everything in between that makes reality intelligible.


To explain Jesus as "nothing but" another dying and rising god is an explanation that satisfies only those who lack a religious imagination and an appreciation for the magnificent complexity of reality. Overtaken by the regnant cultural paradigm of a naturalism that assumes only the raw world exists, the religious imagination of some writers is stifled to the point of exhaustion. The complex world goes unrecognized and everything is reduced to easy cliches. Mere ideology displaces wisdom. Only the most novel ideas are acceptable to the supposedly sophisticated. What is modish and daring finds many promoters because there is a large market for fads and novelties. Yet it is only through the lens of the apostolic faith and authentic Christian imagination, I believe, that the world is ultimately intelligible.

Leon McKenzie is the author of Pagan Resurrection Myths and the Resurrection of Jesus, 176pp, cloth, $24.95 (includes Priority Mail shipping).Send check or money order. The book is published by Bookwrights Press, 2255 Westover Drive, Suite 108, Charlottesville, VA 22901.


Peregrin said...

Hi John,

Thanks for this wonderful post. While I follow and agree with most of the arguments here, a couple of things do jar.

You write: “One would be hard put to identify a hospital dedicated to the memory of Attis.” To link the success of the Christian message to the success of the spread of the religion is a mistake. As you well know Christianity often became successful and displaced pagan religions by being adopted as the official Roman religion. There are also many recorded histories of conversion being forced on people and there were (and are) many acts to spread the ‘Good News’ I am sure you would not condone.

Buddhism has flourished longer that Christianity and thus has more “staying power”. By this measure it would have more validity that Christianity. Comparisons like this are too easy and prove nothing.

The historicity of Christ as the Son of God and the Resurrection is of course only relevant to those who accept Him and the Gospels as authentic. There are many arguments that show how the Pagan resurrection myths were placed over and within the story of Jesus after His death. That is, what we now look back on and you rightly describe as unique, rather than “nothing but” another Resurrection myth, is itself a redaction. We have to therefore be careful in presenting Christianity as different to pagan religions by such means.

Besides, as Augustine was supposed to have said: "That which is now called the Christian religion existed among the ancients, and never did not exist from the planting of the human race until Christ came in the flesh, at which time the true religion which already existed began to be called Christianity."

For me the crux of the matter is twofold. Firstly, redaction or truth not withstanding, the Death and Resurrection of Jesus was and is seen as an historical event not a mythic history. This was and is a daring statement. Secondly, the Christian message was the first to place the divine and mythic motif of Resurrection within a human context of a man, just like us who suffered. It further allowed all, not just a priestly caste, who wished to participate directly with this myth the chance to do so through remembrance, ritual and relationship.

Thanks again for this post. :)

John W. Morehead said...

Peregrin, thanks for your comments.

First, I must clarify in that I should have made it clearer in my post that this is a written summary of McKenzie's thesis by the author himself rather than my characterization. That being said I move on to interact with your comments.

I wouldn't argue that the success and the growth of any religion is necessarily as an indicator of its truth. And as I read McKenzie in this summary I don't know that he is arguing that. Instead, he seems to be saying that the "myth made fact" to borrow from C. S. Lewis realized itself in acts of goodwill as exemplified by those who live the message of Jesus. But I am in agreement with you that forced conversion is not acceptable.

It will be no surprise that I disagree with characterizations of the Jesus story as borrowing from Pagan myths of dying and rising gods, whether this is argued by atheists or Pagans. Following a mythopoeic argument I would say that what the myths yearn for was fulfilled historically through the life, death and Resurrection of Jesus. And of course I accept this in part because of my views on the reliability of the New Testament, supported I believe by good conservative scholarship on the topic.

I would like to see Christians move beyond the dichotomy of myth (as something historically untrue) and history so that a position like McKenzie's might be considered. When this is done then the mythic insights of people like Tolkien and Lewis help us connect the dots between the Resurrection and the myths and archetypes of human yearning.

Thanks again for sharing your criticisms and thoughts.

TonyTheProf said...

"For me, the resurrection archetype is a meaning structure in the human psyche based on universal human experience. It is not something innate as Jung averred"

Jung did not precisely say the archetype was innate. In fact his theory of archetypes, along with the collective unconscious (from which the archetypes come) was placed by him firmly in a Darwinian framework. We share archetypes because we share a common evolutionary ancestry, and there is a commonality to our mind, just as there is to our sight, or hearing.