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Posted by on Apr 26, 2016 | 3 comments

The Myth of the Christ Figure

The Myth of the Christ Figure


Use-Your-Allusion-arrested-development-10962792-333-500Mythological embodiment is a common allusion used in everyday English. A Herculean task is something that is difficult to accomplish, an Achilles’ Heel is a weak spot, and if someone has a Midas touch then she is able create success out of anything she sets out to do. Allusions are used in order to maintain a distance between the subject and the thing that gives the allusion meaning. For example, if I were to call you my nemesis I am not actually calling you a Greek goddess sent to punish me, what I am saying is you are my bitter enemy who will do everything within your power to cause my downfall. In doing so I am doing two things. The first is I am acknowledging the gap between the language and the object that gives the language meaning. The second thing I am doing is stripping the mythology from the allusion; I am, in a sense, humanizing it. One of the most common contemporary allusions in Western literature is the Christ figure. The Christ figure is a character in a work of fiction or poetry that embodies the qualities of Christ as he is proclaimed in the Gospels. For example, Simon in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies is often interpreted as a Christ figure. This is because Simon fits into a particular Christological trope: the sacrificial lamb. As a sacrifice Simon reveals the depravity of the rest of the boys on the island. As a Christ figure Simon isn’t the Christ of the Gospels, but a demythologized Christ, a Christ that is revealed through the kerygma of the book.

The Christ figure allusion stems from Rudolf Bultmann’s demythologization project. Bultmann believed the cross becomes significant only when it is preached, and it is through the kerygma (the act of proclamation) that the cross becomes transformative. The caveat is the kerygma is only true if it is existentially realized in the life of the believer. This means the facts of the event don’t matter as much as the effect of the event on the believer. Therefore, it doesn’t matter if anything happened as a result of the cross, it is how the cross was interpreted by the disciples that matters. Bultmann writes:

“In its redemptive aspect the cross of Christ is no mere mythical event, but a historic fact originating in the historical event which is the crucifixion of Jesus. The abiding significance of the cross is that it is the judgement of the world, the judgement and the deliverance of man. So far this is so, Christ is crucified ‘for us’, not in the sense of any theory of sacrifice or satisfaction. This interpretation of the cross as a permanent fact rather than a mythological event does far more justice to the redemptive significance of the event of the past than any of the traditional interpretations. In the last resort mythological language is only a medium for conveying the significance of the historical event.”[1]

In Bultmann we find what the Christ figure is: embodied mythological language inferring meaning from a historic event.

An unlikely hero saves us from this mistaken concept: Yale theologian Hans W. Frei. In a collection of his lectures titled The Identity of Christ, Frei argues that there is no such thing as a Christ figure; there is only Christ. In fact, what has been labeled as a Christ figure is really the savior of Gnostic myths. This is because historical theology like Bultmann’s categorized the mythic Christ figure as separate from the Christ of history. Frei counteracts this by claiming that the Christ of history is unsubstitutable from the Christ of the New Testament Gospel accounts. Frei writes:

“Such exclusive reference to the person of Jesus as is found in the Gospel story is characteristic of neither Gnostic nor mystery religions. The Gospel story’s indisoluble connection with an unsubstitutable identity in effect divests the savior story of its mythical quality. The Gospel story is a demythologization of the savior myth because the savior figure in the Gospel story is fully identified with Jesus of Nazereth… This exclusive identification of the savior figure with Jesus was quite uncanny… There are two chief differences between Christian and Gnostic redemption stories. First, in the Gospel story, unlike the Gnostic stories, the savior is completely identical with a specific human being, Jesus of Nazareth. Secondly, they differ in their accounts of the manner of salvation and of the savior’s activity. These two differences are, in fact, one, for the second is found in the first. The story of salvation and the savior in the New Testament narrative is completely one and the same with the story of Jesus’ singular obedience in passion and death.

In the New Testament narrative, the savior’s action is not independent of the savior himself, as it is in the Gnostic myth, for which there is no identity between the savior story and a specific, individual human being. The glory of Gnosticism is the opposite of that of the Christian story. The Gnostic savior story remains and undivested and undivestable myth; in the New Testament the myth is demythologized because the story is a self-enactment in word and deed of a specific person.”[2]

What Frei means by this is the Christ of history is not a different person from the Christ of the New Testament. The person of Christ cannot be taken away from the Gospels and substituted with Heracles. The narratives of the Gospels could not bear the weight of such a myth. They would fall apart. In the same manner, if Christ were to be inserted into the classical myths they could not bear the weight of his humanity.

Every Sunday when I confess the Nicene Creed I claim that there is no gap between the historical Christ and the assertions of the Gospel; therefore I proclaim there is no allusion. In opposition to the Creed, when we claim that a character in a novel is a Christ figure we are asserting that the truth of Christ in the Gospels is an allusion, a Gnostic mythological embodiment, and in doing so we elevate the myth over the man, the disembodied over the incarnate, and the kerygma over the cross.

[1] Rudolf Bultmann, “New Testament and Mythology” in Kerygma and Myth: A Theological Debate, ed. Hans Werner Bastsch (New York: Harper, 1961), 37.

[2] Hans W. Frei, The Identity of Christ (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1997), 112-113.

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A.A. Grudem

I am a coffee drinker, book reader, and horrid speller.

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