By Dr. Ron Galloway
While I was in process of doing a Master’s degree in Religious Studies at the University of Calgary, I was amazed at how very little my fellow graduate students knew about the Bible. They were quite familiar with other religions, and for the most part, they emulated the typical, unreflective student who thinks that all religions basically teach the same truths, and that none of them are really unique.
I remember the day one of these graduate students approached me in a very nice, but slightly triumphant manner. She knew of my Christian faith. To refute it, she placed in front of me a list of religious symbols and myths—common in the Greek and mystery religions. There it was, a long list showing me that other religions, anywhere from three to four hundred years before or after the birth of Christ, also believed in sacrifices, holy temples, baptism, a communion feast, a dying and rising saviour, a messiah to come, a virgin birth, the regeneration of heaven and earth, and the birth of a special king. It seemed to me that, in her mind, this finished the matter. As far as she was concerned, she had now fully proven that the Christian faith was, in no sense, unique. Actually, when my fellow graduate student showed me these similarities, I was encouraged. For I saw in them—and still do—foretastes and foreshadowings of the Christ who has already come into history and was born to Mary, after being conceived by the Holy Spirit. This particular graduate student failed to understand that the virgin birth reveals the decisive difference between the Christian faith and the polytheistic religions that surrounded it. Unlike the myths of rising Gods and other such symbols and mythical events—the living God came into real history.
Had time and circumstances permitted, my response to my fellow graduate student would go something like this. All the varied symbols, events and varied myths she showed to me can easily be seen as stories, beliefs and intrinsic human longings that prefigure the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In what follows, we shall further explore and unwrap what is meant by the term prefigure.
I have always appreciated C. S. Lewis’s understanding of myth. It is his suggestion that what we call myths are often legends based on real events or persons. Irving Hexham and Karle Poewe argue that mythical stories contain events that integrate the life and conduct of individuals and their world. One great myth, they argue, is sufficiently inclusive to integrate a great many other myths. Yet, they point out that myths could have no such effect if they were not believed to be true or at least based on truth. After all, who would seriously model their lives after a story known to be false?
But if myths, religious and otherwise, have the power to integrate all life, then they must involve ideas and themes that are absolutely at the core of the human condition, and the human longing for healing and restoration. This requires, then, that myths continually recur in cultures around the world because of their intrinsic power to integrate humanity.
Mircea Eliade, the famous historian of religions, introduces us to the integrative power of what he calls partial incarnations. By this he meant certain temporal objects that can only prefigure the incarnation of Christ. Pre-figurations are partial incarnations which seek a total union between the divine and the temporal, that is, the sacred and profane, but can never complete that union. Rather, they act as foreshadowing in their attempts to fulfill the innate human longing to completely unite, in utter fullness and harmony, the sacred and profane.
Eliade observed that archaic religions (meaning religions ancient and modern, untouched by science), as well as modern and ancient religions in general, were characterized by a separation between the sacred and the profane. Yet, objects considered to be divine or sacred could affect the profane. By the profane, Eliade meant the normal, temporal form and environment of human life and existence. He observed that in the cultural perceptions of various tribal, rural and urban-based religions, a stone or even a vegetable can suddenly become a sacred object. One very common profane object that frequently becomes a sacred object is a tree. Normal trees become sacred cosmic trees. Many such trees become sacred, because of their connection to some kind of myth about creation. For this reason, cosmic trees are often able, in the mind of those who think they are sacred, to annually renew the universe. The practical concern of such believers is whether or not these trees will have the power to bring a rich harvest, a good hunting season, or the end of a famine. In this way, the tree becomes an object that has the potential to put them in touch with a power existing in sacred, non-historical time. The normal cosmic tree myth usually tells of the death and rebirth of heaven. To the believers in cosmic trees, their annual ritual imitation of the mythic story brings about the actual death and rebirth of the universe and humanity itself. As such, Eliade views Cosmic Tree myths as one of many partial incarnations, that is, the attempt to unite the sacred and the profane, or the mortal and the divine.
Eliade viewed all objects in history that seek to unite the divine and the human as pre-figurations—seeking in vain to fulfill the mystery of the incarnation of Jesus Christ. On the other hand, the coming together of God and man in Jesus Christ was what he called the supreme incarnation. It was also Eliade who maintained that the Christian story of incarnation totally fulfills all other human attempts to fully integrate the divine and the human. He calls every other attempt to do this, abortive. He called them abortive because none were able to bring to birth the reality of the union between the human and the divine. We have already seen how the Eastern doctrine of Karma prevented the Hindu avatars from being fully God and fully man. For this reason, they could not configure a total unity of the divine and the human, in which both the human and the divine are preserved intact.
Therefore, we, like Eliade, can see the logic of viewing all attempts of culture and religion to unite with the sacred as foreshadowing what is finally fulfilled in Christ.
We can then view Jesus Christ Himself as the true and concrete rescuer of humanity and the universe. In cosmic tree myths, for example, we then see a foreshadowing of Jesus as the redeemer of humanity and creation through His incarnation, death, and resurrection. By faith, the Christian believer—when he gives his life to Christ—imitates Christ in His death and in His resurrection, thus becoming a new creation. It is this child of the Virgin Mary that fulfills the depths of myth and symbol. For Jesus Christ in His birth, fulfills the longing of the profane to fully unite with the sacred. To satisfy the profane, He is fully man. To satisfy the sacred, He is fully God as well.
Thus far we have surveyed Eliade’s description of cosmic trees and abortive attempts to imitate the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Eliade also maintained that whenever objects in profane time are used by the world’s religions to represent things in sacred time, the objects are only sacred because of what they point to or represent. It is the power believed to inhabit the object that counts. That power is like a part of the sacred trying to enter historical time, and the believer wants so badly for it to do so, so that it may assist him in his life.
Christ then can be viewed as the true fulfillment of all the sacred symbols and places of the world’s religions. They are the shadow, but He is the reality. In recognizing the need for rebirth, the Hindu sees deeply into reality. Here is a bridge of communication that can lead many Hindus down a road toward a true rebirth in Christ. The religions that see the need for a sacrifice to bring a new world are right in this understanding, but now there has been one true sacrifice that occurred in history that makes null and void all the other religious sacrifices—present and past. For only the sacrifice of Christ on the cross truly renews humanity, heaven and earth. Only His sacrifice on the cross truly began the death of evil and death itself.
Therefore, all of the symbols that the graduate student presented to me by way of the book, were, as I said, causes for rejoicing, not despair. They can be viewed as attempts to unite the human and the divine, as pre-figurations of the incarnation. Indeed, when thus understood, all such similarities show that the Christian faith is indeed unique among all the religion of the world. They are a shadow and foretaste, but Christ is the concrete reality to whom these shadows and prefigurations point.
 Of course many of these alleged similarities are fallacious, for example the Virgin Birth of Horus. For an interesting refutation of the Horus myth and similar fabrications see the Lutheran Satire Horus Ruins Christmas.
 Irving Hexham and Karla Poewe, New Religions as Global Culture (Boulder, Colorado: Westview, 1997), 79-80.
 Mircea Eliade, Patterns In Comparative Religion (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1958), 1-37, 82.
 Ibid., 3, 8, 9, 106, 111, 190, 266, 267, 269, 271, 273–274, 387, 431, 448.
 Ibid., 3.
 Ibid., 3, 8, 9, 106, 111, 190, 266, 267, 269, 271, 273–274, 387, 431, 448.
 Ibid., 26, 29, 30.
 Ibid., 26, 29 158.
 Ibid., 26, 29.
 Ibid., 3, 8, 9, 106, 111, 190, 266, 267, 269, 273-274, 387, 431, 448.
 Ibid., 26, 29 30.
 For further insight into Eliade and Pre-Figuration, see also his Kosmos and History, trans. Willard R. Trask (New York: New American Library, 1958).