Hinduism

The Meaning of Christ in Other Religions (Part 2)

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.[1] 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.

Answering the Student with Pre-figurations

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.[2] 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.[3] After all, who would seriously model their lives after a story known to be false?[4]

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.

Yggdrasil
Yggdrasil

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.[5] 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.[6] 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.[7] For this reason, cosmic trees are often able, in the mind of those who think they are sacred, to annually renew the universe.[8] 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.[9] 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.[10] 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.[11]

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.[12] On the other hand, the coming together of God and man in Jesus Christ was what he called the supreme incarnation.[13] 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.[14] 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.[15] 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.[16] It is the power believed to inhabit the object that counts.[17] 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.[18]

[1] 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.

[2] Irving Hexham and Karla Poewe, New Religions as Global Culture (Boulder, Colorado: Westview, 1997), 79-80.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Mircea Eliade, Patterns In Comparative Religion (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1958), 1-37, 82.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 3, 8, 9, 106, 111, 190, 266, 267, 269, 271, 273–274, 387, 431, 448.

[9] Ibid., 3.

[10] Ibid., 3, 8, 9, 106, 111, 190, 266, 267, 269, 271, 273–274, 387, 431, 448.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., 26, 29, 30.

[13] Ibid., 26, 29 158.

[14] Ibid., 26, 29.

[15] Ibid., 3, 8, 9, 106, 111, 190, 266, 267, 269, 273-274, 387, 431, 448.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid., 26, 29 30.

[18] For further insight into Eliade and Pre-Figuration, see also his Kosmos and History, trans. Willard R. Trask (New York: New American Library, 1958).

The Meaning Of Christ In Other Religions: Myth, Symbol, Pre-Figurations and Promise (Part 1)

By Dr. Ron Galloway

This is the first of a three-part series. The first part revolves around a discussion with a Hindu convert to Christ. The second part will circle around an encounter with a post-graduate student in religious studies, and the final part will consist of further reflections on the same theme.

Could it be that the symbols, myths rituals, insights, and teachings of religions—past and present—might reveal a partial understanding of Jesus Christ, the God-Man? Might this not be the case even in the populations of humanity that are still distant from Him, and do not know Him as He is? Could it be that symbols from other religions and cultures—ancient and present—might, in some way, foreshadow Christ's incarnation, resurrection, and even the day when Jesus Christ will transfigure the universe? Could it even be that symbols found in myriads of other religions have, in some real sense, their fulfilment in Christ? The Bible itself is full of foreshadowing and promise. It is also rich in the symbols, events, celebrations, and traditions of the Old and New Testament Scriptures. Might not there be something of the same thing in the symbols, events, celebrations, rituals and traditions of other religions? Might they not act as a bridge to point cultures to Christ, and to His incarnation, resurrection, transformation, and transfiguration? Might there not be a way that these kinds of symbols, rituals, celebrations, and traditions are meant to foreshadow Christ, and even to reveal that Christ is the concrete reality to which they point, just as they did for Israel?

ichthus-symbol
ichthus-symbol

I know of a Hindu convert to Christ who once said that it is not only possible, but that it happened to him. The idea of other religions' symbols, rituals, celebrations, and traditions pointing to Christ was, for this convert, a reality. But before we hear more from him, I should clarify what is being suggested in this discussion and what is not.

We need not argue that non-Christian beliefs receive such foreshadowings, symbols, events, and traditions through direct revelation, as in the case of Israel. It seems to me, however, that one can reasonably entertain the possibility of at least some parallels. The Bible says that God has put eternity in the hearts of all people. God has made people in such a way that there will always be something in their religions, their myths, and their self-understanding that causes them to yearn for a transcendent realm. By transcendent, I mean a realm of reality that human beings would never be able to invent or imagine as it really is. Yet this realm is nevertheless attuned to the deepest yearnings of human hearts and minds for peace with God and with all God's creation. People sense that this transcendent realm can aid them in their struggle for survival, yet it also causes them to yearn for a new and better world free of the toil, struggles, and evils in themselves. Yet even though the yearnings are there, the Bible makes clear mention of a universal evil in the human heart and mind before encountering Christ. This universal evil is the unregenerate heart of a humanity that wants nothing to do with God. This leads human beings to purposely suppress the eternal yearnings in their hearts.

Mircea Eliade, Paul Ricoeur, and Martin Buber—all respected religious thinkers—explored this suppressed reality of the human condition: particularly as it plays out in story, myth, mythic symbol, rites, celebrations, and traditions.[1] Are there things that humanity will normally deny at the cognitive level that are revealed in myth and symbol at a level of deeper awareness? Aided by some of the insights from Mircea Eliade, I am going to suggest that myth and symbol and other religions at this deeper level of suppressed awareness all seek an answer, and resolution, and that the answer is Christ alone. This said, I now return to the Hindu convert whom I was speaking of before.

Many years ago I attended Regent College in Vancouver, Canada, and there I meant a Hindu convert who explained that when he became a Christian, he realized that Christ had fulfilled many central symbols of his Hindu belief. He said, for example, that the Hindu belief in reincarnation involved the understanding that, for man to be healed, he must be reborn. As a Christian, he now believed that the countless rebirths demanded by Hinduism were merely shadows whose fulfilment was our one-time rebirth made possible through Christ's death and resurrection. He went on to assert that Jesus Himself was pointing to this birth. For it was Jesus who said that "unless you are born again you cannot enter into the Kingdom of Heaven" (John 3:3-4).[2] However, Jesus made clear that He alone is the source and power of that new birth. My Hindu friend understood that the myth of reincarnation finds its true object in Christ. In Christ we are born again, but only once (Hebrews 9:27). In Him, concrete reality comes into history and time.

om-symbol
om-symbol

With respect to the incarnation of Christ—i.e. His coming down to us as a human child in a manger—there is something very different, yet, in some ways, very similar in the Hindu doctrine of avatars. Undoubtedly, my Hindu friend was more than aware of it, but at the time I did not think about discussing it with him. Had we discussed it, he would, I suspect, readily explain how Hindu avatars, serve as a near-perfect foreshadowing of the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Avatars, as understood in Hinduism, are human beings indwelled by Brahma at certain times in history. Brahma, for a time, inhabits a mortal body that is enslaved to the wheel of life and death. But when the human being dies, Brahma departs. In Hindu teaching, when an avatar comes to earth, he takes the form of an illusion—i.e. a person. In Hinduism, we will recall, the human being is only Karma, an illusion. Now in some Hindu teachings, there is a soul in the person, but the soul is without human content. It is devoid of all the attributes that belong to the person. So then the soul that departs is simply Brahma.

Even when the soul in the individual person is considered separate from Brahma, nothing really changes, for the soul is still wholly identical with Brahma in every respect. It shares nothing of the finite human personality. So, then, avatars do not really come into history at all, for history in Hindu teaching is an illusion as well. Hinduism is forever helpless to bring God into relationship with real human beings. At death, Atman—the higher self—Brahma in finite human beings—leaves the illusory finite self. So while Brahma can visit a human being, he can never be one. But the Christ who became a man is no avatar. He is fully God and fully man, able to represent fully both God and Man. He is the reconciler—the one who truly reconciles humanity with Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

This Hindu convert now knew something far more wonderful than an avatar. He now personally knew the God who, unlike Brahma, does not wish to annihilate the human finite self, but to love and preserve it.

The Greek name Iësous, transliterated Jesus, means salvation or saviour. Jesus came into history and became a human being. He died and rose again, fully representing humanity in His life, death and resurrection. At present, He is seated at the right hand of God. Further, He is in a position of equal power with the Father and the Holy Spirit. As the gospel of John so beautifully says: "In the beginning was the word (Jesus Christ), and the word was with God, and the word was God. All things were brought into being by him, and without him, nothing was brought into being, that has been brought into being (John 1:1-6).

Ironically, the coming down and visitation of avatars finds its concrete fulfilment in Christ Jesus. All the avatars who come and will come down can be viewed as pale shadows of the one who was concretely born in Bethlehem. They are mythic shadows of the one to come. This concrete fulfilment in Christ reaches its wonderful culmination after Christ ascends, and descends again in the final judgment. Then the fullness of the New Heaven and Earth is brought into being, and God, at last, has His dwelling with men.

In Christ, humanity, God, and the universe are real, and can be known and loved. On that final day—the day of Christ's return—authentic joy will flood the galaxies and utterly fill those human beings who are in a deep and eternal relationship with God the Father, God the Son, And God the Holy Spirit, the three in one.[3] All this will take place amidst a true and authentic history, where in the end, peace, joy and love will prevail. In Part 2, I will explore this discussion of the meaning of Christ in other religions further, amidst my encounter with a postgraduate student who presents to me a religious list that she supposes devastates the credibility of the Christian faith.

[1] See Freud, Totem and Taboo; Jung, Memories Dreams and Reflections; Buber, Good and Evil, 73-74; Ricoeur, The Symbolism of Evil; and Eliade, Patterns in Comparative Religions and Cosmos and History.

[2] All Scripture quotations are the author's translation.

[3] See Matthew 11:27, 23:9, 28:19; John 1:14, 3:35, 5:18, 6:27, 8:27, 10:15, 10:38, 13:3, 14:28, 16:15, 17:5; Romans 8:15, 15:6; 1 Corinthians 1:3, 8:6; 2 Corinthians 1:3, 11:31; Galatians 4:6; Ephesians 1:17, 2:18; 1 John 2:24; Revelation 3:21.