In classical antiquity, the Greeks developed a complex religious system filled with gods, goddesses, demigods, and mythological creatures. The Greeks often recounted the stories of their gods in songs, poems, and dramas, as we see in works such as Sappho’s poetry, Homer’s Odyssey,and Euripides’ Hippolytus. Because of these, the stories of Greek mythology have passed down through the centuries and have largely remained intact. In this blog post, I would like to use Greek mythology as a point of comparison with Christianity. For the sake of simplicity and given the constraints of this blog post, I will draw my examples from the Odyssey as emblematic of the general tradition of Greek mythology. Through this comparison between Greek mythology and the Bible, it will be shown that the themes of Greek mythology are part of a broader system that sees God as a being that has flaws and vices. In contrast to this, Christianity presents a God who is perfect in all ways and who is greater than human beings.
Observation #1: The multitude of Greek gods.
One of the most striking aspects of Greek mythology is the number of gods. The most important of all the gods are the twelve Olympians (Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Demeter, Athena, Apollo, Artemis, Ares, Aphrodite, Hephaestus, Hermes, and Dionysus), who came to power after overthrowing the Titans. In addition to these twelve are a host of other minor gods and goddesses—such as Helios and the Muses—as well as many mythological creatures—such as Cerberus and the Minotaur. The Greeks had a divine creature for every aspect of life. These range from Athena, who is the goddess of wisdom, to Ares, who is the god of war, and from Eos, who is the goddess of the dawn, to Atlas, who carries the heavens on his shoulders. The Greek religious system was unabashedly polytheistic.
Whereas the Greeks believed in a multitude of gods, the Bible teaches that there is only one God, who exists in three persons. We cannot fully comprehend this doctrine of the Trinity, but we can affirm certain truths about it. The Bible teaches that God is one—that Christianity is monotheistic rather than polytheistic. It also teaches, however, that God exists in three distinct persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Each of the persons of the Godhead is fully divine and all have equal glory and power, but each has specific attributes and characteristics. God does not change his form, at one time appearing as one member of the Trinity and at another time appearing as a different one. Rather, but he is all three persons at the same time. To say that God is any one of these persons alone without the presence of the other two, or to say that there are three Gods, is to speak falsely about God.[i]
Observation #2: The flawed natures of the Greek gods.
To a large degree, the Greek gods share the same vices as humans, proving themselves to be as fallible as mortals are. For example, the gods often argue with each other. In the Odyssey, Zeus and Poseidon argue over Odysseus’ fate. Zeus wants to bring Odysseus safely home to Ithaca, but Poseidon, angered that Odysseus had blinded Polyphemus, wants to kill him. While Odysseus travels, Poseidon sends storms to try to kill him, and each time Zeus must intervene. In the end, this conflict among the gods delays Odysseus’ return home for ten years.
At the heart of these conflicts and the drama of Greek mythology is the principle that the Greek gods are not and indeed are not expected to be just: they are strikingly similar to super-powered human beings, filled with the same imperfections of will. Indeed, they frequently cause the noble to suffer or die for petty, all too human reasons. If we return to the example of the Odyssey, we see that although Zeus and Poseidon fight over Odysseus’ fate, their argument bears unfortunate consequences for many other people. During the course of the story, Poseidon’s wrath leads to the death of all of Odysseus’ men, even though those men had not offended him. Likewise, because of Odysseus’ delayed return home, his wife and son must live for ten years while the suitors mock them and feast on the stores of their house. The gods’ treatment of Odysseus indirectly leads to the anguish of his family and the death of his companions. Here, as in many other Greek stories, the gods treat mortals unjustly, for they act according to their personal wills.
In contrast, the Bible teaches that God is perfect and does not share the same flaws that humans do. For example, whereas the Greek gods argued, within the Trinity there is no conflict. The will of the Father is the same as the will of the Son, is the same as the will of the Holy Spirit. They always work in unison. In John 6, Jesus tells a crowd of people at Capernaum that he came to earth to do the will of the Father.[ii] Even though he knows that this will lead to a painful death by crucifixion, he tells the people that he does not strive to usurp the Father’s will, but that his will is the same as the Father’s. Thus the Godhead always remains united in purpose.
Likewise, the Bible teaches that, unlike the unjust Greek gods, the Godhead always acts with perfect fairness and justice. One of the titles that the Bible gives to God is that of Judge,[iii] and it teaches that his judgment is always made rightly.[iv] Ultimately, God will judge all people end times. To those who are sinners (and the Bible teaches that all are sinners by nature),[v] God will sentence to punishment in hell, and to those upon whom he looks favorably, God will grant eternal life. In this aspect, as in every other aspect of his nature, God is perfect and without flaw.
If God is a perfect judge and brings judgment on sinners, however, how does one stand in his good graces? How does one avoid eternal punishment in hell? To answer these questions, let us consider the Greek treatment of the afterlife and compare it with what the Bible teaches.
Observation #3: The Greek concept of salvation by works.
In Greek mythology, the only hope for long life and happiness on earth is to live a heroic life and to offer many sacrifices and libations to all of the gods, in the hope of appeasing them all and offending none. If through their actions, people are fortunate enough to stand in the good favor of the gods at the time of their death, they will live for eternity in Elysium, but if they have offended the gods, they face worse fates in the depths of the underworld. Thus in the Greek tradition, all hope of salvation lies in one’s works.[vi]
The Bible, however, does not teach that salvation is by works in this manner. Rather, to stand in God’s good graces on judgment day, one must do so by faith, for as Ephesians 2:8 says, it is “by grace you have been saved through faith.” One Christian tradition holds that when Jesus died on the cross, he did so as a propitiation for sin—that is, he was a satisfactory substitute. God, as we have seen, is a just God who brings punishment for sin. Under ordinary circumstances, that punishment would fall on us, but thanks to the death of Jesus, Jesus becomes the object of God’s wrath in our place.[vii] According to the Bible, eternal life in heaven is thus by faith in the work of Jesus, rather than by personal works and glory as it is in Greek mythology.
By comparing Greek mythology with the doctrine of the Bible, we find two contrasting understandings of the divine. Greek mythology, although unique in terms of its specific deities, rituals, and customs, shares fundamental aspects with many other philosophical positions. Namely, this position sees God as merely an exalted human being, sharing the same vices that are common to all mankind. With the case of Greek mythology, although the gods are powerful and eternal, they often argue, fight, act unjustly, and treat people according to merit, and because of these characteristics, they are not all that much greater than ordinary people.
Christianity presents an understanding of God that is radically different from this worldview. The Bible teaches that the Trinity is never divided in interest, is never unjust, and grants eternal life through faith. God does not share the same vices as humans but remains perfect and holy. Because of this radical distinction between God and man, Christianity differs from not just Greek mythology but from many other religions and worldviews.
[i] For a fuller explanation and defense of the doctrine of the Trinity, please visit <http://carm.org/trinity>.
[ii] John 6:38
[iii] Psalm 50:3-6; Ecclesiastes 3:17; Acts 10:42
[iv] Psalm 9:8
[v] Romans 3
[vi] It is important to note here that this comparison of views on salvation is provisional and not entirely apt. The Greek conception of the afterlife in many ways barely resembles the Christian view, and thus any comparison between the two must be given with this caveat. One particular important idea is that Christianity uniquely insists, both in the Scriptures and its earliest creeds, upon the resurrection of the body, something which most of classical civilization thought absurd.
[vii] Ephesians 2:1-6; Isaiah 53:5; I Peter 2:24