Greek Mythology and the Gospel of Jesus Christ: What Can We Learn?

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Greek mythology—the story-rich religion of the ancient Greek people—is familiar to most of us today. The names and antics of its gods, demigods, heroes, and assorted mortals enrich our language, art, and culture. The Apollo space program was named for the Greek god of archery, light, poetry, and music. The entrance to the US Supreme Court building is adorned with Themis the Greek goddess of law and justice, often called by her Roman name Justicia (or Lady Justice). Nashville, Tennessee, the Athens of the South, boasts a full-scale replica of the Parthenon. The original Parthenon, the primary temple of Athena, is in the ancient Greek city Athens, which was named for its patron goddess. Pandora’s box, the Golden Fleece, Achilles’ heel, Zeus’s lightning bolts, Hermes the winged messenger, Prometheus with his gift of fire to man, Titans battling the Olympian gods, the heroic adventures of Heracles (Hercules), the Trojan horse, and Homer’s feuding gods and goddesses—these are just a few images, phrases, and well-known tales drawn from Greek myths and related stories.

Lady Justice

Contemplation of Justice contains one of three sculptural representations of Themis, the goddess of law and justice, found at the US Supreme Court Building. In this statue, Themis, also known by her Romanized name Lady Justice, is held in the figure’s right hand. Image by Daderot, via Wikimedia Commons.

With the help of modern authors, we share highly sanitized versions of Greek myths with our children. And we find in some of the myths useful life lessons. At the bottom of Pandora’s box, for instance, we find “hope” preserved, hope that helps mankind stave off terminal despair in the face of the suffering. Caring physicians know the importance of offering whatever hope they can when presenting bad news to their patients. As the Bible puts it, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick” (Proverbs 13:12). And the cautionary tale of Icarus flying too close to the sun provides a very visual warning against pride, a principle expressed throughout the Bible. Scripture warns, “Let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12) and, “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall” (Proverbs 16:18).

Yet despite all the colorful stories, morality tales, and interesting figures on which to blame the perils of humankind, we must remember that many people in the ancient world worshipped these false gods and goddesses. These deities were objects of fear and veneration not just among the Greeks, but among people throughout the large region over which Greek influence spread, and among the Romans who adopted the Greek pantheon with Romanized names. The Greeks myths were not fictional to these people. They were explanations for how the world came to be, why we have storms and other disasters, why mankind suffers, and what awaits us after death. Patron gods and goddesses were the special objects of worship among those who coveted blessings and protection from disasters.

Parthenon

Image by Mayur Phadtare, via Wikimedia Commons.


Athena in Parthenon

Image by LeQuireGallery, via Wikimedia Commons.



This full-scale replica of the Athenian Parthenon, located in Nashville’s Centennial Park, was built for the 1897 Tennessee Centennial Exposition. A statue of Athena, goddess of war and wisdom, was added in 1990. The Parthenon now serves as an art museum and venue for theatrical performances of classical Greek plays.

The Greek pantheon was a polytheistic substitute for the worship of the one true God. Following the global Flood of Noah’s day, Noah’s descendants congregated at the Tower of Babel, rebelling against God’s command to spread over the earth. Eventually God forced them to disperse by confusing their languages, and the people who settled in the region we know as Greece would have brought with them knowledge of the Creator God and of important historical events like the global Flood. While remembering their history, they replaced knowledge of God with gods of their own making.

Regardless of the details underlying the various mythological stories and their similarities to myths of other ancient cultures, their religious purpose is clearly described in the opening chapter of the Bible’s book of Romans. Recounting man’s rebellious and idolatrous history in general, the Apostle Paul writes, “For since the creation of the world His [God’s] invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man—and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things” (Romans 1:20–23).

The Origins of Greek Mythology

Where did the ancient Greeks get the idea for all those stories we collectively call Greek mythology? There are some common themes in the myths of many ancient cultures, which we can attribute not only to the shared cultural ancestry at the Tower of Babel but also to the thriving trade that developed among many people of the time. Herodotus, the ancient Greek historian, deduced that many in the original Greek pantheon got their names from Egyptian mythology.1 Like Egyptian mythology, Greek mythology was not codified in any sort of sacred text, and varied accounts of many stories exist. Greek creation myths resemble some of the Egyptian creation stories, with gods such as Ouranus (Uranus) and Gaea—representing sky and earth—emerging from an egg or from chaos. Additional gods emerged from chaos, and many gods sprang into being as the creatively—and often immorally—conceived offspring of other gods.

The stories about the origins of the Greek gods and goddesses stand in sharp contrast to the one true God.

The stories about the origins of the Greek gods and goddesses stand in sharp contrast to the one true God, who according to the Bible is not a created being and has always existed. “He is before all things, and in Him all things consist” (Colossians 1:17). Attesting to the preexistence of God the Father and His Son Jesus Christ, the living Word, we learn in John’s Gospel that “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made” (John 1:1–3).

Greek mythology spends a bit more time on the origin of man and animals than Egyptian mythology. Two cousins of Zeus—the supreme sky god who defeated his own father—were tasked with creating them. Prometheus, man’s creator, offends Zeus by equipping humans with fire. He is punished by being chained in the Caucasus mountains and subjected to the daily predations of a liver-eating eagle. The Greek myths provide additional stories to explain the origins of many musical instruments and skills like weaving. Humans, in the Greek myths, are often made to suffer for failing to offer due homage and sacrifices or for elevating their talents above their patron gods. The great Flood was perhaps the most global example. In the Greek flood story, Prometheus’s demigod son Deucalion represents Noah, warned by the people-loving Prometheus to build an ark.

Unlike the Greek gods and goddesses, one true God is outside of His creation. Greek myths assign a personality with divine attributes to practically everything that moves and everything that doesn’t. And the gods could also change form. For instance, Gaea was the earth itself, the divine creatress manifested in mountains and valleys and rocks. But Gaea could also take human form and walk about like the character familiar to viewers of 1970s margarine commercials that warned, “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature.”2

Zeus became the god in charge of everything after rescuing his sibling gods from their cannibalistic father, Kronos. Zeus chose to be god of the sky and storms, while his brothers Poseidon and Hades took over the sea and the underworld. But to accomplish his often nefarious and immoral goals, Zeus regularly took other forms—a human, a swan, a satyr, an ant, a bull, and so forth. Helios was the sun god, a Titan who drove the sun chariot across the sky each day, though the Olympian Apollo was god of light . . . and of so much more. Nymphs called dryads inhabited trees. The nymph Daphne turned into a laurel tree to escape Apollo. Another nymph became the lotus tree. And perhaps the most famous botanical myth concerned the grape vine, its juice springing from the tears of Dionysus weeping over his dead friend, a satyr named Ampelos. Dionysus, known in Roman mythology as Bacchus, shared his new creation with mankind and became the god of wine.

Asclepius

This is a statue of Asclepius, Greek god of medicine, with his snake-entwined rod. We allude to the daughters of Asclepius, Hygieia and Panacea, whenever we encourage good hygiene or wish for a panacea to cure all ills. In mythology, Asclepius was punished for restoring life to the dead. His rod remains the emblem for medical professionals worldwide, though a winged staff with twin serpents, symbol of the messenger god Hermes, has become a popular, though erroneous, alternative. The Bible records that Moses made a bronze serpent on which snake-bitten people could look for healing (Numbers 21:4–9). Centuries later we see it worshipped as an idol (2 Kings 18:4), and Jesus referenced it as a metaphor for His own crucifixion (John 3:14–15). Some have speculated that the snake-entwined staffs of Asclepius and Moses are historically connected, but documentation is lacking. Image by DIREKTOR, via Wikimedia Commons.

Some have proposed that the characters peopling the Greek myths were drawn from the collective memories of historical biblical characters—Hera for instance representing Eve, Triton being a perversion of Noah, Herakles a memory of Nimrod, and so forth. Given that the entire earth’s post-Flood population spread from the people descended from the eight who got off the Ark—people who had plenty of reason to remember the reality of the God who sent the global Flood—this would be no surprise. This is the reason that ancient flood legends abound.

Likewise, it may well be that the Greek myths began as accounts of man’s post-Flood, post-Tower of Babel history. But like flood legends from around the ancient world, the mythological versions explaining origins of present realities are fantastical. For instance, in the Greek flood account, Deucalion and his wife Pyrrha landed on Mount Parnassus. The world was repopulated when they then obeyed an oracle and tossed muddy stones—the metaphorical bones of Gaia the mother of earth and all living—over their shoulders. Those stones turned into men and women.

We know from God’s eyewitness account of history recorded in the Bible that God formed Adam from “the dust of the ground” (Genesis 2:7), and his wife Eve was “the mother of all living” (Genesis 3:20). All other people descended from them, and after the global Flood the world was repopulated from the Flood’s eight survivors (1 Peter 3:20, 2 Peter 2:5). The immediate descendants of Noah’s family would have had this knowledge available to them as recent history. After all, Adam and his son Seth, Scripture tells us, lived into the generation preceding Noah’s.

Did those who originated the Greek version of the Flood and its aftermath draw on their knowledge of God’s original creation of the first man and woman? Did they spin a yarn to exclude God? We cannot know their version’s origin with certainty. However, the myth in which people magically spring from rocks—the material of the earth mother—stands in stark contrast to the true history in which the Creator God created a living man from lifeless material and Eve from Adam’s rib (Genesis 2:21–22). In the true history, only the Creator God creates life from lifelessness, but in the myth—as in the modern molecules-to-man evolutionary tale—lifeless material itself is the creator of living men and women.

A Real Religion?

As we marvel not only at the myths’ fantastical elements but also at the extreme dysfunctionality and reprehensible behavior with which the Greeks endued their gods and goddesses, we may wonder whether people truly worshipped these figments of their own creation. However the myths got their start, whether as colorful stories spun around Greek campfires, wistful ways to explain the uncontrollable elements of nature and beg for aid, or embellished accounts of man’s ongoing rebellious history after the Flood, worship of the Greek gods and goddesses became a genuine religion to be reckoned with in the world. At the time the Apostle Paul was spreading the good news of Jesus Christ, polytheism and idolatry were still pervasive. Writing to the church in Galatia, in a region historically influenced by the Greco-Roman conquerors, he reminded the believers there that the gods they had previously worshipped are not gods at all. “But then, indeed, when you did not know God, you served those which by nature are not gods” (Galatians 4:8).

Greek society was doubtless peopled with its share of non-believers. Socrates was executed for his public naysaying, a corrupting threat to orderly society. Yet even though the Greeks possessed no sacred book preserving accounts of their gods and goddesses, many did look to the familiar myths to understand their origins and their world and sacrifice to the gods in hopes of gaining favor. We need only look in the Bible’s book of Acts to glimpse something of the Greek preoccupation with its pantheon.

The Apostle Paul, as described in Acts 17, visits Athens, where he is troubled by rampant polytheism. There is even an altar to the Unknown God, a representation of the city’s concern that they avoid offending any unknown deity through neglect. Paul uses this altar as a visual aid to introduce the topic of the One True God, the Creator God, to his audience at the Areopagus (Acts 17:19–34). Elsewhere in the Greco-Roman world, we see Paul and his companions subjected to wrath and riot incited by the silversmiths of Ephesus (Acts 19:21–41). Their idol-making business was doomed to take a drastic turn for the worse because Christianity had caught on, for the Ephesian Christians had even burned their expensive books of magic (Acts 19:19–20).

The book of Acts records that not many in Athens responded to Paul’s message. We understand that the difficulty was his audience’s worldview.

While we find a rich literary heritage in remnants of this ancient Greek religion and its Romanized versions, two millennia ago the religion we now called Greek mythology was a force to be reckoned with. The idol-worshipping religion had to be confronted by those sharing the gospel. The book of Acts records that not many in Athens responded to Paul’s message. We understand that the difficulty was his audience’s worldview. Regardless of their personal thoughts about their national gods, his curious audience had a worldview that did not easily accept the idea of a single, all-powerful, holy, loving God who created all and offered salvation through the death and resurrection of His own Son. We face similar challenges today when we try to explain the gospel of God our Savior to people who are unfamiliar with God as our Creator, the Creator of all, to whom all are therefore accountable.

The Greek Worldview and the Gospel

As we consign Greek mythology to its place in history, let us not forget the effect this rampant form of real idolatry had on the Apostle Paul. Scripture records, “Now while Paul waited for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him when he saw that the city was given over to idols” (Acts 17:16). Paul was grieved by the worldview that surrounded him, but he did not shy from presenting the gospel of Jesus Christ. After all, the Holy Spirit had specifically led Paul to the Greek peninsula to spread the good news. The writer of Acts records, “And a vision appeared to Paul in the night. A man of Macedonia stood and pleaded with him, saying, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us.’ Now after he had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go to Macedonia, concluding that the Lord had called us to preach the gospel to them” (Acts 16:9–10). There, both Jews and Greeks needed to hear about Jesus Christ and the salvation available only through Him.

First, as was his custom in a new place, Paul shared the good news “with the Jews and with the Gentile worshippers, and in the marketplace daily with those who happened to be there” (Acts 17:18). He made clear that God had shown the unprecedented power of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, by His resurrection from the dead. And when the message of the risen Lord attracted sufficient attention to attract a large and curious audience who “spent their time in nothing else but either to tell or to hear of some new thing” (Acts 17:21), Paul challenged their worldview with the truth about their Creator. This wider audience, unlike the Jew and Gentile worshippers, did not know about the one true Creator God.

Paul acknowledged that his audience consisted of “very religious” (Acts 17:22) people, but he knew that their religion was false, empty, and unable to save them. Paul shared the truth about their origins to lead them to the truth about Jesus Christ:

God, who made the world and everything in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands. Nor is He worshipped with men’s hands, as though He needed anything, since He gives to all life, breath, and all things. And He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and have our being, as also some of your own poets have said, “For we are also His offspring.”

Therefore, since we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Divine nature is like gold or silver or stone, something shaped by art and man’s devising. Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent, because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead (Acts 17:24–31).

Why does it matter what people believe about creation? People often wonder why we at Answers in Genesis believe it is so important to share the truth about the historicity and trustworthiness of Genesis. Why did we build the Creation Museum, encouraging visitors to “prepare to believe”? Well, like Paul in Athens, we know that the world today is filled with people who do not believe that God made the world and is the Author of life, that they are descended from Adam, that they are accountable for their sin to God. And not knowing this, the gospel of salvation seems irrelevant to them. The Bible’s message that they should repent and trust Jesus Christ, the crucified and resurrected Son of God, seems cryptic.

How indeed can we expect people to understand and accept what the Bible teaches about a crucified and risen Lord if we fail to build the foundation for them to accept the Bible’s teachings about the Creator God, the one to whom we are accountable? How can they fully appreciate the suffering Savior who “was wounded for our transgressions,” who was “bruised for our iniquities” and by whose “stripes we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5) if their understanding of the origin of sin and suffering has no more truth in it than the tale of the curious Pandora who unleashed all the suffering that haunts the world?

How can they understand that the Son of God, the man Jesus Christ, was “the last Adam [who] became a life-giving spirit” if they do not believe that “the first Adam became a living being” (1 Corinthians 15:45)? Let us not lose sight of the importance of building a biblical worldview among those who are deceived by the popular lies of molecules-to-man evolution. We need to teach them the truth about our Creator. Then they can better understand their accountability to the One True God and receive the loving grace freely offered to them through Jesus Christ.

Footnotes

  1. Herodotus wrote, “Almost all the names of the gods came into Greece from Egypt.” From Herodotus, translator George Rawlinson, The History of Herodotus, Book 2, section 50, published by Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1952.
  2. This slogan debuted in 1972 in Chiffon margarine commercials declaring that Chiffon tasted just like butter.

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