A Pagan Prophecy

Pagan prophecy is sweet. Take Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue, a poem written a little while before the birth of Christ about the birth of a divine child. The parallells between the mythical event — constructed by Virgil — and the historical event — the birth of Jesus — are striking.

Justice returns, returns old Saturn’s reign, 
With a new breed of men sent down from heaven. 
Only do thou, at the boy’s birth in whom 
The iron shall cease, the golden race arise…

The reign of Saturn can be accurately compared to the Christian vision of Eden — a Paradise from which mankind has fallen. The divine boy sent from Heaven will both administer Justice and return mankind to this Paradise.

….He shall receive the life of gods, and see 
Heroes with gods commingling, and himself 
Be seen of them, and with his father’s worth 
Reign o’er a world at peace…

I suppose I need not mention the similarity between the boy reigning “with his father’s worth” and Jesus Christ claiming to establish the reign of God in the world (the kingdom of Heaven) by the authority of his father.

…The serpent too shall die, 
Die shall the treacherous poison-plant, and far 
And wide Assyrian spices spring.

“And I will put enmity between you [the serpent] and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel” (Genesis 3:15). This is the Old Testament prophecy of Christ, God’s promise to man that “the serpent too shall die.”

Assume thy greatness, for the time draws nigh, 
Dear child of gods, great progeny of Jove! 
See how it totters- the world’s orbed might, 
Earth, and wide ocean, and the vault profound, 
All, see, enraptured of the coming time! 
Ah! might such length of days to me be given, 
And breath suffice me to rehearse thy deeds, 

Virgil could not have known that had he been given such “length of days” amounting to approximately 20 more years, he would have lived at the time of the birth of Christ.

What are we to do with all this? The poem could certainly be only coincidentally similar and chronologically close to the events described in Scripture. It would be a remarkable coincidence, I’ll grant that, but not impossibly remarkable.

If one assumes a non-Christian premise, an argument could be made that there has always existed the myth of a divine Messianic figure taking human form and, by the power of Heaven invested in him, establishing an Edenic paradise on Earth, a paradise mankind had fallen from in ages past. It’s just a myth, both for Virgil’s boy and for Jesus Christ. The birth of the former in no way foretells the birth of the latter, for they’re both no more than a embellished product of mankind’s story-telling, myth-making mind.

But why? Why does man naturally develop the myth of a paradise lost, and the coming of a divine savior to restore it? Here are my thoughts, in brief:

Whether we take the Native American stories of Coyote and Opossum, or the Greek’s Echo and Narcissus, or Virgil’s story here, this much seems obvious: These stories lasted not because they are amusing, but because they speak a truth that resonates with human experience.

The myth of Prometheus survives not because the existence or non-existence of Prometheus, but because of the truth contained in his story, the truth that mankind’s journey does seem one of fumbling through the darkness, and that the effort to lift mankind out of the darkness is usually one met by punishment.

To say that a myth is not prophecy because all mankind has a similar myth is only to say that all mankind has been prophesying. If all men tell stories that involve the world being fallen and in need of a savior, and these stories resonate with human person as being valuable and worthy of sharing, it’s not a bizarre opinion to hold, that the world really is a fallen one, and really does need a savior. Far more difficult to hold would be the position that this myth sprung up all across the world, in every major religion and culture, and yet has no tenable bearing in reality.

My point is simply that there are two false ways to view this sort of prophecy. There is the Good Christian method, which says, “Obviously this poem is really about Christ. The poet was inspired by the Holy Spirit to foretell the birth of Christ.” Maybe, maybe not. The poem is a secular one, written for secular reasons. Did God specifically inspire the poet so that his poem would ring with resonances of Scripture? Perhaps, but only if you take as your premise the Truth of Scripture and the reality of God.

Then there is the Good Modern method, which takes as it’s premise the falsehood of Christianity and says “It’s all just myth and only myth.” Maybe, but then why is mankind ceaselessly babbling about it?

It seems to me a third route is necessary — not a middle ground between the two methods, but a paradigm shift. Prophecy is often misconstrued as simply “telling the future.” Throughout history, however, those considered prophets just as often speak the truth about the present, going to tell the people that they are living in sin, worshiping false idols, etc. Prophets tell it like it is. Prophets tell the Truth.

So when Virgil writes a poem about a paradise lost, living in the hope of restoration by a hero, echoing and reechoing thousands of other stories from all over the world and all through time, his poem is a prophecy. Why? Because he tells it like it is. He names a truth tangible in human experience, that this world is imperfect and we wish it weren’t so, and creates a story where that tension is resolved.

The claim of Christianity is simply this: That the truth all humanity has been telling in their myths, that this world needs  saving, has been resolved in the person of Jesus Christ.

I say this to begin a few posts on prophecy — hope you enjoy!

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