Rudolf Bultmann became the most influential New Testament critic of his generation, perhaps of the twentieth century. Jesus Christ and Mythology, a lecture series delivered across North America in the year of his retirement (1951), sums up his proposal for “demythologizing” the New Testament and replies to objections. Widely discussed for several decades, by the end of the century, Bultmann’s program found few remaining enthusiasts. Yet many continue to admire his boldness in wrestling with how to maintain Christian faith in the modern world.
Bultmann’s aim is to hold together two incompatible concepts: the indispensability of the message of Jesus Christ, with a Lutheran focus on justification by faith alone, and a thoroughgoing naturalism in science and history. He starts from the naturalistic worldview as a given. No one today, he asserts, can accept the outmoded thought forms in which the New Testament authors expressed themselves: a universe created by an act of God and destined for an apocalyptic end, a three-storied world in which demons from below interfere and angels from above intervene in human lives, and the descent of a heavenly redeemer to perform miracles, die an atoning death, rise from the dead, and ascend to heaven, whence he shall return as judge. All this is, to Bultmann, simply incredible. To ask contemporaries to embrace such notions as part of the good news would be to subject the Gospel to ridicule.
Rather than follow nineteenth century Christian liberals in regarding these ancient beliefs as a husk to be discarded while preserving the kernels of the fatherhood of God and the universal brotherhood of humankind, Bultmann considers them myths to interpret. A myth is a story that, though fictional as cosmology or history, illuminates the human situation. The temporal doctrines of “creation” and “consummation” and the spatial metaphor of “heaven” are crude ways of picturing the fact that human life derives its ultimate significance from without and cannot be its own point of orientation. Mortals, thrown into a finite world, are constantly tempted to define themselves by autonomous choices. God,...
(The entire section is 886 words.)