For as long as I have been a Christian (37 years and counting now), I have heard from friends and acquaintances the allegation that the God of the Bible is really no different from other “ancient gods” — particularly the gods of the Greco-Roman world. In fact, some have gone on to say that the God of the Bible “evolved” from ancient near eastern myths (like the Babylonian gods), and the Christian God grew out of some sort of merger between Greco-Roman myths and Judaism. Owlcation, Haaretz, and Patheos have published articles teaching the same thing.
So, is the God of the Bible much the same thing as the gods of the Greeks and Romans, or are there significant differences? Are their differences so significant that no amount of historical sophistry can explain them away? I have personally read the Bible all the way through dozens of times (much of it in the original Hebrew and Greek), as well as Greek and Roman classics such as Virgil’s “Aeneid,” Ovid’s “Metamorphosis,” and Homer’s “Iliad,” as well as a good number of other Greek and Roman classics (mostly in English, but some in Latin). After reading these wonderful ancient works, here are my observations about the two bodies of literature:
1. Many gods versus One God.
The God of the Jews and Christians is only one God, while the pagans believed in multiple gods. Duh … of course, right? This is just so obvious that it is hardly worth repeating. However, it is significant because of the oft-repeated charge that the monotheism of the Bible evolved from the polytheism of the pagan neighbors.
Much to the chagrin of those who say that, there simply is NO historical evidence to prove that contention. The facts are that the God of the Hebrews simply “erupts” from history without warning. There are statues of Baal and Ashtoreth and Osiris and Zeus. There are no statues, no images of Yahweh. The religion of the Jewish people simply pops up in history without any precursor. The true faith of the biblical heroes steadfastly resists any amalgamation with any other god.
Although the Jews did fall into paganism from time to time (read the Book of Judges and the Prophets), they did so with dire warnings from God’s spokesmen. Synchretism (the blending with other religions) was never excused by God or His spokesmen.
This devout belief in one and only one God in the universe was carried over into the New Testament. Although the New Testament reveals this one God as “triune” (one God who makes Himself known through three eternal persons), this literature still affirms from beginning to end only one Creator and Redeemer of the human race: God.
Jesus tells us in Luke 4:8 that “you shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only shall you serve” (roughly paraphrasing the Hebrew “shema” of Deuteronomy 6:4). The Apostle Paul tells the pagan crowd of Athens in Acts 17:22-31 that they are missing the one, true, and only Creator of mankind, who is also our Redeemer!
It would have been easy for the apostles to compromise their faith and say that their God is just one of many in a pantheon of Roman deities. Their God, however, is the only one, and cannot share a space with any other deity.
2. Sinful versus sinless.
The pagan gods are just sinful “big people,” while the God of the Bible is the sinless Uncreated Creator. This follows neatly from the previous point. The most startling contrast between God in the Bible and the pagan deities is that He was not created. He simply is. I know that the Greek philosopher Aristotle proposed that there must be such an “unmoved mover” who is the uncreated creator (and I give him a lot of credit for thinking of that), but that is not the idea coming at us from reading the “Iliad” or the “Metamorphosis.”
The Bible, however, simply begins with the story of creation of the universe; it assumes that God exists. There are no stories of His creation. In fact, the Bible is quite clear from beginning to end that God was never created, nor does He develop into anything later than what He has always been (Isaiah 44:6-8).
The Greek gods definitely had a beginning. Hesiod tells us in his “Theogony” that the first gods (such as Gaia and Eros) emerged from the nothingness of Chaos. They came into existence, gave birth to titans, who in turn gave birth to gods such as Zeus, who in turn gave us other gods. They were all sinful. They all made mistakes. They all fought one another, deceived one another, had sex with (or raped) humans, and have no control over history. They are not omniscient, omnipotent, or omni-present.
The God revealed in the Bible, on the other hand, cannot sin. The Bible clearly tells us that He cannot be tempted, nor can He tempt anyone to sin (James 1:13). In His omnipotence, He is able to do all that is consistent with His nature and will. Sin is the opposite of His nature and will, so we can have confidence that He will never do anything less than what His absolute holy nature demands. So, God cannot lie (Hebrews 6:8; Titus 1:2). God cannot deny Himself (2 Timothy 2:13). He cannot refuse anyone who comes to Him on His terms (John 1:11-13).
In contrast to the pagan gods, the biblical God is self-existent, sovereign over all of creation, in control of the future, completely knowledgable of the future, eternal, and immutable in His nature. He is always gracious, always holy, always loving, and always just. The New Testament reveals that, unlike the capricious pagan gods, the God of the Bible actually entered the human race as a real man (yet still completely God), and out of His love for mankind died the death we all deserve, to pay a debt we could never pay.
The gods never would do this, or could do this.
3. Salvation by works versus salvation by faith.
The gods offered a works salvation; the biblical God secures the salvation of all who trust Him.
When I read the Greek and Roman myths I am struck by the fact that almost no hope beyond the grave is offered to humans. The best that can happen after death is immortality in Elysium, but that is only for humans who have lived heroically. Hades, the land of the dead for most people, was still just a dreary, misty place for wandering sad souls. In the “Odyssey,” Odysseus meets Achilles in the underworld, and the dead hero Achilles says that he would rather be a slave on earth than a king in the world of the dead. Among the ancient pagans there was virtually no hope beyond the grave. If somehow you did make it to Elysium, it was only because of your heroic good deeds.
How different this all is from the God revealed in the Bible! He states clearly that all of mankind is lost in sin and completely powerless to earn his way to forgiveness, redemption, and everlasting life (Romans 3:10-18; Ephesians 2:1-10). A real lasting salvation is not only hoped for; it is absolutely promised to any and all who would simply come to God on His terms with a repentant heart — trusting the promises He makes to us (John 5:24; Galatians 2:16).
The Apostles did not proclaim a resurrection “myth”; they staked their lives on their belief that they had actually seen a resurrected Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, in time and space. The ancient Greek and Roman gods did not become incarnate the way Jesus was, did not enter the stream of real human history the way Jesus did, did not die as a substitutionary sacrifice for His people, and did not rise from the dead to be seen and proclaimed by disciples.
4. War: Glory versus tragedy.
Another thing that really hit me as I was reading through the Greek and Roman classics is that war is almost always portrayed as glorious. In the Aeneid, in page after page, Aeneas and his pals are always shown as heroic figures riding in gleaming chariots, commanding powerful steeds with their awesome armies. Almost everyone is courageous.
Yes, the heroes (like Hector in the “Iliad”) tragically die and everyone mourns. But war is still seen as a glorious adventure that even the gods enjoy! In fact they enjoy it so much, they join right in the battles, sometimes switching sides in the middle of the conflict. You just cannot trust the gods.
In the Bible, war is seen as the awful result of man’s sin or as the judgment of God, but it is never this wonderful, glorious thing you see in the pagan myths. God does indeed execute justice because His holiness demands it; but the end game for God is a world in total peace and harmony, not war (Revelation 21-22).
5. Aimless versus directed.
There is no “end game” for the pagans, while the God of the Bible will wrap up history.
When you read the pagan classics, there is no eschatology (study of last things). The world will simply go on and on. It is not heading anywhere. There is no one really in charge orchestrating the universe and leading it to some sort of conclusion. There is no defeat of evil. There is no final judgment. There is no final accountability.
In the Bible, however, human history is heading somewhere — a very definitive point — and God is leading us all to that final culmination of history. The Bible tells us that the God who created the universe is still in charge of it, ruling and overruling the affairs of men. In the Bible we have very definite prophecies about the end of human history as we know it (Matthew 24:15; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12; the entire book of Revelation).
In this end game, the Bible tells us that God wins, and all His people win with Him. Sin will be defeated, Satan will be banished, God’s people will dwell with Him forever, the lost will be condemned and removed from His presence, and there will be a New Heaven and a New Earth.
There is nothing like these promises in all of the Greco-Roman pagan myths.
These are clear and significant differences that are an impassable chasm between the various, nebulous beliefs and dreams of the ancient pagan world, and the clear, precise beliefs and promises made by the God revealed in the Bible.