Ancient pagan societies, unlike our own technological one, were fundamentally rooted in the regular, repeating rhythms of the natural world. Most of the life of Ancient men and women who were not wealthy was spent cultivating the soil, growing crops, paying very close attention to nature.
Ancient pagans thus based much of their view of life on the natural cycles of birth, death, and rebirth that they saw in the world of agriculture. In the Spring plants grew up out of the ground and in the Winter they died. When they died their seeds went into the earth, and the following Spring the plants were reborn.
This cycle occurred over and over again, year after year, with a regularity that could always be counted on to set the activities of the lives of human beings. The pagans attributed divinity to this regular, annual cycle of nature, and over time they invented a number of myths about gods who died and rose again following this cycle of nature.
These myths contained at their very center the idea of sacrifice. Men felt within themselves that there was a great distance between themselves and the gods, and they would sacrifice to the gods in order to try to reduce that gap. Often this involved some sort of burnt-offering of an animal, but sometimes it was as simple as pouring out the first drink of one’s wine onto the ground in honor of whatever god one was hoping to please (this was called a “libation,” from the Latin word for drink, libo).
A bigger kind of sacrifice in these religions, however, involved the nature god himself (i.e., Adonis, Osiris, and others) dying as a way to reduce the distance between all of nature itself and the highest power in the universe. By telling the mythological stories and performing the rituals associated with the stories, many Ancient pagans thought that they were somehow “tapping into” the divine power that was at work in nature. They thought that they could make that divine power look on them with benevolence rather than malevolence.
G.K. Chesterton (in his book The Everlasting Man) once said of these pagan nature myths that they provided men with some of the things that real religions provide, but not the most important ones. For instance, pagan nature myths provided the Ancient man with a calendar by which to understand the cycles of the natural world, but they did not provide him with something really substantial to believe in – such as, say, the creeds of Christianity do. The mythological stories could give the pagans pictures of what to believe in, but they could not give the pagans the thing itself to believe in.
The gods were very mysterious and incomprehensible to the pagans, and although the pagans told many myths about the gods they always knew deep down that these myths were just imaginary pictures they had made up to try to explain things that they did not really understand.
According to Chesterton, these myths were man’s attempt to reach God solely by means of his imagination, and although much truth was found in this way much truth also remained hidden from men. The Apostle Paul says this plainly in Acts 17, when he tells the Athenians that they have been “groping for God,” and that their own poets have discovered some true things about God, he, Paul, will now tell them what they do not know – namely, Jesus Christ.
C.S. Lewis has called these dying gods “corn-kings” because their sacrificial deaths were always tied up with the growth, death, and rebirth of corn, an absolutely essential agricultural product of the Ancient world. In his book Miracles Lewis said that when he was an unbeliever, one of the reasons why he rejected Christianity was that it seemed to be so out of touch with these Ancient themes of natural cycles and the human responses to them. Later, however, he realized that Christ is the ultimate “Corn-King.” Jesus is the One who made the corn, and He is also the One who sacrificed Himself to make it possible not for a vague “distance” between men and gods to be healed, but for men to be restored to the one true God’s fellowship.
According to Lewis, then, the Ancient pagan myths about “corn-kings” prefigured Jesus Christ in very dim, very distorted, but still identifiable ways. The pagan “corn-kings” were what we might call “types and shadows” of Jesus Christ, the one true “Corn-King” in whom we must all place our faith if we are to be saved.
As Christians, as believers in the Bible, we must, of course, realize that the Ancient stories about gods who died and rose again – the mythological stories of these “corn kings” – were as a whole false and that they frequently led those who held to them into idolatry. (This is what the Apostle Paul says in Romans 1:18-28.)
Nevertheless, as Christians we should also recognize that these Ancient stories contained significant elements of truth that are also found in Christianity. The Ancient “corn-kings” were imperfect, distorted pictures of the redemption that God would one day send to earth in the Person of His only begotten Son, Jesus Christ.
As such, the mythological stories about the “corn-kings” helped to prepare the minds and hearts of the pagans for the day when they would hear the true story about the only true Corn-King, the one who fulfilled perfectly all their old stories about birth, death, and the resurrection from the dead. The “corn-kings” were not enough for salvation, but they did point to salvation.
Not all Christians today are willing to take this sort of “positive” view of Ancient mythology. Some think that all Ancient tales are nothing but demonic superstition, and that the study of them should be entirely avoided by Christians. It is a debate that has taken place among Christians from almost the beginning of our religion.