(Book: First Apology, by Justin Martyr, courtesy of The Christian Classics Ethereal Library.)
At the end of Chapter 17, Justin warned Caesar that someday he was going to be judged by a Christian God and possibly punished for his conduct as Caesar. Having made that thinly veiled threat, he begins Chapter 18 by inviting Caesar to consider those kings who have already died.
For reflect upon the end of each of the preceding kings, how they died the death common to all, which, if it issued in insensibility, would be a godsend to all the wicked.
Justin’s first proof of life after death is an appeal to the fallacy of the consequences. We don’t want the wicked to escape unpunished, therefore they must continue to live on after they die so that God will be able to punish them, Q. E. D. Believe it or not, his argument actually gets worse from there.
Before we delve further into Justin’s proofs for life after death, let’s remember that this is the Golden Age of church purity, or at least the latter part of it. This is back when the Apostolic Tradition was still untainted, when the great schisms of latter centuries had not yet arisen, when martyrdom was still a common calling joyfully embraced by Christians. Justin isn’t just some aberrant twig on some minor branch on the tree of Christianity, he’s part of the bark on the trunk. We hear Christians today complain about how godless we’ve become, and how the “faith of our fathers” has grown weaker among the brethren, and how we need a revival to take us back to the original, vibrant, undefiled faith of the first few centuries. And that faith looked like this:
But since sensation remains to all who have ever lived, and eternal punishment is laid up (i.e., for the wicked), see that ye neglect not to be convinced, and to hold as your belief, that these things are true. For let even necromancy, and the divinations you practise by immaculate children, and the evoking of departed human souls, and those who are called among the magi, Dream-senders and Assistant-spirits (Familiars), and all that is done by those who are skilled in such matters —let these persuade you that even after death souls are in a state of sensation; and those who are seized and cast about by the spirits of the dead, whom all call dæmoniacs or madmen; and what you repute as oracles, both of Amphilochus, Dodana, Pytho, and as many other such as exist; and the opinions of your authors, Empedocles and Pythagoras, Plato and Socrates, and the pit of Homer, and the descent of Ulysses to inspect these things, and all that has been uttered of a like kind.
The CCEL footnotes inform us that “divination by immaculate children” was the charming practice of murdering babies and reading their entrails on the assumption that, being dead, they now have an unfettered view of the future, and will gladly reveal it to their murderers by leaving some sort of signs in the shape of their intestines. Justin may have moral objections to the practice, but he has no doubts its validity, and appeals to this sort of divination as proof that the spirits of murdered babies continue to exist and to be aware of things after their death.
“Faith of our fathers” indeed.
Notice, too, that, in his zeal to prove life after death, he even goes so far as to attribute demon possession to the departed spirits of mortal men. In Justin’s understanding of theology, it seems, the Roman gods are really demons, and demons are really ghosts. And all of Homer’s stories are literally true, too.
One might suspect at this point that it’s not really too hard to convince Justin that something is true. There seems to be a lot of overlap between what some might call the faith of our fathers and what others might call sheer gullibility. But let’s not judge Justin too harshly yet. It’s possible he’s just being hypocritical, and is making arguments he himself does not really believe, in hopes that God will use such lies to convict and convert the Emperor.
Justin’s next argument, in Chapter 19, is an appeal to ignorance.
For let this now be said hypothetically: if you yourselves were not such as you now are, and born of such parents [and causes], and one were to show you human seed and a picture of a man, and were to say with confidence that from such a substance such a being could be produced, would you believe before you saw the actual production? No one will dare to deny [that such a statement would surpass belief].
Suppose, Justin says, that you saw a drop of semen, and a man, and knew nothing about reproduction. Would you believe that such a tiny drop could grow into this great big man? You might if you knew anything at all about biology, but suppose you didn’t. If you were completely ignorant, you might not believe that a drop of semen could become an adult human, and yet it can (or at least Justin thinks it can—it’s not clear whether he has any idea that an egg is also involved). And in Justin’s mind, this means that of course God can raise the dead.
In the same way, then, you are now incredulous because you have never seen a dead man rise again. But as at first you would not have believed it possible that such persons could be produced from the small drop, and yet now you see them thus produced, so also judge ye that it is not impossible that the bodies of men, after they have been dissolved, and like seeds resolved into earth, should in God’s appointed time rise again and put on incorruption.
Because atoms spontaneously re-arranging themselves into proteins and cells and organs and bodies, to become immortal continuations of previously-living people, is just like the biological growth of living organisms. Provided, of course, you superstitiously invoke the magical power of God.
I expect you’ve probably heard Justin’s argument, in one form or another, being used to this very day. You can’t prove that a magical, all-powerful God couldn’t raise the dead, and therefore you have no reason to doubt that He did. Just bring out that ever-handy appeal to ignorance, and you’ll be amazed at the things you can know as a result of what you don’t know. And while you’re at it, why not have your cake and eat it too?
And the Sibyl and Hystaspes said that there should be a dissolution by God of things corruptible. And the philosophers called Stoics teach that even God Himself shall be resolved into fire, and they say that the world is to be formed anew by this revolution; but we understand that God, the Creator of all things, is superior to the things that are to be changed. If, therefore, on some points we teach the same things as the poets and philosophers whom you honour, and on other points are fuller and more divine in our teaching, and if we alone afford proof of what we assert, why are we unjustly hated more than all others?
If Christians agree with pagan prophecies and philosophies, that’s proof that Christian teachings are true. And if they don’t, that’s proof that Christian teachings are better than pagan prophecies and philosophies. It’s a win-win scenario, in a heads-I-win, tails-I-win-too sort of way. And Justin is really getting into it. He might be getting just a little too enthusiastic, in fact. There’s such a thing as getting carried away with your own brilliance, after all.
And when we say also that the Word, who is the first-birth of God, was produced without sexual union, and that He, Jesus Christ, our Teacher, was crucified and died, and rose again, and ascended into heaven, we propound nothing different from what you believe regarding those whom you esteem sons of Jupiter. For you know how many sons your esteemed writers ascribed to Jupiter: Mercury, the interpreting word and teacher of all; Æsculapius, who, though he was a great physician, was struck by a thunderbolt, and so ascended to heaven; and Bacchus too, after he had been torn limb from limb; and Hercules, when he had committed himself to the flames to escape his toils; and the sons of Leda, and Dioscuri; and Perseus, son of Danae; and Bellerophon, who, though sprung from mortals, rose to heaven on the horse Pegasus.
Here’s where Justin’s enthusiastic pleading starts to get him into trouble. He wants to argue that it’s no more incredible for Jesus to have a divine father and to ascend into heaven than it was for all the many heroes and demigods Jupiter supposedly fathered, according to popular myth. But if we say that the Incarnation is just as believable as any other myth, aren’t we really refuting the Incarnation rather than confirming it? Modern apologists try to deny that there are any parallels between ancient myths and Christian dogmas, and here’s Justin not only proudly declaring that such parallels exist, but using the presumed authenticity of these parallels as a justification for believing in the authenticity of the Gospel! It gets worse, though.
But far be such a thought concerning the gods from every well-conditioned soul, as to believe that Jupiter himself, the governor and creator of all things, was both a parricide and the son of a parricide, and that being overcome by the love of base and shameful pleasures, he came in to Ganymede and those many women whom he had violated and that his sons did like actions. But, as we said above, wicked devils perpetrated these things. And we have learned that those only are deified who have lived near to God in holiness and virtue; and we believe that those who live wickedly and do not repent are punished in everlasting fire.
So you see, it wasn’t really gods doing these things. It was demons pretending to be gods (just like ghosts apparently pretend to be demons, at least in the bizarre theology Justin is proposing). But notice that last point: it’s not just blessing that is limited to those who “have lived near to God in holiness and virtue,” it’s deification. The problem with Roman mythology, according to Justin, is not that it elevates mortal men to the status of godhood, it’s that such deification is bestowed on those who have followed demons, whereas Christians believe that such deification only happens to men who are close to the One True God.
This is a big deal. In strict Trinitarian theology, nobody can undergo deification. Either you are God from all eternity, or you will never become God. Deification, the process of transforming the non-divine into the divine, is a heretical idea. Or at least it is today. But Justin is writing in the second century, before Trinitarianism was adopted as the official dogma of the church. There are all kinds of conflicting ideas adrift in the minds of believers like Justin, like his reference to Jesus “and the other good angels,” and this passing notion of the possibility that a son of God could be made divine, in just the same manner as the mortal offspring of Jupiter are supposed to have become gods and demigods.
And notice, this isn’t just an accidental association. The whole point of bringing up the sons of Jupiter and their subsequent ascents into heaven is to establish precedent, so that he can claim that Jesus did the same thing too. This is a much more pagan view of the incarnation and deification of Jesus than would be tolerable in any modern Christian church. And yet, this is the root from which these modern Christian beliefs are sprung. Makes you think, doesn’t it?
It’s taken him a while, but Justin seems to be finally getting around to some of the proofs he promised a few chapters ago. We’ll pick it up here again next week.