Great tales of good vs. evil, adventures, and feats of strength fill my bookshelf, movies, and podcasts. We live in a culture saturated by heroic stories, and as my sons get older it has been a joy to bring them into that world and into the world that introduced me to these motifs: Greek mythology.
We recently listened to, and then watched, the story of the 12 trials of Hercules (in Greek: Heracles). The gist of the story is that Hercules serves a cowardly king by completing epic quests to gain immortality, or in some stories to redeem his name from going mad and killing his family.
Hercules is the prototypical hero of old, and his influence is seen throughout all of our heroic tales. Knowing that people like him were the Greek ideal of a mighty adventurer, it makes sense why the missionary Paul said that the Greek perception of Jesus was foolish (1 Corinthians 1:23).
Hercules was strong, and the life of Jesus culminated in weakness, suffering, and death. Hercules escaped his weak mortal body to become a God, but the Christians claim that Jesus came back to life in his own body: The opposite of the hopes of a society influenced by Plato’s ideal.
Hercules calls people to seek glory, and Jesus tells his followers to be servants. For many of the Greeks and for us today, this seems really silly. Maybe noble, but definitely not the path we would choose, if put in the position of the two.
The reason that many find comfort in the works of Jesus over Hercules is because of what his actions represent. The story of a man becoming a god gets us on our feet and cheering but it does nothing for us at our darkest and loneliest moments. But God becoming man and experiencing our humanity; not the ideal but the real? The blood, the sweat, the tears, the pain... That’s a hero we can turn to.
The Greek ideal was to be free from the weaker body to be set free in spirit form, but Jesus’ story of resurrection – being dead and coming back to life – gives incredible dignity to each human being and a tremendous hope for life after death. Whenever we experience death, we mourn. We understand it with our minds but our hearts ache and we cry out “it shouldn’t be this way.” A resurrected hero gives hope that God will not just end death but raise the dead. That’s a hero we can hope in.
Hercules was motivated, as his entire culture was, by the pursuit of glory over everything else. The purpose of his trials was the pursuit of glory for his name. Jesus’ purpose was the opposite: “the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10). He is celebrated for this feat, but his quest wasn’t self preservation, but our salvation. That’s a hero who can really save us.
Gavin Jarvis is the lead pastor at Living Stones Church.
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