Esoterica Magazine, and Should the Resurrection of Jesus Be Understood Literally or Allegorically?
The magazine Esoterica: Contemporary Insights into the Ageless Wisdom has just been relaunched. I was lucky to be asked to contribute an article for the first issue. As this was the resurrection of the magazine, I offered this: The Resurrection of Jesus — Literal Truth or Universal Allegory?
The magazine is now available online at:
There are a total of 13 articles on various themes, including one by Dean Radin, Chief Scientist at the Institute of Noetic Sciences, California: ‘The Entanglement of Mind and Matter’. I’m a big fan — great to see him there.
My own article was a reduced version of one previously published on Medium. Here is the new, shortened version.
The Resurrection of Jesus — Literal Truth or Universal Allegory?
All four gospels say that a human Jesus died and was resurrected. At least they appear to. There isn’t enough space to go into this here, but the Gospel of John, if one reads beneath the lines, suggests that Jesus did not actually die on the cross, but appeared to die and was resuscitated, which adds a complication to any analysis. However, here I’ll stick with the surface level of John, which agrees with the other three gospels that there was a death and resurrection.
Many people in modern times find this difficult to believe, which leads me to wonder whether this story could be, or was intended to be, interpreted allegorically.
The authors may have been members of esoteric groups — what in modern times have become known as secret societies. The teachings of such groups were sometimes closely guarded secrets; in some cases initiates swore oaths not to reveal these secrets on pain of death. If anything was written down, it would have been expressed in allegorical language, so that members would understand, but the meaning would be hidden from outsiders.
The synoptic gospels suggest that Jesus was from such a group, for there are frequent references to him revealing the hidden mysteries of the Kingdom of Heaven to his Apostles, while not revealing these to the general populace, to whom he spoke in parables. It is also clear in the Gospel of John, where he criticises the Pharisee Nicodemus for being completely ignorant about the esoteric understanding of rebirth — thus what resurrection in the spiritual sense really means.
The Apostle Paul spoke in similar vein, especially in 1 Corinthians, of an inner circle and outer circle of believers. Those in the inner circle are described as ‘spiritual’ (pneumatikoi), and the outer circle is variously translated as ‘unspiritual’, ‘carnal’, ‘of the flesh’. Paul considers the Corinthians he is addressing to be from the second group: “I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, for you are still of the flesh”.
It is clear therefore that Jesus and Paul, as presented in the New Testament, were both teachers from such esoteric groups, presumably the same one. My suggestion is therefore that the story of Jesus as found in the gospels could well be an esoteric allegory (solid food), and not intended to be understood literally as history (milk), especially in relation to the events surrounding the death and resurrection.
Ego-death and rebirth is a well-known stage of the human spiritual journey, following which the aspirant undertakes further work in order to progress onward and upward towards reunion with the divine essence (ascension to Heaven). The story of Jesus, as it appears in the gospels, could easily be one such story from a Mystery School. Whether it is the story of an actual initiate, or whether it is merely a ‘fictional’ story describing the life of a typical initiate, is an open question. One possibility is that the head of the School, called Jesus in the texts, is portrayed as undergoing what is necessary to become like him, so that the teacher and the teaching have been assimilated into one story.
Following this train of thought, it is interesting to note that two out of the three best known Christian creeds, the Athanasian and the Apostles, both say that Jesus descended to hell, arose from the dead, and ascended to heaven. Yet there is no mention of this descent in the four gospel accounts, the original sources for the supposed life of Jesus. This idea must therefore have originated from some other source. Why does it appear unexpectedly in these two creeds?
Perhaps the authors have been influenced by the stories of the pagan gods/hero figures. Tom Harpur says in The Pagan Christ: “Almost every traditional faith the world over rests on a central story of the son of a heavenly king who goes down into a dark lower world, suffering, dying, and rising again, before returning to his native upper world… This king/god wins a victory over his enemies, has a triumphant procession, and is enthroned on high”. He says that there are somewhere between 30 and 50 such figures.
The next question would therefore be, how we should understand such figures. Are they merely mythological, ‘fictional’ creations, or are they allegories, telling the story of the spiritual journey of every human being? If the latter, why should we not entertain the possibility that the story in the Gospels is also that of a human being? Might it be the description of the stages in the life of a spiritual aspirant, an initiate in a Mystery tradition? The mythology of the dying-and-resurrecting saviour god could have been added to the story of a human figure, who would have been some kind of spiritual teacher.
Jesus is said to have descended into ‘hell’ — Hades, which is perhaps better understood as the spirit-world. The descent into this underworld is a typical feature of the spiritual journey of hero-figures, for example Aeneas, Odysseus, Hercules. In later times, the Christian understanding of hell took over. Thus Dante’s spiritual journey is in three stages, beginning with a descent into hell, and leading eventually to his ascension to heaven. In Goethe’s Faust, the pact with Mephistopheles could be interpreted allegorically as a descent into hell — it is certainly a descent into the dark side of his nature — and in part 2 Faust actually journeys into the underworld. The text concludes with the line “The Eternal Feminine leads us above”, thus ascension, which is a clear parallel with the figure of Beatrice in the Divine Comedy, who guides Dante on his journey to Paradise.
Nobody, as far as I know, concludes from this that either Dante or Faust was God incarnate, and was the one-and-only saviour of humanity. This is because the authors were merely describing a spiritual journey available to all humans. Why should we not assume that the story of Jesus in the Gospels is also the allegorical story of one of these human hero figures?
Carl Jung provided a related version of the spiritual journey, which he called the individuation process. Again there are three stages, here from a male point of view: the Shadow, in which individuals are compelled to confront the dark side of their nature (Hell), the Anima (the female aspect of a man, the equivalent of the Divine Feminine in Dante and Goethe), which leads on to the Self (the God-image in humans, thus Ascension to Heaven).
Thus death-resurrection-ascension is a recurrent theme of the spiritual journey of human beings, not necessarily that of God incarnate. The story of Jesus in the gospels seems to be yet one more version of such stories, which all describe a human being seeking to become godlike.
This is something that we can all aspire to, and could well be the true meaning of Christianity. This doctrine is known as theosis or deification, which apparently was commonly taught throughout the early Church, that is to say, before the Church proclaimed that salvation could be achieved by believing in the historical figure of Jesus and worshipping him.
According to the Gospel of Matthew (6.48), this doctrine of deification was preached by Jesus himself: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect”. It is also the teaching of the Perennial Philosophy, for example in Hinduism, in Sufism, and by implication in Buddhism. Thus we have the Indian guru Meher Baba saying: “There is no difference in the realisation of the Truth either by a Muslim, Hindu, Zoroastrian, or a Christian. The difference is only in words and terms. Truth is not the monopoly of a particular race or religion”. Thus all roads/religions can lead to God. Isn’t this much more appealing than Christianity’s claim that it is the one true religion, and that belief in its version of Jesus is the sole means of salvation?
According to the Catholic Church and its offspring, the story of Jesus as it appears in the Gospels is a historical fact, to be understood literally. The alternative interpretation that I’ve offered says that the resurrection is a spiritual event available to all humans, not something to be understood physically. Teaching that one has to believe in the physical resurrection of Jesus denies followers the opportunity to follow the true, and perhaps original, teaching — to die and be resurrected oneself.
I hope you have enjoyed this article. I have written in the past about other topics, including spirituality, metaphysics, psychology, science, Christianity, politics and astrology. All of those articles are on Medium, but the simplest way to see a guide to them is to visit my website (click here and here). My most recent articles, however, are only on Medium; for those please check out my lists.