What is demythologization in theology?
The concept of demythologization comes from Rudolf Bultmann, a prominent theologian and New Testament scholar in the 20th century. Bultmann believed that the New Testament was simply the human account of the writers’ divine encounter with God in Christ. According to Bultmann, the Gospel writers used the only terms and concepts they had available to them at the time, and those terms and concepts were inextricably bound to the miraculous and supernatural, which Bultmann saw as myth.
Bultmann suggested that, in order to make the gospel acceptable and relevant to the modern thinker, the New Testament must be demythologized. In other words, the mythical (i.e., miraculous) components must be removed, and the universal truth underlying the stories can then be seen. For Bultmann, the universal truth was that, in Christ, God had acted for the good of humanity. However, the New Testament accounts of the virgin birth, walking on water, multiplying bread and fish, giving sight to the blind, and even Jesus’ resurrection must be removed as mythical additions to the essential message. Today, there are many expressions of Christianity that follow this line of thinking, whether they attribute it to Bultmann or not. What may be called “mainline liberalism” relies on a demythologized Bible. Liberalism teaches a vague goodness of God and brotherhood of man with an emphasis on following the example of Christ while downplaying or denying the miraculous.
What Bultmann failed to realize is that the miraculous (what he called mythical) element is at the heart of the gospel. Furthermore, it is not as though people in the 1st century were merely gullible and easily led to believe the miraculous whereas “modern man” now knows better. When the angel announced to the virgin Mary that she was going to have a baby, she knew very well that such an occurrence was not normal (Luke 1:34). Joseph likewise had to be convinced (Matthew 1:18–21). Thomas knew that a resurrection was not usual after crucifixion and demanded firsthand evidence before he would believe (John 20:24–25).
Paul had to counter a teaching that had shaken the believers in Corinth. In defending the doctrine of the resurrection, Paul explains that a demythologized gospel is not good news at all. Jesus’ resurrection is a fact of “first importance” (1 Corinthians 15:4), and it is historical and verifiable (verse 5). “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied” (verses 14–19).
In summary, the New Testament does not need to be demythologized. What Bultmann called myth is really the miraculous, and the miraculous is at the heart of the New Testament—from the virgin birth, to the resurrection of Jesus, to His return, to the resurrection of the believer. If anything, the “modern thinker” needs to be reintroduced to the “pre-modern mindset” that was at least open to supernatural intervention.