Joseph Campbell boldly claims in The Hero with a Thousand Faces that ancient stories across cultures portray the “monomyth”, detailing the hero’s journey. Testing the assertion, does Jesus Christ of the Gospels follow this template? To a degree, yes, but his life and teaching also stand in contrast to the underlying worldview that Campbell professes. Let us delve into his story and come face to face with Jesus the Hero.
The Hero’s Journey Summarized
While Campbell outlines 17 stages1 in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, we must not miss the bigger picture. Best summarized by Campbell himself:
“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”
To clarify, Campbell does not claim that every story adheres to his description exactly, and they certainly don’t all contain the 17 stages. Some myths focus on one portion of the narrative. Sometimes the hero even fails. For instance, in the Epic of Gilgamesh, although the protagonist attains a magical plant which brings rejuvenation, i.e. the boon, a snake soon steals it before he can share it with others.
Christ’s Journey, Similar but Different
Since Christ is not a typical hero, but God himself, he turns many aspects of the hero’s journey on its head. We see this in the distinction of the known and unknown worlds and also the nature of the boon.
As mentioned in the above quote, the hero’s “world of common day”, or known world, consists of mundane, everyday life, and the adventure takes them into a supernatural realm.
In contrast, Christ’s “world of common day” is the “region of supernatural wonder”, in which he sits at the right hand of God the Father, surrounded by worshiping angels. In the incarnation, he enters our natural world as a human being. The “fabulous forces” he fights are not monsters or dragons, but selfishness, sickness, and pride.
In most of Campbell’s examples, the journey is a personal quest in which the hero matures. He or she typically attains the boon for him or herself, which they later share. The story of the Buddha embodies this variation. He attains enlightenment personally and then teaches others to do the same. Mentioned earlier, Gilgamesh needed the plant for himself as well for others.
Jesus, however, already had eternal life in a perfect, loving relationship with God the Father and the Holy Spirit. He did not need to mature.
Christ accomplishes his “decisive victory” through his death and resurrection, in which he suffers the punishment each person deserves for their selfishness. He conquers death as he rises from the dead and returns to his Father in Heaven, making it possible to give his “boon” to all who trust him.
Specifically, Jesus gives unmerited forgiveness, his Holy Spirit to fill us with love and joy, transformation to live selflessly, and eternal life: knowing God forever. Our boon was his loss: “For our sake [God] made [Christ] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21).
Though his journey did not require character growth, Jesus still benefits himself and God the Father. Earlier in the quoted passage, the author writes, “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them” (2 Cor 5:19). Jesus receives us, bringing us into relationship with God: Himself, the Father, and the Spirit. In this way, he gives a boon to those in his world of common day.
Plot or Worldview?
We’ve seen how Christ fits the plot points of the hero’s journey. In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell also infuses the stages with his beliefs, erroneously attributing the same underlying worldview to the different stories.2 Specifically, he reads pantheism, the belief that all is God, into different mythological traditions. He frequently comments that even opposites are one in the same:
“In this section the following have been equated: The Void — The World; Eternity — Time; Nirvana — Samsara; Truth — Illusoriness; Enlightenment — Compassion; The God — The Goddess; The Enemy — The Friend; Death — Birth; The Thunderbolt — The Bell; The Jewel — The Lotus; Subject — Object; Yab — Yum; Yang — Yin; Tao, Supreme Buddha, Bodhisattva, Divan Mukta, The Word Made Flesh.”
Judeo-Christian scripture and orthodox theology, however, categorically teach that good and evil are distinct. This is not Yin and Yang, in which one requires the other to exist. Instead, God is purely good, and He will ultimately eliminate evil.
While some of the 17 steps outlined by Campbell simply describe an action such as “Refusal of the Call” or “The Magic Flight”, many intrinsically intertwine with his worldview. In the following sections, I highlight a few of these stages, summarizing Campbell’s description. I also offer a reinterpretation independent of worldview as well as a brief note on how Christ’s journey embodies the generalized stage.
The Meeting With The Goddess
Campbell: The hero learns male and female are one in the same.
My proposal: The hero (or heroine) connects and possibly unites with the opposite gender. (This includes the romantic aspect of modern stories.)
Christ: Christ is husband to his bride, the Church, i.e. his followers. (In this case, the union between husband and wife functions as a symbol for Jesus uniting himself with his people.) Ephesians 5:25-32
Campbell: The hero learns he is One with everything, forsaking his individual ego. He fully understands that all opposites are delusion.
My proposal: The hero gains a significant new understanding, which often includes overcoming selfishness.
Christ: Christ sacrifices himself. Philippians 2:3-11
The Ultimate Boon
Campbell: The hero attains eternal life, but after giving multiple examples in which a hero literally becomes immortal, he then writes, “On the contrary, the basic problem is: to enlarge the pupil of the eye, so that the body with its attendant personality will no longer obstruct the view. Immortality is then experienced as a present fact.”
My proposal: The hero achieves the desired end to his adventure.
Christ: Christ rises from the dead and returns to the Father, attaining (or re-attaining) literal eternal life which he shares with others. John 20:1-20 (This scripture is included in the offer below.)
A Boon For You
Many aspects of Campbell’s hero’s journey pertain to Jesus Christ. I’ve highlighted ways in which it does and ways it does not. Better than my opinions, read his story for yourself in the Gospel accounts.
Consequently, I’d love to send you a short passage list highlighting key events from Jesus’s life. Only 7 stories, it encompasses 11 of the 17 stages described by Joseph Campbell.
As I read these scriptures, I noticed Jesus leading me on my hero’s journey, out of my known world into adventure. Consequently, this offer is not only about Christ. It is also your “Call to Adventure”.
Enter your email below, and receive the passage list in minutes.
- For a description of the stages, I highly recommend the Wikipedia page. ↩
- As I am not scholar of religion or mythology, I don’t know if he reads his worldview into Buddhism, Hinduism, or various tribal religions, but when he does with the Bible, he errs significantly. Consequently, his Christian or Jewish examples frequently reference non-biblical sources like Dante or the Kabbalah. ↩