I am today twenty-five hundred years old. I have been dead for nearly as many years. My place of birth was Athens; my grave was not far from those of Xenophon and Plato, within view of the white glory of Athens and the shimmering waters of the Aegean sea.
After sleeping in my grave for many centuries I awoke suddenly – I cannot tell how nor why – and was transported by a force beyond my control to this new day and this new city. I arrived here at daybreak, when the sky was still dull and drowsy. As I approached the city I heard bells ringing, and a little later I found the streets astir with throngs of well-dressed people in family groups wending their way hither and thither. Evidently they were not going to work, for they were accompanied by their children in their best clothes, and a pleasant expression was upon their faces.
“This must be a day of festival and worship, devoted to one of their gods,” I murmured to myself.
Looking about me I saw a gentleman in a neat black dress, smiling, and his hand extended to me with great cordiality. He must have realized I was a stranger and wished to tender his hospitality to me. I accepted it gratefully. I clasped his hand. He pressed mine. We gazed for a moment into each other’s eyes. He understood my bewilderment amid my novel surroundings, and offered to enlighten me. He explained to me the ringing of the bells and meaning of the holiday crowds moving in the streets. It was Sunday – Sunday before Christmas, and the people were going to “the House of God.”
“Of course you are going there, too,” I said to my friendly guide.
“Yes,” he answered, “I conduct the worship. I am a priest.”
“A priest of Apollo?” I interrogated. “No, no,” he replied, raising his hand to command silence, “Apollo is not a god; he was only an idol.”
“An idol?” I whispered, taken by surprise.
“I perceive you are a Greek,” he said to me, “and the Greeks,” he continued, “notwithstanding their distinguished accomplishments, were an idolatrous people. They worshipped gods that did not exist. They built temples to divinities which were merely empty names – empty names,” he repeated. “Apollo and Athene – and the entire Olympian lot were no more than inventions of the fancy.”
“But the Greeks loved their gods,” I protested, my heart clamoring in my breast.
“They were not gods, they were idols, and the difference between a god and an idol is this: an idol is a thing; God is a living being. When you cannot prove the existence of your god, when you have never seen him, nor heard his voice, nor touched him – when you have nothing provable about him, he is an idol. Have you seen Apollo? Have you heard him? Have you touched him?”
“No,” I said, in a low voice.
“Do you know of any one who has?”
I had to admit that I did not.
“He was an idol, then, and not a god.”
“But many of us Greeks,” I said, “have felt Apollo in our hearts and have been inspired by him.”
“You imagine you have,” returned my guide. “If he were really divine be would be living to this day.
“Is he, then, dead?” I asked.
“He never lived; and for the last two thousand years or more his temple has been a heap of ruins.”
I wept to hear that Apollo, the god of light and music, was no more – that his fair temple had fallen into ruins and the fire upon his altar had been extinguished; then, wiping a tear from my eyes, I said, “Oh, but our gods were fair and beautiful; our religion was rich and picturesque. It made the Greeks a nation of poets, orators, artists, warriors, thinkers. It made Athens a city of light; it created the beautiful, the true, the good – yes, our religion was divine.”
“It had only one fault,” interrupted my guide.
“What was that?” I inquired, without knowing what his answer would be.
“It was not true.”
“But I still believe in Apollo,” I exclaimed; “he is not dead, I know he is alive.”
“Prove it,” he said to me; then, pausing for a moment, “if you produce him,” he said, “we shall all fall down and worship him. Produce Apollo and he shall be our god.”
“Produce him!” I whispered to myself. “What blasphemy!” Then, taking heart, I told my guide how more than once I had felt Apollo’s radiant presence in my heart, and told him of the immortal lines of Homer concerning the divine Apollo. “Do you doubt Homer?” I said to him; “Homer, the inspired bard? Homer, whose inkwell was as big as the sea; whose imperishable page was Time? Homer, whose every word was a drop of light?” Then I proceeded to quote from Homer’s Iliad, the Greek Bible, worshipped by all the Hellenes as the rarest Manuscript between heaven and earth. I quoted his description of Apollo, than whose lyre nothing is more musical, than whose speech even honey is not sweeter. I recited how his mother went from town to town to select a worthy place to give birth to the young god, son of Zeus, the Supreme Being, and how he was born and cradled amid the ministrations of all the goddesses, who bathed him in the running stream and fed him with nectar and ambrosia from Olympus. Then I recited the lines which picture Apollo bursting his bands, leaping forth from his cradle, and spreading his wings like a swan, soaring sunward, declaring that he had come to announce to mortals the will of God. “Is it possible,” I asked, “that all this is pure fabrication, a fantasy of the brain, as unsubstantial as the air? No, no, Apollo is not an idol. He is a god, and the son of a god. The whole Greek world will bear me witness that I am telling the truth.” Then I looked at my guide to see what impression this outburst of sincere enthusiasm had produced upon him, and I saw a cold smile upon his lips that cut me to the heart. It seemed as if he wished to say to me, “You poor deluded pagan! You are not intelligent enough to know that Homer was only a mortal after all, and that he was writing a play in which he manufactured the gods of whom he sang – that these gods existed only in his imagination, and that today they are as dead as is their inventor the poet.”
By this time we stood at the entrance of a large edifice which my guide said was “the House of God.” As we walked in I saw innumerable little lights blinking and winking all over the spacious interior. There were, besides, pictures, altars and images all around me. The air was heavy with incense; a number of men in gorgeous vestments were passing to and fro, bowing and kneeling before the various lights and images. The audience was upon its knees enveloped in silence – a silence so solemn that it awed me. Observing my anxiety to understand the meaning of all this, my guide took me aside and in a whisper told me that the people were celebrating the anniversary of the birthday of their beautiful Savior – Jesus, the Son of God.
“So was Apollo the son of God,” I replied, thinking perhaps that after all we might find ourselves in agreement with one another.
“Forget Apollo,” he said, with a suggestion of severity in his voice. “There is no such person. He was only an idol. If you were to search for Apollo in all the universe you would never find any one answering to his name or description. Jesus,” he resumed, “is the Son of God. He came to our earth and was born of a virgin.”
Again I was tempted to tell my guide that this was how Apollo became incarnate; but I restrained myself.
“Then Jesus grew up to be a man,” continued my guide, “performing unheard-of wonders, such as treading the seas, giving sight, hearing and speech to the blind, the deaf and the dumb, converting water into wine, feeding the multitudes miraculously, predicting coming events and resurrecting the dead.
“Of course, of your gods, too,” he added, “it is claimed that they performed miracles, and of your oracles that they foretold the future, but there is this difference – the things related of your gods are a fiction, the things told of Jesus are a fact, and the difference between Paganism and Christianity is the difference between fiction and fact.”
Just then I heard a wave of murmur, like the rustling of leaves in a forest, sweep over the bowed audience. I turned about and unconsciously, my Greek curiosity impelling me, I pushed forward toward where the greater candle lights were blazing. I felt that perhaps the commotion in the house was the announcement that the God Jesus was about to make his appearance, and I wanted to see him. I wanted to touch him, or, if the crowd were too large to allow me that privilege, I wanted, at least, to hear his voice. I, who had never seen a god, never touched one, never heard one speak, I who had believed in Apollo without ever having known anything provable about him, I wanted to see the real God, Jesus.
But my guide placed his hand quickly upon my shoulder, and held me back.
“I want to see Jesus,” I hastened, turning toward him. I said this reverently and in good faith. “Will he not be here this morning? Will he not speak to his worshippers?” I asked again. “Will he not permit them to touch him, to caress his hand, to clasp his divine feet, to inhale the ambrosial fragrance of his breath, to bask in the golden light of his eyes, to hear the music of his immaculate accents? Let me, too, see Jesus,” I pleaded.
“You cannot see him,” answered my guide, with a trace of embarrassment in his voice. “He does not show himself anymore.”
I was too much surprised at this to make any immediate reply.
“For the last two thousand years,” my guide continued, “it has not pleased Jesus to show himself to any one; neither has he been heard from for the same number of years.”
“For two thousand years no one has either seen or heard Jesus?” I asked, my eyes filled with wonder and my voice quivering with excitement.
“No,” he answered.
“Would not that, then,” I ventured to ask, impatiently, “make Jesus as much of an idol as Apollo? And are not these people on their knees before a god of whose existence they are as much in the dark as were the Greeks of fair Apollo, and of whose past they have only rumors such as Homer reports of our Olympian gods – as idolatrous as the Athenians? What would you say,” I asked my guide, “if I were to demand that you should produce Jesus and prove him to my eyes and ears as you have asked me to produce and prove Apollo? What is the difference between a ceremony performed in honor of Apollo and one performed in honor of Jesus, since it is as impossible to give oracular demonstration of the existence of the one as of the other? If Jesus is alive and a god, and Apollo is an idol and dead, what is the evidence, since the one is as invisible, as inaccessible, and as unproducible as the other? And, if faith that Jesus is a god proves him a god, why will not faith in Apollo make him a god? But if worshipping Jesus, whom for the best part of the last two thousand years no man has seen, heard or touched; if building temples to him, burning incense upon his altars, bowing at his shrine and calling him `God,’ is not idolatry, neither is it idolatry to kindle fire upon the luminous altars of the Greek Apollo – God of the dawn, master of the enchanted lyre – he with the bow and arrow tipped with fire! I am not denying,” I said, “that Jesus ever lived. He may have been alive two thousand years ago, but if he has not been heard from since, if the same thing that happened to the people living at the time he lived has happened to him, namely – if he is dead, then you are worshipping the dead, which fact stamps your religion as idolatrous.”
And, then, remembering what he had said to me about the Greek mythology being beautiful but not true, I said to him: “Your temples are indeed gorgeous and costly; your music is grand your altars are superb; your litany is exquisite; your chants are melting; your incense, and bells and flowers, your gold and silver vessels are all in rare taste, and I dare say your dogmas are subtle and your preachers eloquent, but your religion has one fault – it is not true.”