Tom Harpur is dead at 87, having crossed over into the other world on January 2 of this year. Most Americans may not have heard of the Reverend Thomas Harpur, who was more famous in his native Canada than down south. He was born in Toronto to an evangelical family, studied at the University of Toronto, and at the evangelical Anglican seminary Wycliffe College in that city. He was ordained a priest in the Anglican diocese of Toronto and served parishes there and later taught Greek and New Testament as a professor at his old Wycliffe College. Eventually he left the ecclesiastical world for the world of journalism, working as religion editor at the Toronto Star newspaper. He authored a number of books, ten of which became Canadian best-sellers.
He is perhaps best known for his controversial book The Pagan Christ, in which he argues that Jesus never existed, but that the New Testament simply retells stories from such ancient civilizations as Egypt which were never meant to be taken as historical, but rather as the mythical allegory of every man’s inner journey. (Numerous alleged examples are cited to show that the Christ figure is simply another version of Horus.) The Fathers of the third and fourth centuries were the culprits who popularized the then new and erroneous view that Jesus was a real person and that the Gospels were intended by their authors to be read as history. The book makes a great show of scholarship, and is smoothly written. Its notion that the ideas of Judaism and Christianity were drawn from Egyptian religion is dependent upon such old works as those produced by Godfrey Higgins (b. 1771), Gerald Massey (b. 1828) and especially Alvin Kuhn (b. 1880) who Harpur praises as “the most erudite, most eloquent, and most convincing—both intellectually and intuitively—of any modern writer on religion I have encountered in a lifetime dedicated to such matters. To meet him through his books is to be confronted by a towering polymath whom history has yet to recognize fully in all his brilliance” (p. 9). Unrecognized indeed. In fact contemporary Egyptologists have hardly ever heard of these authors. Kuhn was not an Egyptologist at all, but a high school language teacher with an enthusiasm for Theosophy, someone who self-published most of his books—in other words, a well-educated crank.
Not surprisingly given his sources, the book contains a number of howlers. One is told (p. 6) that “the letters KRST appear on Egyptian mummy coffins many centuries BCE and this word, when the vowels are filled in, is really Karast or Krist, signifying Christ”. In actual fact, Egyptologists tell us, “KRST” is the word for “burial, embalmment, mummify”, which may account for the appearance of the word on a coffin. One could continue, pointing out that pretty much all the alleged parallels of Christ with Horus are false (there is no evidence, for example, that Horus was virgin-born, was a “fisher of men” or had twelve disciples), but one gets the idea. As one Egyptologist explained, “Egyptology has the unenviable distinction of being one of those disciplines that almost anyone can lay claim to, and the unfortunate distinction of being probably the one most beleaguered by false prophets”—such the work of men like Kuhn, whom the Egyptologist dismissed as “fringe nonsense”.
Why would someone as brilliant and educated as Harpur (who was a Rhodes Scholar who studied at Oxford) produce such stuff? One can only guess, of course, but some insight might be gathered from an interview the Reverend Harpur gave in 2011 to the United Church Observer. In this interview he confesses that during his years of parish ministry he was “thoroughly miserable” because he “felt stifled by the institution [of the Church], by my inability to say what was in the depths of my heart”. His move from the ecclesiastical realm to that of journalism he describes as “getting out from under the ball and chain of the church”. There, he said, “such balderdash [is] handed out in churches every Sunday; it’s why I can’t go to church. It just makes me angry”. It appears that Harpur experienced a crisis of faith and conscience, and reached the place where he could no longer stand having to say things to parishioners (such the basics of the Christian Faith) that he no longer believed. His hard about-face and embrace of increasingly radical stances seem to have been an attempt to undo all that he had done, a violent reaction and attempt to run as far as possible in the opposite direction.
He was very successful in his attempts to denounce the faith in which he was once ordained to preserve and promote. He had his own radio and television programmes (“Harpur’s Heaven and Hell”) and many best-sellers. His book The Pagan Christ was turned into a CBC documentary in 2008, which won the Platinum Remi Award at the Houston International Film Festival and the Gold Camera Award at the US International Film and Video Festival in Redondo Beach, California.
What about Tom Harpur now? Short of a word from the Lord, one can never have precise certainty about the eternal fate of any man. That said, the Scriptural warnings against apostasy and rejection of Christ must count for something, and perhaps one needn’t be a born gambler to bet that the author of Harpur’s Heaven and Hell is now getting a more uncomfortable view of those realities than he had once thought possible. One thinks of Screwtape’s reference to “the peculiar kind of clarity which Hell affords”. But our guesses about the final fate of this man for whom Christ died have little real value and are ultimately none of our business anyway. Of somewhat greater value are the lessons that his life of apostasy can teach those of us who are still in via.
One of those lessons involves noting how easily and heartily the world is ready to applaud Christian apostasy. One can see this with a quick glance at the “customer reviews” section of the Amazon site selling Harpur’s The Pagan Christ. Some reviewers recognized the book for the nonsense it is. One said that it “staggers from one huge embarrassing error to another”; another described it as “made up of recycled theories and ideas rooted in the ‘comparative religions’ approach—theories and ideas that were largely rejected in the field 40-50 years ago, and which today are discredited as false and exaggerated”. But on the whole the reviewers loved it, praising it as “true Christianity”, “an excellent book”, “a book to change lives!”, “a must read!”, “refreshing addition to the thinking man’s library”, “this is a book for all times!”, “earth shaking information”. A full 70% of reviewers gave it a 4 or 5 star rating out of 5. As mentioned above, the documentary based on the book won international awards. Mr. Harpur’s book, like many things he put his journalistic hand to, was wildly successful.
Though it is unlikely you or I will ever be the recipients of such applause and reward, it remains true that the same world stands ready to applaud us should we ever publicly reject the Christian Faith in favour of secularism. Telling the world it is wrong, sinful, and in need of a Saviour will garner few rewards. Rewards come more easily one’s way the further one gets from the Christian Faith. That is why The World has found its place in the list of temptations facing the sturdy Christian soul alongside The Flesh and The Devil. Its applause can easily turn our heads if we let it. We must remember the Lord’s warning, “Woe to you when all men speak well of you” (Luke 6:26).
The other lesson we can learn from the tale of Tom Harpur is how gradually is the slide from faith to apostasy. One does not go to bed a devout and dedicated disciple of Christ and awaken the next morning to find oneself an apostate with an aversion to church-going. The journey from faith to faithlessness is a long and gradual one—indeed, if the Enemy is doing his job well, so gradual one will hardly notice it. The temptation, Scripture tells us, is less likely to be in surrendering to a sudden volte-face regarding our faith as in a gradual “drifting away” from it (Hebrews 2:1). The truth is we are never standing still; we are either moving continually towards Christ or away from Him. The only way to avoid slipping backwards is to run forward. St. Paul told us this long ago: “Forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13-14). Standing still is not an option, and apostasy will remain a possibility until we ourselves cross over into the other world. Let him who thinks he stands, take heed lest he fall.