Rudolf Bultmann - The Demythologizer


The son of a Lutheran minister, Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976) pursued his theological studies at the Universities of Tübingen, Berlin, and Marburg in Germany. From 1921 to 1951, he served as professor of New Testament at Marburg, where he was influenced by the existential thought of Danish philosopher Soren Kiekegaard and by the German existentialist Martin Heidegger, a colleague at Marburg from 1922 to 1928.

World War I (1914-1918) and the Great Depression (began 1929) led many liberal theologians to turn to secular humanism, rejecting both Christianity and God. Out of this crisis emerged a “new” liberalism, which described itself as “evangelical.” Proclaiming Jesus Christ as Lord, neo-liberals called for recognition of the uniqueness of the Bible. They affirm sin as the human predicament, which could be relieved only with God’s help. Bultmann became a leading figure in this movement.

In the field of New Testament criticism, Bultmann developed “form criticism” as an attempt to discover the literary forms and sources used by the writers of the biblical texts.

He concluded that the gospel records are a collection of myths, which portray truths about man's existence rather than tell about actual historical events. In order to understand the New Testament books it is necessary to “demythologize” them, that is, to strip them of the myth with which the early church had clothed the gospel writings.

Is Jesus Christ a myth?

Bultmann’s chief concern was to make biblical, Christian faith understandable to modern man. He did so by applying an existential interpretation of the New Testament. This approach views the message of the ancient Scriptures as God’s Word addressed to the individual and which call for an individual faith response.

At the heart of his theology is form criticism. The gospels are the product of the early church, which embellish the original records about the life of Christ. The gospel writers were collectors of fragmentary writings and editors who pieced the writings together.

In his landmark Theology of the New Testament (1948-53), he makes the quintessential statement of neo-liberal belief: “The message of Jesus is a presupposition for the theology of the New Testament rather than a part of that theology itself.”

The process of uncovering the original statements of Jesus is to “demythologize” the gospel by peeling off the layers of editorial embellishments by the early church.

For example, the early church thought of the cosmos as a three-tiered universe: heaven above, earth, and hell below. Within these levels of existence are supernatural beings: God, angels, Satan, and demons. But according to Bultmann this is all mythological statement—the words have symbolic meanings that need to be interpreted.

Bultmann insists that "the world picture of the New Testament as a mythical world picture." He argues the biblical worldview "is a three-story structure, with earth in the middle, heaven above it, and hell beneath it."

In Jesus Christ and Mythology (1958) Bultmann claims, “To de-mythologize is to reject not Scripture or the Christian message as a whole, but the world-view of Scripture, which is the world-view of a past epoch.” He insists that the worldview of the Scripture is mythological and is therefore unacceptable to modern man. Thus for him, “Demythologizing makes clear the true meaning of God’s mystery.”

Although Bultmann believes that the New Testament is enshrouded with myth, he saw, nonetheless, a kerygma, a gospel proclamation that expresses the true intent of the biblical writers behind their mythological pattern of thought.

He argues that God meets the individual existentially through the preached word. He writes, “I think our interest is really to hear what the Bible has to say for our actual present, to hear what is the truth about our life and about our soul.”

The message of Jesus and the problem of mythology


Left: University of Marburg, Germany (the old university building)

According to Bultmann in Jesus Christ and Mythology, “the heart of the preaching of Jesus Christ is the Kingdom of God.” Jesus conceived of the Kingdom as eschatological (related to the end-times).

He convincingly argues that eschatological expectation and hope is the core of the New Testament preaching (the kerygma). He contends that this hope of Jesus and the early church was unfulfilled. Thus he concludes, “the same world still exists and history continues. The course of history has refuted mythology. For the conception of the ‘Kingdom of God’ is mythological.”

Does Jesus’ preaching of the Kingdom of God and the preaching of the New Testament still have any importance as a whole for modern men?

Bultmann’s hermeneutic (method of interpretation) of demythologization tries to recover the supposed deeper meaning behind the mythological ideas of the New Testament.

While some conservative Christian thinkers have serious reservations regarding his hermeneutic methodology, there is general agreement with his practical and ethical conclusion: “If the ethical demands of Jesus are stumbling-blocks to modern man, then it is to his selfish will, not his understanding, that they are stumbling-blocks.”

The Christian Message and the Modern Worldview

In Jesus Christ and Mythology, the criterion for demythologizing is the modern worldview. Bultmann claims the process of demythologization does not reject Scripture or the Christian message as a whole; rather it rejects the worldview of Scripture.

This is seen as the worldview of a past epoch. This mythological worldview of Scripture is unacceptable to modern man. Demythologization rejects the notion that the message of Scripture and of the Church is bound to an ancient worldview which is obsolete.

He believes that the Word of God calls man away from his selfishness and from the illusory security which he has built up for himself, calling him to God, who is beyond the world and beyond scientific thinking.

He argues that to believe in the Word of God means to abandon all merely human security and thus to overcome the despair which arises from the attempt to find security, and attempt which is always vain.

His conclusion is worthy of careful thought and application by all believers...

“Faith is the abandonment of man’s own security and the readiness to find security only in the unseen beyond God.”

He offers a compelling definition of faith: “Faith is security where no security can be seen.”


Jesus Christ and Mythology contends that God’s Word speaks to man in his insecurity and summons him to freedom. Bultmann is right that man “loses his freedom in his very yearning for security.” Genuine freedom is to be found in obedience.

Bultmann argues convincingly that the freedom of subjective arbitrariness is a delusion, for it delivers man up to his drives, to do in any moment what lust and passion dictate. Therefore, “genuine freedom is freedom from the motivation of the moment; it is freedom which withstands the clamor and pressure of momentary motivations.”

Critical evaluation of demythologization

Bultmann’s theological approach utilizes existential philosophy in the theological task, which results in a narrow, privatized faith. His subjective methodology approaches the Scriptures like any other piece of literature. His form criticism redefines the evangelical notion of the inspiration of Scripture.

Demythologization builds upon form criticism and further extends the subjective approach to the Scriptures. The underlying premise is that Scripture is filled with myth and must be eliminated because it does not correspond to the modern scientific mind.

Paul Enns, professor and director of the Tampa Extension of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in the Moody Handbook of Theology (1989), insists that “the true Christian faith is anchored to history and has historical validity,” in contrast to the Bultmannian gospel, which “is a proclamation of myth that offers little hope.”

Enns argues that the limitation of theological discourse to the dimension of human existence truncates both God’s eternal reality and God’s actions in the world. He thus became the John the Baptist for the God-is-Dead movement of the 1960s.

Critics ask: Does demythologizing reduce the Christian message to a product of human rational thinking? “Not at all!” replies Bultmann in Jesus Christ and Mythology, “demythologizing makes clear the true meaning of God’s mystery.”

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The Case for Christ versus The Search of the Historical Jesus.

I have recommended several excellent DVD documentaries, which make excellent study resources for your Bible study group or Sunday school class. Some reflect the demythologizing methodology of Rudolf Bultmann and his neo-liberal successors and of the Jesus Seminar.

Others challenge the approach of Bultmann and Robert Funk and his Jesus Seminar colleagues. An impressive array of conservative writers and scholars, including Lee Strobel, respond to the mythbusters with convincing, if not entirely compelling, arguments.

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