Is the Son of God Still a Human Being? A Meditation on the Incarnation
I don’t remember when it first occurred to me that the majority of American Christians seem to think the incarnation was temporary, a mere interim in the eternal existence of the Son of God, the Word, the Logos, the Second Person of the Trinity. Early in my career of teaching Christian theology to undergraduates (seventeen years at two Christian institutions of higher learning) I discovered that most of my students assumed that, to put it crassly, Jesus “dropped” his humanity at his ascension (if not before). Now, they believed, he is back in his purely spiritual existence with the Father and the Holy Spirit as he was before he was born in Bethlehem. Now, they believed, he is no longer a man, the man who died on the cross, but a super-spiritual, omnipresent, being who is not limited in any ways. After all, they argued, he lives in all Christians’ hearts, doesn’t he?
When I probed students about this belief they gave many answers. First was the one mentioned above. How can a human being live in all our hearts? Second, “humanity” is sinful, so how can God be human? Third, after his resurrection he walked through walls, so he couldn’t have been human anymore. Fourth, if he’s still a man, how can he identify with women and how can women have fellowship with him? (This last question was usually raised by women students, of course.)
This is just a sampling of the reasons students gave for believing that the incarnation was temporary and that the Son of God is no longer a particular man, a human being. And these reasons were expressed in many different ways, but most came down to a version of one of these.
At the same time, the same students tended to “eternalize” Jesus into the immanent Trinity. That is, they often referred to the pre-incarnate Son of God, if not God himself in general, as “Jesus.” The word “God” and the name “Jesus” were simply interchangeable in their talk about God. Somehow they managed to separate the name “Jesus” from the humanity of the Son of God and of Mary and apply it to divinity in general.
Well, we expect these confusions to appear among fifth graders in Sunday School. It’s common, garden variety Sunday School theology. But somewhere along the way, during my catechesis as a young evangelical, I shed these ideas and came to believe in the incarnation as an event in time (and in the life of God!) and as permanent.
I suspect, however, that somewhere along the way, during the 1960s through the 1990s and until now, most churches have abdicated their responsibility to teach Christian young people doctrine and theology. Over the years of teaching theology to Christian undergraduates I noticed a decline in their knowledge of basic Christian belief which is one reason I wrote The Mosaic of Christian Belief. I had students who grew up in pastors’ and missionaries’ homes declaring they had never heard of the bodily resurrection before and accusing me of introducing novel ideas when all I was doing was introducing them to basic Christian orthodoxy!
This is what I call the dominance of folk religion or folk theology in American Christianity. Eventually I wrote a whole book about it entitled Questions to All Your Answers: The Journey from Folk Religion to Examined Faith.
One item of folk religion is the belief among Christians that the incarnation was temporary—a mere interim and perhaps even a charade in the life of the Son of God, God’s Word, the Logos. For many evangelicals (and others, I suspect), the incarnation was simply the Son of God “putting on human skin” for thirty-some years in order to teach us how to please God and then to die for our sins. Either at the moment of his death or at his resurrection or at his ascension he shed that human skin and returned to his glorious pre-incarnation existence as God’s purely spiritual Son in heaven who also, somehow, dwells in every Christian’s heart.
This is, of course, an informal form of the ancient heresy of Gnosticism. It is a docetic Christology. Most of the time I find that people who believe the incarnation was temporary don’t really believe in the incarnation at all! That is, they tend to think of Jesus’ humanity as an act, an outward performance, not a real human nature and existence like ours. To many Christians “Jesus” was Clark Kent to the Son of God’s super-human glory.
Why is this wrong? That is, why is it wrong to think the incarnation of the Son of God was temporary and that Jesus is no longer human (if he ever really was)?
First, it flies in the face of Scripture. 1 Timothy 2:5—”one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus.” The tense is present. The Gospels clearly present the crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ as human. He ate food. He had scars. And yet the angel told the disciples at his ascension that this same Jesus Christ would come back just as they saw him go. A glorified human, yes, but still human. And according to Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 we will be like him in that glorious state of resurrected humanity.
I fear that much American Christianity is very weak on the incarnation. We celebrate Jesus’ birth, but do we really understand what this event was? I doubt it. It was, according to Scripture and the Great Tradition of Christian orthodoxy, God taking on our humanity forever. It was God adopting our lowly existence as his own in order to bridge the gap between him and us. It was the beginning of the dying of death, the conquering of sin and death, the union of God with creation. It was the “great exchange” in which, as the ancient church fathers put it, God became what we are so that we might become what he is (theosis)—that we might share in his divine nature (2 Peter 1:4).
This is classical Christianity. Sure, it includes mystery. The incarnation is, in some ways, the ultimate mystery. It raises many unanswerable questions—at least unanswerable for us now (e.g., What does Jesus eat now?). One is sometimes tempted to go Augustine’s route when skeptics raise these questions and insist on answers. To the Manicheans who asked what God was doing before he created the world the North African bishop said “He was creating hell for those who peer into his mysteries.”
Somehow American Christianity (and I suspect Christianity in many places) needs to rediscover the Bible and basic Christian orthodoxy. The great irony is that we fight a “war” over Christmas with secularists while neglecting our own Christian belief about the incarnation, allowing it to slowly fade away into a bland, overly spiritualized, modern Gnosticism.