Incarnation

In the last section we considered Hick’s moral objection to what might be called Christian exclusivism. If salvation is only possible through an overt encounter with Christ in this life, it seems that vast numbers of people are unfairly excluded from salvation. This difficulty may arise with many religions. If, say, enlightenment may only be found through Buddhism, then it may be an accident of birth whether you find enlightenment. It is plausible to think that if you are born into cultures where Buddhism is not taught, it is highly unlikely (but not impossible) that you will gain enlightenment. We have seen that some Christians address this problem by claiming that God works through many different contexts, calling people to salvation ultimately in relation to God though this may happen beyond this life. But even if this line of reasoning is persuasive, what about the claim that God became uniquely incarnate as Jesus Christ? Isn’t there a kind of exclusivism in making that claim? Besides, some philosophers argue that it is impossible for God to become incarnate as a human being.

Some religious traditions counter the charge of exclusivism by claiming that there are multiple manifestations of God in diverse places. In Hinduism, for example, it is widely believe that Vishnu has descended to us in human forms called avatāra (sanscrit for ‘descent’). Vishnu appears as Krishna and Rama and in other forms to reveal divine glory and teach us the paths of wisdom. Some Hindus have even proposed that Jesus Christ was (is) an avatar of Vishnu. More on Hinduism in the next chapter.

So, one reply to the charge of exclusivism is to provide an inclusive understanding of divine manifestations. But for traditional Christianity, this route seems impeded by claims about the uniqueness of Christ as well as his full humanity. Krishna and other avatars do not seem to fully and irrevocably incarnate from birth to sacrificial death, being subject to all the human conditions of hunger, temptation, physical vulnerability, and so on. Christians can, however, claim that in affirming an incarnation in which God becomes fully human, they thereby affirm the goodness (sacredness or hallowedness) of human life in all its particularity. Moreover, it is open to Christians to affirm (as most traditional Christian do) the universality of Christ’s work. That is, most Christians believer that Christ’s life, teaching, death, and resurrection are of universal significance and make restoration (salvation) possible for all person. But is it even possible for God to become incarnate, given traditional theism?

One reason for thinking an incarnation is impossible rests in the apparent incompatability of human and divine attributes. It appears that in traditional theism God exists necessarily and is thus without origin or birth, end or death. God is omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, and essentially good, whereas a human being is contingent. We are born and die. We are often ignorant, limited in power, limited to our bodies and immediate surroundings, and we are not only subject to temptation, most of us have caved in on that front and done at least some wrongful harm to ourselves or others. To believe that a single person could have both sets of divine and human attributes seems like believing there could be a square circle.

There is not space to offer a full overview of the many ways in which Christians have responded to this charge. In brief, the traditional reply is to claim that while Christ is fully or wholly God (totus dues) Christ is not the whole or entirety of God (totum dei). The belief that the Godhead is constituted by three persons (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) and that the incarnation (for the Latin for taking on flesh) consists of the Son being born of May, as a human with all the limits in power, knowledge, temporality, appetites, desires, emotions, memory, and so on that comprises humanity. The claim is that in this incarnation Jesus Christ was fully human but not only or merely human. One way philosophers have sought to further articulate how a single person could have both human and divine attributes may be called the mind within a mind model.

In everyday experience, it seems we are able to adopt different roles or even personalities depending upon the occasion. You may be in a profession in which you cannot allow personal friendships or relations to impact your behavior or emotions. As  a professional, you simply have to set aside such personal desires and commitments and throw yourself whole heartedly into your professional role. In this situation, we may say that your mind as a professional is a mind within your overall self or mind. That is, while remaining the same person over time (with all your complete beliefs and desires) you adopt a mind or identity that is far more focused and limited. The traditional belief in the incarnation involves more than believing God took on a role or profession or career. But it could be a case (some Christian philosophers argue) that while the Son retains omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence, essential goodness, and necessary existence, as a member of the Godhead, the Son becomes incarnate as the mind-body reality of Jesus Christ with limited knowledge, power, and so on. The key element in this picture is that the incarnation has to be seen as no mere role-playing but as authentic and costly. On this front, traditional Christianity has opposed movements in the first century and later (like Gnosticism or docetism) in which the incarnation was seen as akin to an avatar or incomplete. For example, some early Gnostics affirmed Christ as God in human form but they denied that he suffered or died. Orthodox Christians affirmed, instead, the full humanity of Jesus in holding that he suffered, underwent temptation, and died.

The mind within a mind model has some plausibility. Other, related models might also be entertained in which it seems that a single person may contain or include a distinguishable identity or personality. Although not especially flattering, one may consider cases of supposed multiple personalities in which a single person can support a personality or identity distinguishable from the subject himself. Some philosophers also use the idea that a conscious person may have an unconscious that can function as an independent personality. These may partially assist the case for the possibility of believing that the second person of the Trinity retained all divine attributes while then also coming to live a limited, highly constrained human life. There remains, however, a vexing problem.

Let’s grant for the sake of argument that God could come to live a human life of limited power, suffer, die, and so on. But if Jesus is God, could Jesus truly have entered the human world of temptation? Part of the redeeming work of the incarnation is supposed to be Jesus’ undergoing temptation and triumphing over evil. But if Jesus is divine and God is essentially good, it seems that God can do no evil. If Jesus is God and can do no evil, it seems that Jesus could not have been tempted. The problem may be formalized:

  1. God is essentially good
  2. God cannot do evil
  3. Jesus is God (and human)
  4. Jesus was tempted
  5. If a person is tempted to do evil, he must be able to do evil
  6. Either God is not essentially good, or Jesus was not tempted or not God

If premises 1 though 5 hold then there is a contradiction. Not all the premises can be true.

Several replies have been developed. Some Christian philosophers deny the fist premise. Others hold that in the incarnation, the second member of the Trinity actually ceased being good essentially, thus allowing that it was truly possible for Jesus to have sinned or been wicked. Still others have questioned premise 5. The premise seems false if the evil in question involves an action. You may be tempted to commit adultery but cannot do so; imagine that you want to have an affair but you are on an inescapable island with only your spouse. But if evil includes desire, one may argue that simply desiring to break a marital vow is itself wrong or at least it seems less than perfect. Premise 5 might still be questioned, however.

Imagine you genuinely long for and find deeply attractive Pat who is in a committed relationship with Chris (to use non-gender specific names). We might well consider this a genuine temptation to indulge in lust for Pat (a desire to possess her or him erotically) notwithstanding the fact that (let us image) you are constitutionally not a person who would or could let this longing or attraction lead to lust. In this case I am suggesting that the longing and attraction is not, ipso facto, wrong though lust would be.

Another example, however, may suggest that a straightforward desire to do what is wrong may be compatible with possessing a character that makes doing the wrong impossible. Imagine a different case. Mother Teresa is raising money for the poor and is staying at the house of a rich person surrounded by excess wealth he is not willing to donate for the poor. Imagine Mother Teresa has exhausted all her persuasive powers. Just before leaving she has an opportunity simply to take some of the man’s money; she is certain it will not be missed; and she is positive that the money will do great good for the poor. Imagine, though, her taking the money would be wrong (involving, say, theft and deception). Wouldn’t we expect Mother Theresa to be genuinely tempted to take the money, even if she is the sort of person who could not actually do so?

Should these examples be implausible, a Christian might simply take the line that in the incarnation Jesus’ goodness was contingent and not essential or necessary.