The Incarnation: A Big Problem for Some
Out of all the ideas within Christianity, the incarnation is the one which causes the most discontent with people outside of Christianity. The incarnation, the Christian idea that part of God, the Son, came to earth in a physical body as Jesus, is unacceptable to many people. As a matter of fact, this idea was the seed of one of the first major controversies which Christians had to deal with; it is even discussed in the New Testament. See, some people in the first 100 years of Christianity accepted parts of the faith and altered other parts, namely the incarnation idea.
This is how it worked. As Christianity was developing, another unrelated belief system was developing known as Gnosticism. [I am going to summarize the system.]
(1) Gnosticism taught that there are levels of gods, all of whom were spirits. The highest god—I will call it GOD—the highest GOD was only concerned with spiritual matters.
(2) Far below, a lesser god—I am going to leave it in small letters—was not as drawn to spiritual matters and so developed physicalness, including the earth (although that god was also a spirit).
(3) Therefore, for people who lived on the earth and who wanted to understand Truth, the answers to the big questions, whatever you want to call it, those people had to pray to GOD; in turn GOD would give them a higher understanding. These people are called Gnostics.
People who liked parts of Christianity, such as Jesus' teaching on love, but not the incarnation decided to combine Gnosticism and Christianity and create a “better” understanding of Jesus; this belief is known as Docetism. Instead of God becoming human, these Gnostic Christians believed that
(1) GOD decided to send a messenger to earth,
(2) who was Jesus.
(3) And since Jesus came from GOD, who focused on spiritual matters, then Jesus was all spirit, he was not physical. The word I see to describe this state is “phantom”; he appeared to be physical but was not. So the Docetics, also called Gnostic Christians, believed that Jesus was a messenger from GOD, who taught about Truth, and who was not physical. So they rejected the Incarnation.
The Gnostic Christians used a Gospel story to defend their beliefs. The story? The Gospels state that Jesus had been arrested, and was forced to march to the place to be crucified. But along the way he fell and the Romans grabbed a guy (Simon of Cyrene) out of the crowd to carry the cross the rest of the way. Once the group got to the crucifixion place, then Jesus was crucified. But the Gnostic Christians altered the story and believed that it was the other guy who was crucified and Jesus disappeared. So they used this story to "prove" their theory.
Now, the words “gnosticism” and “docetism” do not appear in the New Testament. These teachings were not given that name for hundreds of years. Yet they are described in the New Testament. For example, II John 7a states: “Many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh, have gone out into the world.”
One of the best examples of Jesus being physical is a story involving an apostle. The Apostle is Thomas and , in within Christianity, he is known as Doubting Thomas; this story is found in John 20:24-31. After he had been crucified and risen from the dead, Jesus had appeared to the other Apostles, but not to Thomas. When they told Thomas that they had seen Jesus alive, Thomas replied that he would not believe unless he touched the wounds in Jesus’ body. Later Jesus appeared to Thomas and said “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side.”
Three things are significant. First, John was the last Gospel written, and it was written during a time when Docetism was growing. Second, out of all the stories that John could have told about Jesus after he had risen from the dead, why pick this one? I mean, who really cares if Thomas had trouble believing or not? I would rather have heard about something else that Jesus did. Third, yet John knew what he was doing. Gnostic Christians were spreading stories about Jesus to “prove” that he wasn’t physical. So John included a story in his Gospel which would directly opposed the Gnostic Christians. After all, what better proof would you need to prove that Jesus was physical than a story where Jesus actually says “Touch me”?
In addition, John refers to Docetism in I John 4:2: "The is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God." and II John 7a: "Many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh, have gone out into the world."
©2010 Mark Nickens All Rights Reserved
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