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22 December 2015

When God became human.

This is an idea people still have a hard time wrapping their brains around.

Incarnate /'ɪn.kɑrn.eɪt/ v. Put (an idea or abstract concept) into a concrete form.
2. Put a deity or spirit into a human form.
3. /ɪn'kɑr.nət/ adj. Embodied in flesh, or concrete form.
[Incarnation /ɪn.kɑr;neɪ.ʃən/ n.]

Our Christian theology terms tend to come from Greek or Latin. This one too. Why? Because they sound much more formal and sanctimonious than plain English. In-carnátio is Latin for “put into meat.” Seriously. And though “put into meat” tends to make people flinch, it’s not wrong:

John 1.14 KWL
The word was made flesh. He encamped with us.
We got a good look at his significance—
the significance of a father’s only son—filled with grace and truth.

Yep, it’s orthodox Christian theology. The word of God, meaning God, Jn 1.1 became flesh. Meat. Not temporarily; not for a few decades while he walked around on earth, but when he ascended to heaven he took humanity off. God is meat. Flesh, bone, blood, spit, mucus, cartilage, hair, teeth, bile, tears. MEAT.

Not just look human. Not take over an existing human, scoop out the spirit, and replace it with his Holy Spirit. These are some of the many weird theories people have coined about how Jesus isn’t really or entirely human. Mainly they were invented by people who are outraged by the idea of God demeaning himself by becoming meat.

Yeah, demeaning. To them it makes God less-than-God. It undoes his divinity: He’d have to be limited instead of unlimited. They don’t define God by his character, but what they really covet in God: His power. His raw, unlimited abilities and attributes. Jesus was that, they insist: Beneath a millimeter of skin, Jesus was divinity incognito, only pretending to be limited for the sake of the masses. But really omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, omni-everything.

Incarnation soils God. It dirties him. Meat is icky. Humanity, mortality, the realness of our everyday existence, is too nasty for God to submit to. Sweating. Aching. Pains and sickness. Peeing and pooping. Suffering from acne and bug bites and rashes. Belching and farting. Sometimes the trots from bad shawarma the night before. Waking up with a morning erection… Have I outraged you yet? You’re hardly the first.

But this, as we can all attest, is humanity. Not even sinful humanity; I haven’t touched upon that at all. Just regular, natural, physical humanity. If God became human, he became that. And people can’t even abide that.

But it’s true. And God did it intentionally. He wanted us to be with him. So he made the first move, and became one of us.


Christianity isn’t the only religion which believes in incarnation. So do Hindus. You know what an avatar is, even if you haven’t seen the movie. Avatar is the Hindi word for incarnation, and they mean precisely what we do: God, a non-physical spirit, became human. In Hinduism, he did so several times. (Arguably still does so.) Whenever he needs to spread righteousness, defend good, or destroy evil, he becomes human. Gita 4.7-8

Various Christians have insisted it does not mean the same thing. Some of their confusion is because of what English-speakers mean by “avatar”: We mean the photo you put next to the things you post on the internet. Or the character you play in a video game. Especially when you’ve customized it to look like you. But we all know it only represents you, and isn’t really you. It’s an icon or puppet. And it’s not at all what Hindus mean by “avatar.” They don’t believe God’s avatars are puppets, worked by him through some sort of cosmic remote control. They’re God.

Neither do we Christians believe Jesus is God’s puppet. He’s God. In this, we agree with the Hindus. Obviously we disagree about a lot of other things.

Hindus say God became many avatars, like Rama or Krishna or Matsya: He was born, walked around, did important stuff, taught important stuff, and died. And did it again and again. But to Christians, God became only one avatar, Jesus of Nazareth. Born, walked around, did important stuff, taught important stuff, died… and didn’t stay dead. He was resurrected, and stays the same avatar forever.

So no, the idea of incarnation isn’t a new one. It’s been taught before. In Jesus, it was fulfilled.

God’s word, made human.

Pharisees preferred to think of God as transcendent, above it all, not dirtying himself with icky humans and the material world. Problem is, the scriptures regularly describe God as regularly and willingly interacting with us. He might be holy, but he loves us too much to stay apart from us. The Pharisees struggled to reconcile their idea of a standoffish LORD, with this interactive God in the Old Testament.

So they took the concept of “the word of the LORD,” which we see from time to time in the scriptures. Ge 15.1, 1Sa 15.10, 2Sa 22.31, 1Ki 18.1, Ps 33.6, Jr 1.11, Ek 1.3 They sorta made a person out of it. God himself might be unreachable, untouchable, far beyond our reach… but God’s word comes to prophets and tells ’em stuff, or heals people, or raises the dead. And of course doesn’t return void. Is 55.11

Call him LORD or “word of the LORD”: Either way, he’s still God. Jn 1.1 Not a god, as the Jehovah’s Witnesses mangle the translation. The God; there’s only one. And at the right time, God sent his word into the world, to be born as one of us.

Paul put it this way, in a passage we Christians traditionally called the carmen Christi/“Christ-hymn.” We’re not sure whether Paul wrote it himself, or was only quoting it. We only know ancient Christians sang it.

Philippians 2.5-11 KWL
5Among yourselves, think the way Christ Jesus did.
6 Existing in God’s form,
he figured being the same as God wasn’t something to clutch,
7 but poured himself into a slave’s form:
He took on a human likeness.
8 He was born; he was found human in every way.
Being obedient, he humbled himself to death: Death by crucifixion.
9 So God exalted him. He gave him the name over every name.
10 In the name of Jesus, every knee may bend—heavenly, earthly, and underworldly—
11 every tongue confess Christ Jesus is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

Various skeptics claim the earliest Christians didn’t really believe Jesus is God. That whole idea arose after pagan gentiles became Christians, and remember how pagans used to believe in multiple gods, demigods, and that people could achieve godhood? So the pagans started blatantly worshiping Jesus, instead of properly just revering him as the LORD’s Messiah.

It’s bunk, of course. Jesus’s own students got a really good look at him, and saw for themselves God within him. Jn 14.7-9 Somehow God radically set aside his infinity and made himself finite, and human. The source of life itself could even die—and did.

In so doing, he defeated death and sin. And now he lives forever—taking back one of his infinite traits, and offering that to the rest of humanity as well.

How’d he do it?

A lot of people nowadays like to speculate about Jesus’s biology. After all, he has no biological father. So where’d his Y chromosome come from?

Well duh; midi-chlorians.

But seriously though. (Well, semi-seriously.) Assuming Mary contributed the usual 23 chromosomes, did the Holy Spirit instantly create the other 23 when Jesus was conceived? Or did Mary contribute all 46, and the Holy Spirit turned one of the X chromosomes into a Y? We know how parthenogenesis works in invertebrates; did God do something similar? What’re the mechanics of virgin conception?

We have no idea. ’Cause when Mary asked Gabriel how this was gonna work, the angel gave an explanation which is utterly useless in the laboratory.

Luke 1.34-35 KWL
34 Mary told the angel, “How will this happen?—since I’ve not been with a man.”
35 In reply the angel told her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you.
The Most High’s power will envelop you
and the holy one produced will be called God’s son.”

Gee thanks, Gabriel. Real scientific of you.

To be fair, giving a scientific explanation might’ve made no sense to Mary. “We’re gonna take some of the deoxyribonucleic acid from your ovum…” Frankly “The Most High’s power” was probably plenty enough for her. For us, it may have to be too.

Thanks to biology, people assume a God-human is a paradox. How can one person be two different species? He’d have to be a hybrid: Neither fish nor fowl, neither God nor human; a demigod. Or like biracial children, part one race, part another, and they’ll claim whichever ancestry is most obvious or convenient. This, they figure, is why Jesus sometimes calls himself Son of Man, sometimes Son of God. It depends on circumstances.

But no. Being human is about biology. Being God has nothing to do with biology, for God’s a non-biological (but living) spirit. He has no genes, no genetic traits, to pass along. He doesn’t reproduce. He didn’t even create Jesus. Yeah, we theologians use the term “begotten” to describe Jesus, but we don’t mean anyone made him. In fact we’re quite clear in the creeds: “Begotten not made.”

Ghennitheís/“Begotten” also means “came from.” Jesus came from God. His human body, and only his human body, was made. The rest of him always existed, was always in the beginning with God. His traits, except the powers he set aside, were and are fully intact.

Nope, Jesus is no hybrid. He’s fully God and fully human. It’s best to think of “God” and “human” not as Jesus’s sides, not as things you can mix together (50 percent God, 50 percent human) but attributes you either are or aren’t. Fr’instance I’m an American; I’m a citizen of the United States. I’m not 50 percent a citizen. (Even if I held dual citizenship with Canada, I still wouldn’t be 50 percent of a citizen… though I may have some internal conflict if the U.S. and Canada ever have a disagreement, i.e. hockey.) And at the same time I’m a man, with zero plans to have my gender reassigned. Now, am I half man, half American?—or are we talking about two different traits which don’t interfere with one another?

That’s the thing about Jesus: His divinity doesn’t interfere with his humanity. Or vice-versa. Christians like to imagine Jesus’s human frailties made it so he struggled to do his Father’s will, but that’s only because we imagine Jesus was just like us, and we struggle to do the Father’s will. But we don’t struggle because we’re human. We struggle because we’re sinners. Jesus isn’t. As human, he was tempted same as us, so he knows what we go through. He 4.15 But unlike us other humans, who still have to grow the fruit of the Spirit, Jesus already has God’s character: He’s not gonna behave in any way other than loving, patient, kind, self-controlled, and seizing as much joy as he can from our bleak fallen world. And y’know, once we develop some of that same fruit, we get harder to tempt. Something to think about. Maybe even try.

It only becomes a paradox when we insist there’s one hiding there under the surface. There isn’t. We needn’t.