Within the Church we’re used to hearing Jesus referred to as “God incarnate.” But did you ever think about what that means – literally? Here’s a clue: if you go to a Mexican restaurant and order carne asada you’ll get grilled meat. Now think of the other words you know with a ‘carn’ prefix: carnivore, carnage, and carnal (and even carnival and carnation). The Latin root of all these words means ‘flesh’ – not in some abstract idealized sense, but in its earthy, bodily, meaty (kinda’ gross) reality.
This may help us to recognize why the incarnation – the belief that Almighty God became flesh in the person of Jesus Christ – is not only the most distinctive doctrine of the Christian faith, but also one that’s highly offensive to other belief systems. For Jews and Muslims, God is the non-material creator, man the material creation and they can never be intermixed or compared without blaspheming God. In the philosophical systems of ancient Greece as in most Eastern religions and ‘New Age’ beliefs, the human body is considered to be an unfortunate artifact that is just a burden on the immortal soul. Not only is it prone to illness and injury, but indulging its ‘carnal’ desires is often associated with shameful behaviors. The early Christian church was bedeviled (literally) by heresies that held that Jesus was a purely spiritual being who was only perceived as human. The Gnostics went so far as to state that the God of Genesis was an evil being who saddled human souls with material bodies and that the ‘hidden’ teachings of Jesus showed the way to escape to the bliss of a purely spiritual existence. In short, when viewed from outside our faith, the notion that God took on human flesh looks like a gross insult to God!
Perhaps the second-most ‘shocking’ belief of Christianity (though in this case also shared by Jews and Muslims) is the idea of bodily resurrection. If you are convinced that a material body is just useless and trouble-prone baggage, why would you want to be refitted with it for eternity? For a Hindu, the ultimate goal is to escape from the dismal treadmill of reincarnation (being reborn in a series of different bodies) and for a Buddhist it is to achieve the state of Nirvana (enlightenment) where all sensations and emotions end. And of course, for an atheist, simple extinction is the desired destination. The general attitude towards the body is “good riddance,” and that makes perfect sense if the kind of body we’re talking about is the troublesome and trouble-prone kind we’re wearing now (and which gets progressively more annoying with advancing age).
But the book of Genesis tells us that everything that God made was good, and especially the humans that He created in His image. The goodness of God’s creation wasn’t confined to just a spiritual component – the soul – but included the whole package – flesh too! That goodness was horribly corrupted by man’s fall into sin – again the whole package. However, God remained committed to recovering the goodness of His creation – the whole package! For reasons we can’t really comprehend, this required God Himself to become human in every burdensome and vulnerable sense of having human flesh like ours, so that He could deliver us from this damnable state we had gotten ourselves into. And after He had accomplished that task by His gruesome death on the cross and lay dead in the tomb, He was brought back to vibrant life again, but this time in human flesh as God intended it.
Why should we believe such a bizarre thing in the face of all the scoffers from ancient times till now? Well, as a certain physicist is fond of saying: “Data always trumps theory!” The empty tomb and the testimony of those who interacted with the resurrected Jesus is our assurance – and also the preview for what will eventually happen to us (1 Corinthians 15). You see, our hope is not to be raised as we are, but to be raised like Jesus – the whole package! Thus, the incarnation of Jesus is not only the method by which our salvation was won, but His resurrection body provides the prototype model for our destiny.
“Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust [Adam], we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven [Jesus]” (1 Corinthians 15:49)