Christmas is upon us once again, & the endless bombardment of the same 15 Christmas songs, sung in just slightly different arrangements is upon us as well. For people like me, this can be an aggravating headache as many of these Christmas carols are not Biblically sound or a reality that any parent has ever known. Many songs picture the Christ child as this perfectly sleeping, never stirring newborn. If you have ever been around a newborn, you know this is not the case, ever. But these songs, are not alone in this fascination we have in turning the Incarnate Son of God into something of a fantasy. For example, one of the strangest theological trends of 2023 I encountered, was a revival of an old gnostic heresy called Docetism.
Docetism simply put is the belief that Jesus did not have a fully human side to Him, and it overemphasizes the divine nature of Jesus as a result. Often this means that things like temptation, emotion, health issues, or even the nature of Sin or Judgment is called into question or even dismissed as nothing but worldly influences. The unfortunate reality though is that this heresy is much more dangerous than just a simple misunderstanding of the nature of the Son. This heresy directly impacts the way we understand both the Gospel & the impact the Gospel has in the world around us.
WHAT IS DOCETISM?
Docetism is a gnostic heresy that originated early on in Church History. The idea was that Jesus was not fully human, but rather a manifestation of God in a pseudo-human body or even a phantomesque body, so they could have a Jesus that did not deal with the limitations or grosser bodily functions that make someone a human being. In many cases, this extended out so far that the proponents denied Jesus even was capable of dying, and therefore the death & resurrection were both simply visions & not reality. The basis for this idea came out of Greek philosophy of both the mind & body, as well as Theology proper, which we see in much of Greek mythology. This is an important piece that we will come back to shortly.
For the most part, this teaching seemed to be thought to be extinct since the first Council of Nicea in 325, while its successor of Gnosticism continued in different forms. However, this year, 2023, I have begun to see this arise out of the ashes in a partial form, causing the same Theological havoc it did 1700 years ago.
THE DOCETISM WE SEE
As I said earlier, this is not a full docetism. Those I see preaching this do not deny the death, burial, & resurrection. However, in an attempt to prevent creating a God in their image, they present a Jesus that is not fully human. In essence, they are denying the incarnation of the Son.
This is not done blatantly mind you, it’s subtle. They believe Jesus was human, at least in theory. They believe in the virgin birth. They believe he walked the earth, & they believe He died. But the humanity of Jesus is limited to what is needed for the salvation story to take place, the moment we move from the Soteriological necessities, Jesus suddenly is no longer human. He is incapable of weakness, He is incapable of doubt, He is incapable of being tempted, & He is incapable of sinning. This has major theological implications beyond just our Christology, impacting how we understand the gospel.
HERECLES & JESUS
This shift is not that surprising considering who it is that is bringing this teaching back. The main perpetrators of this heresy today all come from the same backgrounds of Nationalism and fundamentalism, especially those obsessed over the concept of toxic masculinity disguised as “Biblical Manhood.” This is important to recognize because it helps us understand what is going on.
As mentioned earlier, the basis for this heresy comes from a Greek philosophy, which is telling, because within Greek mythology, you have certain characters called demigods. Demigods were half-god half-human heroes, who battled all sorts of demons & monsters & eventually became kings or gods themselves. This revival of the docetist teachings needs to be understood within this framework. The Jesus that these teachings are looking for, is a demigod. He is more diety than human, allowing for supernatural abilities not available to anyone but Him. He was incapable of sin, temptation, doubt, strife, emotion, or empathy. While not as extreme as the docetism in the past that claimed Jesus was not capable of death, this new rendering still has massive implications in the way it affects our mission as believers & the Gospel itself.
CALL OF BELIEVERS
One of the issues involved with this view of Jesus is that it allows for a demonization of what Jesus & the Apostles taught. If Jesus is not capable of being tempted, then temptation can now be seen as a sin in itself. If Jesus was incapable of emotion, then emotion can now be labeled as effeminate or sinful as well. If Jesus was incapable of empathy, then empathy can become sin. This puts us in a very weird position when we read passages like John 1 & Hebrews 4 in which Jesus is described as the ultimate humble & empathetic being. Passages like Galatians 6 or Philippians 2, in which we are told to bear each other's burdens & consider their interests first. If Jesus was not capable of sinning or temptation, then what is the encouragement for us in Matthew 4 or Hebrews 4? After all, if Jesus was incapable of sin then there was never any tension in the wilderness, nothing in which to resist, & no lesson for how to go about resisting ourselves.
Why do people want a demigod Jesus that can't be understood by ourselves? Because a Jesus that had weakness & meekness means that we should have these things as well. If we admit that Jesus had human characteristics, served everyone, sacrificed himself, & denied the natural desires of the flesh, then we can be called to the same standards. But if Jesus is not attainable, only a deity in a flesh body suit, then we no longer can be accountable for our actions in our lives, whether personal or in how we interact with others. Which is the other problem with this view. It changes the Gospel.
THE GOSPEL IS INCARNATIONAL
The Gospel is incarnational, just like Jesus. Jesus being fully God & fully Human matters more than we realize. If Jesus is simply God, then the Gospel does not apply to the physical world around us. It would all be Spiritual. This is the argument we hear regularly. The Gospel is only about REPENT OR PERISH! It is fully about the spiritual state & God does not care at all about your physical suffering. After all, what good is your life on earth anyway if you aren't going to heaven as a coheir with the demigod you follow (sound familiar?). But if Jesus was as John & the writer of Hebrews suggest, the WORD made FLESH, who understands all of our weakness & emotion & struggle & desires & temptations, then He does care about the physical reality just as much as He does the spiritual. Suddenly, the gospel isn't about us getting to go to heaven, but seeing the incarnation recognized in the world around us. This season is about the Incarnation, the WORD made FLESH, fully God & fully Man. Jesus is just as much the Son of Man as He is the Son of God. This is the Gospel. This is what saved us.
This year for the 12 Days of Misfits, we are exploring this theme differently. We are looking at many of the Christmas carols we sing every year. One of the things that we hope you learn this season, is how many of our carols are affected by what this blog addressed. Many of the original hymns have verses that are rarely sung or recognized, most of these verses dealing with the physical consequences of Jesus incarnation. This season, I would encourage you to look at the lyrics you are singing & remember the reality of the gospel, that a Christocentric gospel is truly incarnational.