What Meaning is in the Incarnation if Jesus Wasn't Real?

The SF Gate, the blogging arm of the San Francisco Chronicle, usually has little to say that is positive about Christianity. But on Christmas Day, Robert Warren Cromey, a retired Episcopalian priest living in the Bay Area, authored an entry entitled Humanity and the birth of Jesus which caught my attention because it appears to be an evangelistic outreach to that community about the importance of the incarnation. The article began its approach to the issue of the birth of Jesus in a way that I thought might appeal to non-believers and skeptics. Pastor Cromey wrote:

Let's skip the literal story of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Let's get past the sentimentality of a baby born in a manger, shepherds, sheep and three wise guys from the East.

Let's look at the events, not as history but as myth, a story told to convey a great truth. None of us needs to believe either the story or the myth.

But let's look at what the myth is attempting to say.

The life force, the source of the universe, the ground of all being, God, whatever you want to call it, becomes a baby named Jesus who grows into a human adult. That is the essential story of Christmas. In Christian church terms, we say God becomes a human being. That is the meaning of the incarnation, that the power of the universe became enfleshed in the world as a human being. No one has to believe that. It may not be true, it may not be history or maybe it never happened.

Now, I personally like this opening. From my own point of view, I don't doubt the veracity of the Gospel accounts that Jesus was, in fact, God and that he was actually born, taught, performed miracles, and was crucified, buried and resurrected. This is all part and parcel of the Christian claims, and I think that the claims are well-substantiated. But I like the idea of the opening of this in that it's reaching out to the skeptics. Look, it seems to say, let's admit that we weren't there and that it's possible -- doubtful, but possible -- that the entire account in the four Gospels was made up. Let's concede that and look, however, at what the import of the story is: God cares so much for humanity that he became one of us.

To me, that's a good apologetic. I am certainly willing to discuss things with skeptics on their level and the approach that Pastor Cromy is a way to introduce the importance of the Gospel claims without demanding that the skeptic come to the discussion having to accept a priori the truth of the accounts. Thus, in my view its acceptable to say, let's assume for the sake of argument that its a myth, but only if we examine the important idea that the myth is trying to communicate.

I would applaud Pastor Cromey for this part of the article, but I think he falters from that point because he never ties it back into fact. In other words, while its okay to discuss the importance of the account as being a myth for the sake of argument, the Gospel loses all power if it remains just a myth. Pastor Cromey continues:

Lots of people do not believe this story. Unitarians, Jews, Muslims, atheists and agnostics do not believe that God became a man in the person of Jesus. Many devout Christians have trouble believing this story, and prefer to think of Jesus as an extraordinary human being, a prophet, and a mythic figure.

But what the story means is that human beings are so important that the creator, God, joined his/her creation, human kind. That gives tremendous importance to what it means to be human; our humanity has such dignity and power that the creator joined the human race

Personally, I have difficulty with identifying someone who thinks of Jesus as "an extraordinary human being, a prophet, and a mythic figure" as being a "devout Christian". I also find it hard to find that the story says that human beings are so important if the story is a myth or fiction.

The heart and soul of the good news can be found in John 3:16: For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. If Jesus were merely a human being (regardless of how extraordinary) or a prophet, he would have had no power to save all of humanity by his sacrficial death on the cross. It would have been no more meaningful than when any number of other extraordinary people of God have died. Yes, their lives were important and we should honor and respect them, but their deaths cannot have any saving grace in my life. When the prophet Samuel died, his death couldn't save you. When Mary the Mother of Jesus died, her death couldn't save you. When Pope John Paul II died, his death couldn't save you. It is only the death of Jesus, the one and only true Son of God, whose death could save humanity from its own sins.

How much more true is this failure if Jesus is merely a mythic figure? If Jesus didn't really exist, then the story of his life is merely a fiction. The fact that a fiction says that God loves us doesn't mean that God loves us. After all, I just read Jasper Fforde's very entertaining novel The Big Over Easy in which detective Jack Spratt solves the murder of Humpty Dumpty. Because the novel suggests a reason for someone to kill Humpty Dumpty doesn't mean that such reason is real or that Humpty Dumpty exists. It's just a nice story. That's the reason that the Jesus Mythers are trying to claim the Jesus was a myth -- it makes the account of His life a nice story, but nothing more.

Moreover, if it's just a fiction and God didn't really do these things, just how is this evidence of God's love for humanity? Alfred Adler once said, "Trust only movement. Life happens at the level of events, not of words. Trust movement." Or, to put it in more modern terms, actions speak louder than words. The Bible is consistent with this view where, in James 2:18,20, when it is speaking of the relationship between faith and works notes:

But someone may {well} say, "You have faith and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works. * * * But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless? "

To claim faith but to have it make no impact on your life as demonstrated by what you do is no more than words. Likewise, for God to tell us a story about how much he loves us because he sent a fictitious son who died a fictious death is just words. It should have no more impact on your life than any novels you may read this year.

In my view, if Jesus didn't really exist or if he wasn't really who the Gospels claimed him to be, there's no reason to be a Christian. But apparently, according to Pastor Cromey, people who find the accounts of the Gospels to be myth can still glean meaning from the story:

From [the idea that humans have great importance in the eyes of God] flows the need and desire to make every human being respected, free, whole and loved.

Many non-believers also work for these same human values.

There is no merit in believing in the incarnation. But if we do believe, we then "strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being."

We work for peace, feed the hungry, heal the sick, and find homes for the homeless.

I guess I don't understand why Pastor Cromey, as a pastor, thinks there is "no merit in believing in the incarnation" unless he's completely dismissing the teaching of the Bible. Romans 10:9-10 says, "[I]f you confess with your mouth Jesus {as} Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved; for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation." In other words, there's all the merit in the world to believing in the incarnation!

This isn't to denigrate the point that Pastor Cromey is trying to make. Christians should work for peace, feed the hungry, heal the sick and find homes for the homeless. Christians do believe that these things follow from the fact that God has provided value to humanity that exceeds the value granted to the creation generally. But the central message of the Gospel is not that people ought to act humanely towards others. That's a side message -- a very important side message, but a side message nonetheless. If Christianity is just a vehicle for preaching social justice based on a myth, then it's no more compelling than any other belief system. And it is the failure of the article to ever tie the incarnation story back into fact that makes Pastor Cromey's article very vacuous in my eyes.


slaveofone said…
>> If Jesus were merely a human being (regardless of how extraordinary) or a prophet, he would have had no power to save all of humanity by his sacrficial [sic] death on the cross.

Hmm, well, I guess Yeshua was a liar then when he told so many people that they had been saved apart from his death. But I don't think it was Yeshua's death that saved anyone; I think it was Yeshua's life, which he received from the Father. Just like a prophet or any other mere human being, Yeshua could only give what Yahweh had given to him. And Yahweh gives it to whom he chooses-even to the lowest or most merely human.

>> It [Yeshua's death] would have been no more meaningful than when any number of other extraordinary people of God have died...their deaths cannot have any saving grace in my life.

Simply because Yahweh didn't chose any other person of God to become the way of his kingdom. Yeshua cannot be compared to others not because he is God incarnate, but because Yahweh did something new in him. There were several Jewish sects and beliefs in the first century BC (including the Maccabee era) that held to belief in a certain person who would or had been used by Yahweh to bring salvation to men through the power and covenant faithfulness of Yahweh. Not one of them ever seemed to think that such men had to be anything other than a mere human being.

>> But if we do believe [in the incarnation], we then "strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being."

One doesn't need God becoming human to value human life. Human life has value firstly because it was created by Yahweh and secondly because it is to be his image-ancient near eastern talk meaning set aside from other creations to rule and have dominion, to be the vessel of a god's spirit, and to represent a god on earth. Adam and Eve were formerly the image of Yahweh until they set it aside and lost it. Just because Yeshua became the new and final image in place of Adam and Eve doesn't make him any more God incarnate than Adam and Eve were. Nor does it add any more value to human life than it had when it was first created or when it fell and Yahweh promised to redeem it.

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