Should We Believe the Unbelievable? Four Questions to Consider about the Incarnation
When you stop and think about it, the message of Christmas is pretty incredible: the second person of the Trinity (the Son) humbled himself and was made into a human being by the Holy Spirit. He was born of a virgin into his own creation, becoming fully human while remaining fully God, in order to establish God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven (see Matt. 1:18-25; Luke 1:26-2:21).
I don’t suggest that we can fully understand the mystery of the Incarnation. But should we believe it? Here are four questions to consider in whether we should believe the unbelievable—that in Jesus God came down to dwell with his people as King.
1. Could God do this? This is the question of possibility—is it possible? Some will no doubt suggest that modern science corrects the kinds of mythologies they see reflected in the Gospels, teaching us that miracles like this don’t happen—virgins don’t have babies. But we don’t need modern science to tell us that one; they knew how people got pregnant in ancient times, and this story would be as incredible to them as it is to us. Moreover, we’re not talking about what is scientifically possible. We’re talking about whether it would be possible for the God who made creation, who rules over all creation, and who has all power, to cause a virgin to conceive and through her child step into his own creation as a single person who is fully God and fully human. Though it shatters our categories and expectations, it’s certainly within the realm of possibility for that kind of God. If he has the power and authority to make creation and write the whole story of history, there’s no reason he couldn’t write himself into that story in this way if he wanted to.
2. Would God do this? This is the question of plausibility—is it likely? Just because God could do something doesn’t necessarily mean he would—that it’s in his character or according to his plan. For instance, God could decide to shut his eyes to the evil and injustice of this world. It’s possible. But would he? Absolutely not—that’s outside his character as a just and holy God. Or he could snap his fingers and turn humans into panda bears if he wanted to. It’s possible. But it’s not likely, because it goes against his plan and pattern in creation.
So would God step into his creation to become human? Is it likely? Think of it this way: If God is a compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love (cf. Exod. 34:6-7), if he desires rescue sinful humans from the penalty, power, and presence of their sin (cf. Matt. 1:20-23), if humans by themselves are incapable of saving themselves (cf. Isa. 59:15-16), and if sending his eternal Son to take on human flesh and enter into this world is a way to accomplish that salvation, then it is certainly plausible that God would become human.
3. Should God do this? This is the question of necessity—is there a reason? Is it necessary? And the answer is: Absolutely. The reality is that it takes a king who is both fully God and fully human in order to accomplish God’s plan of salvation—there is no other way. Because our sin as humans is against a holy and infinite God, we have committed an infinite offense—one we are unable to save ourselves from. Only God can accomplish our salvation (cf. Isa. 59). So only someone who is fully God can be our Savior and King, which is what Scripture tells us about Jesus: “For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form” (Col. 2:9; cf. Col. 1:15; Heb. 1:3).
But, our sin as humans still has to be paid for. If God is in fact just and holy, then sin and rebellion must be punished. If you break an item in a store, even if it’s an accident, somebody has to cover the cost of that offense (either you or the store). In the same way, someone has to take our penalty as sinful humans for a holy God to be able to cancel our debt and forgive us. And only a human can stand in place for another human. God allowed Israel to use animals (e.g. lambs and bulls) for a time, but that was always pointing to a greater and final sacrifice to come. Unless we have a fully human representative—one who fulfills God’s plan for humanity to rule over his creation, who shows us the way to live, who serves as our substitute, giving us credit for his righteous life and taking the just penalty for our sinful lives—we cannot be saved from the wrath of a holy God. The substitute won’t count. In order to be a mediator between God and humans, our Savior has to be fully God and fully human (1 Tim. 2:5).
The book of Hebrews describes it like this:
Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham. Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted. (Heb. 2:14-18)
It’s not only possible, it’s not only plausible, it is absolutely necessary for God to become human in order to be our Savior and King.
4. Did God do this? This is the question of history—is there evidence? Of course I cannot “prove” to you that God became human in Jesus. Like everything else, it requires faith. But is there reason to believe? I think there is. But again, the kind of evidence that bears weight in this case is not scientific possibility, but divine possibility and historical testimony. We’ve already thought about divine possibility. So what does history tell us?
In the case of the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), what we have is very early, eyewitness testimony to what happened. With the exception of a handful of folks on the margin, mainstream scholarship (both liberal and conservative) place the date of the four Gospels within the lifetime of the eyewitnesses to Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. We’re not talking about hundreds of years for stories and myths to pop up. We’re talking a few decades at most, which means that, had they included a bunch of fanciful or inaccurate statements, they would have been easily refuted and discarded by those who were there, long before Christianity could have ever risen to the influence that it has.
The eyewitnesses who walked and talked with Jesus, who saw him perform the kinds of mighty acts that only God has the authority to perform (like rebuking the wind and the waves, cf. Matthew 8:23-27; Ps. 104:6-7), who heard him utter pronouncements that only God has the authority to utter (like “your sins are forgiven,” Matt. 9:2), who saw Christ crucified and buried, and then rise from the dead three days later, conquering Death as only God can (cf. Isa. 25:6-9)—their testimony is that Jesus our King was fully God and fully human.
In Jesus God has done what we could have never imagined, but what we so desperately needed him to do, in order to establish his kingdom and rescue us from our sin.