As with the doctrine of the Trinity, detractors have claimed that Christian belief in the Incarnation was stolen from paganism. Yet a careful study of alleged pagan "incarnations" will show that they have little in common with the truth of the Word-made-flesh.
Explanation of the Incarnation
Christians believe that the Second Person of the Trinity - a Divine Person with a Divine Nature - assumed an additional human nature from the Blessed Virgin Mary. He did not relinquish His Deity when He became flesh, nor did He only assume part of our humanity. Thus Jesus Christ is not half divine and half human; He is fully God and fully Man. Nor is His Sacred Humanity only apparent; it is a true human nature, a human body drawn from the Virgin and a human soul created by God. Thus Christ is one Divine Person (the Eternal Word) possessing and operating through two natures - Divine and Human. This is the orthodox Christian understanding of the Incarnation.
The Demigods of Greco-Roman Mythology
The Greeks believed that their gods - particularly Zeus, the king of the gods - would periodically mate with humans and produce offspring by them. These offspring would be a sort-of hybrid: part-god and part-human, with some the qualities of each of their parents' races. Some examples of these "demigods", as they are called, are Heracles (Hercules) and Perseus, two legendary Greek heroes whose "divine" sides allegedly enabled them to achieve greater feats than mere mortals.
Some detractors claim that early Christians appropriated the "demigod" concept to deify Jesus. Pagan converts to Christianity simply claimed that Christ the was the offspring of the God of Israel even as Heracles was the offspring of Zeus, thus borrowing a concept from their former religion. Yet this seems highly unlikely. First of all, Christian converts from paganism often disliked their former religions, and would hardly have introduced its elements into their new life in Christ. Second, Jewish Christians would have strenuously objected to this intrusion of paganism, yet we see no such objection in the New Testament (which presents Jesus as God - John 1:1, 20:28) nor among the Nazarenes, as believers of Hebrew descent came to be called in later centuries.
Third, neither Scripture nor early Christian writings ever present the Incarnation as a "mating" between God and Mary. It is always shown to be miraculous and asexual, effected by the power of the Holy Spirit, not God the Father. Christian writers even argue against the idea that Jesus is a demigod like the mythical Greco-Roman heros.
Finally, the differences between the two concepts are clear. Jesus Christ is not part-God and part-human, but 100% God and 100% human simultaneously. Divine Nature transcends human nature, and so cannot mingle with it genetically (God is pure spirit and so has no "genes"!). Thus a true GodMan, like Christ, could not be a hybrid.
Moreover, Jesus pre-exists His human life. Heracles, Perseus and other mythological demigods had no pre-existence; they came into existence as any human would. So they are not deities "coming down" from Olympus to enter our race, as the Eternal Word came down from heaven. This is also a big difference between the demigods and the GodMan.
So the Christian concept of Incarnation was not drawn from, nor does it truly parallel, the Greco-Roman concept of the demigod.
Hinduism teaches that the god Vishnu occasionally takes physical form to appear on earth. Such an earthly manifestation of Vishnu is called an avatar.
Some people see a parallel between the avatars of Vishnu and the Incarnation of the Word. At first glance the similarity seems striking. God the Son is the Second Person of the Christian Trinity, while Vishnu is the second god in the Hindu trimurti, as we saw in the last article. Each one comes to earth for a while to teach humanity about God, and then returns to his former existence. Some people even use the terms interchangably, calling the avatars "incarnations" of Vishnu and Jesus an "avatar" of God!
Yet these superficial similarities conceal many deeper and more significant differences. I stated above that Vishnu takes a "physical form" as an avatar. Notice that I did not say "human form". That is because not all of the nine avatars of Vishnu are human. The first one was a fish, the second a turtle, the third a boar and the fourth a half-lion/half-human king. The last five are in human form, most notably Rama, Krishna and the Buddha (a tenth future avatar, Kalki, is sometimes depicted in art as a man on a horse and sometimes as a man with the head of a horse).
Also, notice that I said "physical form". The avatar is not a real physical being, but possesses a transcendental "body" not made of matter. Thus Vishnu did not assume a fish-nature in his first avatar, but only appeared to be a fish. Nor were Rama, Krishna or Buddha real human beings, they only seemed human. If you saw them (Hindus say) they would look as real as you or me, and their "flesh" would feel like real skin, but it would be an illusion. Since Hinduism teaches that the material world traps the "Atman" (a portion of Brahman in the soul), Vishnu would never actually take on matter.
The differences between avatars and God Incarnate are massive. Vishnu is said to appear over and over again in different forms, Jesus Christ came once and for all. Vishnu is said to have appeared in various animal forms, Christ only became human. Hindus say that Vishnu does not take on actual flesh, so he never becomes truly incarnate, for "incarnate" comes from two Latin words: in, meaning "in", and carne, meaning "flesh, body". "Incarnate", therefore, means embodied, enfleshed, taking on actual flesh, not just appearing to be flesh. Thus it is technically incorrect to refer to the avatars as "incarnations" of Vishnu.
And if an avatar is merely a physical form, then it is also incorrect to call Jesus an avatar, for He truly became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14). Christians do not believe that the material world is a trap, but God's good creation. Jesus could assume a human body because the human body is essentially good. And He assumed that body permanently; He will never get rid of it or replace it with another, so there is only one incarnation. Since Vishnu does not assume true flesh (according to myth), he certainly can come as as many avatars as he likes. Yet Vishnu never enters into the human condition (in myth) as completely as the Eternal Word did in reality.
(The Christian concept which comes closest to the Hindu "avatar" is a theophany, which is a temporary earthly appearance of God in a visible form. Some examples are the "angel of the Lord", the burning bush and the "glory of the Lord" mentioned in Torah; the "Ancient of Days" of Daniel 7, the glorious apparition of Ezekiel 1, the Dove at Christ's baptism and the tongues of Fire at Pentecost. Yet theophanies are invariably of very short duration, while many of the "avatars" are said to remain on earth for years. So a better definition of avatar would be "a prolonged theophany", rather than an "incarnation".)
Thus the Christian belief in the Incarnation of Christ does not find a parallel in pre-Christian paganism. Like the Trinity, it is a biblical revelation. Yet one could perhaps see the demigods and avatars as vague shadows of a past revelation of the Incarnation to "righteous pagans", even as the triads, threefold deities and the Hindu trimurti may be the remnants of an ancient revelation of the Trinity.
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