Friday, April 24, 2015

Trinitarianism and Docetism: Did the Person of Jesus Feel the Pain of His Ransom Sacrifice?

As introduced previously on my blog,[1] Dr. William Lane Craig is an ardent defender of the Trinitarian paradigm. Here I respond to one of such defenses where he is answering a person identified by the initial “M,”[2] and demonstrate that Trinitarianism is not the only interpretive model, nor is it necessarily superior. In fact, it will be shown that the Trinitarian model presents a Jesus who as a person was immune to the pain and suffering of his sacrificial execution, which is clearly reminiscent of the heresy of Docetism—that Jesus Christ only appeared to be human and only appeared to suffer.

Comments by Dr. Craig are prefaced by “WLC,” and mine by “JS”.

WLC: You see, because the early Christian church believed in the deity of Christ, you’d expect that if the Gospel accounts were largely the product of the church rather than accurate records of the life of Jesus, the Gospels would suppress or omit embarrassing or awkward traces of Jesus’ weakness and humanity. But they don’t! Instead we find many such traces: Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist, Jesus’ exhaustion and falling asleep in the boat, Jesus’ ignorance of the time of his return, Jesus’ agony in the Garden, and so on. These are not the sort of features someone who believed in Jesus’ deity would just invent. They are therefore indications of the historical credibility of the accounts in which they appear. In fact, there’s actually a name of this tool of historical Jesus research: it’s called the criterion of embarrassment. It states that if a saying or event in the life of Jesus is embarrassing or awkward for the early church, then the probability is increased that the saying or event is authentic, i.e., actually happened.

JS: The criterion of embarrassment does not require the initial premise to be the “deity of Christ,” that is, that Christ is the second person equal to the first and third persons of the impersonal Trinitarian Godhead. No, it merely requires that Christ be more than human. Thus, an archangelic pre-human existence or simply being the messiah would satisfy the criterion of embarrassment.

WLC: So I delight in the spotting of such features in the narratives because it confirms that we are on good historical grounds in what we are reading. … In particular, Jesus’ crucifixion is the supreme instance of the criterion of embarrassment, an event so firmly established historically that has itself become a criterion of authenticity in its own right, other events’ being assessed in light of the fact of Jesus’ crucifixion. …

But don’t these incidents in some way really cast doubt upon Jesus’ divinity? Not at all, M.! Muslims very typically do not understand that Christians do not believe that Jesus is simply divine, masquerading as a man (like Superman disguised as Clark Kent). Rather Christians hold Jesus to be truly God and truly man, to have two complete natures, one human and one divine. So to point out features of Jesus’ human weaknesses and limitations is something in which the Christian exults because it goes only to confirm Jesus’ true humanity. He has stooped so low as to take on all our fragility and weakness.

JS: So Jesus is a divine person with the inherent divine nature who, as an incarnation, has a human nature. This is one person with two natures, which is ironically just like the action hero who is truly superhuman as Superman and is truly human as Clark Kent. How can that analogy be denied and simultaneously confirmed through the matching description? That action hero has two complete natures and he relies on his superhuman nature while disguised as Clark Kent, just like the Trinitarian Jesus who produced miracles and claimed to be God per Trinitarianism!

WLC: Frankly, I’m glad that Jesus didn’t face his impending crucifixion like some phony action hero but was in agony about being savagely scourged and crucified. That’s someone I can identify with! That’s real courage! That’s a man I can admire and follow.

JS: I fully agree with Dr. Craig that Jesus didn’t face his impending execution like some phony action hero, but truly experienced agony. And this is precisely why we can deny Trinitarianism, as it unwittingly presents Jesus as a “phony action hero.” Consider why: WLC has proclaimed numerous times that Jesus was never a human person, but rather was a divine person with a human nature. While his human nature felt the piercing pain of his agonizing sacrificial death, he was actually not a human person but a divine person who never felt any such agony! This is certainly not a person anyone can honestly and wholeheartedly relate to.

WLC: As for Jesus’ words on the cross, I am convinced that they have been seriously misunderstood by many Christians. I used to think, as many Christians believe, that when Jesus cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”, God the Father had turned His back on God the Son, and Jesus was at that moment bearing the penalty of separation from God for our sins. Of course, there’s something a bit strange about that theological interpretation. The Bible says that the wages of sin is death and that Christ died for our sins. But at this point Jesus obviously wasn’t dead! So how could this be the moment of atonement? And if it was, why did Jesus, having atoned for sin, need to go on to die? His other words from the cross don’t seem to express any such abandonment by God (“Father, into Your hands I commend my spirit”). So what’s going on here?

JS: Correct, Jesus clearly wasn’t dead yet. But his exclamation may be the result of him feeling the removal of “God’s power” from him. (Acts 10:38; compare with Mark 5:30 and Luke 8:46) That this is occurring finds support in what Satan accused Job of, of maintaining his integrity to God because of a protective hedge that God had erected around Job. (Job 1:10) Once that was removed, then Job would be thoroughly tested. So what’s going on here is this, Jesus felt his God’s spirit as a protective hedge until this moment after he had been nailed to the stauros for some hours, then he felt it being removed in response to Satan’s challenge.

WLC: Well, look at Psalm 22, M. Jesus was steeped in the Old Testament and knew the Psalms. Psalm 22 is the prayer of God’s righteous servant in distress. So what was Jesus doing at this most terrible moment of his life, in excruciating pain and humiliation? He was praying to his Father!

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22.1)

Instead of wallowing in hopelessness and despair, he’s praying Psalm 22 aloud to God. I get choked up just thinking about it. What a man! What faithfulness! This is not the moment at which Jesus is farthest from God; this may well be the moment when he was nearest to God.

JS: Sure, his exclamation quoted Psalm 22:1, but he was not merely quoting it to God. He was applying it from his heart about how he felt. He was truly faithful to death, despite Satan’s accusations to the contrary that he would fail. From this perspective, we can react from the heart too as we reflect and empathize with his tortuous ordeal. He was not merely giving an emotional prayer to God, he really felt God removing the protective hedge of his spirit around him! This is far more dynamic and heart-felt than WLC’s interpretation.

WLC: So I’d encourage you to revel in Christ’s true humanity as well as in his divinity. Both are vital to our salvation.

JS: Yes, we must indeed revel in Christ’s true humanity, a man born from a woman under the Mosaic Law (Galatians 4:4) who fearlessly proclaimed his future death by torturous execution in the Passion Narratives, even rebuking Peter for his suggestion that he would not really suffer death.[3] If Jesus was really a divine person as taught by Trinitarianism, then this would have been a perfect moment for him to clarify this crucial point. But he did not, for the only reason that he was entirely what Galatians 4:4 says, that he was born as a man. He was a descendent of David (Romans 1:3) with a prehuman existence. Yet WLC is also correct that we should revel in Christ’s true divinity. He was faithful to death, and thus was resurrected by his God and Father as he passed through the spiritual curtain into the divine spirit realm, leaving his sacrificed body outside,[4] now sitting on the throne of God (Revelation 3:21) as his divine agent representing him to the full.

In conclusion, it appears to me that Trinitarianism has failed to notice that it has presented a Jesus with docetic overtones, one whose person did not feel any pain while his human nature did. But this is not something that honest and objective people can relate to. Fortunately, the real Jesus as seen in the Bible really did feel all the pain and agony associated with his sacrificial death!

[1] See:
[2] Do the Gospels Support a Muslim View of Jesus?

[3] See: A Lesson from Jesus’ Rebuke

[4] See:

Further reading:

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