The doctrine of the Incarnation (God became man in Jesus of Nazareth) lies at the heart of Christianity; it’s a truth-claim celebrated all over the world at Christmastime. Historic Christianity affirms that Jesus Christ is a single person with both a fully divine nature and a fully human nature. As C. S. Lewis aptly put it, “The Son of God became a man to enable men to become sons of God.”1
Here are four biblical passages that testify to the truth of Jesus Christ’s Incarnation:
- “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” (John 1:14)
- “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.” (Philippians 2:5–7)
- “For in Christ all the fullness of Deity lives in bodily form.” (Colossians 2:9)
- “This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God.” (1 John 4:2)
But is Jesus Christ’s Incarnation unique among the world’s religions? Some would point to Hinduism’s concept of avatars as a very similar religious belief. Let’s examine briefly what Hinduism affirms concerning its idea of avatars and how that compares to the Incarnation.
Prince Krishna is considered an appearance or the descent of a deity (an avatar) to the earth. In traditional Hinduism, Krishna is considered the eighth avatar of the Lord Vishnu. However, for Krishna devotees in Bhakti Hinduism this is reversed so that Vishnu becomes the avatar of Krishna. Here is Krishna from the Bhagavad Gita describing his cosmic divinity and his appearance as an avatar:
“Although I am unborn, everlasting, and I am the Lord of all, I come to my realm of nature and through my wondrous power I am born” (Bhagavad Gita 4:6).2
How the Incarnation Differs
While both Krishna and Jesus Christ are affirmed by their followers to be God Incarnate, they do differ in five key points:3
- The Incarnation of Jesus Christ took place in history where testimony is available for evaluation (see Luke 2:1–7; 3:1–2); whereas the historicity of Krishna is dubious and lacking any direct eyewitness testimony.
- The Incarnation of Jesus Christ was a once and for all event (see Galatians 4:4–5); whereas the Bhagavad Gita reveals that Krishna comes into the world age after age. Thus Hinduism’s avatars came in the past and many more are expected to come in the future:
“When righteousness is weak and faints and unrighteousness exults in pride, then my Spirit arises on earth. For the salvation of those who are good, for the destruction of evil in men, for the fulfillment of the kingdom of righteousness, I come to this world in the ages that pass” (Bhagavad Gita 4:7–8).4
- In historic Christianity the Incarnation happens once in the person of Jesus of Nazareth (the God-man; John 1:1; 1:14); whereas the avatars of the Hindu gods appear in various forms and figures including humans and animals.
- Orthodox Christology does not allow for the mixing or blending of the two natures of Jesus Christ (see the Chalcedonian Creed). But the Hindu avatars do mix and blend to the degree that true humanity is lost.
- The specific purpose of the Incarnation was to reveal God to humankind and to reconcile lost sinners back to God through Christ’s sacrificial atonement (see Titus 2:13); none of the Hindu avatars provides revelation nor do they in any way make atonement for human sin.
Thus while at first glance the Hindu idea of avatars seems similar to the Christian concept of the Incarnation, upon closer inspection the two ideas differ significantly. The Incarnation sets Christianity apart from all other religions of the world. It is unique to Christianity to discover a God who takes the initiative to put on flesh in order to redeem sinful human beings and Christmas is the special time of year for the church to celebrate this central and unique truth-claim.
- C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Macmillan, 1952), 154. In this quote, Lewis slightly rephrases a statement made by the ancient church father Athanasius (ca. 296–373).
- Bhagavad Gita (London: Penguin, 1962), 61.
- These points were influenced by Peter Toon, Jesus Christ Is Lord (London: Marshall, Morgan and Scott, 1978), 114–15.
- Bhagavad Gita, 61–62.