Did God have to become man? Was such a dramatic divine intervention in history inevitable?
For Catholics, as for all orthodox Christians, this is a central truth of faith and the answer is unequivocally yes: God became man and yet remained fully divine, in the person of Jesus Christ, who was born in order that He might die, paying the penalty for our sins and reconciling us to Him.
But was salvation from sin the only reason for the Incarnation? Put bluntly: What would have happened if there had been no Fall? Asking such questions is not quite the leap into fanciful speculation as it might seem. Indeed, some of the Church’s greatest theologians have pondered what is easily history’s greatest what-if scenarios—not only out of mere curiosity, but also because such questions help us to better understand what really did happen.
Here are some reasons why theologians and philosophers have posited for the Incarnation, besides atonement for our sins:
1. Completes creation: For the late medieval theologian and philosopher, Blessed John Duns Scotus, the idea of there not being an Incarnation was inconceivable. In a commentary, he declares: “To think that God would have given up such work if Adam had not sinned would be altogether irrational! I say, therefore, that the fall was not the cause of the predestination of Christ, and that—even if no one had fallen, not angels or man—in this hypothesis Christ would still have been predestined in the same way.” As Pope Benedict has explained, this belief arises from Duns Scotus’ conviction that the Incarnation was “the greatest and most beautiful” of God’s works and is not “conditioned by any contingent facts.” Instead, for Duns Scotus, God had always planned to “unite the whole of creation with himself in the person and flesh of the Son.”
2. Shows the love of God: There once was a king who loved a maiden but was torn over how to express this love, according to a parable told by Soren Kirkegaard. If he appeared to her as king, she would not feel able to truly love him, given his far higher status in society, according to Kirkegaard’s telling of the story. The king could have elevated the maiden to royal status, but that would be deceptive and contrary to his good nature. Of course, the king could do the opposite: appear to the maiden in the form of a servant—but this would run into the same problem. Kirkegaard applies this parable to God’s relationship with us: “God therefore must appear in the form of a servant. But this servant’s form is not merely something he puts on, like the beggar’s cloak, which, because it is only a cloak, flutters loosely and betrays the king. No, it is his true form. For this is the unfathomable nature of boundless love, that it desires to be equal with the beloved; not in jest, but in truth.”
3. Humbles man: In his masterpiece on the Trinity, St. Augustine says that the pride of man “can be confuted and healed through such great humility of God” in the Incarnation. For Augustine, this pride is the “chief hindrance against his cleaving to God.” Put another way: Man’s pride is at its worst when he esteems himself to be so great as to be among the gods. When man thinks he is a god, this necessarily precludes any encounter with the true God, Creator of man. The Incarnation, Augustine is saying, puts the lie to this in the most profound way imaginable: the ultimate humiliation of God not only radically puts us in our place, but it also overturns our whole simplistic notion of what it means to be God.
As Benedict wrote in his Introduction to Christianity: “Precisely this overstepping of the greatest and reaching down into the smallest is the true nature of absolute spirit. … [W]e see here a reversal in value of maximum and minimum, greatest and smallest, that is typical of the Christian understanding of reality.” The proud man then commits a double error: other than the obvious mistake of considering himself divine, he falsely assumes that in order to be like God one must be great, rather than humble.
4. Establishes necessity of grace: Even had there been no fall, no forbidden fruit, no original sin, theologians still believe that God added grace to man’s nature when he created him. For Augustine, the Incarnation demonstrates that this grace is something men never deserved on their own merits. In choosing to become fully human “not even He Himself obtained by any precedent merits that He should be joined in such great unity with the true God, and should become the Son of God, one Person with Him.” In other words, Christ was not an ordinary human whose good works—apart from God—earned him the right to be united to God. Christ was and always is both fully man and fully God.
5. Provides moral guidance: To be sure, mankind has always had some sense of what was right and wrong, something philosophers call the natural law and which St. Paul affirms in Romans 2 when he says the law has been written on our hearts. But, as British philosopher Richard Swinburne has recently written, we “need to be reminded of the moral truths which we can find out in theory for ourselves; and there are other moral truths which we cannot find out for ourselves, and we need to be told them by some authority.” Christ not only taught us how to live a good life, He Himself lived a perfectly good human life—teaching by example as well as by spoken word.
6. Encourages us: For Swinburne, it is not enough to be shown the right way. We also must be encouraged in our efforts. One source of encouragement is incentives, such as the promise of eternal life with God. “We can only know that God offers us the prospect of Heaven (and perhaps the risk of Hell) if he tells us or shows us this,” Swinburne says.
7. Shares in our suffering: Another principal means of encouragement is sharing in our struggles and toils. Swinburne writes that a perfectly good God would allow suffering only if it served some purpose. He offers analogies from family life: good parents might require that their children go on a diet, undertake some difficult exercise, or move to a different school—all of which might entail suffering of a sort. At some point, Swinburne says it becomes a good thing to show solidarity with one’s children: the parents go on the diet too, join the gym, or become involved as volunteers in the new school. Given the amount of suffering in this world, Swinburne says it was absolutely necessary for a perfectly good God to share in those sufferings. “And the sharing needs to be not entirely incognito. The parent needs not merely to share the child’s suffering, but to show him that he is doing so.”
This last reason makes the Incarnation a unique best act of God, according to Swinburne, writing in the recently reprinted The Resurrection of the God Incarnate. If one believes in a personal God who is all-powerful, all-knowing, and perfectly good, then one must believe that such a God would become Incarnate, Swinburne says. In this scheme, there is no room for the purported principled deist who believes in a clockmaker Creator—perhaps someone like Thomas Jefferson—but is ‘enlightened’ enough to eschew all the ‘strange’ Christian teachings about the Incarnation, the Resurrection, and the Virgin Birth. Put simply, if one believes in God, one must believe in the Incarnation.