by Dr. Glenn Peoples
Was Jesus mortal? Jesus died to save people from their sin. That has always been at the heart of the gospel. But was Jesus mortal, like us?
This is a question I’ve seen posed a number of times. On the face of it, the question seems a bit strange. Jesus had arteries. He had a brain. He had lungs and internal organs. Things can go wrong with these things; cut them, hit them too hard, inhale the wrong things or fall from too great a height, and you’ll die, guaranteed. But to die in these ways is not just to die. Jesus didn’t just die. He was killed – crucified, as the Creed recalls, “crucified, died and was buried.” Obviously he was killed. The question is about what would have happened if nobody had killed Jesus. What would have happened then? Maybe he was immortal in the way that the elves of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth were immortal. They can be killed, but if they’re not killed, they won’t die. Was Jesus like this? If he had not been crucified, would he still be walking around among us today? Could he ever have gotten sick – perhaps even terminally ill? Would he have gotten grey hair or tooth decay?
Some of the examples may seem to trivialize the important question, but they don’t – they draw attention to the sort of question we’re asking. The question is asking us whether or not Jesus, when he lived his earthly life in Judea, suffered all the limitations and afflictions, including death itself, that the rest of us are lumbered with. The question, I think, represents the worry that if Jesus could have died of old age (or gotten sick, or perhaps any number of “human” things), then somehow his uniqueness is undercut. If he could have done any of those things, then he’s not really the divine son of God, he’s “just” a man. This way of thinking about Jesus, in my view, reaches its absurd heights in the Christmas carol: Away in a Manger. I’m sure many of you have sung: “The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes, but little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.” Are you kidding me?
An ancient error
This isn’t just a modern sentimental error. It’s a view of Jesus that the orthodox Christians condemned in the early church, a view called docetism. This view was closely associated with the broader point of view called gnosticism. In this view, Jesus wasn’t really one of us. He wasn’t human, because a really divine being just can’t be human. The physical world was a nasty, inherently corrupt thing, and the idea that a divine being could become a person who inhabited this place – or even worse, who was part of it – was unthinkable (this is the wider Gnostic view). Docetism comes from the Greek term δόκησις (dokēsis) meaning “apparition” or phantom, something that only seems to be there but isn’t really. That’s exactly what Christ did, in the docetic view; he seemed to be human, but he wasn’t really human. Popular versions of docetism can be seen in, for example, the Ebionite movement. Here, Jesus was seen as a normal human man in every way, until his baptism. At his baptism, the spirit of Christ descended upon Jesus, empowering him for his incredible ministry. But since gods do not die, the Ebionite view taught that as Jesus hung on the cross, the spirit of Christ departed, leaving the mere man Jesus to die.
As soon as the early Church started to wrestle with the question of God in Christ, living and dying among us, it rejected docetism. Jesus was really a man. And yet, it’s often the case that we verbally reject things that we know we should reject, while being influenced by them all the same. This is true in terms of sin – we condemn materialism, lust and pride, but we still know full well that these things affect us. The same is true of ideas. Yes, Christianity condemned docetism, and yet at the same time there has always been a reluctance to make Jesus “too low,” or too human.
Jürgen Moltmann described the tension like this:
The Christology of the early church had to come to grips with … objections derived from the concept of God assumed in antiquity. The more it emphasized the divinity of Christ, making use of this concept of God , the more difficult it became to demonstrate that the Son of God who was of one substance with God was Jesus of Nazareth, crucified under Pontius Pilate. Consequently, a mild docetism runs through the Christology of the ancient church. Anyone who began with the question about what was ‘above’ in terms of the question of God and salvation, as posed in antiquity, found it hard in any real sense to find an answer ‘below,’ in the history of Jesus of Nazareth, and even harder to find an answer in the abandonment by God of the crucified Jesus.1
In other words, the more strongly people emphasized the idea of a God who is changeless, aloof and entirely “other,” the more difficult it was to think of God coming to us in the form of this man in sandals who wandered around the Israeli landscape and who was nailed to a cross.
For the biblical writers, the death of Jesus, the son of God, was horrible, perhaps even terrifying and mysterious, but a fact of history. The “sun’s light,” says Luke, “failed,” signifying that something truly unthinkable had occurred. Before his death, Jesus saw it coming and agonized in Gethsemane. The Apostles were adamant that the savior they proclaimed, the truly divine Son of God, had really died. It is there in Peter’s sermon in Acts 2, the first public proclamation of the risen Lord: The one who was crucified and had been dead is the same one who was raised up and given the name above all others. Docetism is off the table as real option for believers in Jesus. Jesus didn’t just appear to be a mortal man, he really was.
The emptying of Christ
The human condition isn’t simply the fact that others can kill us. It’s a loss of harmony; with God, with each other, with creation. After God drove Adam and Eve from Eden in the story of creation and the fall, the climax of the curse that God pronounced was that they would return to the dust from which they were taken, for “dust you are, and to dust you will return.” The penalty was separation from God and therefore from life, resulting in death.
This is (partly) why it is important to see that Christ’s humiliation, his act of lowering himself is not just about the fact that he gave up his life. Of course that’s the thing we all remember for obvious reasons, but when Paul called on Christians to follow Jesus’ example in serving others, he didn’t go straight to the crucifixion. Here is how he described that example, in Philippians 2:
Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
Yes, Jesus’ humility included his obedience all the way up to the point of death, but it started before then. The very fact that Jesus became human at all was the big step here. He lowered himself, or as the Greek term used in verse 7 (ἐκένωσεν, ekenosen) indicates, he emptied himself (a concept referred to in theology as kenosis). He took on a status that was lower than what was his by right – and not just a status, but he took the very form of a servant. This was no mere illusion. The New Testament writers made it clear that Jesus didn’t commit any sin (e.g. 2 Corinthians 5:21 or 1 Peter 2:22), but in order to save us, he had to truly become one of us and be treated as though he had sinned (or as Paul told the Corinthians in the passage just cited, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us”). It would have done no good for Jesus to identify with an immortal, glorious, invincible version of us – people like that hardly need redeeming. In becoming one of the people he came to save, Jesus came, as it were, “all the way down” to where we are.
Jesus identifies with those he came to save
One thing I say every time I talk about the incarnation is that in it, Jesus identified with us, embracing the very thing he would raise up and glorify, namely broken, finite, frail, mortal humanity. The writer of Hebrews (whoever he or she was) opens the book by talking about Jesus the great high priest. In making a point that might seem a bit strange to our ears, the writer stresses that in Christ, God wasn’t setting out to save angels, but human beings (specifically, the children of Abraham, as mentioned in 2:16). But in order to become a priest for us, we are told, “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.” In every respect! The same writer stresses, perhaps more than any other New Testament author, the way in which Jesus truly identified with us as one of us. In chapter 5 it is explained that Jesus was like a high priest, who acts “on behalf of men in relation to God” (v. 1), and who “can deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is beset with weakness” (v. 2). Most likely referring to Jesus’ prayers in Gethsemane just prior to his execution, the writer went on to say in verse 7:
“In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence.”
Part and parcel of Jesus emptying himself and becoming one of us – and showing us what “us” should look like in the process – was the example that he set for us in being entirely dependent on his Father. The writer of Hebrews is not alone in saying that even for his very life, Jesus looked to the Father to provide and sustain. Jesus’ dependence on his Father is seen in his trusting his spirit to him in death (Luke 23:46), relying on him to receive it back again in resurrection, just as we, too, as followers of Christ can face death in the hope of resurrection. This is what Stephen did as he was being stoned to death, praying, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit (Acts 7:59).” Similarly, Paul reassured the church in Rome in Romans 8:11 with these words:
“If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.”
The purpose of these words was clearly to give the reader hope in the face of death, not to offer a detailed explanation of Christology, but Paul lets slip what appears to have been taken for granted by the Christian community: Jesus was a mortal dependant on the Father, who raised him back to life just as he will also do for us. In fact, Paul’s entire theology of the resurrection of believers is informed by his understanding of the resurrection of Jesus. In 1 Corinthians 15, the most lengthy discussion of the resurrection of the saints in the New Testament, Paul describes Jesus as “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep,” a term illustrating the way that Paul saw what happened to Jesus as a sample of what will happen to those who belong to him – the rest of those who have fallen asleep but who, unlike Jesus, are still asleep. And what will happen to those people, Paul went on to say, is that “this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality.” Jesus was – just as we will be – transformed from corruptible and mortal to incorruptible and immortal. What these passages of Scripture show us about Jesus is that he stood in our place in receiving conditional immortality. By making himself absolutely subject to the sustaining power of God, not relying on being inherently but instead depending on the one who could raise him from the dead, Jesus not only becomes like one of us, but in doing so he shows us precisely what we are.
So the answer is yes. Jesus certainly was mortal, and the fact that God the Son became a mortal human being, subject to all of our weaknesses and limitations, and raised and glorified that human life through the resurrection, is precisely what assures us that our own mortal, frail selves will be raised and glorified with him. Our God really became one of us in all of our frailness and brokenness in every way except sin, so that he could raise us up and restore us.
1.Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), 89.
About Dr. Glenn Andrew Peoples
Dr. Glenn Peoples runs Right Reason, a popular blog featuring the Say hello to my Little Friend podcast on theology, philosophy and social issues.