Why did God become man?
An invitation to think.
Why exactly God became human is a question that can’t be satisfactorily answered in a short article. I’m not going to try: instead I’m going to invite you to think along with me about a few of the things the Church says about the Incarnation, in the hope that we might understand it even a small bit better and appreciate it even a small bit more.
That’s not a bad way to start — it would be wrong to think of Catholicism as a set of pat, easy answers that, once learned off, can be recited back to swiftly dispose of any awkward questions.
Deep waters, indeed.
Catholicism is fundamentally about relating to God, the Creator of the universe, the ground of all being. Truths about God’s nature and his action in the world are deep waters indeed: you can plumb their depths forever without reaching the bottom.
Many of the theological dogmas the Catholic Church proclaims are best understood as gateways opening onto a vast landscape of deeper truth: you can say important and true things about the Incarnation in a page of the Catechism, but saints, mystics, and doctors of the Church have spent their lives trying to better understand those things. The dogmas help guide our understanding and stop it going off in the wrong direction entirely, but it’s not as though by agreeing with them we have completed the process of understanding God and his work.
The Incarnation as a response to human fallenness.
So what are the basic things that the Church says about the Incarnation? First, that it came about as a response to the bad state that our species was in.
Humanity had fallen away from God and original sin separated us from the relationship with the divine that we were created for. That separation damaged human nature itself, with the result that it couldn’t be healed just by human power. In order to repair the damage and bring us back into proper relationship with God — to bring about our salvation — the next move would have to be made by God.
God didn’t owe us the Incarnation — it was a gift.
Well, I say “have to be made” but this immediately raises one of the important things the Church says about the Incarnation: that God didn’t have to make that next move. Humans are not cosmic creditors, collecting from God some debt owed: we wouldn’t exist in the first place without Him, and the damage to our nature was done by humans. God’s action was one of unbound love, not obligation.
What’s possibly even more interesting is that, having decided to save humanity, God did not have to accomplish it via becoming a human. God is all-powerful: He could have brought about our salvation in a number of ways. The Incarnation, though, was judged by God to be the best or most fitting way to save us.
The Incarnation wasn’t technically necessary.
St Thomas Aquinas writes about two different ways that something can be ‘necessary’ in order to achieve some goal or ‘end’:
First, when the end cannot be without it; as food is necessary for the preservation of human life. Secondly, when the end is attained better and more conveniently, as a horse is necessary for a journey (Summa III:1:1).
The Incarnation was only necessary for our salvation in the second sense — which makes it yet more of a gift. God chose not just to repair the damage of original sin, but to do so through an action that would have been the greatest of honours even had humanity never fallen: becoming one of us, living a human life alongside us.
This is why the fathers of the Church speak of Adam and Eve’s fall as a ‘felix culpa’, a ‘happy fault’: God’s response to it brought about something arguably greater than the situation that preceded it.
The Catholic Encyclopedia puts it well: “[God] might have [saved man] by pardoning man’s sins without having recourse to the Incarnation of the Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity. Still, the Incarnation of the Word was the most fitting means for the salvation of man, and was even necessary, in case God claimed full satisfaction for the injury done to him by sin.”
Why was the Incarnation the best way to save us?
So why was the Incarnation judged by God as the best or most fitting way to save us? As Shakespeare says, “aye, there’s the rub”. That question has been the subject of vast amounts of theological speculation, and definitively answering it would require knowing the mind of God.
But Jesus, Scripture, and the Church do tell us some of the things that God aimed to accomplish with the Incarnation: thinking through those is the right way to begin plumbing the depths of the mystery.
What are those things? In addition to the primary purpose of the Incarnation, saving us “by reconciling us with God”, the Catechism of the Catholic Church lists three further purposes, citing verses from Scripture and writings of the Church fathers which back each one up.
- The Word became flesh so that thus we might know God's love.
- The Word became flesh to be our model of holiness.
- The Word became flesh to make us "partakers of the divine nature".
Again, you could write many books on each of these topics, and people have. I’m not going to do a deep dive into each one.
Not only to be crucified.
But the very fact that the Catechism lists more than one purpose for the Incarnation reveals a deep truth: that God did not become incarnate only to be crucified. God’s plan for our salvation came to fruition through the Crucifixion as well as the Resurrection.
These are the central events of Jesus’ life, and everything else he does should be seen in the light of the cross. But Jesus did not only become incarnate to die for us: he also became incarnate in order to live with us.
Christmas: not just a stepping stone.
Similarly, Christmas is not only important as the first step of a process that leads to Easter: it itself is a wonder and majesty as we celebrate the resurrected Jesus present to us now and remember his birth in Bethlehem.
I’ve written before about how Jesus having shared in human suffering and death contributed to the ‘fittingness’ of God’s plan for our salvation. Let’s reflect now on how each of these three other purposes, as listed in the Catechism, were realised in the life of Christ.
Knowing God’s love.
‘Knowing God’s love’ has at least two meanings: it can mean ‘being loved by God and knowing it’ and also ‘knowing what God’s love is like’.
The Incarnation makes both of these possible in radical new ways. At the Last Supper Jesus said to his disciples: “No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you” (John 15:15). This is not just something offered to the apostles: the Church teaches that the offer of friendship is made to all Christians.
What’s happening here is something mind-blowing: the Creator of the universe is saying that he wants to love humans not just as servants or creations, but as friends. And friendship (at least as understood by the Church and by many of the world’s greatest philosophers) is, in at least some respects, a relationship between equals.
Jesus is still God, and in that sense is not our equal, nor are any of us his equal even in human moral goodness. But by becoming a human God genuinely put Himself on a footing of equality with us, making possible a sort of love that could never have been possible without the Incarnation.
This is one reason why the Church sometimes speak of the ‘scandal’ of the Incarnation (see for example this short address of Pope Francis from 2013), and why Christianity was so shocking to the religious authorities of the time. This claim should be shocking; there is something scandalous about the idea of God becoming a creature: a limited, vulnerable thing — a mammal.
But that is the way God chose to love us.
When I think of Jesus as our model of holiness, my mind jumps first to the Sermon on the Mount and our Lord’s other examples of direct moral instruction. Just as important, though, are the ways in which Christ modelled holiness in his own person and actions, revealing sometimes surprising things about what holiness really is.
When Jesus encountered the woman caught in adultery, he invited those of her condemners who “were without sin” to cast the first stone. None of the mob met that standard, and everyone fled. But there was someone there who did meet the standard: Jesus himself. Yet, even he did not throw the stone, but instead offered mercy and forgiveness.
Again, it’s easy for us to miss the radicalness of this. Jesus was saying that it is no lack of justice to show mercy: that true holiness does not focus on delivering to each what they deserve, but on wanting for each what is best for them.
Jesus’ surprising modelling of holiness can be seen even in the circumstances of his birth. In choosing to come into the world as a weak, dependent baby born in poverty and squalor, Jesus showed that holiness was not the same thing as earthly grandeur or power as many at the time may have thought. He showed that there was no incompatibility between holiness and poverty, holiness and vulnerability, holiness and dependence on the care of others.
Partakers of the divine nature.
This idea of theosis, of God raising us up to partake in the divine nature, is one of the most complex ideas in the Incarnation, and probably one of the least discussed in the average Irish parish.
St Irenaeus, one of the fathers of the Church, puts it like this: ”For this is why the Word became man, and the Son of God became the Son of man: so that man, by entering into communion with the Word and thus receiving divine sonship, might become a son of God.”
He’s echoing St Paul, who writes constantly about the Incarnation leading to us being adopted as God’s children. I wrote earlier that God lowered himself to become our friend, but that’s only part of the picture. Jesus also wants to raise us up to his level, to glorify and transform human nature. In sharing our human nature, he wants to make it possible for us to share in his. The equality God wants to establish with us requires us to be transformed.
What exactly is meant by this? Here I can only gesture. It’s not the Mormon idea that we will literally become ‘other Gods’, the same type of being as God is. Nor is it the idea in some eastern religions that we will all dissolve into an undifferentiated unity with God. But through receiving God’s love and grace via prayer, the sacraments, pursuit of virtue, love of God and neighbour, and friendship with Jesus, we are in a real sense aiming not just to become more like God, but to share in His life and in the love of the persons of the Trinity for one another.
While we’ve discussed the different purposes for the Incarnation in the Catechism separately, they are of course also connected with one another: friendship with God is enabled by theosis, and Jesus’ modelling of holiness tells us more about the divine nature we hope to partake in.
And all three of these purposes are part of the primary one — our salvation. So a hesitant, partial answer to the question “why was the Incarnation the most fitting way to save us?” would be something like this:
God did not want to bridge the gulf between Him and us just by fixing the damage done by original sin. He wanted to show us more about the true nature of His love, to become our friends, and to invite us to share in His own divine nature. To do that, He was born in a stable: He ate with us, worked with us, became our friend. He lived a human life and died a human death. And that is the most important thing that has ever happened.