There is a subtle error, found in many believers — and often zealously defended as if it were a test of orthodoxy. It is the belief that Christ did not have the same kind of mortal body that we have, but instead, had an immortal body even from birth (supposedly like Adam and Eve before the fall). Thus, He only appeared to have the kind of body that we do. In the article, The Nature of the Redeemer’s Humanity, J. C. Philpot (1802-1869) asserts that the flesh of Jesus was both immortal and incorruptible1. Philpot believes that Jesus’ sinlessness demanded that no “seeds of corruption” be present in His body. He further asserts that Christ’s death could not have been the result of His physical injuries, or it would not qualify as the voluntary death of a righteous Savior. The popularity of this view is surprising.
These errors undercut Christ’s sinlessness and our culpability, as well as nullifying the Cross and resurrection. Firstly, it is no longer my fault for sinning and having a sin nature. I had no choice, because it’s the fault of the body that I was saddled with. I’m not sinful — my flesh is. Secondly, Christ’s value as a sinless sacrifice is diminished. Since He did not share in what is offered as the sole reason for our sin — our flesh — then how can He claim to overcome sin? If we believe that He could not have remained sinless had He possessed the same flesh that we possess, then something is amiss.
Such beliefs and assertions are both Docetic and Gnostic. [By calling these ideas Docetic and Gnostic, I am only describing the unacceptable (and likely unrecognized) tendency and slant of these ideas. One does not need to be a full-fledged Docetist to suffer from Docetic tendencies in thought.] Christ necessarily had the very same type of body that we all have — one that is physically corruptible and mortal. It was only after His resurrection that He became physically immortal and incorruptible. If His body differed from ours in this respect, then He did not share in our humanity in a way that qualified Him to be the Mediator between men and God.
Some clarification is in order on the definition of Docetic. Millard Erickson defines it this way:
Docetism takes its name from the Greek verb… which means “to seem or appear.” Its central thesis is that Jesus only seemed to be human. God could not really have become material since all matter is evil, and he is perfectly pure and holy. The transcendent God could not possibly have united with such a corrupting influence. Being impassible and unchangeable, God could not have undergone the modifications in his nature which would necessarily have occurred with a genuine incarnation. He could not have exposed himself to the experiences of human life. The humanity of Jesus, his physical nature, was simply an illusion, not a reality, Jesus was more like a ghost, an apparition, than a human being2.
Erickson also said, “It is difficult today to find pure instances of Docetism, although Docetic tendencies occur in many and varied schemes of thought.” Philpot’s position is not pure Docetism, of course, but it is an example of “Docetic tendencies.” He does not propose a Christ who is only an apparition; however, he does propose a Christ whose humanity only appears to be the same as ours. Are our bodies immortal and incorruptible? They are not. Is the body of Philpot’s Christ the same as ours? It is not — but it appears to be! Why does Philpot believe that the body of Christ could not possibly be the same as ours? It is because he believes that our flesh would corrupt Christ’s righteousness, and is therefore incompatible with His divine nature. While he does not say that matter is evil, he does imply that human flesh is evil. Again, this is a Docetic tendency.
Philpot, in section 1, said “for though body and soul were parted, and his immortal, incorruptible body lay in the grave, his soul was in paradise.” In section 2, he said,
…sanctified in the moment of conception by the Holy Ghost, so as to be intrinsically holy, impeccable, immortal — capable of dying, but not tainted with the seeds of sickness or death. It was not a body like ours, “shapen in iniquity and conceived in sin” (Psa 51:5); but was begotten by a divine and supernatural operation of the Holy Ghost, and was therefore “holy,”…”free from all ill;” “undefiled” with any taint of corruption in body or soul, original or actual, in any seed, inclination, desire, feeling, or movement of or toward it; “separate from sinners” in its conception and formation,…
In section 3, Philpot said,
To design, to contrive, to put together in his own eternal mind, not merely the framework of the Lord’s body and the constitution of his soul, but so to prepare it that, conceived in the womb of the sinful Virgin, it should not partake of her sin, of her fall, of her sickness, of her corruptibility–…
In section 4, Philpot said,
Could he who made man in his original creation so pure and innocent, creating him in his own image, after his own likeness, have prepared for his own Son, his only begotten, eternal Son, a body fallen, tainted, and corruptible, or even capable of corruption and decay? Could the Son, who is “the brightness of his Father’s glory, and the express image of his Person,” assume into union with his eternal Godhead any other but a pure, holy, immortal, and incorruptible nature? It was not a body to decay with sickness and die of disease, and then be thrust away out of sight as the food of corruption, but taken into intimate union with Deity itself, as its immortal and incorruptible companion.
In subsection II, of section 4, Philpot said,
The sacred humanity of the Lord Jesus had no seeds in it of decay. Though a real body, like our own, though it ate and drank and slept as we do, not being under the original curse, nor involved in the Adam fall, it was not subject to sickness or corruption, as our body is.
The end of section 4 reiterates that Christ’s body (even before the Cross) was immortal, and not mortal like ours.
As this survey of his article clearly shows, Philpot believed that the physical body of our Lord was immortal and incorruptible from conception onward, and was not the corruptible flesh that we all are born with. There are several problems with this.
When the Bible refers to the flesh as sinful, it is referring not to the cells and molecules but to the flesh-focused nature. Rom. 8:8 tells us, “Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” A literal interpretation here would mean that we must die and leave our bodies before we can please God. The body provides temptation to sin, but these temptations in and of themselves are not sin. God tells us that with every temptation He will provide a way of escape; but if the temptation itself is sin, then what escape is possible? God-given desires are not sin. Marriage is holy and the bed undefiled; yet lusting after a woman who is not your wife is a sin. Hunger is no sin, and neither is eating, but gluttony is a sin. The war that we wage with these bodies of sin is not with the cells and systems of the body, but with that part of our immaterial nature called the “old man” — it is our old way of living wherein we were focused on the flesh, reveled in the flesh, and attempted to satisfy our souls in the pleasures of the flesh.
Consider the question of exactly how it is that something physical can receive and sustain a spiritual power or tendency, whether to the good or to the evil. The physical and spiritual are like color and sound. There is no way to color a sound, since there’s nothing for the color to adhere to. In order for a physical substance, body or thing to be given a spiritual characteristic or power, it must be given a spirit. As strange as this might sound, many of the Reformed were driven to just such a length, when trying to reconcile the propagation of sin with the immediate creation of the soul. Men such as Turretin wrote of the “vital and animal spirits,” a sort of metaphysical “something” that was carried by the body and propagated with it. Just as they that worship God must worship Him in spirit and in truth, they that sin against God must sin against Him in spirit. It is the spirit alone that is the seat of sin.
Corruptibility of the body after death is potential corruption, and not corruption itself. It may even be thought of as inevitable corruption, since all must die eventually. But until our bodies decay in death, we do not yet see that kind of corruption. The verse that says that God will not allow His Holy One to see corruption means that Christ’s corruptible (but not yet corrupt) body was raised from the dead before any corruption was seen. As for sickness, this is no more corruption than fatigue, sweating, aging, pain, hunger and thirst, and Christ had all of these. Death and sickness were not the only results of the curse on Adam. “By the sweat of thy brow…” Christ could have possibly remained free of sickness, but even if He did suffer a cold now and then, that would only be another way in which He walked in our shoes, and would not desecrate His divinity in the least. In the end, He suffered the greatest malady of all — death.
Christ was born with a perfect spirit, not a perfect body. I believe that Jesus must have hit His thumb with the hammer and stubbed His toes just like we do. He walked in our shoes (with our aching feet), and had a body just like we do. The same way that we have that blessed hope to obtain perfect resurrection bodies, so Christ also obtained a perfect, incorruptible, immortal body after His resurrection. That fact is our hope! He had a corruptible body just like we do and yet He now has a perfect, resurrected body, so that is our assurance that our mortal bodies will someday be like His is now.
If God wanted Jesus to have the perfect flesh of Adam before sin, then He would have formed Jesus’ body from the dust of the ground like He did with Adam. Christ was born as one of us, and this shouts to us that His flesh was the same as His mother’s — and the same as ours.
The idea of an immortal body lying in the grave, separated from the spirit to which it belongs, is absurd, illogical and impossible. Immortal bodies cannot die. Mortal bodies die. Christ died. To say that He did not die as all men die, but only temporarily separated His spirit from an immortal body, is to make a farce out of the Cross and nullify His resurrection.
Philpot concludes his article by explaining that since Christ said, “Therefore doth my Father love me, because I lay down my life, that I may take it again. No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This commandment have I received of my Father” (John 10:17, 18), therefore Christ did not die due to His injuries — indeed He was incapable of dying due to any physical injury — but He died solely because He chose to. I believe that Philpot misinterpreted this passage. The statement, “No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself,” is better understood as meaning that no man can put Him to death against His will, but He willingly gives Himself to be put to death. There is no contradiction to His divinity that men would have the power to put Him to death if He willingly agreed. Remember these words: “You could have no power over me except it were given you from above.” Why does Scripture say, in Acts 3:15, that men “killed the Prince of Peace”? If Christ willingly and voluntarily submitted Himself to be put to death by men, does that make His death any less voluntary? No, it does not. He had the power to stop the whole thing at any time. He even had the power to heal Himself in that moment before He died. He willingly let it happen, but it was men who did the deed. And yes, His body died due to the physical injuries that He suffered.
If they had chosen to behead Christ instead of crucify Him, would you not agree that once His head was separated from His body, death would necessarily result? And do you think that He would have chosen to use His divine power to escape one moment’s pain by causing His spirit to depart His body early instead of waiting and enduring like a normal man until death became a physical necessity? He said, “It is finished!” because it was time for it to be finished. He knew the precise time when His body was about to succumb. He chose to die at the moment of His death, and no sooner. This was not some sort of divine suicide. People did not have the ultimate power over Him, but He permitted them to kill Him, and every moment of His crucifixion required an active will on His part not to heal Himself and come down from the Cross. He remained on the Cross because He willed to do so, and He was killed by men because He willed to let them kill Him. Why assume that for Christ to have power over His own death, He must die before it is actually time — before His body is ready to die? Then the charge of murder is removed from His executioners, for they did not kill Him, but only injured Him. Judas, then, did not betray Him unto death, but only unto injury.
Christ was God who became a man, lived as a man and died as a man. As hard as that is to accept in all its ramifications, it happened! Christ was just as human as you or I, and that makes His incarnation an even more wondrous thing than what Philpot proposed.
2 Christian Theology, Millard Erickson (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1990)