One of the earliest challenges to the New Testament portrait of Jesus was docetism, the idea that Jesus only appeared to be human. As with all heresies, there was a legitimate concern that lay behind it: a desire to preserve the transcendent otherness of God from the mess and change of the physical world. But, legitimate concern notwithstanding, the Jesus of the gospels and the Jesus of history was a most real, physical, human being. Some centuries later, Gregory of Nazianzus made the famous point, in a different context, that that which is not assumed by the deity is not redeemed. His point is pertinent to the issue of docetism, however: a Christ who only seems to be human cannot save what is really human; the humanity of Christian is essential to his mission.
Now, at the start of the twenty-first century, docetism is back, but with a new twist. It is not Christ who has only the appearance of humanity; rather it is human beings themselves. Newsweek ran a fascinating article on the web sensation, Second Life where people create avatars, or virtual characters, and live out their lives in virtual reality. The phenomenon is fascinating for a variety of reasons. It surely speaks of a degree of loneliness, perhaps of unrequited ambitions in the real world, and of a desire to break free of the mundane drudgery that is the real world for most of us.
But it also points to the new docetism: the whole idea of human nature has been under heavy fire for some time now, particularly from radical postmodernists, many of whom see it as a Western construct designed to establish certain norms as natural and absolute (whiteness, maleness, etc.) and to oppress and marginalize those who do not match up to this true notion of humanity. Now the virtual world has taken that idea and made it a reality – or at least a virtual reality. In this strange world of avatars, I can apparently be the ultimate in self-creations, constructed both in terms of looks, history, and personality, to my own specifications. I can be god.
Or rather, I can hide from God. Sad to say, for all of the baloney talked about human nature as a construct, human nature remains stubbornly un-malleable. I can still only really be in one place at one time; even while the ‘self-created me’ roams around Second Life, the real me can only look at one computer screen and type on one keyboard at a time. I still need to eat, visit the restroom, sleep. And ultimately, of course, I still need to answer to God. I can hide on Facebook, or in some collection of pixels on a screen for only so long. Sooner or later, I have to switch off the computer and go back to real life.
Christ took human nature for a reason: our human nature, the human nature that fell, is real; and salvation by illusion is no salvation at all. Try as we might, we cannot escape from that fact. Second Life is perhaps the most impressive attempt ever made at such an escape; but the fact is: we are bodies; and our bodies impose limits on us. They also impose responsibility towards God upon us, as made in his image. Just as a docetic Christ cannot deal with the real problem of fallen human nature, neither can the docetic avatars of Second Life.
"Jesus answered, 'I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.'" - John 14:6, NIV
Dr. Carl R. Trueman , vice president for academic affairs and professor of church history and historical theology