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If Jesus is not God Incarnate, what was he?
If Jesus was not God Incarnate, what was he? This question is rooted in a long-lasting controversy — What is the nature of Jesus? The debate on Jesus' God-man identity and his correlation with God has always been fundamental to the establishment of Christian beliefs and the development of the religion itself. From before the Council of Nicea to modern day society, people have never ceased trying to come up with the most righteous and logical explanation for Jesus' identity, resulting in multiple distinct theories and viewpoints. Hence this essay first approaches the question from widely accepted Christian beliefs, as well as historically emerging arguments that are significant in the discussion, before addressing plausible interpretations. The latter views operate under the assumption that Jesus was not God Incarnate, taking a historical and secular rather than biblical approach.
To begin, this essay adheres to the following definition of "incarnation" according to mainstream Christian interpretation: to be incarnate is "to be embodied in flesh or given a bodily, especially human, form" . Incarnation is an act of grace whereby Jesus Christ took human nature into union with His Divine Person, becoming a man. Therefore Christ is God and man simultaneously, and the two natures are not mixed but permanently united. 
Christians refer to multiple Bible quotes that confirm the actuality of incarnation and support the idea that Jesus Christ and God the Father are One. "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God…He was in the beginning with God" (John 1:1-2)... "And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father" (John 1:14). This passage assures that the Son walked through a process to gain physicality and become part of the human race, while at the same time was born from and in an eternal union with the divine Father.
In the gospel, Jesus also directly claims to be equal with God by referring to himself as "I am": "Jesus said to them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am" (John 8:58). Furthermore, Colossians 1:15-20 clearly points out, "He [Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, For by him all things were created... And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together...For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things" .
The Christian view also argues that Jesus is surely the one and only "God in flesh" as he fulfilled the Old Testament prophecies about the Messiah throughout his life: "Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel" (Isaiah 7:14). But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins" (Matthew 9:6). Born of the Virgin Mary and from the line of David, Jesus performed miracles, forgave people's sins, predicted the future, died in pain and humbleness, and was finally resurrected just as prophesized. Alternatively, the Bible also acknowledges Jesus' human nature, as he experienced normal aging, physical needs, human emotions, died a physical death, and most importantly endured extreme pain just as any human would. Jesus was in every way human except for his absolution from sin.
Indeed, Christ being both fully man and God could be compelling and also take strong faith to believe. Incarnation is an essential, crucial and inseparable step in God's ultimate resurrection plan; without this basis, the Christian faith would be fragile and replaceable. On one hand, God knows humans are deeply sinful and have to face righteous judgement, but on the other hand, He loves humanity so much that He is willing to resurrect humans at all cost. Therefore God, being omnibenevolent, just, and holy at the same time, has to embody Himself in Jesus and suffer in place of all humans, so that people's sins are washed away; His love is expressed all through Jesus.
Thus it could be logically concluded from the scriptures that Jesus must be a well-designed two-way bridge: he must be fully human in order to thoroughly endure the pain of redemption, while he must also be absolutely holy and sinless. To a faithful Christian, Jesus Christ the incarnated God is much more than a moral teacher or a spiritual leader. Instead, he is the promised savior to restore their personal connection with God, or the only hope of eternal resurrection. Rejecting Jesus as God incarnate in this context is equal to rejecting God's salvation.
There is a common misunderstanding nowadays described in C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity in which people say,“I am ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I do not accept his claim to be God (Lewis)." . C.S. Lewis refuted this position by first asserting that Jesus is either the true God, or else he is a lunatic or a fiend, since he made so many and such powerful claims that continuously assured his identity as God -- "Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me" (John 14:11). By regarding Jesus as a moral teacher, people ignore his irreplaceable role of reconciling humanity with God and diminish Jesus' uniqueness as the one and only prophesized Savior. “We may note in passing that He was never regarded as a mere moral teacher...He produced mainly three effects — Hatred — Terror — Adoration. There was no trace of people expressing mild approval (Lewis).” So people could either choose to believe and worship Jesus as God, or choose to disbelieve and conclude that everything in the Bible is a lie or insane. Lewis constructed this powerful logic to argue that Jesus could only be, however unbelievable it may sound, the true God incarnated, since he is sane and honest.
Not surprisingly, such a unique and astounding idea as incarnation is not only controversial in modern day society, but has also never stopped arousing debates and questions throughout history. In Christianity's early stage of development, Jesus' role and identity were literally defined based on his given titles in apolistic writings — "Son of God," "Lamb of God," "Servant of God," "Messiah," and "the judge." Despite its frequent mention in the Gospel, the term "Son of Man" was less accepted in practice, for early Christians generally viewed Jesus as a heavenly figure who would come to judge the world while disregarding his human nature. 
One of the earliest and most significant disputes on Jesus' nature dates back to AD 325 at the First Council of Nicaea. The majority argued that Jesus the Son is eternal, was with the Father "in the beginning" and directed the genesis as an agent; therefore Jesus and God are "of the same essence." . This later became the Nicene Creed and laid the foundation for the common belief of Jesus' incarnation. But there was also a belief called Arianism, which held the unpopular opinion that Jesus Christ was not an eternal being, but instead was created by the Father at a point in time; He is "the Word" or "the Logos" embodied, not God in flesh. This position was recognized by many clergy at that time as it adhered to strict monotheism while offering a straightforward interpretation for the appearance of "Son" in the New Testament. But Arianism disregarded Jesus' irreplaceable role in the redemption of humankind: If Jesus is separate from God and died as a mere human, how could he connect mankind with God and forgive all sins?
The dispute on Christ's relationship with God did not cease even after the Nicene Creed was confirmed as orthodox. New positions continued to arise among scholars, some of them developing into distinct branches or factions under the common belief of Christianity. One of the opinions that became relatively prominent was Monophysitism . This theory claimed that Jesus had only a divine nature and that he had passed through Mary's body“as water passes through a tube." There was also Nestorius of Antioch who asserted that Jesus is a mere man filled by God's presence or "united with God".
Besides Western Christianity, which was considered the dominant view, Eastern Orthodoxy and Oriental Orthodoxy also possessed quite distinct standpoints upon this issue -- the former emphasized the divinity of Jesus over his humanity, as they saw Jesus as a God-man union that glorifies humanity as well as prepares humanity for its deification, while the latter considered themselves Miaphysites, believing that both the human and divine natures of Christ were present in a single nature, which makes Jesus a fusion of divinity and humanity.
As Christianity spread, several other factions also came up with their own answers: the Ebionites believed Jesus to be completely human, while the Gnostics believed Jesus to be solely God; the Apollinarians regarded Jesus as only partially human and mostly divine, and the Eutychians insisted Jesus had only one nature. In 451 AD, The Council of Chalcedon resolved the controversy theoretically by confirming for the first time that "Jesus is of two natures, truly God and truly man...without confusing, transmuting, dividing or contrasting". Today, theories other than the Council of Chalcedon's conclusion are marked as heresies theologically, but the question “What is Jesus?" still has countless distinct answers according to people's different beliefs and interpretations.
If considering the Bible as literally accurate, then the most reasonable answer would be that Jesus is God incarnated. However, when viewing the Bible as more metaphorical and symbolistic, the controversy opens to a much wider range of possibilities. Some people regard Jesus as a legend, suggesting that he might originally have been an over-achieving human whose life story got exaggerated. Thus, the historical Jesus and the religious Jesus could be totally separate. Even with counterarguments such as those of C.S. Lewis, that point out that Jews "need not to make up the story of Jesus as it complicates their belief of only one god" and "the Bible's language is too clumsy to be a literary creation," there is little archeology or documented evidence from Jesus' time that could prove his existence or disprove it . Therefore, if Jesus is not God incarnated, he could very well be interpreted as a symbol. The historical Jesus could be one Jewish man, or even the combined figure of many, with no superhuman power but righteous, respectable manners; his leadership affected so many people for such a long a time that followers started to regard his spiritual guidance as coming from an everlasting being, therefore adding gospels that paralleled with the Old Testaments' prophecies.
Though the historical Jesus is already impossible to figure out, the biblical Jesus, together with his mission of redeeming humanity and his unique position as Son of God, could be interpreted as a metaphor: Jesus existed as a call towards love, hope and courage, guiding people to become better humans not through words, but through his godly character and actions that live on in memory. He "revived" and "ascended to heaven by the side of God" not in Jerusalem, but in people's hearts. "Jesus, like the crucifix on which he hangs, is a symbol in the classic sense of the word, an empty vessel we can fill with our own multiple meanings" . This interpretation could be another way, besides incarnation, for Jesus to be fully God and fully man at the same time.
In sum, the nature of Jesus is a fundamental and controversial question throughout the history of Christianity. Although multiple and distinct opinions have been present, the most logically coherent and biblically supported answer would be that Jesus is God incarnate. However, incarnation is not the only right way out, since the lack of archaeological reference makes "the nature of Jesus" a matter of faith -- He could as well be a symbol, a calling, a legendary model of perfect humanity, or the combination of many. There will never be an answer that explains all about Him, and that's precisely what makes Jesus unique.
1 M.G. Easton M.A., D.D., Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Third Edition, Thomas Nelson, 1897. biblestudytools.com/dictionary/incarnation/
2 “What does it mean that Jesus is God incarnate? What does incarnate mean?” compellingtruth.org/God-incarnate.html
3 “What are the strongest biblical arguments for the divinity of Christ?” Accessed July 14, 2020. gotquestions.org/divinity-of-Christ.html
4 “Is C.S. Lewis’s Liar-Lord-or-Lunatic Argument Unsound?” February 1, 2016, ministryfeeds.com/justin-taylor/is-c-s-lewiss-liar-lord-or-lunatic-argument-unsound/#.XwwEbPJS_6Y
5 “Christology.” Accessed July 14, 2020. britannica.com/topic/Christology
6 “On the Incarnation of the Word,” Accessed July 14, 2020, newadvent.org/fathers/2802.htm
7 “Monophysitism,” Accessed July 14, 2020, theopedia.com/monophysitism
8 “Two Natures of Christ,” Accessed July 14, 2020, britannica.com/topic/two-natures-of-Christ
9 Christopher Klein, “The Bible Says Jesus Was Real. What Other Proof Exists?’ History.com. April 2, 2020, history.com/news/was-jesus-real-historical-evidence
10 Claudia Tikkun Setzer, “The Historical Jesus,” Frontline, July 17, 1995, pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/religion/jesus/tikkun.html
“Christology.” Accessed July 14, 2020. britannica.com/topic/Christology
“Christology.” Accessed July 14, 2020. oxfordbiblicalstudies.com/article/opr/t94/e389
“Is C.S. Lewis’s Liar-Lord-or-Lunatic Argument Unsound?” February 1, 2016, ministryfeeds.com/justin-taylor/is-c-s-lewiss-liar-lord-or-lunatic-argument-unsound/#.XwwEbPJS_6Y
Klein, Christopher, “The Bible Says Jesus Was Real. What Other Proof Exists?’ History.com. April 2, 2020, history.com/news/was-jesus-real-historical-evidence
M.G. Easton M.A., D.D., Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Third Edition, Thomas Nelson, 1897. Accessed July 14, 2020, biblestudytools.com/dictionary/incarnation/
“Monophysitism,” Accessed July 14, 2020, theopedia.com/monophysitism
“On the Incarnation of the Word,” Accessed July 14, 2020, newadvent.org/fathers/2802.htm
Setzer, Claudia Tikkun, “The Historical Jesus,” Frontline, July 17, 1995, pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/religion/jesus/tikkun.html
Strand, Greg, “The Incarnation: Jesus Christ, The God-Man. December 18, 2013. efca.org/blog/understanding-scripture/incarnation-jesus-christ-god-man
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Accessed July 14, 2020, plato.stanford.edu
Two Natures of Christ,” Accessed July 14, 2020, britannica.com/topic/two-natures-of-Christ
“Was Jesus God Incarnate?” Debunking Christianity, December 26, 2006. debunking-christianity.com/2006/12/was-jesus-god-incarnate.html
“What are the strongest biblical arguments for the divinity of Christ?” Accessed July 14, 2020, gotquestions.org/divinity-of-Christ.html
“What does it mean that Jesus is God incarnate? What does incarnate mean?” Accessed July 14, 2020, compellingtruth.org/God-incarnate.html