“The Gods Are Come Down to Us in the Likeness of Men”1
Greek mythology includes a touching story featuring an encounter of the gods Zeus and Hermes with two inhabitants of Lystra named Baucis and Philemon:
For years people in the district of Lycaonia had loved to tell each other of a time when Zeus and Hermes had visited the town of Lystra, disguised as ordinary travelers in order to test local hospitality. Zeus was . . . the chief of the gods, and Hermes, a fellow god, was his messenger. But their disguise was so good that nobody in Lystra had recognized them. Dusty and tattered, the two gods had begged for food up and down the streets. Nobody gave them a crumb . . . except a gentle old couple named Baucis and Philemon, wife and husband. This couple was so kind to their visitors that the two gods granted them their fondest wish, namely, that one day they might die together so that neither would be left to mourn. So they died, and Zeus changed them into two tall trees, forever whispering to each other in the wind.2
Much later, Paul and Barnabas fled to Lystra and there healed a crippled man. Not surprisingly, the people of Lystra were quick to recognize them and shout, “The gods are come down to us in the likeness of men” (Acts 14:11).
For thousands of years, mankind (male and female) has generally assumed that the gods come down in human form to walk among mankind. Thus, the Jews believed that God came down to expel “Adam” and “Eve” from the “garden” (Genesis 3). The Jews declared that God again came down to Abraham before destroying Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18). In their apocalyptic tradition the Jews believed that God eventually would come down to judge and destroy the enemies who had wickedly oppressed them. The Christian church embraced Jewish apocalyptic and believed that God would come down to consume the earth and its wicked inhabitants with flaming fire. Ernst Käsemann has shown that “apocalyptic was the mother of all Christian theology.”3 Christian apocalyptic assumes that God one day will exercise universal domination, and all humans will submit to him either in the fires of hell or in the submissive and dependent bliss of heaven.
For centuries Christians have echoed the theme: “Oh to be nothing, nothing . . . ”4 “Shall such a worthless worm as I . . . be found at Thy right hand?”5 “A little, wretched, despicable creature; a worm, a mere nothing, and less than nothing; a vile insect that has risen up in contempt against the majesty of Heaven and earth.”6 This theme springs from the classical belief in the “Fall” of man, the legacy of “original sin,” and the consequent utter helplessness, degradation and damnation of the human race.
The ideal of apocalyptic theology is eternal dependence and submission of man to God. It is small wonder, then, that nearly all religious subcultures down through the ages have imposed domination, dependence and submission on all “true and faithful” followers. Questioning this imposition led to accusations of disloyalty or heresy, inquisition and trial, and arrogant and contemptuous threats and curses. Moreover, such questioning led to social, psychological and cultural separation or disfellowshipment along with isolation, rejection, torture, death and, ultimately, the threat of eternal damnation. Equally appalling, “true and faithful” disciples have submissively embraced and/or obediently promoted such religious regimes.
Apocalypic versus Kenosis7
Fortunately, human consciousness has begun to reject these accusations, invasions and attempted depredations against humanity. Thus, there is growing rejection of apocalyptic and, hence, of classical Christian theology. Albert Nolan observed, “We can recover what Jesus meant to people of his own time, before Christianity, only by ‘de-apocalyptising’ the gospels.”8 In place of apocalyptic, there is a resurgence of kenotic theology.9-11 Kenosis means “to empty.”12 This theology sees God as “emptying” himself, as limiting himself, as “coming down” — not to judge, condemn and punish humanity or to bind humanity in eternal subjection, but to embrace humanity as his own reality.
- Kenotic theology recognizes the ultimate necessity of relationship. No being exists alone but only with respect to an “other,” only in relationship. As Martin Buber declared, “In the beginning, is relationship.”13
- Kenotic theology recognizes that relationship is so fundamental that humanity finds its final identity in God, and God finds his final identity in humanity.14,15
- Kenotic theology recognizes that relationships must ultimately be egalitarian or horizontally equal rather than vertical, hierarchical or disproportional.
- Kenotic theology recognizes that the establishment of relationships between God and humanity and between humanity and humanity involve a historical process — that is, they involve real individuals in time and space.
Kenosis and Creation
This historical process began with God (as “Father”), who from eternity determined to relinquish his own prerogatives and make room for the universe. “We encounter here an idea of the greatest importance, the understanding that the act of creation involves a kenosis of God, an emptying of himself and an acceptance of the self-limitation inherent in the giving of creative love.”16,17 While the universe is the product of his Creation, the universe has existed as he has. So Stephen Hawking has stated, “The universe . . . would simply be.”18 Creation is the first act of divine kenosis.
In harmony with divine self-limitation (kenosis), the universe has undergone eons of creative and theistic development in time and space, in matter and energy, in emerging life forms and, finally, in the appearance of mankind. For ages, however, the universe remained wholly dependent and submissive to God and therefore presented an inferior and wholly inadequate “other” to God. God thus determined to rectify this inferiority. He granted mankind time and opportunity to seek freedom from domination, dependence and submission and to develop and express the freedom of human individuality and self-identity.19 From this perspective, Eve and Adam’s act of eating the “forbidden fruit” was not disobedience and “original sin” but the first expression of human freedom and individuality. This understanding has long been recognized by Eastern religions and by Gnostic theology — even though Gnostics (“knowers”), failing to understand true “otherness,” tragically embrace self-divinization. Mankind did not fall “down” but “up.” Adam’s age-long contempt for Eve’s “sin” is actually jealousy and envy over her cardinal grasp of human freedom. Mankind has long clothed its heroes with villainy.20
Nevertheless, the first historical steps toward human individuality, with freedom from domination, dependence and submission, encountered the terrible tensions of human isolation, anxiety, rejection, and the sense of insecurity and uncertainty (expulsion from the “garden”). This forced mankind to develop secondary dependencies on religious, political, economic, social and cultural institutions and structures. There followed long centuries of division and conflict between emerging forces of human freedom and individuality, on one hand, and secondary dependencies that seek to compensate for human isolation, on the other hand.
Kenosis and Incarnation
By the beginning of the first century CE, these secondary dependencies (religious, political, economic and social institutions) had reached such sophistication, ascendancy and power under Rome that human individuality was threatened with annihilation. At that time of historic crisis, God again came down. God (as “Son”) came, not apocalyptically as Jewish prophecy had foreseen, but kenotically.21 In the incarnation God embraced all reality. All reality was fused in his Person.22 The incarnation is the second act of divine kenosis. By his birth, life, ministry, death and resurrection, he recapitulated the experience of mankind and thus embraced the pilgrimage of the entire human race. And history reveals that upon his ascension he gave gifts unto men. The first gift was a universal human self-consciousness that had not hitherto been known or experienced by mankind.23,24 The second premonitory gift was a sense of positive freedom. Positive freedom is the freedom of mankind to live in spontaneous, creative living, loving and working in solidarity with all other human beings.25 Thus, before departing, Jesus declared to his disciples, “Henceforth I call you not servants . . . but I have called you friends” (John 15:15). By this act of divine kenosis, human individuality and personal human freedom were forever assured against all assaults.
Building upon an apocalyptic premise rather than the witness of a historical Christ, the Christian church began erecting creedal, confessional, sacramental, ritualistic, hierarchical, institutionalized and divinized structures. These structures were against human individuality — defined by freedom from domination, dependency and submission, and freedom to universal human community in the solidarity of spontaneous living, loving and working.26
Kenosis and Parousia
Two thousand years of tragic misconception and distortion have passed. Through it all, human individuality has not only survived but advanced. And through it all, human solidarity in community of living, loving and working has remained a utopian dream. Now we have come to the threshold of a “new world order” — an order that, if imposed by traditional institutions and existing technologies, could apocalyptically consume all humanity and the earth itself by man-made fire. Furthermore, such attempts can only be advanced at the expense of both human individuality and human community. We have therefore come to another catastrophic human crisis. It is not possible for mankind in this crisis to resolve the issue with traditional tools. However, it is possible for mankind in representative solidarity to appeal to the self-limiting God to intervene. God must again come down.
In Jewish “kavanah” an individual had the right and duty to personally approach God with his/her requests and to expect a personal response from the personal God. Likewise, in “kavanah” ten individuals could together approach God as formal representatives of the community and expect God’s response to the entire community.27 Surely, with the spirit of “kavanah,” the kenotic God (as “Spirit”) will shortly take the third and critical step in his own kenosis by making room for beings with the same sense of individuality and community as himself. Divine kenosis must therefore shortly meet human transcendence at the “Parousia” (Second Coming).28 Parousia is the third and climactic act of divine kenosis.
At the Parousia the self-limiting God will “appear” as fully human, and he will then likewise creatively transform mankind into full humanity. This imminent transformation will thus be transcendent, human, universal, historical and eschatological. Human reality will thus reflect the reality of “this same Jesus” (Acts 1:11), who fused all reality in his own Person.29 All human beings will then enjoy and exercise eternal, transcendent creative potentialities — powers of individuality, consciousness and community of which we now can scarcely dream.
We now stand on the threshold of eternity — the third great axial point in human history. Then divine kenosis and human transcendence converge and meet in a final and eternal community of equal, creative human individuals — forever free from all domination, dependence and submission, forever free from all isolation, anxiety, rejection, insecurity and uncertainty, and forever free from all human divisions that compromise and destroy spontaneous, creative human community. This is the genuine new world order toward which we are necessarily moving.
It now is our prerogative as individuals and representatives of the human community to invite God to come down to us and dwell with us and we with him forever. It is time for the world to erupt in a joyous shout of liberation. Mankind has found in God and each other the ultimate “Other.” God has found in humanity his ultimate “other.” All reality is embraced and fused, not only in God, but in all humanity.
- Acts 14:11, RSV. (go back)
- Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., and D. E. Nelson, “The Gods Have Come Down,” Reformed Journal 40, no. 10 (December 1990): 11-14. (go back)
- Ernst Käsemann, quoted in D.S. Russell, Apocalyptic: Ancient and Modern (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978), p. 23. (go back)
- Georgiana M. Taylor (words: 1869); R. George Halls (music: pub. 1875), “Oh to Be Nothing.” (go back)
- Isaac Watts (words: 1707); Hugh Wilson (music: 1824), “Alas! and Did My Saviour Bleed?” (go back)
- Jonathan Edwards, The Justice of God in the Damnation of Sinners (1734), quoted in J. Bartlett, Familiar Quotations (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1980), p. 346. (go back)
- The Greek word for self-emptying is kenosis. “ . . . God is considered as absolute letting-be, as self-giving, as self-spending. Kenosis [self-emptying] is understood as the way God relates to the world; creation is a work of love, of self-giving.” — Lucien Richard, Christ: The Self-Emptying of God (New York: Paulist Press, 1997), p. 94. (go back)
- Albert Nolan, Jesus before Christianity (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1976), p. 90. (go back)
- See David Brown, The Divine Trinity (Duckworth & Open Court, 1985), p. 231. (go back)
- See John Polkinghorne, Science and Providence: God’s Interaction with the World (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1989), p. 87. (go back)
- See W. B. Son, “The Self-Limited Christ: A Kenotic Theology of the Incarnation” (Master’s Thesis, Calvin Theological Seminary), Calvin Theological Journal 25, no. 2 (November 1990): 336. (go back)
- See note 7. (go back)
- Martin Buber, I and Thou (1923) (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1958). (go back)
- See P. M. Van Buren, The Change in the Church's Understanding of the Jewish People, Westminster Tanner-McMurrin Lectures on the History and Philosophy of Religion at Westminster College (Salt Lake City: Westminster College of Salt Lake City, 1990), pp. 1-23. (go back)
- See “Who Is God? The Face of God,” Life 13, no. 15 (December 1990): 47-78. (go back)
- John Polkinghome, Science and Creation: The Search for Understanding (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1989), p. 62. (go back)
- See W. H. Vanstone, Lorie’s Endeavour, Lorie’s Expense (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1977). (go back)
- Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes (New York: Bantam Books, 1988), p. 141. (go back)
- See Erich Fromm, The Fear of Freedom (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1942). (go back)
- See Plantinga, Jr., and Nelson, “The Gods Have Come Down.” (go back)
- See Polkinghorne, Science and Providence, p. 87. (go back)
- See Philip N. Gilbertson, “Shipwreck, Household, and the End of Nature,” Cresset 53, no. 9 (October 1990): 4-8. (go back)
- See T. J. J. Altizer, “Replies: The Self-Realization of Death,” chap. 6, in R. P. Scharlemann, ed., Theology at the End of the Century (Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1990), p. 131: “Now nothing is more important in that history than the historical advent of self-consciousness, a self-consciousness that apparently did not actually or fully exist until the advent of Christianity.” (go back)
- See Julian Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1976). (go back)
- See Fromm, The Fear of Freedom. (go back)
- See ibid.(go back)
- See Jewish Encyclopedia, s.v. “What We Believe: Individual and Community in Jewish Prayer.”(go back)
- See “In Review: C. S. Lewis and John Polkinghorne”: “Reflections on Science and Providence: God’s Interaction with the World, by John Polkinghome (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1989),” Outlook (Prequel 1990.1). (go back)
- See Gilbertson, “Shipwreck, Household, and the End of Nature.” (go back)
This article was originally published February 1991 under the Quest imprint.