Fleeing the Body of Jesus: Death and the Incarnation

This week it was my pleasure to make another presentation to the ACU faculty regarding my recent research. The title of the presentation was Feeling Queasy About the Incarnation: Fleeing the Body of Jesus.

I’ve blogged about much of this theoretical material. The new material I presented was some preliminary empirical data supporting my theoretical contention that ambivalence regarding the Incarnation is partly driven by death anxiety and existential fears.

This will be a longer post with some of the slides from the presentation. The upside is that you will be given a pre-publication peek at data points that have never before been seen in the psychology of religion literature.

The Gnostic Impulse
The presentation began with a discussion of what I call the Gnostic impulse within Christianity. Regarding the body, the Gnostic impulse, which has many historical sources, is defined as those impulses within Christianity that deemphasize, disregard, or degrade the body. The Gnostics, in their rejection of the physical world, also rejected the physical body. This can be seen in the recently published Gospel of Judas. Judas is the hero in this Gnostic gospel because Judas is the one who frees Jesus (via what looks like a “betrayal”) from his body. As Jesus says to Judas, “But you will exceed all of them [the disciples]. For you will sacrifice the man that clothes me.”

Historically, we have seen this view of the body manifest itself in everything from priestly chastity to bodily mortification. The impulse has been pervasive. As Philip Lee has contended in his book Against the Protestant Gnostics, “…the aversion to this world with a desire to escape it has been one of the most prominent strands in the fabric of Christianity.” This aversion has led to body ambivalence, as Lee states, “…the Church’s suspicion of cosmos led to some unfortunate attitudes toward the flesh, human nature, and sexuality.”

As we see in the Gospel of Judas this ambivalence about the body has affected views of the Incarnation. A fully human Jesus, one who participates in our sweat, sexuality, and excrement, has regularly scandalized Christian believers. This has led many to overtly or tacitly adopt hyper-spiritualized views of Jesus. As Lee notes, “Gnostics of all eras have, on the other hand, maintained a most profound mistrust of the body, regarding it as the enemy without that constantly tries to undo the best efforts of the soul within…Their distain for the physical led them to a docetic, disembodied view of Christ.”

In short, the Gnostic impulse causes us to not only flee our own bodies but to also flee the body of Jesus. Many feel queasy about the Incarnation.

The Source of Body Ambivalence
What are the psychological sources of this body ambivalence? Recent research in the area of Terror Management Theory has suggested that we flee the body because it is a mortality reminder. Becoming conscious of the body heightens death anxiety.

In my presentation I walked through three “exhibits,” areas of inquiry that support the notion that the body does indeed function as a mortality reminder.

Exhibit A: Disgust
Disgust researchers typically define "core disgust" as the disgust involved with food aversions. But, interestingly, many non-food related objects also elicit disgust, some strongly so. In North Americans, the reliable disgust-eliciting domains are:

Body products (e.g., feces, vomit)
Animals (e.g., insects, rats)
Sexual behaviors (e.g., incest, homosexuality)
Contact with the dead or corpses
Violations of the exterior envelope of the body (e.g., gore, deformity)
Poor hygiene
Interpersonal contamination (e.g., contact with unsavory persons)
Moral offenses

Paul Rozin, the leading disgust researcher in the world, and colleagues have noted that two of these domains, the last on the list, involve interpersonal or moral disgust. Collectively, these domains are called "sociomoral disgust." I have written at length about sociomoral disgust in my "Spiritual Pollution" series.

However, once we remove the sociomoral disgust domains what about what is left on the disgust list? Here is what we have:

Body products (e.g., feces, vomit)
Animals (e.g., insects, rats)
Sexual behaviors (e.g., incest, homosexuality)
Contact with the dead or corpses
Violations of the exterior envelope of the body (e.g., gore, deformity)
Poor hygiene

Looking over this list Rozin and colleagues have suggested that these domains remind us of our animal nature and, hence, our mortality. Thus, beyond core disgust and sociomoral disgust we have "Animal-reminder disgust." In short, we defend against death anxiety by pushing away, via disgust and its related behaviors, the facets of life that remind us of our mortality.

This analysis gains support when we examine the case of bodily fluids. Specifically, all bodily fluids (e.g., saliva, urine, vomit, puss) are reliable disgust elicitors. All, that is, except one. Can you guess which bodily fluid does not elicit disgust?


Now why would that be? According to Rozin's theory tears are quintessentially human. Tears are associated with our loves, joys, and sorrows. Humans are the only animal known to cry in these cases. Thus, given that tears are human-specific, tears are not animal reminders. Consequently, tears do not elicit disgust.

Exhibit B: Sex
This analysis of tears is supported by research regarding sex and death awareness. Terror management theorists suggest that sex is problematic for humans because, stripped to its essence, sex is just an animal act. As a consequence sex can function as a body/animal/mortality reminder. To repress these associations we attempt to elevate sex to the spiritual plane where sex can become a physically transcending activity. This “spiritualizing” of sex represses the animal function and makes sex quintessentially human.

Evidence for this contention comes from a study conducted by Goldenberg, Pyszczynski, McCoy, Greenberg, and Solomon entitled Death, Sex, Love, and Neuroticism: Why Is Sex Such a Problem? Goldenberg et al. took two groups and moved them through a visualization exercise. One group was asked to think about the romantic/spiritual aspects of sex. The other group was asked to think about the physical aspects of sex (the smells, fluids, etc.). After the visualization each group then went through a word-completion task, completing words such as this:

Coff _ _
Sk _ ll

As you can see, each word could be filled out in a non-death related manner:


Or a death related manner:


The findings? As predicted by Terror Management Theory those who reflected on the physical aspects of sex completed more death related words. That is, reflecting on the physical aspects of sex activated death concepts in the mind. This finding converges on the disgust research in that it appears that the physical aspects of sex are animal-reminders which heighten death anxiety. Further, as we observed with tears, spiritualized aspects of human existence do not remind us of death. “Romantic” sex doesn't heighten death awareness. However, when stripped of its spiritual overlay sex becomes a reliable animal reminder which subsequently heightens death awareness.

Exhibit C: Profanity
Steven Pinker in his recent book The Stuff of Thought has surveyed much of the recent research on the psychology of profanity. One puzzle of profanity is that profanity across cultures pulls from the same domains. As Pinker notes, “In most other languages, the taboo words are drawn from the same short list of topics from which English and French get their curses: sex, excretion, religion, death and infirmity…” Pinker asks, “What can these concepts possibly have in common?”

Our analysis of the disgust and sex research seem to provide one answer: Profanity is a mortality reminder. The insult associated with profanity is that it strips away the spiritual and Gnostic pretentions of humans. “Making love,” a spiritualized euphemism, is reduced to “f***ing.” Profanity is an assault on our tacit Gnosticism.

A Terror Management Perspective on the Incarnation
To summarize, the church has always struggled with the body. This body ambivalence has led some to reject robust notions of the physical Incarnation of Jesus. Our psychological review suggests that one source of body ambivalence is death anxiety. The body functions as a mortality reminder.

These analyses lead to the following question: Is death anxiety and existential repression associated with rejections of the Incarnation? This question motivated a study I’ve just concluded here at ACU. This post is the first public sharing of the results (a fuller more detailed account is now being written up for publication).

The procedure of the study was straightforward. I had a sample of college students complete measures of death anxiety, theological belief, and Incarnational ambivalence. First, a quick commentary regarding the theological measures:

The Defensive Theology Scale is a scale I developed in other published work to assess an existentially defensive theological configuration. Briefly, high scores on the DTS indicate that the person has adopted a belief system that is existentially comforting. More about the DTS can be read here. The Quest measure, developed by Daniel Batson, has been regularly used in the literature as a measure of existential openness. Generally, those who score high on Quest value doubts and questions over religions certainty. In past research the DTS and Quest have been negatively correlated (i.e., as persons open themselves up to doubt and questions their theology becomes impacted by existential worries). The final belief measure assessed creedal orthodoxy.

The assessment innovation of the study was the development of the Incarnation Ambivalence Scale. The IAS asked participants to imagine a variety of “body scenarios” regarding Jesus. The items assessed four different domains as can be seen in the following slide:

For example, participants were asked to imagine Jesus having body odor or experiencing vomiting during illness. For each scenario participants were asked to rate four likert-style items asking how uncomfortable they were with the scenario, how demeaning they felt the image was to Jesus, how realistic they felt the image was, and how biblical they felt the image was. Items were summed across the ratings for each scenario to create a total score (Note for social scientists: a factor analysis justified the summation). Thus, high IAS scores indicate that a person found these body images demeaning to Jesus, unrealistic, and unbiblical. As a consequence, the scenarios made the participant very uncomfortable. By contrast, low IAS scores indicate that the person found the images appropriate for Jesus, realistic, and supported by the biblical witness. These participants were very comfortable imagining these scenarios.

The associations between the measures are presented in the next slide:

As can be seen, the correlations, although not overly strong, were significant and in the predicted directions. Specifically, death anxiety was associated with Incarnational ambivalence: Those with the most death anxiety were the ones who tended to report the most discomfort over the Incarnational images. The theology measures supported this trend. Specifically, participants who were less existentially open (high DTS and low Quest scores) were the most rejecting of the Incarnational images. By contrast, orthodoxy was unrelated to Incarnational ambivalence. That is, Christian belief, generically speaking, was unassociated with feeling queasy about the Incarnation. Rather, only a certain kind of theological configuration was associated with Incarnational ambivalence. Specifically, theological configurations that are existentially repressive tend to be the ones most associated with fleeing the body of Jesus.

In conclusion, the preliminary results of this study suggest that death anxiety and existential repression are associated with feeling queasy about the Incarnation.

Death anxiety is implicated in certain Christological formulations.

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20 thoughts on “Fleeing the Body of Jesus: Death and the Incarnation”

  1. just curious...how would Christian's who rate low on the IA view the crucification of Christ? It would seem to me that this very central part of the story, along with its reminders like communion and crosses, would be pushed away by those low on the IA scale.

  2. Richard,

    As I serve in a Veterans' geriatric unit where both mental (psychological disorders, dementia, Alzheimer's) and physical (disease, trauma, and damage) coexist with death (hospice), some of this stuff really hits home with me. My contention is not that most Americans are "materialistic," but rather that they are in fact in their fears consummers of social gnosticism. They really don't care deeply for solid, physical things but only for the bloodless abstractions they point to: status, social and aesthetic value, and personal worth. Even the cult of the muscled and beautiful body (with the sometime-abused of HGH and steroids) doesn't really have to do with the actual body but with measuring up to social expectations about what constitutes beauty. And sex: C. S. Lewis once wrote that the modern obsession with sex and pornography is proof of an absence of authentic sexuality.

    One of my favorite comic prophets, George Carlin, recently lost his wife. And the loss put things in pespective for him. He wrote an email to his friends:

    "The paradox of our time in history is that we have taller buildings but shorter tempers, wider freeways, but narrower viewpoints. We spend more, but have less, we buy more, but enjoy less. We have bigger houses and smaller families, more conveniences, but less time. We have more degrees but less sense, more knowledge, but less judgment, more experts, yet more problems, more medicine, but less wellness.

    We drink too much, smoke too much, spend too recklessly, laugh too little, drive too fast, get too angry, stay up too late, get up too tired, read too little, watch TV too much, and pray too seldom.

    We have multiplied our possessions, but reduced our values. We talk too much, love too seldom, and hate too often.

    We've learned how to make a living, but not a life. We've added years to life not life to years. We've been all the way to the moon and back, but have trouble crossing the street to meet a new neighbour. We conquered outer space but not inner space. We've done larger things, but not better things.

    We've cleaned up the air, but polluted the soul. We've conquered the atom, but not our prejudice. We write more, but learn less. We plan more, but accomplish less. We've learned to rush, but not to wait. We build more computers to hold more information, to produce more copies than ever, but we communicate less and less.

    These are the times of fast foods and slow digestion, big men and small character, steep profits and shallow relationships. These are the days of two incomes but more divorce, fancier houses, but broken homes. These are days of quick trips, disposable diapers, throwaway morality, one night stands, overweight bodies, and pills that do everything from cheer, to quiet, to kill. It is a time when there is much in the showroom window and nothing in the stockroom. A time when technology can bring this letter to you, and a time when you can choose either to share this insight, or to just hit delete...

    Remember; spend some time with your loved ones, because they are not going to be around forever.

    Remember, say a kind word to someone who looks up to you in awe, because that little person soon will grow up and leave your side.

    Remember, to give a warm hug to the one next to you, because that is the only treasure you can give with your heart and it doesn't cost a cent.

    Remember, to say, 'I love you' to your partner and your loved ones, but most of all mean it. A kiss and an embrace will mend hurt when it comes from deep inside of you.

    Remember to hold hands and cherish the moment for someday that person will not be there again.

    Give time to love, give time to speak! And give time to share the precious thoughts in your mind.


    Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away."

    This from a guy well-acquainted with off-the-wall thinking and profanity.



  3. Richard,
    I like what you've done. It's nice to see elements of past blogs compiled into a study as well thought out and put together as this is. So, I guess we are lucky to be able to be used as a sounding board for future and ongoing study even though we are unaware of the significance until later.
    One minor quibble. April DeConick in her blog ( http://forbiddengospels.blogspot.com/) has written, and it seems to be becoming consensus, that the National Geographic jumped the gun in it's translation of the Gospel of Judas. It seems that normal protocol wasn't followed and conclusions were made that were wrong and could have been avoided if the scholarly community had been allowed access to the document before these mistakes were made.
    It is a minor fault since you are correct that most Gnostic thought was exactly as you say. It's just that Gospel of Judas was not a good example of that, as it turns out, although it is a recent example of Gnosticism and has been in the news. According the DeConick and others, Judas is still the bad guy.
    Great work Richard.
    Rick T.

  4. Jared,
    That's an interesting question. Some quick thoughts.

    First, I wonder if Protestants and Catholics differ on this. The death-reminders of Lent come to mind.

    Second, regardless, how do believers deal with the death-reminders of the cross? Perhaps the torturing of Jesus' body has a Gnostic strain, where Jesus' internal/spiritual power is able to defeat the torture. I know I got this impression from Mel Gibson's The Passion: Jesus was kind of a superman to undergo the trail of pain.

    Third, I'm actually engaged in some research on a topic related to this: How does Christian artwork interface with death anxiety? We are looking at various kinds of Christian art: Bookstore art (sweet stuff like Thomas Kinkade), Crucifixion art, resurrection art, and memento mori. We are exploring how presentations of death themes within Christianity affect people existentially.

    Thanks for sharing the letter. What a powerful reminder to live each day sacramentally and incarnationally .

    Thanks for the heads up about the Gospel of Judas. That is helpful as I probably will want to readjust my literature review in light of this.

    I don't know if readers are "lucky" but I do want to convey in many of these posts that our interactions on this blog affect the academic literature and that many of these posts are "breaking news." I think it is nice to let people know that they are involved in discussions that a cutting edge. It's fun to participate in moving ideas forward. As we kick around ideas here many of those ideas affect things I pursue and publish. I didn't want to only present the research to the ACU faculty as many of you are my intellectual partners. More so, in fact, than many of my ACU colleagues. I'm blessed to have such a smart readership.

  5. "I'm blessed to have such a smart readership."

    You're making an unwarranted assumption. Some of us enjoy that which we do not completely comprehend...Or am I the only one?

  6. Richard,

    Maybe you commented on this earlier, but I'm having a hard time making the leap between the emotional response of disgust and our death anxiety. All these aversions on your list seem better explained by an intuitive fear of contamination and contagion. Admittedly, the little I have read of Rozin comes through a few pages of review in "Religion Explained" by Boyer.

  7. Hi Pecs,
    From what I've sketched the leap may seem big. However, the disgust/animal-reminder link does have empirical support. See:

    I am not an animal: Mortality salience, disgust, and the denial of human creatureliness by Goldenberg, Jamie L., Pyszczynski, Tom, Greenberg, Jeff, Solomon, Sheldon, Kluck, Benjamin, Cornwell, Robin, in Journal of Experimental Psychology (2001), pp. 427-435.

  8. Someone tell Mr. Cooper that he bought into an inspirational internet hoax...


    Christians always fall for this stuff.

  9. Anonymous,

    Hmmm. Wouldn't be the first time I've been snookered. Maybe Richard ought to do something on the Gospel according to George Carlin. Generally I am snookered by wisdom, regardless of the source. By the way, who is the snopes for snopes and how slippery is the slippery slope?


    George C.

  10. George,
    "Banned" may be too strong. More like "time out." During my Lectureship talk over the content of this post I received complaints about two things. First, I suggested that Jesus might have experienced diarrhea during some of his illnesses. This struck one attendee as inappropriate as Jesus could have "healed himself." Which is an ironic comment given the point of the talk. However, I owe the complainer a debt of gratitude: It spurred me on to do the empirical research (and, you will note, diarrhea was in the IAS instrument).

    The second compliant actually circles back to George Carlin. When I got to the part on cursing I actually listed his "seven words you can't say on TV" without euphemization. This refusal to euphemize (a stubborn habit of mine) drew complaint.

    Regardless, I expect I'll be back at a Lectureship in the future. We'll see.

    Back to your comment on Carlin here. It is interesting how our knowledge depends so much on distributed networks of trust. Much of what we believe boils down to trusting someone, from parents, to news, to friends, to scientific experts. Few of us know from firsthand experience all the things we contend to be "true." It leads to all the regress arguments that plague epistemology.

  11. Richard,

    I read your comments about art and I thought that you might be interested in the current exhibition of Christian art at the Kimball Museum in Fort Worth.


    Thanks so much for your blog.


  12. Richard,

    Regarding Jesus "healing himself" of diarrhea, didn't Jesus say that his fellow Nazareth villagers who doubted him when he said, "Doubtless you will quote that proverb, 'Physician, heal thyself. . . ." (Luke 4:23)

    As to the full impact of the incarnation, a piece of non-canonical, non-gnostic Midrash I've quoted before might be helpful. "And while Jesus and the twelve were on the road to Jerusalem, Jesus said, "Anyone who is not willing to pull my finger cannot enter the kingdom of heaven." (George 3:16)


    George C.

  13. This is a brilliant synthesis of things that have been rattling around in my head for a while now, especially since my recent introduction to the work of Becker and the Terror Management theorists who are carrying on his work. Really good stuff. Its rare that I read a blog post on any blog that I have to take some time to think about.

  14. Two Questions:

    Do you think taking the view of wisdom, as life is cyclic and we are born, we live and we die, is an important truth to affirm? Doesn't his help us face the reality of life and death?

    Secondly, do you believe that when one come into induviduation that s/he will find peace about death? Then whatever the "self" is, becomes radically committed to those values that define that integration?


  15. on the other hand, the sophian gnostics preach(ed) the unification of the body and spirit, of the animalistic and deistic aspects of human nature. there are many different branches of gnosticism - outer, inner and secret - and it's somewhat short-sighted to try and classify the impulse of body mortification, which is MUCH stronger in formal, institutionalized christianity, as a gnostic phenomenon.

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