What is docetism in theology?
Docetism was an early Christian heresy that promoted a false view of Jesus’ humanity. The word Docetism comes from the Greek dokein, meaning “to seem”; according to Docetism, Jesus Christ only seemed to have a human body like ours.
Docetism allowed that Jesus may have been in some way divine, but it denied His full humanity. Hardcore Docetists taught that Jesus was only a phantasm or an illusion, appearing to be human but having no body at all. Other forms of Docetism taught that Jesus had a “heavenly” body of some type but not a real, natural body of flesh. Docetism was closely related to Gnosticism, which viewed physical matter as inherently evil and spiritual substance as inherently good.
The problem with Docetism is that it denies the core truths of the gospel, namely, the death and resurrection of Christ. If Jesus did not have a real body, then He did not really die (Docetism teaches that His suffering on the cross was mere illusion). And, if Jesus had no physical body, He could not have risen bodily from the dead. Without the actual death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we have no salvation, we are still in our sins, and our faith is futile (1 Corinthians 15:17). Docetism also denies the ascension of Christ (since He had no real body to make the ascent).
On the matter of Jesus’ humanity, the Bible could not be clearer. Jesus went out of His way to prove His bodily resurrection to the disciples who thought at first they were seeing a ghost: “Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself: handle me, and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have.” Luke 24:39
The apostle John warned the early church against the false doctrine of Gnosticism, which embraced Docetism’s error:
“Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world. Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God:” 1 John 4:1–2
Note: The apostle’s emphasis on Jesus being “in the flesh.”For many deceivers are entered into the world, who confess not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh. This is a deceiver and an antichrist.” 2 John 1:7
Early church fathers fought against Docetism, especially Ignatius of Antioch (c. AD 35–107). Ignatius rightly taught that, if Jesus had not actually shed His blood on the cross, then His death was meaningless. Ignatius saw that there was no possible way to align the deception of Docetism with the truth of Christianity.
Docetism must be rejected because it is not a biblical view of Jesus’ nature. In fact, Docetism stands in flat denial of biblical truth. Jesus Christ did not simply appear human; He was truly human, as well as truly God. He came from heaven and took on human flesh and bone, and He lived the life of a normal man in this world—a Spirit-filled man, to be sure, and a man who always obeyed the Father, but a man nonetheless. His suffering on the cross was real, and His death was an actual death. He shed real blood to pay the real price for real sin in order to grant us real forgiveness.