In Hinduism, what is an avatar? Was Jesus an avatar?
A Hindu avatar is the earthly incarnation of a god as man. Hindus believe a god can appear on earth as a person, or in parts in many people. This combines pantheism (belief that god is all) and polytheism (belief in many gods).
The Hindu concept of avatars is somewhat similar to the heresy that arose in early Christianity known as Docetism. Docetism holds that Jesus only appeared to be human but remained a completely spiritual being, unable to suffer pain. Some teachings in Islam similarly believe that Jesus didn't suffer on the cross but was rescued spiritually from such a fate.
Hindus believe that an avatar can appear to the worshiper in any form, including as Mohammed, Jesus, Krishna, Buddha, or some other personal god. Some Hindus believe Jesus is an avatar, and more specifically the reincarnation of Krishna.
It is important to realize and believe that Jesus was not reincarnated. He was resurrected—He had the same body He had as He died and proved it by showing Thomas and others His wounds (John 20:24–29). Jesus is not an avatar. He is both fully human and fully God. He lived a sinless life, died on the cross for our sins, and was bodily raised to life on the third day. He ascended back to heaven and will one day return. For more on who Jesus is, please read our article: "Who is Jesus Christ?".
In Hinduism, an avatar restores righteousness, or dharma, to the cosmic or social order, including duty, ritual, law, morality, ethics, good deeds, and such. Jesus' mission was higher—He came to restore a relationship between God and people (John 3:16–18). The right living, the behavior and the morals, are a result of that relationship being made right (Ephesians 2:8–10).
Unlike Hinduism, Christianity teaches that there is only one way to have a healthy relationship with God—that is through Jesus Christ (John 3:18; 14:6; Luke 13:3). Paul recognizes the Thessalonians' understanding of this in 1 Thessalonians 1:9–10: "For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come."
To find out more about salvation, please read our article "How can I be saved?".
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