Does It Matter If Jesus Is God?

Lately, my wife and I have been watching a series of video lectures on the New Testament, part of the modestly-titled Great Courses brand. Pretensions aside, the Great Courses actually are pretty good, and this particular series examines the New Testament from a historical and academic (and therefore secular) point of view. My wife is a Christian and I’m not, and we’ve both gotten a lot out of them.

One thing I like about the lectures is that they force you to step back from modern, mainstream views on Christianity, and focus your attention on the text of the gospels themselves. As you’d expect from documents that are two millennia old, their meaning in many cases is hard to grasp. In particular, it’s far from clear whether the gospel authors themselves considered Jesus to be God.

At first glance, this may seem surprising. Nearly all modern Christians, Jehovah’s Witnesses excepted, believe that Jesus was (and is) both fully man and fully God. But, as it turns out, this belief is never explicitly stated anywhere in the Bible.

Of the four gospels, John comes the closest to spelling it out. Jesus says, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14:9.) Even this is oddly veiled and, in my view, ambiguous. After all, Jesus spoke in parable and metaphor; couldn’t he have meant that he was the path to the Father?

And remember, John was the latest of the four, written probably sixty years after Jesus’ death. The earlier three are even less clear. Jesus is presented as the Jewish messiah, the “Son of Man,” and the “Son of God.” But God Himself? Hints, perhaps, but nothing more. A modern reader, examining the gospels without a prior opinion, might be very puzzled about the exact nature of Jesus’ divine status. In fact, the early Christians were equally puzzled, with prominent sects promoting the idea that Jesus was subordinate to God. It wasn’t until the First Council of Nicaea, almost three centuries after the death of Jesus, that anything like a consensus was reached.

But here’s my question: does it matter? If you are a Christian, a believer, is the status of Jesus as God really part of the foundation of your faith?

John 3:16 is often cited as an encapsulation of the Christian belief:

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

A belief in God, a belief in salvation, and a belief in Jesus as Christ and redeemer. It’s striking that Jesus-as-God forms no part of this core formula.

Though I’m not a Christian anymore, I was for a long time, and it seems to me that this question – while interesting – is not fundamental. If God sent Jesus to die for the sins of mankind, surely that’s the important part. Does his precise theological status really matter?

What do you think?

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16 responses to “Does It Matter If Jesus Is God?

  1. Couple of points (see what you think):

    1) It’s important to Jesus’ sacrifice that he be without sin, and Man by this very nature is sinful. Therefore, Jesus must have been something more than a man if not fully God in order to offered as a pure sacrifice for the sins of the world.

    2) “This is my son, in whom I am well pleased.” Says God at Jesus’ baptism. At some point, whether you’re taking this as a religious story, or even a narrative, a Son of God would logically be a God if not a direct part of God.

    3) The part that trips a lot of people up is the three-in-one bit. God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. These are considered to be three distinct beings, or aspects of God, and yet all are fully God. We say there is one God, but three parts. Probably the biggest question to answer in your mind before you can consider the “God-ness” of Jesus, is whether he existed as a separate entity prior to his existence on Earth. A son born or a son sent.

    4) One thing that’s important to consider in any historical perspective is the conversation that’s been going on for hundreds of years. We wouldn’t take a scientific truth from the 15th century as being better than one from the 21st (generally). While there may be questions as to the original authors intentions, authenticity of translation, the change in perspective on those views in the Church is important. Christian thought grows much in the same way scientific thought grows. While you always want to go back to primary sources, it may just be that the question of whether Jesus was God took several hundred years to figure out.

    • Hi Ben! My responses:

      1. You said “Jesus must have been something more than a man if not fully God” to be without sin. I have no problem with that, nor does it contradict my argument.

      2. How literally are we taking the word “son” here? If we take it 100% literally, that implies that God the Father existed before Jesus the Son, which would also imply that Jesus is not fully God. On the other hand, if we’re not taking “son” literally, then all bets are off.

      3. I don’t have an inherent problem with a three-in-one Trinity as a concept; the question is whether that concept is based on Biblical text. As for born vs. sent, Jesus could have existed before his birth and still not be God.

      4. I agree that Christian thought does (and should) evolve over time. I don’t mind that Nicaea came 200 years after Jesus died. My point is simply that the question of Jesus’ Godhood wasn’t clear to the early Christians, so we shouldn’t take it for granted.

  2. Dangerous waters my friend. I know you won’t do this (we’ve had these conversations before), but approaching religion from an intellectual/logical point of view very often leads to insults.

    There are lots of ways you can look at the Council of Nicaea. They excluded many Gospels from cannon, they rewrote the Apostles Creed to demand allegiance to Rome, the defined the Trinity and organized most of what we would consider modern religion and ceremony. These all would seem to be works of men, but there is rub here. If someone can accept that the Bible is written by God through the hand of man, then could we not also accept that God gave the Council the clarity and wisdom to redefine Catholicism appropriately? It is precisely because of this that Religion (capital R intended) is hard to argue with; but it also makes logical sense that if the Bible is/can be true than the Trinity is/can be true.

    There are really one two points that need to be considered: 1.) Christ is called the son of God explicitly. 2.) Christ is given the power of God explicitly. These do not mean that Christ is God (the Father) anymore than I am my father, however, perhaps the illusion here is that Christ is equal to God. I can not say with authority as I have always struggled with where the truth really lies in religion.

    To answer your question… yes… it matters a lot that Jesus is God or is at least equal to. If you only have one thing you can tell a non Christian about Christianity… only 1 sentence or quote… I believe the following answers your question and embodies the entire belief system behind Christianity: “I am the way, the truth and the life; None shall come to the Father except through me.” – John 14:6

    Modern Christianity believes that its not good enough to simply follow the teachings of Christ. We can all be good people, but there is something else that sets Christians apart. It is the acceptance of Christ as the lord and savior of your person and having a personal relationship with Him that makes a Christian different (in practice, Christians are generally as bad or worse than the rest of the world so I’m not sure what its doing for us). If we are to follow this belief, or rather follow Christ in this way, then Christ MUST be equal to God if not God Himself, otherwise we’re all lemmings walking off a cliff.

    Given your thoughts here, I think you’d be really interested to read the Gnostic Gospels (http://www.gnosticchristianity.com/). The basic belief of Gnostic Christianity is that Jesus was the son of God, but instead of being an equal He was a messenger and if we could truly follow the way of Jesus, we could all be a Christ and an equal to Jesus. This goes back to the Council of Nicaea too; these are the Gospels that were excluded because they didn’t specifically uphold the divinity of Jesus.

    • I have a strict policy that insulting blog comments get deleted. šŸ™‚ I think we’re safe.

      RE: the Council of Nicaea. Yes, certainly if we accept the Council as divinely inspired, that clears it up pretty handily. The question would then become how we know it was divinely inspired, and how we determine which decisions are divinely inspired and which are not.

      RE: Christ being given the power of God explicitly. I’m curious which passage you’re referring to here. Not saying you’re wrong, just curious.

      RE: John 14:6. I agree that sums up the Christian belief, but there does not appear to be anything in that passage that says Jesus is God.

      RE: accepting Jesus as savior. I am not sure that Jesus-as-savior necessarily implies Jesus-as-God. Might Jesus not merely be divinely guided, or exist at some other intermediate level between God and man, doing God’s will without actually being God?

      RE: Gnostic gospels. I did read the Gospel of Thomas back in college. It was interesting, though probably written even later than John. Gnostic Christians at that time believed that the material world, and the God of the Old Testament, were evil. Pretty strange stuff by modern standards.

      • “The question would then become how we know it was divinely inspired, and how we determine which decisions are divinely inspired and which are not.”

        Write down on a piece of paper, “This is the written, living word of God: ” and then something blasphemous. I guarantee it won’t burst into flames… To answer your question… don’t know.

        Christ as the power of God: 1 Corinthians 1:22-24 (verse 24 specifically, but you need some context to understand what is being said).

        I think Jesus-as-savior does require Jesus be an equal to God, otherwise, what authority does Jesus have to tell us that through His death and our acceptance of Him that He can save us from certain damnation? At least, that is my interpretation. The God of the Old Testament is a very meddling and unforgiving God. We’re either to believe He had a change of heart and sent his son to die as a symbolic gesture or that in sending His son He gave His son the power to change the fate of humanity. Both are possible… I guess I’ll find out in a few decades.

  3. Seems to me that the concept of ‘son’ is the thing here.
    It has quite a lot of meaning bundled up in it. Literally it requires biological parenthood.

    You could lean towards the ‘made us in his own image’ bit and suggest that God has physical form but then we ought to be able to actually find this dude somewhere.

    I would suggest ‘son’ is more like the metaphor to communicate with the people of the time (cough patriarchal goat farmers cough).
    Seriously how do you convey a deep all encompassing love in that situation… you pick the closest thing that they might have felt.

  4. I’m surprised, I don’t consider myself a biblical scholar by any means, but here goes. John 1:1 says that the word was with God when the universe was made. And later in 1:14 John says that the word became flesh. And if you have any doubt he is talking about Jesus you might consider that he follows up the whole, word became flesh thing with the birth story of Christ. Also notice the amount of times in the gospels Jesus says “I AM”. His use of I AM is not just sentence structure or grammar, it is specific. It is the same word, prior to translation from the original Greek, used when Moses was introduced to God as I AM that I AM. You yourself quoted an example of this Brian. From my understanding, it is not often disputed that Jesus was God, but that he is both God and Human. His humanity is questioned much more than his Goodhood. (Think lack of original sin)
    For various other biblical references to godhood see Isaiah 9:6, Isaiah 7:14, Matthew1:23 and Colossians 2:9, Btw Immanuel is often translated as “God with us”

    As for the necessity of Godhood, there are various reasons. From a logical standpoint and not just a prophetical necessity, Jesus needed to have both in order to bridge the gap, so to speak. He had to be fully human to relate to, understand and represent us. He became our conduit to God. Now you could say he didn’t HAVE to be. But if wasn’t fully human, then humanity may not truly have been represented in him. If he was only God-like instead of God-fact then what would that have accomplished. God sent part of himself to become like us. It’s a greater gesture. What would his life and death have accomplished otherwise. My position is that without this duality then the whole thing would have been far less meaningful.

    • I’m surprised too! I think you actually convinced me I was wrong about the Bible explicitly claiming Godhood for Jesus.

      So I was aware of John 1:1 (which, by itself, is fairly ambiguous IMO), but I did not remember the follow-up in John 1:14. The combination of 1:1 and 1:14 does seem to make it pretty explicit, at least in the NIV translation. Colossians 2:9 (which I did not remember either) is also pretty definite. That helps your case even more because I consider Paul a better source than the author of John’s gospel, since Paul’s letters are generally thought to have been written much earlier.

      Very interesting. I’ll have to write a follow-up post about this.

      On the second point, it sounds like you’re saying that Jesus’ Godhood is only relevant insofar as it allows him to act as a Savior for mankind. That is, if there were a way for Jesus to act as Savior without being God, then the question of his Godhood becomes much less important. I think perhaps we agree on that. Then it just comes down to whether we think Godhood is requirement for Messiahood, and that’s probably not something we can resolve through debate.

      Thanks!

      • Holy Carp! (Not as tasty as a holy bass because of the mudvein) This is the first time I think I’ve outright convinced you of something.

        I guess it’s fair play after the whole global warming argument where I’ve essentially reversed my opinion as well. lol (Still not sure about the anthropogenic part as much, but the rest I’m in agreement with.)

      • I don’t think I had many effective arguments on that one though. šŸ˜‰

  5. Hey Brian, I am a Christian. I stumbled upon your blog and had to comment. First, I was going to speak to the point that Jimmy Taco made on John 1, but he covered that quite well. The only thought I want to leave with you is why is it important to be able to fully understand God? I understand why we as humans want to, but if God can be fully understood by our small, often forgetful or wrong minds, is he really that great and is he really worthy of worship? After all, you worship one who is greater than you. That is the same reason people are famous. You don’t listen to a musician who you are better than. If they are worse than you, then they probably not famous. In the same way, if your mind is great enough to comprehend God, is he really that great? That is where I find comfort when I have trouble understanding things of God, such as the Trinity or him coming to earth and being fully God and fully man.

  6. John 1:1-18 is Midrash of Genesis 1 revealing Jesus being Divine co-participant (Elohim) in creation process. If you look at the use of the “was” verb and the contrast to the “became” verb you will see a nuance pointing to pre-existence of Jesus to materiality as well as a being and beyond being intimating Deity. A Greek interlinear will aid in accessibility of my point. Beyond John’s skillful contrast of Greek verbs is the notion of tabernacling in John 1:14. Here glory discloses presence that only Deity ex-presses. Peace and good…Jerome

  7. Immanuel means God with us. Jesus accepted worship and directed disciples to baptize in the name of all 3.

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