October 22, 2022 - Can We Become Gods?

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Today we’re going to take a look at the question: Can we, or should we, strive to become gods? A lot of folks in Utah and surrounding states hope to become Gods, like their Heavenly Father. What’s wrong with that? Isn’t that exactly what God wants us all to enjoy someday?

A friend of mine argued that it is God’s “greatest joy and purpose to provide a way for all His children to become like Him, because there is absolutely no better or happier way to be.” He believes that “the most wonderful thing a perfect, celestial being could possibly do is to enable others to become like himself. Doing this is the ultimate expression of humility and love. A perfect, all-loving, completely righteous, all powerful Being could really do no less.”

Historic Christianity teaches that human beings cannot be, and ought not strive to be, equal with God. My friend’s response is that “we are to be of the same mind as Christ, who thought it not robbery to be equal with God.” My friend was quoting the King James translation of Philippians 2:6. Is this the best way to read what Paul wrote? Let’s take a closer look.

Here’s the literal wording in this verse: “Who [meaning Christ], being (better translated “although he was /existed”) in the form of God, did not think/consider equality with God to be a thing-to-be-grabbed” [harpagmon, KJV says “robbery”]. Despite the King James tradition of how to translate this verse, all other translations since 1900 translate the word harpagmos as “something to be grasped.” Here’s why.

The King James and other English versions in its day were influenced by the related Greek noun harpax, meaning “robber” or “mugger,” someone who robs by snatching. While harpagmos can mean “robbery,” it is often used to mean the seizing of prey, plunder, or women, for which “robbery” is not so precise a way to render the word. What all of these examples have in common is the meaning of “grabbing” or “grasping.”

Harpagmos can also mean grabbing for a prize or a piece of good fortune. Heliodorus tells of a seductress who asks a young man why he does not regard the presence of a pretty girl who desires him as a harpagmos or a wonderful “find.” Eusebius of Caesarea writes that the apostle Peter “considered death through a cross as a harpagmos because of the hope of salvation.” That’s why the Liddell-Scott classical Greek lexicon identifies Philippians 2:6 as one place where harpagmos means “prize to be grasped.”

The next verse tells us what Christ did instead of what Paul said he could have done in verse 6. Christ was already God, Paul says. But although he could have pulled rank and grabbed for his divine status and its benefits, verse 7 says that Christ chose to go the opposite direction: he literally “emptied himself.” The KJV translates “he made himself of no reputation,” but the Greek says he “emptied himself.” Christ laid aside all the privileges of being God. Jesus made himself like a slave, lowered himself to our human level, and submitted to the most hideous, humiliating death on a Roman cross.

So Philippians 2:6 means the opposite of what my friend claims that it means. It does not mean that we should aspire to be equal with God like Jesus, who thought that being equal with God was not robbery (that it was not grabbing for what we are not entitled to). Paul means that instead of thinking it was OK to grab for Godhood and its privileges, Christ chooses to humble himself and lay aside the privileges he already had of being God.

My friend’s approach (and there are many who believe like him) leads us to understand the opposite. The way he reads the verse, “Jesus thought being equal with God was not robbery, therefore, we should grab for it, too.” That leads us to the huge mistake made by Adam and Eve, who found that the prospect of being like God and determining good and evil for themselves was too good not to grab for, which led them to an act of rebellion rather than faithfulness, an act that dragged us all into one horrible worldwide ongoing tragedy.

Some folks will appeal to 2 Peter 1:4, where Peter tells his readers that God has given us all we need so that we may become “partakers of the divine nature.” The Orthodox tradition comes perilously close to reading this verse as if we will actually become gods. But even the Orthodox limit our participation in the divine nature to God’s shareable attributes such as holiness and love, which humans can share, and in which indeed we ought to become like God. The Orthodox do not teach we will become gods in any other ways.

Peter is talking about God’s nature as opposed to human nature. The Greek word “nature” is talking about the way God is, what God is like. Unlike God’s nature, human nature is enslaved to sin, and is subject to death and decay. So Peter is saying that yes, Christ has made it possible for those he has saved to share in God’s freedom from sin, death, and decay. Peter is not suggesting that we will be able to inherit God’s unique un-shareable attributes like omnipresence, omnipotence, or omniscience, attributes which belong to God alone.

How can it be good to take God’s place? Doesn’t it detract from God’s worthiness of worship? We end up with nothing unique about God, if we can become gods, too. Godhood becomes a cheapened commodity, a privilege that any person who does what is required has a right to expect. This doctrine appeals to our human desires to be worshipped and to call the shots over our own world. It is not Biblical doctrine at all; it turns Biblical doctrine on its head.

Plus, such teaching flies in the face of what the Bible says will happen in the end. Rather than us inheriting worlds of our own where we will be worshipped, the Bible teaches that Christ will reign forever and ever (Revelation 11:15), and we will worship him (Revelation 22:3). Yes, we will reign over God’s new world with him (Revelation 22:5), but there is nothing in God’s word the Bible about us receiving worship, or receiving worlds of our own.

One might ask: If God is a truly loving Father who wants the very best for us, wouldn’t God want to make us into Gods, just like him? Don’t we want our children to become all that we are, to enjoy all that we enjoy? Do we believe that God cannot make that happen, or will not? And if he will not, then why not? Wouldn’t God be selfish not to make us just like him? What could possibly be a more unselfish act than for God to invite us to become like himself, and then to provide, at infinite cost, a way to make that happen? Such an argument does have some persuasiveness. It is a question that demands an answer.

Becoming a God is not comparable to becoming like your dad. What religion on earth does not understand this? All true monotheists (Christian, Jewish, Muslim, theist, and deist) put God on a pedestal on which none of us will ever belong. For us to become gods is like the pot usurping the Potter, or the creature usurping the Creator. God says through Isaiah (10:15), “Shall the axe boast itself against the one that hews with it? Or shall the saw magnify itself against the one that wields it? As if the rod should raise the one who lifts it, or as if a staff should lift up the one who is not wood!” To claim that God is selfish to withhold godhood from us is as human-centered a belief as possible. It is not God-centered.

What was the cause of the cataclysmic disaster in the Garden of Eden? It was the desire to become like God. The serpent goads Eve into grievous sin by insinuating that God was being selfish by withholding this opportunity from humans. (Genesis 3:5) Likewise, in Isaiah 14:13-15, we find that Lucifer’s great sin was his desire to be like God: “You said in your heart, I will ascend to heaven! I will raise my throne above the stars of God… I will make myself like the Most High. But you are brought down to Sheol, to the depths of the Pit.”

The great theologian Catherine Hobson observes that if we become Gods, and if God has divine ancestors, then our Heavenly Father’s kingdom becomes drastically reduced. God becomes a relatively tiny God, compared to the true Biblical God who rules the entire universe, not just a limited piece of it. Indeed, if we can become gods, God must parcel out pieces of the universe first to Jesus, then to us. Gods become cheaper in quantities of more than one.

You may say that the universe is infinite, therefore pieces of it are infinite, but the piecemeal reality still subtracts from what the Bible says belongs to God alone. Where does it say that? Isaiah 43:10: “Before me was there no god formed, neither shall there be after me.”

But don’t some early church writers use language about us becoming gods? Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, and Athanasius (champion of the Nicene Creed) all talk about humans becoming gods. Let’s talk about these writers and what they said.

Justin Martyr says, “All men are deemed worthy of becoming gods, and of having power to become sons of the Highest.” But Justin also writes in his Dialogue With Trypho the Jew 126: For if you had understood what has been written by the prophets, you would not have denied that He [Christ] was God, Son of the only, unbegotten, unutterable God.” Justin Martyr does not mean we can become what God is now.

Athanasius basically says what Irenaeus says in Preface to volume 5 of his book Against Heresies: “Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Word of God, out of his boundless love, became what we are, that he might make us what he himself is.” But says that no one can be called a god or a son thereof except through Christ, “and He [Christ] alone is very God from the very God”. Christ does not receive this status “as a reward for his virtue,” but being God “by nature and according to essence.” (Against the Arians 1.39) Athanasius does not mean what we mean by godhood in this passage.

Irenaeus makes it clear elsewhere that the God of Israel is “the only God and the only Lord and the only Creator and the only Father, the only one who contains all and provides being to all.” (Against Heresies 2.1.1) Irenaeus also says that “this God, the Creator, who formed the world, is the only God, and that there is no other God besides Him”. (2:16:3)

Clement of Alexandria said that those who have become perfect and become pure in heart are “called by the [term] gods, being destined to sit on thrones with the other gods that have been first put in their places by the Savior.” But Clement also says that Christ alone is both God and man, so Clement obviously doesn’t mean anything like what we mean by the word god when he talks about us becoming gods. Likewise, while Tertullian is quoted as saying that through divine grace, those who are saved “shall be even gods,” in the famous passage where Tertullian coins the word “Trinity,” he also makes it clear that there is only one God.

So early Christian talk about us becoming gods apparently does not mean what it sounds like. Irenaeus explains what he means by godhood when he says in his book Against Heresies (4.38.4) that “what was mortal should be conquered and swallowed up by immortality, and the corruptible by incorruptibility, and that man should be made after the image and likeness of God.” So Irenaeus is not talking about gods who have divine power and who rule worlds and receive worship. He’s just talking about being free from sin, death, and decay.

It is not unloving or selfish for God to reserve divine status entirely for himself. God is the only One in the entire universe who deserves it. God belongs on the pedestal, and we do not. I will be thrilled simply to become like God in God’s perfection, love, and freedom from sin.

What about Psalm 82, which Jesus quotes when people pick up stones to stone him when he says “I and the Father are one”? Jesus quotes the line, “I say, You are gods, sons of the Most High, all of you.” This psalm is a song of judgment against gods (heavenly beings) who are defiant against the one true God. They judge unjustly, they favor the wicked, they neglect the poor and needy, and refuse to rescue them. Therefore, God says he’s going to throw them off the bench.

Craig Blomberg writes, “The context of [Psalm 82] refers not to anyone’s exaltation but to the judgment and downfall of those who defend the unjust and show partiality to the wicked.” Using the so-called gods to whom Psalm 82 is addressed as proof that God has room for other gods in a divine pantheon proves the opposite of what some people think it means.

Psalm 82 does not teach that we can become gods. The characters being addressed in this psalm are already in the “divine council” and are “in the midst of the gods” (they are probably angels or heavenly beings). God addresses them in the present tense: “You are gods, sons of the Most High.” They are not permanently exalted gods who have the same power, glory, dominion, or knowledge that God has. They have abused their offices as angelic beings, and now they are condemned to pay the price for their sin: “You will die like men, and you will fall like any prince.” These gods are, by any standard, not fitting candidates for godhood or for citizenship in heaven of any kind.

Another way of understanding this passage is that the gods of Psalm 82:6 are human judges who have been appointed by God. Jesus quotes the passage to point out how crazy it is to call human judges ‘gods,’ while they call it blasphemy for the Messiah himself to call himself the Son of God. If Scripture called those unfit characters in Psalm 82 “gods”, how much more worthy is Jesus to say, “I am the Son of God”, or “I and the Father are one”?

A scholar named Michael Heiser agrees with the idea that these gods are created heavenly beings; they are angels. He argues that Jesus uses Psalm 82 to reemphasize his own equality with the Father. Psalm 86:8 sings, “There is none like you among the gods, O Lord.” Psalm 89:5-8 considers it out of the question that anyone in the heavenly council can be compared to the God of Israel: “Who is like the Lord among the sons of God?” When Jesus appeals to Psalm 82, he is putting himself as head of the divine council. He is not merely one of the angelic beings. He is judge over them all, alongside God the Father. What did Jesus say that got him in such trouble in John 10? “I and the Father are one.” His opponents got it right. He is saying that he is equal with God, more equal than any of us can or will ever be. Jesus is the one true God in the flesh.

In both possible ways to read this passage, Jesus is claiming his own unique relationship with the Father. Jesus is not citing the wicked gods of Psalm 82:6 as models or candidates to become gods. Instead of saying, “Sorry, guys, you misunderstood me when I said, I and the Father are one,” Jesus makes the problem worse by the Scripture he uses to answer them back. Jesus makes himself the one who judges the gods of Psalm 82. How much more worthy is he to be called “the Son of God”! And then Jesus goes so far as to say, “The Father is in me and I am in the Father” (10:38). Whoa! Only by being quick on his feet does Jesus avoid getting executed before his time, right in the Temple. His time had not yet come.

Rather than grabbing to become God, the Biblical goal is captured well by the answer to Question 1 in the Westminster Shorter Catechism, a goal on which all historic Christians can agree: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” Our purpose is to praise God, to live in gratitude to God, and to be undeserved recipients of God’s amazing love.

We can be thrilled that we will be like God. Yes, we will delight in having a complete overhaul done on our bodies and souls. We delight in the hope of becoming like God in perfection, holiness, and love. We look forward to having bodies that will be raised, never to die again. We delight in the thought of being able to experience the universe in all the joy and beauty that was there before the sin of our earliest ancestors. But we have no need, nor does anyone in their right mind think that it would be a good idea, to take God’s place or to grab for godhood ourselves. We were never made for that.

We look at all that God has done in history, and all that takes place in our lives, and we can’t help but ask the question: How much of what happens is under the control of God, and how much of it is totally up to us? Do we write the script, or does God? Does God’s will prevail, or do we have veto power over what God decrees? We’ll be talking about that huge subject next time on Biblical Words and World.