Was Jesus God?


Posted: October, 2005
Last updated: 8th January, 2007

IN 1774, JOSEPH PRIESTLEY MADE SCIENTIFIC HISTORY when he heated mercuric oxide and produced a gas which caused a candle to burn more brightly than in air. Upon discovering that a mouse placed in a sealed jar containing this gas lived twice as long as a mouse in the same jar containing ordinary air, he decided to have a sniff himself. He wrote, "I fancied that my breast felt particularly light and easy for some time afterwards". He had discovered oxygen, which discovery soon led to the first understanding of the process by which animals and plants breathe (Taylor 1963, p. 88).

His scientific fame was matched by an equal and opposite infamy, for Priestley, you see, was a Unitarian minister (see Unitarianism). To most Christians the question of Jesus' divinity — whether or not He was God in the flesh — has been settled once and for all for all Christians. Few doubt that Jesus was the genuine divine article, no ifs, ands, or buts. Priestley believed otherwise, seeing Jesus Christ as a created being rather than very God in essence. His stance brought down upon him the wrath of the religious establishment. Church authorities incited a mob to set fire to his chapel. Fired by success, they then made for his home, bent on purging the church of what they saw as a wicked error. Warned of the impending doom while playing a game of backgammon, Joseph took his family and fled for America. The rabble destroyed his scientific apparatus and scattered his books to the wind.

We know Priestley was right about oxygen, but was he right about Jesus Christ? Do Unitarians have a legitimate insight that the rest of Christendom would do well to heed? Was Jesus Christ God in the flesh or merely a man, a creation of God by either fiat or procreation? The evidence weighs in in favor of Jesus' divinity; Joseph Priestley's Unitarian views were wrong.

Two views of Joseph Priestley — respected scientist and religious-political outcast

Most Christians today would be surprised to learn that: in the fourth century the issue of Jesus' divinity, or "godness", rocked Christendom; that those who denied divinity to Jesus in Poland in the 16th and 17th centuries were numerous enough and strong enough to exist as a separate church; that during the reign of King James 1 of England, Socinianism exercised considerable influence; and that, even today, a small but zealous band of dissenters continues to promote Unitarian ideas. Unitarians have even furnished the script writers of MASH with inspiration. When Colonel Potter successfully reached a high brass at the Pentagon by phone, he commented to Klinger, "Why, a man who answers his own phone — he must be a Unitarian". I have no idea what he meant.

Unitarians are united in preaching forcefully against the whole idea of the Incarnation and are generally united in branding the doctrine of the Trinity and belief in Jesus' divinity heresy. Mainstream churches have generally been equally vociferous in denouncing Unitarianism — works that treat of the topic are liberally laced with references to heresy. Worse, some of the very groups that have argued most strongly for the divinity of Jesus Christ by and large have treated dissenters in a most un-Christlike fashion, thus bringing reproach upon the name of Jesus.



Like other Christians, Unitarians believe in the existence of one God. The defining feature of Unitarianism is its denial of divinity to Jesus Christ, rejecting the prevailing opinion that Jesus Christ was of the same "substance" as, or "co-essential" with, God. Rather than seeing the earthly Jesus Christ as God in the flesh they view Him as a created being who serves as God's deputy or agent, according to which idea anything done by one deputed by God amounts to the action of God Himself. Thus, in seeing a messenger of God, one is supposedly "seeing God".

Unitarianism is divided into two opposing camps — those who believe Jesus Christ pre-existed His earthly life for thousands or millions of years in the form of a created and glorious angelic being and those who assert that His earthly conception in Mary's womb marked the beginning of His existence. The former view is often dubbed "Arianism" after its most famous early proponent, Arius, a fourth century priest who became embroiled in a furor with his bishop concerning Jesus' divinity. Arius's followers coined a jingle that, translated, means, "There was once when the Son was not"; endless repetition of this ditty won over many people. Advocates of the more common latter view are sometimes called Socinians after its founder, Fausto Socinus (1539-1604).


Though hurling insults back and forth by those who claim adherence to the One True God helps nobody, we must not treat the issue of Jesus' divinity as being merely academic. As Unitarians correctly point out, any doctrine that espouses more than one God goes contrary to the entire thrust of Scripture, and must be rejected. As those who believe in Jesus' divinity correctly assert, any dogma that denies "godness" to Jesus, if indeed He was divine, amounts to "denying the Lord who bought them" (2 Peter 2:1). "Christology", the study of Jesus, must be approached with painstaking concern for truth.

Scoring goals for your opponents

Unitarianism unwittingly argues against itself. Its advocates' chief objective is to maintain the status of the One True God as the one and only God, Giver of every good gift and Creator of all that is. It seeks to do this by “downgrading” the status of Jesus Christ from God in the flesh to either the incarnation of a glorious created angel or an almost-ordinary man. Unitarians believe that orthodox Christianity has made a usurper out of Jesus by treating Him as divine, thus elbowing the Father to the side. However, treating Jesus as a mere mortal or created angel turns Him into a much bigger usurper. How does it do this? By making a mere mortal or created angel, instead of God, the source of every good and perfect gift, the giver of salvation to us humans. Jesus is the Passover lamb who provides for our atonement (1 Cor. 5:7). Only in Jesus' name is salvation made available to all (Acts 4:12). Jesus, not God, becomes the source of spiritual life for believers in the flesh (Gal. 2:20) and of their resurrection life (John 11:25). Jesus said, “I will build my church” (Matt. 16:18), rather than saying, “I will build God's church”. Likewise, Hebrews 3:6 calls the church “Jesus' own house”, not the “house of God”.

What gifts could possibly be considered greater than atonement for sin, the imparting of spiritual life, membership in the one body of believers and, ultimately, resurrection from the dead? Yet Scripture ascribes all these gifts to the goodness and activity of Jesus Christ. Our salvation is 100% dependent on the grace of God, not on the work of a mere mortal. The view that Jesus is truly divine completely solves the problem created inadvertently by Unitarian philosophy.

O.K., then; before we consider specific scriptural evidence for establishing the divinity of Jesus Christ, we need to think big — let's consider powerful arguments in support of Jesus' divinity implied in, but not stated directly by, Scripture.

God Who wouldn't suffer

One of the strongest proofs of God's goodness and His care for His created children is found in His willingness to let Jesus Christ die an agonising death for their atonement, as shown in a number of passages such as Romans 5:8:

But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

If Jesus were an earthly visitation of a pre-existent created being, as one version of Unitarianism avows, or a human being with whom God had specially worked, as the majority version believes, that means that God created someone to endure the agony of death as our atoning lamb, which implies that God created someone else to go through it on His behalf so that He could avoid experiencing such pain Himself. Such an idea is contrary to the biblical image of God alone as the selfless, suffering Savior of mankind and makes a mockery of passages such as this which, by the Unitarian view, should read something like,

But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, He assigned one human being to die for the rest of us.

What sort of love is that!? Some might retort that God had no choice; He had to do it that way because He could not die. (Unitarians base much of their argumentation on the logic that God cannot die; since Jesus died, He could not be God.) Such a suggestion amounts to putting a specific limitation on God — that He is incapable of somehow or other "being born flesh" and tasting death of the flesh— that cannot be biblically supported. To the contrary, without doing violence to the simple meaning of certain passages, Scripture strongly suggests that God can "become flesh". The promise that a virgin would conceive and bear a son whose name was to be "Immanuel", or "God with us" (Is. 7:14), foretold just such an event. Isaiah also prophesied, "For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given; and the government will be upon His shoulder. And His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace" (9:6). Why not accept this passage at face value as teaching that God can and did enter flesh? And should we find it so hard to grasp the concept that that incarnation could die, thus enabling God to "taste death" (Heb. 2:9)?

Some might argue against the unsuffering God objection by stressing that God most certainly did suffer vicariously in watching His created child experience the agony of the cross. Yes, like any parent, He would have felt anguish under such circumstances (as He did in reality watching Jesus suffer), but the point remains that if Jesus were not somehow God in the flesh, then God did not experience the pain of atonement Himself and did not taste death Himself. He created another to do it.

The horror of human sacrifice

Furthermore, if Jesus were an almost ordinary human being, as Socinianism asserts, then in giving His Son in sacrifice (John 3:16), the Father is guilty of human sacrifice, a practice that Scripture consistently condemns. God would never commit an act that goes contrary to His own law, the law being an expression of the way God thinks; He can never act contrary to the way He thinks. But if, in some real way, Jesus was a fleshly manifestation of God, then in offering up His Son, God was in fact giving of Himself. (The predicable Unitarian objection — how can God kill Himself, particularly if He is immortal? — amounts to an argument of words rather than of fact, an argument based on an inability or unwillingness to recognize the Incarnation as one of God's mightiest yet most mysterious acts. Such arguments are about as illuminating as arguing over whether the sentence "That's your opinion" is a three-word sentence or a four-word sentence.) For God to offer up another in sacrifice cannot be reconciled with Scripture, but to willingly offer up of Himself is another matter entirely. The idea is beautifully expressed in everybody's favorite hymn, How Great Thou Art:

And when I think, that God His Son not sparing,
Sent Him to die, I scarce can take it in,
That on the cross, my burden gladly bearing,
He bled and died to take away my sin…

All praise and glory goes to God for this ultimate expression of His willingness to suffer in our stead.

The pointlessness of human existence

Unitarians agree that Jesus Christ fulfilled His role perfectly, that He never murmured against His heavenly Father, that He displayed love in its fullest possible form and resisted temptation perfectly, never sinning once. In short, they aver that Jesus was everything His heavenly Father ever hoped for. Stop and think. If God could create one such perfect being, He could surely do it again. Any theology that claims He could do it only once faces insuperable obstacles. Why could He do it only once? Did that supreme act of alleged creation exhaust God's power?

Let's repeat. If God could create, either by fiat or procreation, one being as perfect as Jesus Christ, He could, if He is God, do it again. And again, and again. If He could create a being "in whom dwelt all the fullness of the Godhead bodily" (Col. 2:9) and who was "the express image of His [God's] person" (Heb. 1:3), why mess around with the likes of us? Why would a God of love make human beings who must grapple with sin, endure a lifetime of suffering, and still not turn out as perfect and glorious as the eternal Lord Jesus? And from His own "selfish" vantage point, surely God would prefer to spend eternity with billions of sons as mighty, pleasing and perfect as Jesus Christ than with billions of sanctified and glorified, yet paler, creatures.

Forever with a glorified man or an angel?

Paul looked forward to death, describing "departing" and "being with Christ" as "far better" than staying alive (Phil. 1:23). He was driven, not just by his desire to share knowledge of Jesus Christ with others, but by the prospect of spending eternity "with the Lord" (1 Thess. 4:17).

Paul looked forward to death, describing "departing" and "being with Christ" as "far better" than staying alive (Phil. 1:23).

Who cannot help but quiver with joy at the thought of eternity with loved ones and billions of other brilliant glorified saints? But to be told that Paul yearned to spend eternity with one fellow creature in particular stretches credulity beyond its limits. I imagine you would be quite excited to see an angel right now, as I would. But to contemplate spending forever in the presence of a glorious angelic being or a magnificently glorified mortal whom I have never seen eyeball to eyeball or face to face doesn't excite me. Forever is a long time. The whole idea strikes this author as absurd.

Now, to believe we will spend eternity with the infinitely illustrious and glorious God Himself, that's a whole 'nother story!

Let's get logical. Scripture plainly tells us that the saved will spend eternity in the presence of God (Rev. 21:3). Why oh why would Paul mention spending eternity in the presence of a created being as his ultimate joy when he knew he would spend eternity in the presence of God Himself? This paradox vanishes entirely if "the Lord" is Himself divine. Paul's hope of being in the presence of the Lord is the same thing as being in the presence of God. (See also "Simple logic, astounding conclusion".)

Unitarianism responds to all such objections by recourse to the theory of God's deputy (see box "Unitarianism"). Since Jesus was appointed by God, then His presence amounts to the same thing as God's presence. However, this answer is far from convincing.

The sinlessness of Jesus

Both testaments speak loud and clear about the innate tendency of human beings to sin and both proclaim the universal truth that all have sinned (Job 4:17-19, Rom. 3:23). Two individuals — Job and Paul — are described as blameless [according to the law] (Job 1:8, Phil. 3:6). Yet deep down where it really counts — in the thoughts and intents of the heart — both were exposed as sinners. Jesus alone is described as “without sin” (Heb. 4:15). Indeed, His sinlessness lies at the heart and core of His sufficiency as our atoning lamb or goat; just as sacrificial animals had to be without physical blemish, Jesus had not a single spiritual blemish.

Unitarian thinking falls apart on this point. Its inability to come up with any explanation of how a naturally sinful man could get through even childhood without committing a single sin — and remember, that means without ever thinking an evil thought — is evidenced by its silence on the subject. Some [totally unconvincing] attempts are occasionally made to explain that a human being can indeed act as a sufficient atonement for others' sins, but none that this author is aware of are made to explain how Jesus remained untainted by a single blemish. About the only effort this author has seen to explain His sinlessness is this brief statement from the Biblical Unitarian website:

Keep in mind that we strongly affirm the reality and necessity of the virgin birth of Christ as the only way he could have been born without the inherent sin of mankind that would have disqualified him from becoming the Lamb of God.

This assertion is apparently meant to be accepted at face value as a sufficient explanation; it is not. Socinian Unitarianism's central point is that Jesus was an ordinary man with whom God worked in a special way, turning that man into God's agent of salvation. Here we see an admission that he was certainly not “ordinary”. But more to the point, this statement provides no theological basis for suggesting that Jesus' conception by God somehow took away the “inherent sin” of mankind. And Mary, Jesus' mother, was human. Are we to draw the necessary conclusion that “inherent sin” is passed on through the sperm?

Human beings universally need to be saved from sin. The notion that any human being actually could be specially worked with in such a powerful way that he could become the agent of salvation of his fellows cannot be sustained. Furthermore, we repeat a theme raised above: if God was capable of preventing one human being from ever sinning, why not do the same for all of us? Then we could all enjoy equal glory with Jesus Christ. Why oh why oh why subject the rest of us to the misery that sin brings?

Scriptural silence on creation of Jesus

Scripture abounds with references to the material creation; it is mentioned over and over as a mighty work of God, one that we should consider carefully and learn from (Rom. 1:20). Yet those Unitarians who believe Jesus was an incarnation of a created angelic being — a view known as Arianism — would agree that the creation of mankind's Savior, Jesus, must rank considerably higher on the ladder of importance in the grand scheme of universal history. Why, then, the silence? Surely more coverage would be given to the creation of the future Savior of all mankind than to the creation of the mere physical stage on which He would play His saving role. Unitarians have only one passage that can be seriously proposed as referring to the creation of Jesus Christ — Revelation 3:14:

And to the angel of the church of the Laodiceans write, "These things says the Amen, the Faithful and True Witness, the Beginning of the creation of God".

Unitarians have only one passage that can be seriously proposed as referring to the creation of Jesus Christ

Yes, this verse could be taken as showing that Jesus Christ was created. However, in light of the absence of any other passage with a similar meaning, by contrast with the abundance of passages about earth's creation, suspicion that it could mean something else is warranted. Certainly, the Greek word from which "Beginning" is translated, arche, is used elsewhere to refer to the beginning of something; see Matthew 19:4, for instance. But it has another meaning, too. Luke 12:11 says, "Now when they bring you to the synagogues and magistrates and authorities…"; the same Greek word is here translated "magistrates". Luke 20:20 uses arche with the meaning of political "power". Titus 3:1 reminds believers to be "subject to rulers (arche)". Other passages where the same word refers to rulership and authority are Romans 8:38, 1 Corinthians 15:24, Ephesians 1:21; 3:10; 6:12, Colossians 1:16; 2:10 and 15.

We are not merely justified but virtually compelled to view the Revelation revelation to be emphasizing Jesus' glory and authority — He rules over all creation. Morris says, "Ruler (arche) combines the thoughts that Christ has the supreme authority over creation and that he is the origin of created being" (1987, p. 81).

Further, the concept of Arianism seems, to this author, to be disproved beyond all fixing by Hebrews 1:5:

For to which of the angels did He ever say: "You are My Son, today I have begotten You"? And again: "I will be to Him a Father, and He shall be to Me a Son"?

As much as we should avoid proof-texting, this one verse gives Arianism virtually no room for maneuver. From here on, unless otherwise clarified, we will be dealing with the Socinian version of Unitarianism — the belief that Jesus Christ was an ordinary mortal like any other (with the exception of His miraculous conception) to whom God gave special help in resisting temptation and special understanding of all things spiritual.

Let us now leave aside philosophical concepts and deal with Scripture itself.

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