When I was in seminary, I was privileged to be part of a tight-knit group of about eight buddies who all worked for the same company to help support our young families while we were in school. Of course groups like that often have nicknames for each of its constituent members. Mine was “Fang.” Another guy (from Nebraska, naturally) was “Husker Breath.” Then there was “the Bull,” and so on.
From time to time, we really picked on each other–in a spirit of fun and great brotherly love, of course. At one time or another it was dished out pretty heavily on each of us. But one guy in the group held a “trump card.”
He was a great friend–genuinely self-effacing about 99.9 percent of the time. But when verbally backed into a corner, he was known to remind us of a certain anecdote from his college days when he had played basketball for the University of Southern California Trojans. It seems that he was walking past a cluster of girls on campus at USC one day, when one of the young co-eds boldly pointed right at him and announced to the others, “Look! A Greek god!” And there it was–the apotheosis of Neil!
No, Neil didn’t pull a King Herod. (Acts 12:21-23) He never accepted the praise. It was only when he was being verbally harassed in the most intense fashion that he ever resorted to reminding us that he was the only one in the group to actually have been proclaimed a “god.” He certainly never agreed with the girl’s conclusion. He never made that claim about himself. It’s just that none of the rest of us had ever been mistaken for “gods,” and we all knew it. We all laughed at the anecdote. (I think Neil was really embarrassed by it when it had happened.) We laughed at ourselves, and we certainly recognized the ridiculousness of the proposition.
The Human Desire for Apotheosis
But from the very beginning, as a matter of fact, too many humans have fallen again and again for the temptation to desire elevation to godhood. (Genesis 3:5) Even today, some people believe that, eventually, humans may be able to live forever. Some people believe that, as time goes on and on, science will enable us to be, in some sense, omniscient.
Ethically, we already have people deciding that it’s okay to terminate the lives of humans who have committed no crime–some whose only “crime” is to have been born with a birth defect, for example. A human court outrageously has already ruled that each human being has the innate right “to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”
But living forever is not the same thing as being God. Being God entails being self-existent–eternally uncaused. And knowing much (in whatever massive quantity) is not the same as knowing all that is, all that was, all that ever will be, and in addition, all that could have been, as well as all that might ever potentially be. The omniscience of God includes all actualities, plus all potentialities. And deciding for ourselves “the meaning of it all” is not the same thing as being around forever to declare definitively for all creation, “No, this is the meaning of it all.”
For all of man’s aspirations, most of us know that we will never be gods. Most of us know that we will not even be the greatest of all human beings.
God’s Desire Required Kenosis
Jesus Christ never claimed to be simply the greatest of human beings. [He declared that John the Baptist had gained that honor–at least among individuals up to his own time. (Matthew 11:11)] Jesus was not a human who achieved for Himself some kind of apotheosis or ascendancy to godhood. He was quite the opposite.
Jesus already was God. Jesus, “though he existed in the form of God did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped.” (Philippians 2:6) He didn’t hold onto, at all costs, the powers, rights, and privileges that belong uniquely to the Supreme Being.
Philippians 2:7 says that Jesus Christ “emptied himself by taking on the form of a slave, by looking like other men, and by sharing in human nature.” This is the opposite of an apotheosis or deification of a man. Jesus provides us with the only example ever of kenosis or emptying oneself of divine privilege.
The omnipresent Son of God limited Himself to presence in one human body. The omnipotent Son of God restricted Himself to human strength that had to be developed over time in order to wield even a carpenter’s hammer.
The One who had received angelic praise in the glory of paradise for eons upon eons (John 17:5) humbled Himself to put up with curses, insults, and accusations before being executed in gory fashion on a cross. (Mark 14:65)
So Why Did He Do It?
He did it out of love. (John 3:16; Romans 5:8) It is precisely because human apotheosis is impossible that divine kenosis was necessary–if any human was to gain eternal life. Nothing but love compelled Jesus Christ, the Son of God, to restrain His deity, to take on human form (John 1:14), to live a sinless life (Hebrews 4:15), and to take upon Himself the penalty of sin for every last human being. (1 John 2:2)
How Can We Know That’s True?
Jesus Christ’s tomb was empty on the third day, just as Jesus had said it would be. The Roman soldiers couldn’t prevent the disappearance of the body. And the religious leaders who had instigated His execution couldn’t produce a body to prove Jesus was still dead. But Jesus’ followers reported over and over again that they had seen the bodily resurrected Christ, that they had spoken with Him, and that they had even eaten with their resurrected Lord. (John 20:25; 1 Corinthians 15:3-9) Jesus’ resurrection proved that God had accepted His sacrifice on man’s behalf. (1 Peter 3:18)
What’s It Mean, Then?
We who can never cause ourselves to exist can have a personal, conscious relationship with the Giver of all life. And through that relationship, we can live forever. (John 17:3) We can live forever, not only free from pain and sorrow (Revelation 21:4), but also free from evil and corruption. (Revelation 22:15) We can live forever in peace with the Author of moral perfection. (Romans 5:1) We won’t be gods, but we’ll be immortal. And God’s Son? Well, He’s still God, and He still indwells that resurrected human body. (Colossians 2:9)
That’s quite a great thing that Jesus Christ did.