Would you follow Jesus even if he weren’t God?

May 19, 2017

I argued theology recently with a clergy acquaintance who said that he would continue to follow Jesus—and teach others to do the same—even if the classic Christian doctrines were wrong (not to mention the Bible, from which these doctrines derive) and Jesus were merely human. When I asked him why, he said that his personal experience has taught him that following Jesus is the path to joy and fulfillment.

“But you can’t really say that, can you?” I said. “Because if your personal experience is based on anything real—and you aren’t merely playing mind games—then Jesus must be God.” Because at least part of what has made following Christ so satisfying—for example, the work of the Holy Spirit in your life and the heartwarming feeling that Christ is with you—is made possible by the fact that Jesus really is God. 

I went on to argue that if Jesus isn’t God, then Christ’s death was meaningless, since only God can impute our sins on Himself and suffer the penalty for them. And if that didn’t happen, as Paul says, we are still in our sins. “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (1 Cor 15:18-19).
(Yes, I realize that Paul is talking about resurrection here, but for him the resurrection only has meaning in relation to Christ’s atoning death on the cross. As he says, “I resolved to know nothing but Christ and him crucified.” The cross is the center of the gospel, not the resurrection.)

When my friend talked about “following Jesus,” he mostly meant obeying Jesus’ ethical teaching. He cited the Sheep and the Goats from Matthew 25 and Jesus’ foot-washing in John 13: We ought to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit the imprisoned, he said. We ought love others as Christ loved us. (To which I said, citing Romans 7, “Good luck with that!”)

Apart from Christ’s atoning death on the cross, however, which is made possible by the fact that God himself was dying for us, following Jesus’ ethical demands are impossible. For example, when my clergy friend reads the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, does he not first recognize, with terror, how much he’s like a goat rather than a sheep? And when he reads John 13, does he not sympathize with Peter’s objection that Jesus wash not only his feet but “also my hands and my head”?

Our primary need, as Peter rightly understands, is to be rescued from our sins, not to be given a new set of commands to follow, no matter how good these commands are! This was the angel’s message to Joseph in the annunciation of Matthew 1: “[Mary] will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (v. 21).

Besides, why would a minister of the gospel even entertain the thought of following Jesus even if…?

Well, I think I know… It’s a hedge against doubt and fear. Doubt about the truth of God’s Word and fear that we’re wasting our lives—especially us pastors of all people! We had to pay for a master’s degree to do this job—not to mention the opportunity cost of failing to find more lucrative work! If Christianity isn’t true, at least “following Jesus” remains a worthwhile endeavor.

Not for me… I would not follow Jesus if he isn’t God. As Lewis famously said, if he isn’t God, he’s a liar or lunatic—not someone to whom we can entrust our lives. If Jesus isn’t God, I freely admit I’m wasting my life. I am “most to be pitied.”

So it’s a good thing that Jesus is God! I believe it, and I happily and passionately defend it. I pray that God will strengthen the faith of any of my fellow clergy who doubt. I pray that they’ll share my convictions about the trustworthiness of God’s Word. I pray—as I told my friend, alluding to Paul in Acts 26—that he and the rest of my fellow clergy would “become like me, except for these chains”—the chains in my case being whatever prevents me from being a more winsome, at times less angry, messenger. 😑

Help me, Jesus! Thank God for the cross!

24 Responses to “Would you follow Jesus even if he weren’t God?”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    Absolutely correct! As Paul says, if Christ is not risen, we may as well “eat, drink, and be merry!”, for tomorrow we die. I just finished a Facebook debate with a missionary kid turned atheist on this very point (he still goes to church, because that “motivates him to be moral”). No luck. Likely the same with you.

  2. Grant Essex Says:

    Hypothetically speaking, would the atheist have a fuller life by emulating Jesus (even though he didn’t believe in Him), or by the “eat, drink and be merry” route?

    • Tom Harkins Says:

      A good question! However, I think Paul answers that. The question of following Christ is not merely a matter of following “good moral maxims,” but of being willing to “deny oneself, take up his cross, and follow me.” If there is literally no judgment or afterlife to worry about, then “getting the most you can” out of life would appear to be the most logical course to take. As the commercials say: “Grab the gusto.” “You only live once.” “Just do it.” Etc. It might be a good thing to “stay healthy” and “stay out of trouble,” etc., but those are only pragmatic considerations, not moral.

      • Grant Essex Says:

        Exactly. But, that doesn’t answer the question of who would have the fuller life.”Grabbing the Gusto”, in my experience, is shallow and provides little comfort. While living a life of humility, service and moral rectitude can be quite fulfilling on the purely human level. It has its own rewards built in, so to speak.

      • Tom Harkins Says:

        Again, a good point. Ultimately following God is better for a person than not. However, keep in mind that when we follow, we are being aided by and indwelt by the Spirit, so we are receiving benefits from taking actions in keeping with his leading that people without the Spirit are not. Also, don’t you think that the “humility” and “service” we strive for are gratifying to us more so than they would be to an “ordinary person” who does not have God in his life? Even the Disciples had a hard time with the idea of not wanting to be “at the top.” The “void” experienced by lost people should drive them toward God, but were there in fact no God to be driven to, then it is doubtful they would be “happier” to be “on the bottom,” so to speak. Anyway, fortunately this is not a question we have to wrestle with much, seeing as there is a God and he does bless obedience and service.

  3. Grant Essex Says:

    And, that’s a proper conclusion.

    I do find it interesting that when you examine the lives of non-Christians, there are those who are happy hedonists, and there others who are happy servanthood types. Conversely, there are unhappy folks in both camps as well.

  4. Jesus is not God. Jesus is the sent one from God and the way to God. We have all the reason to follow Jesus because it is by him that we can receive salvation. He did not fake his temptation, suffering and death which he would have done when he would be God, because man can do God nothing and God can not be tempted nor die.

    the argument of this article is just the opposite of what he says “I went on to argue that if Jesus isn’t God, then Christ’s death was meaningless, since only God can impute our sins on Himself and suffer the penalty for them.”

    Why can only God impute our sins on Himself? In case Jesus is God then it would mean God is a cruel liar, because He has told us that He does not tell lies and that He is a Spirit Who knows everything and Who has no beginning and no end and Who can not be tempted . He told us also that man can not see God and live.

    Many saw Jesus and there where even people who came to live again.

    Also when God had to come to the earth to perform his charade, He could have solved the problem straight ahead in the garden of Eden. He also is then very cruel to let mankind still suffer after he faked his death.

    For mankind when Jesus is God there is no assurance at all that there would be a resurrection of man. Only by the Biblical truth, God having declared Jesus to be His only begotten son, having given him the authority to act in His Name, having him taken out of the dead, we do have in Christ the hope in this life and can look forward to that man who opened the gate for us to the Kingdom of God.

    • brentwhite Says:

      Too much to respond to here. But the biggest problem is your confusion about the incarnation. God is spirit, by all means, until God the Son becomes fully human in the incarnation. This is basis upon which mankind can look at God and live, or that God was tempted, for instance. Ancient Christian thinkers like Irenaeus called this “recapitulation”: God in Christ does for us what we cannot do for ourselves. We are unable to overcome temptation; Christ overcomes it for us. We are unable to live lives of perfect obedience to the Father; Christ lives it for us. God doesn’t “fake” his death nor does he perform any kind of “charade.” Because God the Son becomes fully human, he truly suffers and truly dies. But he does so sinlessly—apart from which we cannot be saved.

      What I’m describing, of course, depends on the doctrine of the Trinity. If God isn’t a Trinity, then what I’m describing is impossible. But the Trinity is implicit in scripture. I hope you’ll study up on that doctrine, and why the Church has always embraced it as Christian orthodoxy.

      I’m curious: what is your religious or church background?

      • As a follower of Christ Jesus I believe in the same One God of the Nazarene Jewish master teacher Jeshua, Jesus Christ, Whose God is the Singular God of Israel, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, plus the One and Only One God of the many christians who stayed in the faith of the Jewish rabbi.

        I belong to the Bible Researchers who follow, like most sincere Bible Students, the tradition of Jesus and do not follow the Trinitarian Christian denominations.

        Trinity is not at all implicit in scripture. It is a human dogmatic teaching contrary to the Words of God.

      • Tom Harkins Says:

        Who is the Holy Spirit, in your view? Also, why did Jesus say, “I and the Father are one”? Why did Peter say, “Our God and Savior Jesus Christ”? There are multitudes of scriptures which teach the divinity of Jesus. John says: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Etc.

      • God Himself is Spirit and when one speaks of the Holy Spirit one can speak of the Pneuma or the Ruach, denoting the Being, Causing, Breath, Power or Handling of God. The Power of God is not an other personality next to God the Father, like Trinitarians have it about God the Father and God the Spirit, as two parts of the three-headed god.

        You seem to miss that the apostle Joh is speaking about a Word, which is the result of Speaking. He refers to two essential things, namely first of all he wanted to write his Gospel in the way Moses wrote the Genesis, now the apostle looking at the Genes is of the New Word with Jesus as the New or Second Adam. Like in the beginning of the Old Times God Spoke and His Word brought into being, now God also had spoken, in the Garden of Eden having made a promise for the solution against the curse of death , next to the young girl having brought Jesus into her womb without she having had any sexual relationship. By God’s Power His Word (His Speaking) became a reality and the girl with child bore the sent one from God, Whom God declared to be His only begotten son and not to be Him.

        Please look also what there is exactly written, literally translated:
        Yah Chanan (#Jo 1:1-3): In the beginning the Word having been and the Word having been unto God and God having been the Word he having been, in the beginning, unto God all through his hand became: and without him not even one being whatever became. (Aramaic New Covenant; ANCJ Released: 1996 Contents: New Testament Source Used: Exegeses Bibles (1996)Location: Tyndale House, Cambridge, United Kingdom)

        Or what could be simply translated in English
        “In the beginning existed the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was a god.” (The Monotessaron)

        1 In [the] beginning+ the Word*+ was, and the Word was with God,*+ and the Word was a god.*+ 2 This one was in [the] beginning+ with God.+ 3 All things came into existence through him,+ and apart from him not even one thing came into existence.

        What has come into existence 4 by means of him was life,+ and the life was the light+ of men.* 5 And the light is shining in the darkness,+ but the darkness has not overpowered it. (Ref.B)

      • brentwhite Says:

        John’s gospel wasn’t written in Aramaic originally, yet you’re purporting to discern the original meaning from Aramaic? That’s really strange. John’s gospel was written in koine Greek, like the rest of the New Testament.

      • Nowhere did we write that John’s gospel was written in Aramaic.

      • brentwhite Says:

        Who’s “we”?

        Sorry if I misunderstood. You’re quoting above from a supposedly “literal” translation called the Aramaic New Covenant, which, as best I can tell from a quick Google search, is a translation of an Aramaic text. Since John wasn’t written in Aramaic, then the Aramaic, at best, is translation of the original Greek. In other words, who cares what a translation of a translation says when we’re talking about what the original language says?

        If I’m confused about what the New Aramaic Covenant version is, I apologize.

        No one anywhere near the mainstream of biblical scholarship, of any confessional or denominational stripe, believer or unbeliever, theist or atheist, translates John 1:1 to mean the “Word was a god.” I assume you’ve gleaned that meaning somehow from this Aramaic translation. But who knows?

        What church do you go to? Or with what religious organization are you affiliated, if you don’t mind my asking?

      • We are an association of Bible Researchers. Our members are non-trinitarian Christians, belonging the the Bible Researchers, Bible Students, International Bible Students, Christadelphian Biblestudents, Christadelphians, Church of Abrahamic Faith, Restoration Church, Antipass, Jewish Christians, a.o.

        Concerning the translation from the Greek you may find an accurate translation here
        “In the beginning existed the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was a god.” (The Monotessaron)

        “In a beginning was the Word, and the Word was with the God, and a god was the Word.” (Emphatic Diaglott – interlineary side)

        Further in context

        1 In the beginning was the Word,+ and the Word was with God,+ and the Word was a god.*+ 2 This one was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into existence through him,+ and apart from him not even one thing came into existence.

        What has come into existence 4 by means of him was life, and the life was the light of men.+ 5 And the light is shining in the darkness,+ but the darkness has not overpowered it. (NWT)

      • brentwhite Says:

        The NWT? The Jehovah’s Witnesses Bible? Are you serious? Bye.

      • Concerning your idea that no one anywhere near the mainstream of biblical scholarship, of any confession or confessional or denominational stripe, believer or unbeliever, theist or atheist, translates John 1:1 to mean the “Word was a god.” we must say that there are many many more in lots of languages who translate it properly like the original text indicates.

        Underneath we give you some English versions and want to let you know there are still more.

        Harwood, 1768, “and was himself a divine person” Thompson, 1829, “the Logos was a god

        Reijnier Rooleeuw, 1694, “and the Word was a god” Hermann Heinfetter, 1863, [A]s a god the Command was” Abner Kneeland, 1822, “The Word was a God”

        Robert Young, 1885, (Concise Commentary) “[A]nd a God (i.e. a Divine Being) was the Word”

        “In a beginning was the [Marshal] [Word] and the [Marshal] [Word] was with the God and the [Marshal]

        “[Word] was a god.” John 1:1 21st Century NT Literal

        Belsham N.T. 1809 “the Word was a god.”

        Leicester Ambrose, 1879, “And the logos was a god”

        J.N. Jannaris, 1901, [A]nd was a god”

        George William Horner, 1911, [A]nd (a) God was the word” James L. Tomanec, 1958, [T]he Word was a God”

        Siegfried Schulz, 1975, “And a god (or, of a divine kind) was the Word” Madsen. 1994, “the Word was a divine Being”

        Becker, 1979, [a God/god was the Logos/logos]

        Stage, 1907, [The Word/word was itself a divine Being/being].

        Bohmer, 1910, It was strongly linked to God, yes itself divine Being/being]

        Holzmann, 1926, “ein Gott war der Gedanke” [a God/god was the Thought/thought]

        Rittenlmeyer, 1938, “selbst ein Gott war das Won” [itself a God/god was the Word/word]

        Smit, 1960, “verdensordet var et guddommelig vesen” [the word of the world was a divine being]

        Schultz, 1987, “ein Gott (odor: Gott von Art) war das Wort” [a God/god (or: God/god of Kind;kind) was the Word/word].

        John Crellius, Latin form of German. 1631, “The Word of Speech was a God”

        Greek Orthodox /Arabic translation, 1983, “the word was with Allah [God] and the word was a god”

        Robert Harvey, D.D., 1931 “and the Logos was divine (a divine being)”

        Jesuit John L. McKenzie, 1965, wrote in his Dictionary of the Bible: “Jn 1:1 should rigorously be translated  …  The word was a divine being.’

        Joseph Priestley, LL.D., F.R.S. “a God”

        Lant Carpenter, LL.D “a God”

        Andrews Norton, D.D. “a god”

        Paul Wernle. Professor Extraordinary of Modern Church “a God”

        Couple this with others who have chosen an alternative rendering focusing on the quality of the Logos, and we have a very strong case:

        Goodspeed, 1939, “the Word was divine.”

        Toney, 1947, “the Word was god.”

        New English, 1961, “what God was, the Word was”

        Moffatt, 1972, “the Logos was divine.” International linglish Bible, 2001, “the Word was God*[ftn. or Deity, Divine, which is a better translation, because the Greek definite article is not present before this Greek word] .”

        Simple English Bible, “and the Message was Deity”

        Charles A.L. Totten, 1900, “the Word was Deistic [=The Word was Godly] .”

        International Bible Translators N.T. 1981 “In the beginning there was the Message. The Message was with God. The Message was deity.”

        Ernest Findlay Scott, 1932, “[A]nd the Word was of divine nature” Philip Harner, 1974, “The Word had the same nature as God”

        Maximilian Zerwich S.J./Mary Grosvenor, 1974, “The Word was divine”

        Translator’s NT, 1973, “’The Word was with God and shared his nature.”

        Barclay, 1976, “the nature of the Word was the same as the nature of God”

        Schneider, 1978, “and godlike sort was the Logos.” Schontield, 1985, “the Word was divine.”

        Revised English, 1989, “what God was, the Word was.”

        Cotton Parch Version, 1970, and the Idea and God were One

        Scholar’s Version. 1993, “The Divine word and wisdom was there with God, and it was what God was.”

        Lyder Brun (Norw. professor of NT theology), 1945, [the Word was of divine kind]

        Haenchen, 1980, [God (of Kind/kind) was the Logos/logos]

        Die Bibel in heutigem Deutsch, 1982. [He was with God and in all like God]

        Haenchen, 1980, [God (of Kind/kind) was the Logos/logos]

        Die Bibel in heutigem Deutsch, 1982. [He was with God and in all like God]

        Haenchen Or. By R. Funk), 1984, “divine (of the category divinity) was the Logos”

        William Temple, Archbishop of York, 1933, “And the Word was divine.”

        Ervin Edward Stringfellow (Prof. of NT Language and Literature/Drake University, 1943, “And the Word was Divine”

        The above show, that the NWT is clearly not on its own when it translates into English the latter part of John 1:1 “a god” and it can be clearly seen that the many [above] translators understood the grammar bhind John 1:1 clause C and what the apostle John was driving at with his message, ” and the Word was a god”! [theos]

        Also in many other languages you may find clearly translated that the word was “a god” and this also in translations of trinitarian churches or organisations.

      • brentwhite Says:

        This is a misleading list, since people like William Temple, the translator of the Cotton Patch Gospel (a paraphrase), and the translators of the New English and Revised English Bibles, however they translated John 1:1, didn’t believe that it indicated that Jesus was less than fully God. When they attributed divinity to the Word, they weren’t thereby saying that Jesus was some kind of lesser divine being. Besides, the translation in question is the NWT’s “the Word was a god.” Most of the above don’t translate it that way. Why?

        Given how old most of the references above are, I’m not in a position to know those people, what they wrote in context, or what they believed. Needless to say, none is near the forefront of Bible scholarship today.

  5. Grant Essex Says:

    Brent, you’re dealing with a “true believer” of another stripe. Don’t waste your time.

    All I need to do is to read all of John 1 – For instance, “And the Word became Flesh and dwelt among us” When taken in its whole, John 1 could not be clearer about who he believed Jesus to be.

    • brentwhite Says:

      I know, Grant. Thanks. There are plenty of good Christian ministries who devote all their resources to answering and debating deeply heterodox sects such as this one. I can only bang my head against the wall. Still, it’s good to be reminded that harmful non-Trinitarian groups are out there.

  6. Grant Essex Says:

    I’ll leave the debating to William Lane Craig 🙂 When I am going back and forth, say with Tom, I consider it a learning process. We are both sharpening our faith and trying to go deeper. Neither of us is “wrong” per se, because our differences are being discussed within the boundaries of accepted Protestant Theology. Free will, infant baptism, and the like are not make or break issues. The “Cult” stuff is.

    • brentwhite Says:

      Yes… You said the “C” word. I’m glad. In my limited interaction with cult groups, even above, I sense that an openness to true dialogue is impossible: they’re not listening; they’re merely spouting the party line that has been handed to them “from above.”

      There are people who are trained to dialogue with them and seem undaunted by the task—James White, for one. You’re right: let’s leave it to the experts.

  7. Eduardo Says:

    Would love to have seen a scripture on Jesus being God. Philippians, Colossians, Hebrews, john 1, 8, etc. Do not say that, people hope it said that but I like to call that, rebuttal faith.

  8. Eduardo Says:

    If your salvation depends on understanding WLCraig’s presentation of the Deity/Trinity, none of us would get to heaven. One verse, just one, where Jesus or the bible says, Jesus is God. Please don’t mention “true believers” because that is what i read here, fundamentalist ie: James White.

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