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!

6 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.


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