In an essay for the Springfield News-Leader (January 11, 2013) Pastor Mark Kiser blames all societal ills on the fact that people have tried to divorce themselves “from the influence and loving arms of a gracious God, Jesus Christ” (Mark Kiser article). Kiser is the President of “Reclaiming Missouri for Christ,” although I was unable to identify the church of which he is pastor.
In early Christian texts Jesus is presented as a Jewish man to whom were attributed mighty works, wonders, and signs (Acts 2:22); he lived and died in Palestine in the early years of the first century A. D. His preferred term for himself was “son of man,” but his followers in the latter half of the first century described him as “God’s Anointed” and “Son of God,” a title given to other Greco-Roman “sons of God”—but his earliest followers did not make him God, nor did he claim to be God. Early Christian texts in the latter half of the first century, however, describe four different ways that the followers of Jesus thought he had become a “son of God”: at his birth (Matthew, Luke), at his baptism (Mark), at his resurrection (Paul). In John, however, Jesus was always the pre-existent son of God, and the only one of his kind.
Kiser’s description of Jesus as God is not consistent with early Christian faith or even Christian orthodoxy. Not even the prologue to the Gospel of John, the Christ hymn of Philippians; and the Trinitarian Creeds of the 4th century (Apostles Creed, Nicene Creed), which describe a very close relationship between God, Jesus, and Holy Spirit (i.e., three persons in One) go as far as Pastor Kiser and actually turn Jesus into God. Tertullian, a late 2nd century churchman and author, who was the most precise of early Christian writers in his description of the Trinity, insisted on a clear distinction between God and the son, something the later creeds obscure. The earliest Christians worshipped Yahweh the God of Hebrew faith, and regarded Jesus who, as God’s Anointed, was believed to have played a special role in the divine economy. Nevertheless, at the end of the first century there are clear indications that the role of Jesus was becoming far more important in Christian faith. For example, Pliny the Younger, a Roman special commissioner to Pontus-Bithynia, reported that Christians in Bithynia had admitted meeting on certain days at daybreak to chant a hymn “to Christ as to a God.” And the outburst of Thomas in John 20:28 seems to elevate the role of the resurrected Christ to a position assuming the role of deity.
Pastor Kiser raises an interesting question. Can humans become divine, and receive worship as a God? The answer is yes they can—and they have done so. It was a common feature of Pagan antiquity to believe that human beings of great accomplishments had a God for a father and a human for a mother, and they as “sons of God” developed cult followings. For example, Theagenes was only a Greek athlete of legendary prowess, but according to the Greek Historian Pausanias, by the 2nd century cult centers existed across Greece where Theagenes received divine honors, and sacrifice was rendered to him as to a God.
In Greco-Roman antiquity anyone who knew Homer’s writings knew the Gods often came to earth in the disguise of humans. So for example, Paul and Barnabas were mistaken for Gods (Hermes and Zeus) at Lystra (Acts 14:8-18), and Paul was mistaken for a God at Malta when the viper bite him but did not kill him (Acts 28:1-6). The Roman Centurion, Cornelius, began to worship Peter as a God at Caesarea (Acts 10:23-26). Likely, the Christ Hymn of Philippians (2:5-11) should be understood in such a context (see particularly, Phil 2:5-8): Christ Jesus as a pre-existent divine figure does not become human but rather merely assumes the disguise of a human being.
It is apparently an easy matter even for people even in the modern world to believe that humans can become divine. Until the end of World War II the Japanese emperor Hirohito was believed to be divine and worshipped as such—he did not renounce his divinity until 1946. There are other examples.
Dethroning the traditional God of Jewish and Christian faith and replacing God with Jesus, as Pastor Kiser has done, is not unprecedented, however. In the ancient world Zeus was believed to have dethroned his father Cronus, thereby becoming the Lord of the Universe—just as Cronus himself at an earlier time had dethroned his father Uranus.
Can humans become Gods? The evidence seems to suggest that whatever you are able to convince people to believe will become their reality.
A shorter version of this blog appeared in the Springfield News-Leader on January 19, 2013: http://www.news-leader.com/article/20130119/OPINIONS02/301190018/-1/7daysarchives/Man-turning-into-god-ancient-idea
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University