If Jesus Became a Man, Can a Man Become a God?
Mormons frequently ask two related questions pertaining to the fact that Jesus Christ became a mortal human being. (1) If Jesus can have a physical body, why can’t the Father also have one? (2) If Jesus can be a man and yet be God, why cannot we human beings become gods?
The answer to the first question is that the Father could take on a human body if he wanted, but this is not the issue. There does not seem to be any reason in biblical or orthodox Christian theology why the Father could not have become incarnate—taken on human nature—had he wished to do so. The issue here is twofold: whether a physical being can become a God, and whether it is essential for God to be a physical being in order to be complete. Let’s make sure we understand the points being made here.
First, the issue is not whether God can become a man, but whether a man can become a God. An all-powerful God could, if he chose, humble himself to enter into his own creation and become one of its members while still remaining the eternal Creator, and this is what Christianity historically affirms God the Son did in the Incarnation (John 1:1, 14; Col. 2:9). His doing so is paradoxical (beyond our full comprehension) but not self-contradictory or nonsensical. The reverse, on the other hand, is impossible. A finite, temporal creature cannot become the infinite, transcendent, eternal God. If God has always been God from eternity past, then if you’re not already God, you can never be God. It’s too late. Even God cannot make that happen. That is, while God can do paradoxical things, he cannot do the nonsensical (like making 2 plus 7 equal 41.9746), and making a creature that has not always been God into a being that has always been God is simply nonsense.
Second, in LDS theology a physical body is (at least normally) essential or necessary for full exaltation or the full completion of becoming God. (The qualification “at least normally” is needed because in LDS doctrine Jesus Christ was in some sense a God before he came in the flesh, and the Holy Ghost is a God even though he still has no physical body.) Joseph Smith and the LDS Church following him have taught that God the Father was once a mortal man who became exalted to Godhood. Human beings, according to LDS teaching, were preexistent spirits that needed to become physical, flesh-and-blood beings in order to progress toward becoming gods. Biblically, of course, God the Father has no need of a physical body and is already completely and fully God without one.
LDS theology faces an interesting dilemma at this point. On the one hand, if one holds that the Father was a man before he became a God (as Joseph Smith taught), this establishes precedent for us to become gods, but invites the question of how Jesus—or the Holy Ghost—became a god. On the other hand, if one holds that the Father was God before he became a man, this explains how Jesus and the Holy Ghost might also be gods, but eliminates any precedent for us, who are not already gods, to become gods. Of course, this second view also has the problem that it does not agree with what Joseph Smith taught at the end of his life.
What, then, does the Bible teach regarding the idea that Jesus Christ, who of course is a man, is also God? In the Incarnation, the Son did something that the Father in his person has not done, namely, become a physical, visible, human being. The apostle Paul describes the incarnate Son Jesus Christ as “the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15). This statement is similar but not identical to what Genesis says about human beings. Whereas God made man “in his image” (Genesis 1:26-27), Jesus Christ actually is the very image of God. This means that Christ is the definitive, visible representation (“image”) of God who by nature is invisible. Christ is not a copy of a physical deity, but a physical image of the non-physical, invisible God. He is able to be this physical representation of the invisible God because the fullness of God’s being and nature dwells in Christ bodily (Colossians 2:9). In short, Jesus Christ is God in human form; he is God in a human body.
One of the more puzzling aspects of LDS doctrine is its view of Jesus Christ as Jehovah, the God of the Old Testament. Mormons acknowledge that Christ was the Maker of this world and the God of the Old Testament patriarchs and of Israel. As such, Old Testament saints prayed to him (Jehovah, who was Jesus Christ), placed their faith in him, worshiped him, and glorified him. It would seem that Christ was as much God as he could be. Yet LDS doctrine traditionally has affirmed that Jesus Christ was “exalted” when he rose from the dead and ascended into heaven. For example, Joseph F. Smith, the sixth President of the LDS Church, stated:
“Even Christ himself was not perfect at first; he received not a fulness at first, but he received grace for grace, and he continued to receive more and more until he received a fulness [see D&C 93:11–13]. Is not this to be so with the children of men? Is any man perfect? Has any man received a fulness at once? Have we reached a point wherein we may receive the fulness of God, of his glory, and his intelligence? No; and yet, if Jesus, the Son of God, and the Father of the heavens and the earth in which we dwell, received not a fulness at the first, but increased in faith, knowledge, understanding and grace until he received a fulness, is it not possible for all men who are born of women to receive little by little, line upon line, precept upon precept, until they shall receive a fulness, as he has received a fulness, and be exalted with him in the presence of the Father?”1
The citation from Doctrine & Covenants given in the above comment reads as follows:
“And I, John, bear record that I beheld his glory, as the glory of the Only Begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth, even the Spirit of truth, which came and dwelt in the flesh, and dwelt among us. And I, John, saw that he received not of the fulness at the first, but received grace for grace; And he received not of the fulness at first, but continued from grace to grace, until he received a fulness; And thus he was called the Son of God, because he received not of the fulness at the first” (Doctrine & Covenants 93:11-14).
Somehow, then, in LDS doctrine Jesus Christ was a God before he became a man, yet he was not full or complete in his Godhood. Joseph Fielding Smith, the tenth President of the LDS Church, put it this way:
“The Savior did not have a fulness at first, but after he received his body and the resurrection all power was given unto him both in heaven and in earth. Although he was a God, even the Son of God, with power and authority to create this earth and other earths, yet there were some things lacking which he did not receive until after his resurrection. In other words he had not received the fulness until he got a resurrected body.”2
Here is another statement, made in LDS general conference, to the same effect:
“That Jesus attained eternal perfection following his resurrection is confirmed in the Book of Mormon. It records the visit of the resurrected Lord to the people of ancient America. There he repeated the important injunction previously cited but with one very significant addition. He said, ‘I would that ye should be perfect even as I, or your Father who is in heaven is perfect.’ This time he listed himself along with his Father as a perfected personage. Previously he had not.”3
According to LDS doctrine, then, mortality and resurrection in a physical body were necessary for Jesus Christ to attain “some things lacking” prior to his coming to the earth in the flesh. With all due respect, it must be said that from an orthodox and biblical Christian perspective this would mean that Christ was not truly God. The point here is not to suggest that Mormons are insincere when they affirm that Christ was a God before his mortality, but that what LDS doctrine means by “God” is something quite different from what Christianity historically means by “God.” For Christianity as well as Judaism, God is by definition the self-sufficient, self-existent, eternally perfect Being, fully and absolutely complete in himself from all eternity to all eternity. In LDS doctrine, this does not describe Jesus Christ, whether before or after his mortal life on earth. For that matter, it does not describe the LDS view of Heavenly Father, either.
There is a sense in which the Bible does teach that the incarnate Christ was exalted at his resurrection and ascension. However, this exaltation was not the attainment of some fullness of divine nature or character that he had lacked prior to coming to the earth. Rather, biblically speaking, Jesus’ exaltation was a return to his pre-creation glory after he humbled himself. Christ referred to this exaltation when he said the following to the Father the night before he died: “And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed” (John 17:5 ESV).
Paul teaches the same thing. He points out that in heaven Christ existed “in the form of God” and yet “emptied himself” by becoming a human being and “humbled himself” by dying on the cross. This is why God the Father “highly exalted him” and called on everyone in creation to worship Jesus Christ as Lord (Philippians 2:6-11). By “exalted” in context, then, Paul does not mean that the Father helped Jesus attain to a higher form of life or deity than he had before he came to the earth as a humble man. Paul means that God the Father honored his Son, who was already fully God by nature and right, by restoring him to his rightful status and position after the Son had graciously come as the Father’s servant for our salvation. What is different now is that it is the incarnate Son who is “exalted” (Philippians 2:9) or “glorified” (John 17:5). The Son was the fully glorious, perfect God before the Incarnation, but now through his death, resurrection, and ascension he is in that highest of all possible positions as the God-man: as the unique Son of God in glorified, immortal humanity.
Since Jesus was already eternally and fully God before he became a man, his becoming a mortal human being does not constitute precedent for us to become the same kind of being as Jesus. Realizing that if we have not been God from all eternity we can never become God, we must affirm that Jesus Christ is uniquely God incarnate. We may through faith in Christ become many things that he is—perfect in love and holiness, resurrected with glorious, immortal bodies like his resurrected human body—but we will not become gods or be like Christ in every way. That fact does not diminish our hope but instead rests it on the solid truth about our Lord and Savior, God’s one and only eternal Son Jesus Christ.
1. Joseph F. Smith, Gospel Doctrine, 5th ed. (Salt Lake City: Deseret, 1939), quoted in Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph F. Smith (1998), 153. All footnoted references are from works published by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints except as indicated otherwise.
2. Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation (1954), 1:33, quoted in Doctrines of the Gospel Student Manual (2004), 10.
3. Russell M. Nelson, “Perfection Pending,” Ensign (Conference Edition), Nov. 1995, 87.