The post-apostolic, institutional church has always proclaimed that Jesus preexisted in heaven. And it has concluded that his preexistence indicates that Jesus was and is God. Yet Judaism has allowed for the conception of certain men, such as Elijah or Moses, as having preexisted without being God. And many Christian scholars have admitted that a human being conceived as preexisting does not necessitate deity.
In modern times, the idea that Jesus preexisted has been seriously challenged. One argument is that if Jesus preexisted as a fully developed personality, that does not allow for human development and therefore compromises his being fully human.
Luke claims Jesus had a normal human development. Luke says of Jesus’ childhood, “The Child continued to grow and become strong, increasing in wisdom; and the grace of God was upon Him” (Luke 2.40 NASB and throughout). Notice that Luke also distinguishes the Child Jesus from God, which always indicates that Jesus was not God. Then Luke adds, “And Jesus kept increasing in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man” (v. 52). How could Jesus have increased in favor with God if he was God? William Barclay therefore states, “one of the most difficult of all ideas [is] the idea of the preexistence of Jesus.”
Christians claim they base their beliefs on the Bible. While the first three gospels of the New Testament (NT) contain nothing about Jesus having preexisted, the Gospel of John seems to have several passages that do so. And there are notable texts in the Apostle Paul’s letters and the book of Hebrews that do, which we will now consider.
Paul does not state explicitly anywhere in his NT letters that Jesus preexisted. Thus, Karl-Josef Kuschel asserts, “there is no sign of any unambiguous and explicit statement about pre-existence in the Christology outlined by Paul.” However, most scholars have thought Paul says it implicitly. Gerhard Kittel observes, “Christological pre-existence sayings are a constituent part of the whole of Paulinism.”
But how did Paul conceive of Jesus having preexisted? Did Paul think it was a personal subsistence or merely a personification? There is quite a difference.
James D. G. Dunn generally is regarded as the preeminent scholar on Christology. It is partly due to his book, Christology in the Making. Dunn contends, “There is no good evidence that Jesus thought of himself as a pre-existent being” or that Paul thought Jesus either preexisted or possessed deity. Dunn claims that much of Paul’s language of preexistence is personified Wisdom language, as in “Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1.24), and that Paul never intended for it to be understood as literal preexistence. Dunn maintains that by the time Paul wrote Romans, in the mid-50s, “there is no evidence that Christian thought had so far evolved the idea of incarnation, or that the language of preexistence when referred to Christ (1 Cor 8:6) would as yet be taken to imply his personal preexistence, or that talk of his being ‘sent’ (Rom 8:3) was as yet understood to imply a descent from heaven.” Dunn concludes, “Paul was not seeking to win men to belief in a pre-existent being.”
Regardless of whether or not Jesus preexisted, D.A. Carson logically says, “preexistence does not entail deity.” Indeed, Second Temple Judaism regarded certain pious men as having preexisted; yet Jews did not think this belief compromised their monotheism.
John Knox warns, “the more fully the logic of pre-existence is allowed to work itself out in the story [of Jesus], the less important the [his] resurrection is bound to become.”
Most Christians have thought that Paul implicitly affirms Jesus’ preexistence in 1 Corinthians 8.9. Therein, he states, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for our sakes He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich.” The common view of this passage has been that the word “rich” indicates Jesus’ personal preexistence, and the words “poor” and “poverty” signify him abandoning this lofty status at his incarnation. Karl-Josef Kuschel says of this text, “Traditional exegesis has always interpreted this passage in terms of pre-existence Christology and incarnation, as have present-day exegetes right across all confessional camps.”
But Dunn says of 1 Corinthians 8.9, “Though he could have enjoyed the riches of an uninterrupted communion with God, Jesus freely chose to embrace the poverty of Adam’s distance from God, in his ministry as a whole, but particularly in his death” for our salvation. Dunn adds, “2 Cor 8.9 is as a vivid allusion to the tremendous personal cost of Jesus’ ministry … this self-impoverishment … That Paul intended an allusion to the preexistent Christ’s self-abasement in incarnation must be judged unlikely.”
Until Jesus was thirty years old, he probably had an emotionally rich and fulfilling life as the eldest of four brothers and several sisters (Mark 6.3). And he must have had a good reputation as the carpenter of Nazareth and its vicinity. But in a most profound and untold single act of self-denial, Jesus laid aside this comfortable lifestyle, left home, and undertook an itinerant, public ministry that involved financial poverty and even forfeiture of life. He once told his disciples about himself, “The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head” (Matthew 8.20/Luke 9.58).
Many Christians have thought that the NT letter of Hebrews presents Jesus as having preexisted. For example, it says God “made the world” and that he did so “through” Jesus (Hebrews 1.2). And it further says of Jesus, “He comes into the world” by God giving him “a body” (10.5). Yet this author also relates that at Jesus’ heavenly ascension, “He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty [God] on high; having become as much better than the angels” (1.3-4). But if Jesus preexisted as God, he always was better than the angels and therefore could not later have become so. Dunn concludes, “the author of Hebrews has no place in his thinking for pre-existence as an ontological concept.”
One thing seems to rule out the actual preexistence of Jesus in this letter of Hebrews. For Jesus to be Savior and High Priest, he had to be like us in every way except sin. The author of Hebrews explains concerning Jesus, “He had to be made like His brethren in all things, that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest” (Hebrews 2.17). Again, this requires that Jesus did not literally preexist, since the rest of us humans did not. So, it seems God created the world “through” Jesus simply by having him in mind.
To see a list of titles of 130+ posts (2-3 pages) that are about Jesus not being God in the Bible, with a few about God not being a Trinity, at Kermit Zarley Blog click “Chistology” in the header bar. Most are condensations of my book, The Restitution of Jesus Christ. See my website servetustheevangelical.com, which is all about this book, with reviews, etc. Learn about my books and purchase them at kermitzarley.com. I was a Trinitarian for 22 years before reading myself out of it in the Bible.