Q: I believe in God. I see the perfection of the universe and the beauty of his creation. I was raised in a Christian home, have studied the Bible extensively, and I believe the teachings of Jesus are God-inspired. Here is my issue: I have a strong faith in God but my faith in Jesus as “God” is not as strong. I believe many people feel this way but are not willing to say it because they were raised being told that Jesus is God and not just a God-inspired prophet. What are your thoughts?
— From M, via email
A: I am a part of that ancient Jewish community of belief that shares your admiration for the deep and clearly God-inspired teachings of Jesus, but stops short of affirming his divinity. However, let me try to share with you a sympathetic outsider’s view of some of the reasons for this Christian belief that Jesus is God and their essential place in Christian theology.
For Christians, Jesus must be God because only God could die to atone for the sins of humanity. The task of a prophet is to speak God’s words of moral caution to a sinful world. The task of a messiah is to redeem those sins and that world. The death and resurrection of Jesus accomplishes that salvific task. God is invisible and cannot appear in human form so, according to Christian belief, God assumes human form in order to die and live again. This offers to humanity a path to salvation that is simply impossible through unaided acts of human atonement and forgiveness.
However, the mystery of the appearance of God in human form raises several deep theological problems, and your question is one of them. Is Jesus totally God or also partly human, and is all of God incarnated in the human person Jesus of Nazareth?
The Christian answer is the Trinity. God as God is different from God as Jesus, but not really. The council of Nicaea in 325 CE resolved that Jesus was completely divine despite his appearance as a human being. Christians who still believe that Jesus was a completely human prophet are outside the Christian theological mainstream. Jesus is not a spokesman for God. Jesus is God even though God is still the Father.
The third element of the Trinity — the Holy Spirit (formerly the Holy Ghost) — is the Christian version of the Jewish “Spirit of God” (in Hebrew: ruach elohim) that enters all prophets and all God-inspired people with a vision of God’s truth.
The question then arises as to how these three elements of the Trinity relate to one another. Are God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit three different spiritual beings? The Christian answer is that they are three aspects of a single being — three aspects of the totality of God’s presence here on earth. This is not like my identity as father, rabbi and author. It is much deeper and different. I am just one person with several roles. The Trinity describes three beings that are distinct in their tasks but not distinct in their essence.
The reason that the concept of the Trinity is so hard to grasp even for pious Christians is that the Trinity is by far the deepest and most recondite Christian mystery. A mystery is different from a problem. A problem is a question we constitute and can solve some day. All the questions of science are problems. A mystery is a question within which we ourselves are constituted. We cannot ever solve a mystery because we are in the question and we are in the answer. I don’t want to be spooky or incomprehensible here. What I want you to try to understand is that there is no easy way to comprehend Jesus as God, but to be a Christian you just have to get there. Jesus as a prophet is a good belief, but it is not good enough to make you a Christian. You need to believe that Jesus is God. The notion that God created the earth is a good belief, but it is not good enough to make you a Christian. You need to believe that God appeared on earth to die for your sins and be resurrected.