Is Jesus Christ a lesser deity?
Summary: Jehovah’s Witnesses teach that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is “a god” but a lesser deity, inferior to the Father. They deny that he is Jehovah, the true God. However, the New Testament emphatically teaches that Jesus is God.
This article is one of a series of articles explaining in detail the doctrines of Jehovah’s Witnesses and showing why those teachings are not in harmony with the facts and teachings of the Bible. For an overview, see our article on what Jehovah’s Witnesses believe.
What the Watchtower Teaches
In previous articles in this series, we have already given some attention to Jehovah’s Witnesses’ doctrine concerning the person of Christ. We have responded specifically to three claims made by the Watchtower about Jesus Christ: that he is really Michael the archangel, that he was God’s first creation and the only thing Jehovah God created directly, and that it is wrong for Christians to worship or pray to Jesus. In our responses, we have shown that the New Testament actually distinguishes Jesus as “the Lord” from the archangel Michael, that none of the proof texts used by the Watchtower mean that Christ was God’s first creature, and that the New Testament strongly encourages Christians to give all divine honors, including worship and prayer, to the Lord Jesus.1
In this article, we will look at Watchtower doctrine about Christ from another angle: its claim that Christ is a god, a divine being, but one that is lesser or inferior to Jehovah, the Almighty God. According to the Watchtower Society, the belief that Jesus is God was “a pagan idea” that did not come from the Bible:
An example of an important Christian belief that they corrupted with a pagan idea is the doctrine, or teaching, about who Jesus Christ is. The Bible calls him the Son of God, but those who loved Greek philosophy taught that he is God. Later, church leaders argued about this doctrine at several church councils. They could easily have found the answer to the question about the identity of Jesus Christ if they had looked in the Scriptures. But most of them did not think that what the Bible said was important enough.2
The main reason that Jehovah’s Witnesses give for denying that Jesus is God is that they find passages in the Bible that teach that Jesus was subordinate to God:
Jesus never considered himself equal to God. On the contrary, Jesus repeatedly showed that he was subordinate to Jehovah. For example, Jesus referred to Jehovah as “my God” and “the only true God.” (Matthew 27:46; John 17:3) Only a subordinate would use such expressions in referring to another. A worker who refers to his employer as “my boss” or “the one in charge” is clearly assuming an inferior position.3
What about biblical texts that call Jesus “God”? The Watchtower Society handles these texts in various ways. In one instance, their New World Translation renders the verse in a different way so that it does not refer to Christ as God:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was a god” (John 1:1 NWT [2013 ed.]).
In most instances, the NWT renders the verse so that it is not referring to Christ as God or even as “a god” (notably Titus 2:13; Heb. 1:8; 2 Peter 1:1). In one place, however, the Society was not able to come up with a revisionist translation: when Thomas said to Jesus, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28 NWT). Here the Watchtower offers a different interpretation of the verse, which we will examine in due course.
The Watchtower, the Early Church, and the Deity of Christ
The Watchtower Society’s claim that the church fathers did not even bother to consult the Bible to learn about the identity of Jesus Christ because “most of them did not think that what the Bible said was important enough” is a shockingly blatant lie. The church fathers derived their belief about Jesus Christ as God from the Bible. In their writings on the doctrine of the Trinity, they gave close attention to various biblical passages of relevance.
One of the principal defenders of the doctrine of the Trinity was the fourth-century theologian Athanasius. His main book pertaining to the subject was On the Incarnation of the Word, which expounds the doctrine of the deity of Christ from Scripture, citing dozens of biblical texts. Right at the beginning, Athanasius sets aside erroneous views of God and creation from Platonism and other Greek philosophies that are inconsistent with the teachings of Scripture. At the end of the book, he writes:
Let this, then, Christ-loving man, be our offering to you, just for a rudimentary sketch and outline, in a short compass, of the faith of Christ and of His Divine appearing to usward. But you, taking occasion by this, if you light upon the text of the Scriptures, by genuinely applying your mind to them, will learn from them more completely and clearly the exact detail of what we have said. For they were spoken and written by God, through men who spoke of God. But we impart of what we have learned from inspired teachers who have been conversant with them, who have also become martyrs for the deity of Christ, to your zeal for learning, in turn.4
Athanasius’s comment here is quite representative of the thinking of the church fathers. The authority for doctrine was “the text of the Scriptures,” nothing else. They learned biblical doctrine as the books of the New Testament were handed down and their doctrine taught by Christian teachers who in some cases literally gave their lives for their belief in “the deity of Christ.” Such teachers obviously were not interested in compromising the Christian faith to make it palatable to pagan intellectuals. The church fathers considered their belief in Jesus Christ as God to be opposed to Greek philosophies such as Platonism, not as an accommodation to those philosophies.
Jesus Is Not the Father
Most of the objections that Jehovah’s Witnesses bring against the doctrine that Jesus is God make one of two mistakes.
First, their objections often assume erroneously that what we mean is that Jesus is the Father. One often hears Jehovah’s Witnesses ask if we think Jesus prayed to himself, for example. Such questions misunderstand orthodox Christian theology to mean that the Son is the Father. The orthodox position is that Jesus Christ is God, but he is not God the Father. Rather, he is the Son, who is fully God and is one God with the Father (and with the Holy Spirit).
This understanding of the deity of Christ is thus part of a larger doctrinal concept called the Trinity, which we will discuss further in a subsequent article. Here we simply need to make it clear that the doctrine of the Trinity does not teach that Jesus is God the Father, or that the Father and the Son are two different roles played by the same person. Rather, the doctrine affirms both that Jesus, the Son, is God and that he is personally distinct from God the Father. Thus, biblical texts that distinguish Jesus from the Father do not conflict with the orthodox view of Christ. Neither do texts that distinguish Jesus from “God,” since the Father is commonly called God in the New Testament.
The Father is the God of the Incarnate Son
Second, Jehovah’s Witnesses’ objections often miss the point that Christian theology does not view Jesus as simply God, but as both God and man. This doctrine is known in Christian theology as the Incarnation. Jesus is God incarnate (in the flesh), God the Son come into the human race for our redemption. He has existed eternally as God, but in the flow of history he became a human being by being conceived and born of the virgin Mary. The classic way of expressing this idea is to speak of Jesus Christ as one person (the Son) existing in two natures, deity and humanity.
The idea of the Incarnation actually explains a number of paradoxes about Jesus in the New Testament. For example, the New Testament affirms both that Jesus was tempted (Heb. 4:15) and yet could only do what the Father did (John 5:19); that Jesus died (Phil. 2:8) and yet no one could take his life away from him (John 10:18); that he did not know the day or the hour (Mark 13:32) and yet that he knew all things (John 16:30). The best explanation for these paradoxes comes directly from the New Testament itself: Christ was in the form of God but had humbled himself to take on the form of man (Phil. 2:6-8; see also Col. 2:9).
In becoming a man, the eternal, divine Son was performing an astonishing act of self-humiliation. Paul says that Christ,
“though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:6-8 NRSV).
The fact that the Christ “humbled himself” by becoming a man explains why Jesus sometimes referred to the Father as his God (Matt. 27:46; John 20:17; Rev. 3:12). Even after his death and resurrection, Jesus Christ continues to exist as a man (Acts 17:31; 1 Cor. 15:47; 1 Tim. 2:5), and as such he honors the Father as his God.
Texts Calling Jesus God
The Old Testament contains brief glimpses—one might even describe them as hints—that the Messiah would be God himself (Isa. 7:14; 9:6). However, the idea that the Messiah was God was directly revealed only when Jesus came, died, and rose from the dead. Several of the New Testament writers refer to Jesus as God (John 1:1; 20:28; Acts 20:28; Rom. 9:5; Titus 2:13; Heb. 1:8; 2 Peter 1:1; 1 John 5:20). John 1:1 is especially notable here because it speaks of Christ before creation as God:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being. (John 1:1-3 NASB)
Here John tells us that the Word (a term now being used to refer to a distinct person) existed “in the beginning” and was already “God.” The Word is clearly on the “creator” side of existence, because rather than having been created himself, “all things came into being through Him” (v. 3).
The Watchtower Society has found it necessary to translate John 1:1 and several other similar texts to avoid their referring to Christ as God. The New World Translation rendering of the last part of John 1:1, “the Word was a god,” is probably the most notorious feature of that version. The reason given by the Watchtower in defense of this rendering is that the Greek text does not use the definite article (what we would in some places translate as “the”) in front of the noun for “God” (theos) in the last part of John 1:1, kai theos ēn ho logos. Frankly, this argument reveals something of an amateurish understanding of the Greek language, as my co-author Ed Komoszewski and I explained in our book on the deity of Christ:
Variations in the biblical writings, including those of John, between theos (“God”) and ho theos (“the God”) have no effect whatsoever on the meaning of the word theos. If John had meant to signal that ho theos meant “God” and theos meant “a god,” his wording in the rest of the Prologue (John 1:1-18) is very strange. After verse 2, which summarizes the first two clauses of verse 1, theos appears five times in the Prologue, each time without the article, and in the first four occurrences everyone agrees it means “God” (vv. 6, 12, 13, 18a, 18b).
As mentioned earlier, one text the Watchtower was not able to reword was John 20:28, where Thomas, upon seeing the risen Christ, said to him, “My Lord and my God!” Jehovah’s Witnesses have long struggled to explain this statement. Was Thomas simply crying out to Jehovah in heaven in surprise, as when a person today says “O my God!” That won’t work because Jews had strong scruples against such use of divine names and in any case no one would say “My Lord and my God” in that way. Was Thomas referring to Jesus and the Father, with “my Lord” meaning Jesus and “my God” meaning the Father? That doesn’t work, either, because John tells us that Thomas’s whole statement was directed to Jesus (John 20:28a). The Watchtower’s usual explanation is quite involved:
Thomas had heard Jesus pray to his “Father,” calling him “the only true God.” (Joh 17:1-3) So Thomas may have addressed Jesus as “my God” for the following reasons: He viewed Jesus as being “a god” though not the almighty God. (See study note on Joh 1:1.) Or he may have addressed Jesus in a manner similar to the way that servants of God addressed angelic messengers of Jehovah, as recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures. Thomas would have been familiar with accounts in which individuals, or at times the Bible writer of the account, responded to or spoke of an angelic messenger as though he were Jehovah God. (Compare Ge 16:7-11, 13; 18:1-5, 22-33; 32:24-30; Jg 6:11-15; 13:20-22.) Therefore, Thomas may have called Jesus “my God” in this sense, acknowledging Jesus as the representative and spokesman of the true God.5
We can quickly rule out the “a god” interpretation of John 20:28. The language simply does not permit this explanation. The Watchtower author seems to have realized this, since he hurries on to his real explanation: Thomas was merely addressing Jesus “as though he were Jehovah God” because Jesus was an authorized messenger appearing on God’s behalf. Will this explanation work any better than the others do?
The Watchtower’s interpretation can be tested quite easily. Suppose John had recorded Thomas saying to Jesus, “My Lord!” Would Jehovah’s Witnesses understand this to mean that Jesus was not really Thomas’s Lord and that Thomas was simply addressing Jesus as the Lord’s messenger? Would anyone understand Thomas in this way? It is highly doubtful. Then why should “My Lord and my God!” be interpreted in that way?
The Watchtower cites a long string of biblical references in which they say someone spoke to or about an angelic messenger as though he were God. In none of these passages, however, does the speaker who sees the angel refer to that angel as “my God.” In the one place where the speaker addresses the angel as “my lord,” he clearly distinguishes the angel from Yahweh:
“And Gideon said to him, ‘Please, my lord, if the LORD is with us, why then has all this happened to us? And where are all his wonderful deeds that our fathers recounted to us, saying, “Did not the LORD bring us up from Egypt?” But now the LORD has forsaken us and given us into the hand of Midian’” (Judges 6:13 ESV).
Such passages simply have no bearing on the meaning of texts such as John 1:1 and John 20:28, which need to be interpreted in their own contexts. The entire Gospel of John reveals the Son to have a unique relationship with the Father in which he is not merely a messenger but is a divine person who shares the Father’s honor, power, and glory (John 5:23; 10:27-30; 17:5; etc.).
Jesus is Jehovah
Although the name Yahweh (“Jehovah”) does not appear in the New Testament, the Greek text commonly uses the word kurios (“Lord”) in place of “Yahweh” in quotations using the divine name in the Hebrew text of the Old Testament.6 In numerous places, the New Testament calls Jesus Christ “Lord” in contexts that clearly identify him as the Lord Yahweh of the Old Testament (e.g., Mark 1:3; Rom. 10:9-13; 1 Cor. 8:6; 1 Peter 2:3; 3:13-15). For example, Paul writes:
Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Phil. 2:9-11)
Many modern readers of the English text mistakenly think that the “name that is above every name” is the name Jesus, but this is incorrect. The exalted name that is “bestowed” on Jesus is the name Lord, since Paul says that what God wants everyone to confess is “that Jesus Christ is Lord.” In Paul’s Jewish religious context, this use of the term “Lord” would clearly be understood as standing for the name Yahweh. For Jews, the name Yahweh was indeed “the name that is above every name,” as Jehovah’s Witnesses also agree. Moreover, Paul’s wording here is drawn from one of those exclusive monotheistic passages in which Yahweh asserts that he alone is God and there is no other: “Turn to me and you shall be saved, those from the end of the earth. I am God and there is no other…. To me every knee shall bow and every tongue shall confess to God” (Isa. 45:22, 23 LXX).7
Jehovah’s Witnesses generally object that Paul cannot be identifying Jesus as Yahweh because Paul says that God “highly exalted” Jesus and “bestowed” on him the name that is above every name. What this objection misses is that Christ had humbled himself by taking human nature and living out the role of the Servant in order to die on the cross for us (Phil. 2:5-8). Having humbled himself in this way, Christ did not then exalt himself, but rather looked to God the Father to exalt him. “Highly exalted” here does not mean that Christ changed into a different kind of being, but that the Father honored him greatly. In effect, the Father declared to the world who Jesus really was and summoned the world to give Jesus the honor that was due to him. Bestowing a name on someone in this context was not a mere matter of assigning a label to that individual, but of expressing one’s respect and honor toward that person.
So now we have come back to our earlier point about the Incarnation. The risen Christ is not, as Jehovah’s Witnesses are taught, an angel who became a man and then became an angel again. Nor did God temporarily become a man and then abandon his human nature to go back to being just God again. Rather, Jesus Christ is God the Son, eternal deity, humbling himself to join himself forever to the human race whom he had made in his image. And he did it for us (2 Cor. 8:9) and for the Father’s glory (Phil. 2:11).
This is the Christian faith in a nutshell. It did not come from pagan religion. It came from the Bible.8
1. See parts 8-10 of this Answers to Jehovah’s Witnesses series: Robert M. Bowman Jr., “Is Jesus Michael the Archangel?”; “Is Jesus Christ God’s First Creature?”; and “Is It Wrong to Worship or Pray to Jesus?” (Cedar Springs, MI: Institute for Religious Research, 2018).
2. “True Christians Respect God’s Word,” Watchtower, 15 Jan. 2012, 5-6.
3. “Jesus Christ—Our Questions Answered,” Watchtower, April 1, 2012, 5.
4. Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Word 56, trans. Archibald Robertson, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature, 1892), 4:66.
5. This is the note for John 20:28 in the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures: Study Edition (Watchtower, 2013).
6. See Robert M. Bowman Jr., “Was the Name Jehovah Originally Used in the New Testament? Answers to Jehovah’s Witnesses #5” (Cedar Springs, MI: Institute for Religious Research, 2017).
7. This is quoted from the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament with which Paul and other New Testament writers frequently quoted.
8. For a full treatment of this subject, see Robert M. Bowman Jr. and J. Ed Komoszewski, Putting Jesus in His Place: The Case for the Deity of Christ (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2007).