I have to say, I have enjoyed my conversation with Carl Mosser about theosis as an account of what it ultimately means to be redeemed. I still don’t really get it. That may have something to do with language—an “allergic reaction” on my part to the “deification terminology”—but it clearly has a lot to do, too, with different understandings of New Testament eschatology.
In a comment, Carl briefly set out the eschatological frame for an understanding of redemption that might be restated in terms of theosis or deification.
1. What is “presently true of the Son in his resurrected, ascended, glorious humanity will be made true of the redeemed”.
2. This is what is meant by the quite widely used imagery of “firstfruits”, “firstborn”, “first among many brothers” (1 Cor. 15:20; Col. 1:18; Rom. 8:29; cf. Heb. 2:10-11). What Jesus experiences first, the redeemed will experience later.
3. Comprised in this condition of glorious new humanity are “all the NT themes that are tied together in the patristic concept of deification: union with Christ, being one with the Father and Son, being filled with the Spirit and the fullness of God, adoption to divine sonship, being begotten with imperishable seed, being raised immortal and incorruptible, sharing in the glory of God, being made a new creation, growing in likeness of Christ, restoration of the divine image and likeness, imitation of God, undergoing ethical transformation, and so forth”.
My guess is the most evangelicals would baulk at the introduction of the word “deification” but would otherwise broadly affirm such an account of the relationship between Christ’s resurrection and that of the redeemed. My argument is that the relationship is more or less sound but has been wrongly framed. So in the interest of clarity, I will set the two schemes side-by-side.
1. The politics of resurrection
The conventional account assumes the widest possible scope for resurrection. Jesus is raised as a second Adam, the beginning of a new humanity constituted of the redeemed, which is such a comprehensive participation in the glory and life of God that it is not an exaggeration to call it a theosis (1).
The New Testament, however, does not for the most part speak of the resurrection of Jesus as the means by which he assumes a new “glorious humanity”. What he gains as a consequence of his resurrection and exaltation to the right hand of God is lordship or authority. Sitting at the right hand of God is itself a symbol of royal status. In order to gain that lordship he must be raised from the dead and must therefore be the beginning of a new humanity, but that is not the principle objective. The objective is the political one—to exercise sovereignty.
So my contention is that New Testament eschatology is fundamentally and irreducibly political—or perhaps better political-religious—in the sense that it belongs mostly to the story of YHWH’s rule over his own people and the nations in history. This sets narrative boundaries to the significance of resurrection.
New Testament eschatology assumes an apocalyptically coherent chronology: a period of “tribulation” or “distress” as the churches bear faithful witness to the resurrected Jesus as Lord, culminating—in a foreseeable future—in judgment on the pagan world and on Rome in particular, the confession of Jesus as Lord by the nations, the vindication of the churches, and the inauguration of Christ’s reign over the nations accompanied by the resurrected martyrs (2). This corresponds, conveniently, to John’s “first resurrection” of the martyrs. His “second resurrection” of all the dead is actually of only marginal interest to the New Testament (Rev. 20:4-6, 12-13).
2 Thessalonians 1:5-2:12, for example, is a much neglected passage in modern constructions of Paul’s eschatology (partly, of course, because of doubts over authenticity), but it is a detailed description of the resolution at the parousia of an immediately relevant political-religious crisis. The Thessalonian believers are suffering persecution, but when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels, he will bring an end to their suffering and punish their enemies. This may take longer than they would like—certain events must first unfold, having to do with a Nero-like “man of lawlessness”. But Paul’s language stitches this predicted “end” tightly into the fabric of a realistic historical expectation.
Because we have no direct interest in the political dimension of Jewish apocalyptic—usually because we assume it belongs to a remote future rather than a remote past—we filter it out, which leaves us with the sort of generalised, humanity-oriented eschatology that may be reformulated in terms of theosis.
2. Firstborn of those who would suffer
The Jewish background to resurrection has to do not with the renewal of humanity but with the restoration of Israel and in particular the vindication of the martyrs. It’s not a global or cosmic event but a national event (cf. Dan. 12:2-3). It is something that happens at a time of national crisis.
In the New Testament story the resurrection of Jesus anticipates this resurrection: he is Israel raised from the dead on the third day (cf. Hos. 6:1-2); he is the Son of Man who embodies in himself, or otherwise represents, the saints of the Most High against whom the blasphemous little horn on the head of the fourth beast—a type of “man of lawlessness”—made war.
The fundamental ground for his relationship with those who are raised at the parousia, when he comes to defeat the political-religious enemies of his people and establish his own rule over the nations, is that they have suffered as he suffered. This, I think, is what is in view when Jesus is described as the firstfruits or firstborn from the dead (1 Cor. 15:20; Col. 1:18), the firstborn of many brothers (Rom. 8:29), who would bring many sons because he suffered as they would have to suffer (Heb. 2:10-18).
This is especially clear in Romans 8:12-39. The chapter is usually read as a general account of what it means to be Christian, but I think Paul’s argument is more sharply focused than that, controlled by a pressing apocalyptic narrative.
1. Believers are children of God because they have the Spirit, but they will be “heirs with Christ” if they suffer with him, and if they suffer with him, they will be glorified with him (8:17).
2. The sufferings of the present eschatological period are not worth comparing to the glory of the age to come, when Christ will be confessed by the nations and the churches will be vindicated for having served him faithfully (8:18).
3. Creation looks to the redemption of the suffering churches for an assurance of its own eventual liberation from its bondage to decay (8:19-22).
4. Those who are called to follow this path are being “conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers” (8:29). Again, in the context this is not a general moral-spiritual Christlikeness. It is the conformity of those who are suffering to the image of the one who suffered, died and was vindicated by his resurrection from the dead.
5. Those who are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered will be conquerors, as Jesus conquered, and will not be separated “from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (8:35-39).
Paul’s very personal admission that he expects to share in Christ’s sufferings, “becoming like him in his death”, in the hope of experiencing the power of his resurrection (Phil. 3:10-11), also fits neatly into this paradigm.
3. Inheritance of the kingdom
What the suffering church is said to inherit, finally, is not the personal transformation that comes with resurrection and theosis but the kingdom, understood in this-worldly and political-religious terms. Christ and the martyrs reign from heaven, but they reign for the sake of the life and mission of the people of God on earth while time lasts.
The close connection between inheritance and kingdom is everywhere apparent. Jesus says that the meek will inherit the earth or the land (Matt. 5:5). The twelve will sit on thrones judging Israel when they inherit the life of the age to come (Matt. 19:28-29). The Son’s inheritance is not a glorious new humanity but the vineyard of Israel (Matt. 21:38). Righteous Gentiles will “inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Matt. 25:34).
Faith is the means by which the descendants of Abraham will inherit the world (Rom. 4:13; Gal. 3:18; 3:29). The unrighteous will not “inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 6:9; Gal. 5:21; Eph. 5:5). Those who are raised inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 15:50). The “glorious inheritance in the saints” derives from the fact that Christ has been seated at the right hand of God, above all rule and authority, etc. (Eph. 1:18-21). Those who share in the inheritance of the saints have been transferred to the kingdom of the Son (Col. 1:12). God has chosen those who are poor to be “heirs of the kingdom” (Jas. 2:5).
This is not every reference to inheritance in the New Testament, but it is hard to discern any other coherent theme that would explain the concept. The supreme attainment of the saints is not transformed humanity but kingdom, understood as reigning with Christ throughout the coming ages.
Significantly—or perhaps just coincidentally—Psalm 82, which features prominently in the arguments about theosis, ends with the cry, “Arise, O God, judge the earth; for you shall inherit all the nations!” In my view, the New Testament tells us how this will come about—through the faithful witness of a persecuted community whose suffering and vindication is anticipated in the death, resurrection and exaltation of Jesus.