The Jews answered Him, saying, “For a good work we do not stone You, but for blasphemy, and because You, being a Man, make Yourself God.” Jesus answered them, “Is it not written in your law, ‘I said, “You are gods”’’? If He called them gods, to whom the word of God came (and the Scripture cannot be broken), do you say of Him whom the Father sanctified and sent into the world, ‘You are blaspheming,’ because I said, ‘I am the Son of God’? (John 10:33-36)
While Christ’s interlocutors are shocked that Jesus, the incarnate God, makes Himself to be God, Jesus offers in rebuttal an even more shocking notion – you all are gods as it says in the Scripture! That humanity was created by God from the beginning capable of being united to God is a major theological point of Christianity from the very beginning of the Christian movement.
St Athanasius (d. 373AD), On the Incarnation 57: ‘For he was incarnate that we might be made god’ (PPS 44a:167). The Discourse [of St Gregory of Nyssa – d. 384AD] was directly influenced by this work, but the same thought was expressed earlier and often in the tradition, e.g., by St Irenaeus (d. 202AD) (‘the Word of God, our Lord Jesus Christ… did, through His transcendent love, become what we are , that He might bring us to be even what He is Himself’ (Against Heresies 5, preface [ANF 1:526] and Clement of Alexandria (d. 212AD) (‘the Word of God became man, that you may learn from man how many may become God’ – Exhortation to the Heathen, 1 [ANF 2:174].” (St Gregory of Nyssa, CATECHETICAL DISCOURSE, note page 117)
The sense in which we participate in the divine life is clearly present in many different authors of the early Patristic era. This idea of participating in the divine life is thought to be the very idea of salvation. For sin had separated us from God. Christ reunites us to our Creator to the full extent that God always intended for us His human creatures. The Church Fathers understood this to be the great mystery of God’s plan of salvation.
“The orbit within which they [the Church Fathers] worked was quite different, being marked out by the ideas of participation in the divine nature, rebirth through the power of the Spirit, adoption as sons, new creation through Christ – all leading to the concept of deification (theopoiesis). Their attitude is illustrated by the statement attributed to Athanasius, ‘The Son of God became son of man so that the sons of men, that is, of Adam, might become sons of God . . . partakers of the life of God . . . Thus He is Son of God by nature, and we by grace.’ Cyril of Alexandria [d. 444AD] made the same point: ‘We are made partakers of the divine nature and are said to be sons of God, nay we are actually called divine, not only because we are exalted by grace to supernatural glory, but also because we have God dwelling in us.” (JND Kelly, EARLY CHRISTIAN DOCTRINE, p 352)
In this thinking we can understand why the Church Fathers would have seen the modern Christian idea that we die and go to heaven to be a total reduction of salvation to some distant, pie-in-the-sky heaven at the end of time. The Fathers on the other hand understood that we now in this life already participate in the Divine. We become united to Christ, not just in a heavenly afterlife, but in our lifetime we already participate in what Christ is revealing to us about both God and humanity. We each are capable of becoming both God’s temple on earth – the place where God dwells with humans – as well as heaven – the very dwelling place of God.
Christ is risen!