“You Are Gods”: The Satanic Version

The point of Jesus’ statement, “You are gods” (John 10:34) might be summed up as theosis or being found “in Christ” or being filled with the Holy Spirit. That is, the explanation is inclusive of the New Testament doctrine of salvation. Christians, as Peter says, are “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4) and so participate and are in union with God. The yeast that is integrated and assimilated into the whole batch of dough is divine. The union between a husband and wife marks the mystery of human and divine union (Eph. 5). As Irenaeus puts it, “For it was for this end that the Word of God was made man, and He who was the Son of God became the Son of man, that man, having been taken into the Word, and receiving the adoption, might become the son of God.”[1]  Or as Athanasius succinctly put it, “He became man that we might become god.”[2] This may sound demonic, or at least Jesus’ contemporaries thought so: “Many of them were saying, He has a demon and is insane. Why do you listen to Him?’” (Jn. 10:20). Isn’t this demon talk or a near reduplication of the serpent’s temptation in Genesis? 

The opposite of biblical deification, at least in the church fathers, is not what moderns might imagine post-Nietzsche, when we hear, “You are gods.” That is, we might think the satanic version is simply to say the same thing again, perhaps in a slightly different register (and without all the qualifications that have been made in order to help Jesus express himself better). The statement may conjure up images of Nietzsche’s superman, or of a completely autonomous individual – the captain of his own soul, churning out values and determining his world. We may imagine a kind of irreligion or atheism which gains freedom and power in throwing off all belief.

Even in the negative assessment of the statement we may be missing the original sense, as in, “If there is no God, everything is permitted.” The supposed statement of Dostoevsky (it is actually Sartre misquoting The Brothers Karamazov) attributes a potency, hedonistic though it may be, to disbelief. Whether in its positive atheistic Nietzschean guise (“wiping the horizon clean,” etc.) or in its negative conservative ideological form (presuming religion and transcendental authority are necessary to set limits to human evil), there is a presumed freedom, either liberating or dangerous. In being god and displacing God, in this misunderstood demonization, there is a presumed empowerment that is fundamentally mistaken, and the error is exposed at multiple levels.

As Jacques Lacan put it, reversing Dostoevsky’s formula: “If God is dead nothing is permitted.” On its surface this may ring hollow, but the evidence Lacan is observing in the clinic is universally available. People are sick, twisted, and mentally ill. They kill themselves at almost the same rate they kill one another. People live under deadly constraints so that death is often the only option. Violence is not a choice but a necessity: there is random violence, national violence, religious violence, political violence, familial violence, or entertaining violence, but violence is the necessity that orders people’s lives. It may not be an overt physical violence, but simply a description of the life of the individual. Intrusive thoughts reduce many to marionettes controlled by their sick conscience which takes obscene delight in not allowing a moment’s rest. Of course, the conscience torturing them is their conscience – and any pleasure had in the sickness involves the ongoing suffering of the individual inflicting the pain. The more pain, the more divine satisfaction, so that one is continually working toward satisfying the god/voice in the head.

The source of this voice may be communal or individual, religious or irreligious; it matters not. The hedonistic command to enjoy is as deadly as the puritanical command to abstain from enjoyment. The command to sacrifice may come from the gods or it may come from the neighbor’s dog. The sacrifice may be the sacrifice of the first born, the sacrifice of a virgin, the sacrifice of the soldier, or the pedophile’s child sacrifice. People are sick, but they are not sickened by freedom but by enslavement. The gods they serve, personal or corporate, hedonistic or puritanical, demand constant vigilance, constant sacrifice, and human life is mostly spent in futile servitude to what is nonexistent.

Though Nietzsche railed against the slave religion of Christianity, he too succumbed to mental enslavement and ended his life a drooling idiot. The fact that his mental break came at the sight of a man beating a horse, indicates it was not freedom but human cruelty and evil – and perhaps the cruelty he inflicted upon himself – which he could not endure. The Übermensch turns out to be a pitiful wreck, and we live in the wake of this presumed freedom which induced an even heavier dose of enslavement. But the issue was never religion versus irreligion, or atheism versus theism.

In fact, one way of characterizing Jesus’ statement and the faith of the New Testament is as a form of irreligion (only a slight misnomer). The Romans presumed Christians were atheists, because they refused worship of the Roman gods. Judaism and Christianity are both characterized by their rejection of any form of idolatry (the only form of religion for much of the world). But Jesus statement gets at the fact that idolatry per se is not the root of the human problem (isn’t he guilty, one might ask, of the very idolatry Judaism condemns?). The Jews accuse Jesus of the worst form of irreligious blasphemy in claiming equality with God. Saul persecuted Christians for the same reason his Pharisee brothers accused Jesus of blasphemy.

Humans are enslaved, but what they are enslaved by is a deadly orientation, lust, or drive, which might take an infinite variety of forms. Paul characterizes it as an orientation to the law, in which the Jewish law is only a particular instance of the universal problem. His point to the Judaizers in Galatia is that a return to Judaism is the equivalent of a return to idolatry. The weight of the law might be felt in the inclusion/exclusion of the Jewish law, but this wall of hostility is not peculiar to Jews. It is not simply a “Jewish problem” or a “religious problem” but is the universal problem of suffering under the hostile condemnation of law.  

To imagine God is doing the condemning, in the case of Jesus (and otherwise), is to miss the obvious fact that the world powers of Jerusalem and Rome are doing the torturing and killing of Christ. The killing of Jesus – revolving around his claim to deity – marks the source of the problem and the victim. The necessity to kill Jesus arises due to their respective gods. In Roman religion and Jewish religion, God incarnate must be killed to preserve the religion.

Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor arrives at the same conclusion when Jesus happens to show up at the inquisition in Spain. After healing the sick and raising the dead, the Inquisitor has Jesus arrested and that evening enters his cell, so as to explain why the Church must burn him at the stake. Where Jesus had resisted the temptations in the wilderness, it is precisely those temptations which the Roman Church has utilized to steal human freedom. The Church will offer bread in exchange for worship: “give man bread and he will bow down to you, for there is nothing more indisputable than bread. But if at the same time someone else takes over his conscience – oh, then he will even throw down your bread and follow him who has seduced his conscience.” While freedom of conscience may be the lure, “there is nothing more tormenting” than this freedom. The Inquisitor explains to Jesus that his prime mistake was to imagine there were others like him, able to bear the weight of deity. In refusing the miracle of leaping off the Temple, you wrongly presumed “there are many like you” but “you did not know that as soon as man rejects miracles, he will at once reject God as well, for man seeks not so much God as miracles.” The Inquisitor explains that Jesus has expected too much of people, and luckily the Church has stepped in where Jesus failed. But now that Jesus has shown up, he must be silenced lest he presume to speak and interfere with the established religion of the Church. Everything has been handed over to the Church and now belongs to the pope, and “you may as well not come at all now, or at least don’t interfere with us for the time being.” [3]

The weight of freedom is too much so that enslavement to religion, to gods, or to human hierarchy, is the price most are willing to pay, faced with the responsibility Jesus places upon them. Better the self-binding enslavement of the common human condition; the condemnation Paul describes in Romans 7 and which the New Testament characterizes as both Jewish and pagan, which pertains to a human problem not a God problem.  

To call it a legal problem, with Luther and Calvin, or to simply say it is a problem internal to the law, misses the point. The problem of the law is not a problem contained in the law but in people; in those who imagine life, identity, salvation, and being are in the law. But this law may consist of corporate or individual dictates. It may be a corporate law, as in the Kara tribe in which all babies whose top teeth come in before their bottom teeth must be killed, or it may be an individual compulsion to be tortured or to torture kill, rape or maim. It may be another that is destroyed, or it may be that the fervor or compulsion is directed at the self. What law is not the primary concern and abolishing the law is not the primary concern, but suspending the punishing effects of a particular orientation to the law is the point of the gospel.

But at this point the Lacanian and Dostoyevskian dictates may fold into one another. Nothing is permitted and everything is permitted may simply be two sides of the same coin. The law, individual or corporate, from God or from the individual, touches upon a drive which knows no limits and yet must be served unto death. To call this a religious or atheistic problem in our present circumstance is to miss the point that religionists and hedonists may serve the same god. Or should we imagine that Catholic and evangelical pedophiles and sex perverts, saved as they are, consist of a higher quality pervert than those dirty hedonists?

The difference may be that the religious perverts, unlike the Harvey Weinsteins of pagan Hollywood, have the corporate protection of the church to keep their proclivities from coming to light. Who is more enslaved and degenerate, the lone individual driven to sexual violence under the obscene command to enjoy, or an institution that produces and protects such an individual? Nothing is permitted on one side of the coin, but underneath all things are permitted, but both arise from the same destructive obscenity. As Slavoj Žižek has put it in regard to the Roman Church, “You must not have sexual pleasure, but you may enjoy all the little boys you desire.” Or as mega pastor Ted Haggard put it to Larry King, though he had heatedly preached against homosexuality and was then caught in a homosexual affair, “You know Larry . . . Jesus says ‘I came for the unrighteous, not for the righteous . . .’ So as soon as I became worldwide unrighteous, I knew Jesus had come for me.” Nothing is permitted and thus everything is permitted, but the same oppressive force reigns on both sides of the coin.

All of this to say, the satanic version of “you are gods” is to blind one to the source of life available in God and Christ, and the inherent moral responsibility this entails. The satanic lure is bent on selling a mediating knowledge in place of knowing God directly. Partaking of the knowledge of good and evil results in hiding, shame and fear, with idolatrous religion emerging only many centuries later. The turn from God cannot be described as empowerment (even of the evil kind). It is not the attainment of agency and freedom, but the turn to murder, mayhem and uncontrollable lust. But religion or irreligion may consist of the same punishing gods, and the point of “you are gods” is to not only name the idol, but the deep grammar from which it arises. In the context in which Athanasius and Irenaeus explain divinization this is their point. 

In leading up to his succinct statement (“He became man that man might become god”) Athanasius notes, “The barbarians of the present day are naturally savage in their habits, and as long as they sacrifice to their idols they rage furiously against each other and cannot bear to be a single hour without weapons.”[4] He describes a fearful and enslaved people who are subject to gods of their own making, but these are not deities that empower but which enslave to warfare and violence. The turn to Christ and deification is aimed at relieving humankind of its impotency in the face of the demonic gods they have manufactured. “But when they hear the teaching of Christ, forthwith they turn from fighting to farming, and instead of arming themselves with swords extend their hands in prayer. In a word, instead of fighting each other, they take up arms against the devil and the demons, and overcome them by their self-command and integrity of soul.” They gain self-command by putting off their worship of idols and, in that wonderful turn of phrase, “they turn from fighting to farming.”[5] In realizing they are made for divinity they turn from demonic warfare to the creation care of the original dominion mandate.

Irenaeus, in his explanation of divinization and “you are gods,” points to the same impotency and enslavement. Those who miss the deity of Christ and assert, “He was simply a mere man” remain “in the bondage of the old disobedience” and “are in a state of death having been not as yet joined to the Word of God the Father, nor receiving liberty through the Son, as He does Himself declare: If the Son shall make you free, you shall be free indeed” (Jn. 8:36). If they do not receive “the incorruptible Word, they remain in mortal flesh, and are debtors to death, not obtaining the antidote of life.” Irenaeus references both John 10 and Psalm 82, and explains that it is those “who despise the incarnation of the pure generation of the Word of God” who thus “defraud human nature of promotion into God.”[6] By refusing the Word of God and participation in deity they remain in the sickness unto death, and this constitutes subjection to the one who wields the power of death.

(To register for our next class “Reading the Bible in Community” starting the week of September 26th and running through November 18th register at https://pbi.forgingploughshares.org/offerings)

[1] Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.19.1.

[2] Athanasius, On the Incarnation, 54.3.

[3] Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, trans. by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1990) book V, 250-255.

[4] Athanasius, 52.2.

[5] Athanasius is commenting on Isaiah 2:4: “They shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into sickles, and nation shall not take sword against nation, neither shall they learn any more to wage war.” 

[6] Against Heresies, 3.19.1

“You Are Gods”: The Biblical Picture

Jesus references Psalm 82:6, “You are gods,” as a response to the Jewish attempt to stone him after he claims, “I and the Father are one” (Jn 10:30). When Jesus asks what particular good work they were stoning him for, they answered, “For a good work we do not stone You, but for blasphemy; and because You, being a man, make Yourself out to be God.” Instead of narrowing his claim or qualifying it, Jesus suggests that human beings were made to be gods – according to the Law: “Has it not been 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’?” (Jn 10:34–36). In the Psalm, God judges “in the midst of the rulers” accusing them of judging unjustly and showing partiality to the wicked, rather than defending the weak and the fatherless (Ps. 82:1-3). The Psalm makes the point that these rulers, appointed to a divine like authority, have failed in their duty. “I said, ‘You are gods, and all of you are sons of the Most High. ‘Nevertheless, you will die like men and fall like any one of the princes’” (Ps. 82:6).

Jesus, in the context of his quoting the Psalm, presumes the reference applies to humanity and not to angelic or spiritual sons. The reference may be to the divine image in which humans were created and the dominion they were given over creation: “Then God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth’” (Gen. 1:26). The idea is that the humans would not simply dominate but would, as the Psalm indicates, offer a benevolent reign over creation. As Bnonn Tennant notes, the Hebrew term kibshu has the double meaning of “subdue,” as in a military campaign but also the idea of a forceful or vigorous ordering. “God is not merely making man a custodian in Genesis; he isn’t giving him mere supervision of the earth, like a middle-manager. He is making him a king; giving him free rein over the world. The creation mandate is a dominion mandate.”[1] Creation care would certainly be involved in this reign, but as is now clear in the nuclear age and an age of global warming, humans can also manipulate creation so as to destroy it.

The garden may be a model or guide for what man is to do throughout creation. Adam is on the order of a coparticipant in God’s creating and ordering activity. He names the animals, tends and organizes the Garden, but extension of the Edenic Kingdom into all the world (they are to “subdue the earth,” Gen. 1:28) is part of the rule or kingship exercised by the original royal pair. This is indicated in that the “image and likeness” which God impressed on the first couple is subsequently an image Adam impresses on his son Seth (Gen. 5:1-3). The success, but mostly the failure to rightly exercise this rule, to order God’s kingdom, is the story of Scripture. “The entire Bible, one way or another, is concerned with tracing its decline, division, reunion, and eventual restoration.”[2]

The battle joined between the seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman (Gen. 3:15) involves the entire human race in both the flood and at Babel (Gen. 11). Babel marks a united attempt to order the human kingdom on the basis of a unified world government and religion, due to improved technology and heightened presumption. Rather than spreading out, multiplying and filling the earth, the people of Babel refuse the dominion mandate and decide to arrange a kingdom that would make their name endure in a very limited region (the plain of Shinar). It is an organized rebellion – an attempt to order the kingdom by human standards and means. The unified attempt to organize, instead becomes a confusion of languages and religions.

Amar Annus, a scholar of the ancient near east, notes, “There was a broad tradition in the Babylonian scribal milieu that the seventh antediluvian figure, a king or a sage, ascended to heaven and received insights into divine wisdom. The seventh antediluvian king according to several lists was Enmeduranki, the king of Sippar, who distinguished himself with divine knowledge from the gods Adad and Shamash.”[3] Sippar, according to the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, was one of the states located in Shinar.[4] Where “Babylonian mythology puts a positive spin on this event, representing the sons of God, the Apkallu, as the ones who founded Babylon and imparted knowledge of culture and technology, Jewish  Second Temple writings describe the Apkallu as the ones who taught mankind things like idolatry and witchcraft.”[5]

It is significant that Abram is called (in Gen. 12) immediately subsequent to the multiplication of tongues and religion at Babel (Gen. 11). Even the household of Abram are carrying household idols (Gen. 31:19) and in the midrash Genesis Rabbah, Abram is depicted as a young boy working in his father’s idol shop. Abram is called from out of Babel to form a people who will bring forth the second Adam. Meanwhile the other nations are allowed to continue in their religious idolatry or in, what the New Testament will describe as, the worship of demons. As Deuteronomy explains, “When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance, when he divided mankind, he fixed the borders of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God. But the LORD’s portion is his people, Jacob his allotted heritage” (Dt. 32:8–9). These particular “sons of God” may refer to spiritual forces which have displaced God. The Septuagint translates the “sons of God” as “angels of God.” The gloss that Deuteronomy 4 puts upon this indicates that it is indeed spiritual forces that control the nations.

And beware lest you lift up your eyes to heaven, and when you see the sun and the moon and the stars, all the host of heaven [צבא השמים— tsaba ha’shamayim, the standard nomenclature for the armies of heaven], you be drawn away and bow down to them and serve them, which Yahweh your God has allotted [חלק] to all the peoples under the whole heaven.[6]

In contrast Israel was saved out of Egypt or “out of the iron furnace” so as to be a people “of his (God’s) own inheritance” (Dt. 4:20).

The nations are turned over to spiritual forces (represented by “the sun and the moon and the stars”) or a force other than that for which they were made. Their failure to rule rightly means they have been usurped. As Psalm 82 indicates, they are subject to death though they were meant to be princes, kings, and rulers. They have apparently been turned over to the spirits or spirit behind false religion and idolatry.

The New Testament pictures this power over the nations in a variety of images: “rulers and authorities”, “world forces of darkness,” “spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places,” “the prince of the power of the air,” or simply cosmic powers of darkness.[7] The various combination of “rulers and authorities” and heavenly spiritual forces combined with imagery referencing nations and kings, indicates a continuum between the human realm and cosmic and spiritual powers. The book of Revelation speaks of “the dragon, the serpent of old, who is the devil and Satan” (Rev. 20:2), but it also describes a beast with seven horns and ten heads, which fronts for the dragon and which elicits the worship of all the world (Rev. 13:1-4). Whether this beast is the Roman God Emperor, or some combination of political powers, the world is forced to bow before a unified religion opposed to the rule of Yahweh.

In both Daniel and Revelation, the combination of spiritual power and political embodiment is given a beastly representation. Daniel describes a Revelation like beast and its destruction by “the Ancient of Days”: “And as I looked, the beast was killed, and its body destroyed and given over to be burned with fire. As for the rest of the beasts, their dominion was taken away, but their lives were prolonged for a season and a time” (Da. 7:11–12). Daniel is given an interpretation of the vision that identifies the beasts as “four kings who shall arise out of the earth” (Da. 7:17). The saints (ESV) or the “sons of God” will take possession or receive the kingdom (7:18), from the “son of man” who has secured it on their behalf (7:14).

Paul refers to “so-called gods” but goes on to say “indeed there are many gods and many lords, yet for us there is but one God, the Father” (I Cor. 8:56). He later explains that Gentiles “sacrifice to demons and not to God” (I Cor. 10:20) so that the “many gods and many lords,” unlike the idol itself, is not simply nothing (I Cor. 8:4) but an actually existing power, force, or spirit. There is an ambiguity surrounding the exact nature and provenance of these powers (or this power), but there is an alignment between nations, idolatrous religion, and subjection to the powers of darkness.

If we presume that Jesus inaugurates the kingdom and subdues the powers with the incarnation (the teaching of the New Testament), this must have occurred in Jesus’ confrontation with the earthly powers during the time of Roman rule. As Tennant notes, Daniel’s description of the son of man coming on the clouds is not his coming to earth but his coming to the throne of God in heaven.[8] This occurred in the first century, in which Luke records the ascension, echoing the language of Daniel:

And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1: 9-11).

Daniel’s title “son of man” is taken by Jesus, and the synoptic Gospels (also in the imagery of Daniel) picture the kingdom being ushered in with his generation: “For the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (Lk 21:26–28). Or in summary of a host of signs:

From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts out its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place” (Matthew 24: 29– 34; par. Mark 13: 24– 30; Luke 21: 25– 32).

The images of cosmic upheaval (e.g., a darkened sun and blood moon, representative of spiritual forces) are images of a heavenly regime change. The reality of Jesus being seated at the right hand of the Father is pictured in the imagery of unruly spiritual powers being subdued. At the same time, the gods of Psalm 82, subjected to death, with the resurrection of Christ are being restored through his reign. The “greatness of his power toward us who believe” is restoring Adam’s reign, as Christ raised from the dead is seated “at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come” (Eph. 1:20-21).

To return to the point of departure, the call of the Psalm, which Jesus is applying to himself and his followers, is for God to repossess the nations: “Arise, O God, judge the earth; for you shall inherit all the nations!” (Ps 82:8). He will restore to those designated “gods” the eternal life that fits their station: “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand” (Jn. 10:28). The Fall, the turn to other gods, the continual rebellion and idolatry, are here reversed and this gain is irreversible. “My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one” (Jn. 10:29-30).

As Peter describes it, this god-like status does not describe an innate nature but a partaking or participation in the divine nature opened to all through Christ:

His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. (2 Peter 1:3-4)

[1] Bnonn DominicTennant, The Spine of Scripture: God’s Kingdom from Eden to Eternity (pp. 18-19). Information Highwayman. Kindle Edition.  Very much appreciate the recommendation, Leigh. Thank you.

[2] Ibid. 21-22.

[3] Amar Annus, “On the Origin of Watchers: A Comparative Study of the Antediluvian Wisdom in Mesopotamian and Jewish Traditions” Estoniain  Journal for the Study of the Pseudepigrapha · May 2010

[4] https://www.internationalstandardbible.com/S/shinar.html

[5] Tennant, 70.

[6] From Tennant, 73.

[7] Col. 2:15-17; Eph. 2:2; 6:12; John 1:5 respectively.

[8] Tennant, 85.