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.” Or as Athanasius succinctly put it, “He became man that we might become god.” 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.” 
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.” 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.” 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.” 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)
 Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.19.1.
 Athanasius, On the Incarnation, 54.3.
 Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, trans. by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1990) book V, 250-255.
 Athanasius, 52.2.
 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.”
 Against Heresies, 3.19.1
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