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Chapter 6. John 20:28 – “My Lord and my God!”

Chapter 6

John 20:28: – “My Lord and My God!”

In the last chapter we saw that Brian J. Wright, a Bible scholar and a trinitarian, concludes that John 20:28 is the only verse in the New Testa­ment that, with full certainty, refers to Jesus as theos (“God”), with a handful of other verses that can be “assumed” to have “a similar degree of certain­ty”.

It is one thing for Wright to establish the textual certainty of John 20:28 (this is actually a non-issue in NT scholarship) but quite another to demonstrate that this verse actually speaks of Jesus as theos.

The following is John 20:28 in its full context, with the key verse 28 shown in boldface. Five words are underlined for later discussion.

25 So the other disciples told him [Thomas], “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.” 26 Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” 28Thom­as answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (ESV)

Does this passage—which culminates in Thomas’s exclamation, “My Lord and my God!”—really teach the deity of Jesus? Even if trinitarians think so, there are six weighty points—all based on Script­ure—that they ought to take into consider­ation for an understanding of John 20:28.

Point 1: The only true God is the Father, not the Son

The trinitarian claim that John 20:28 establishes Jesus as God is weak­ened, even nullified, by the fact that the Father is “the only true God” (John 17:3). In using the word “only,” Jesus is excluding himself as “true God”.

We cannot isolate John 17:3 and 20:28 from each other because John 17 and John 20 are separated by only two chapters. Moreover, these two verses, 17:3 and 20:28, come from the same gospel (of John), and hence are rooted in the same Johan­nine con­cept of God. As a result, the trinitarian interpretation of John 20:28 (that Jesus is God) would create a genuine conflict with John 17:3 (that Jesus is not true God). We cannot simply wave away the contra­diction by saying that the two verses carry two differ­ent meanings of “God” (this argument might be plausible if one of the verses had come from John and the other from someone like Paul or Peter).

Moreover, this contradiction between John 17:3 and 20:28 (which exists only in trinitarian­ism) would make Jesus the perpetrator of the contradiction. For it is Jesus who in John 17:3 declares that his Father is the only true God, but also Jesus who in John 20:28 accepts Thomas’s ascript­ion of deity, at least accord­ing to trinitarians.

Jesus’ declaration in John 17:3 that the Father is the only true God is affirmed by 1Corinthians 8:6 which says, “there is one God, the Father”. Note that Paul does not say, “There is one God: Father, Son, and Spirit”.

In Ephesians 4:6, Paul puts to rest all doubts about the exclus­ive deity of the Father when he speaks of “one God and Father of all”. Paul is saying that there is only one God, and that this God happens to be the Father of all. There­fore anyone who is not the “Father of all” can­not be God. But Jesus Christ is not the Father (not even in trinitar­ian­ism), much less the Father of all, which means that Jesus is not God. In fact, 1John 5:18 says that we are “born of God” and that Jesus was “born of God”—in the same sentence!

Point 2: Jesus’ main concern was with Thomas’s unbelief

Notice the five underlined words in the Bible passage quoted above: believe, disbelieve, believe, believed, believed. The first was uttered by Thomas, the other four by Jesus.

What exactly did Thomas refuse to believe? Earlier on, he told the other disciples that he refuses to “believe” unless he sees and touches the wounds of Jesus. This was his response to the claim, “We have seen the [risen] Lord,” which he dismissed as fanta­sy. Thomas refused to believe that Jesus had risen from the dead, so he demanded the physical evidence that he could see and touch.

Eight days later, Jesus appeared to Thomas and presented the very evidence that he had demanded: the wounds that he could see and touch. Jesus then said to him, “Do not disbelieve but believe”. Thomas then ex­claimed the memorable words, “My Lord and my God!” It is striking that Jesus then straightaway pulls the conver­sation back to the issue of unbelief: “Have you believed because you have seen me?” Jesus has not shown any explicit interest in his alleged deity.

Point 3: Jesus was speaking of belief in his resurrection, not belief in his deity!

When I was a trinitarian, I paid special attention to Jesus’ re­buke of Thomas: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

After much thinking, I realized that John 20:28-29 was not being explicit enough, for it had left unanswered a crucial question: When Jesus rebuked Thomas for his unbelief, what kind of belief was he referring to? Belief in his deity? Or belief in his resur­rection?

Even as a trinitarian, I could not rule out the latter because the whole account is about Thomas’s refusal to believe that Jesus had come back to life. In fact Jesus addressed the issue by inviting Thomas to touch his wounds: “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.”

Note the two words I highlighted in boldface: The word “believe” is the reversal of “disbelieve,” that is, Thomas now believes what he had previously disbelieved, namely, the resurrection of Jesus!

Yet in my study of John 20:28 as a trinitarian, the clear answer to my question was standing right in front of me! In John 20:28, I only had to turn one page in my Bible to go to the next book: Acts of the Apostles. In a real sense, John 20:28 is prefatory to the book of Acts. Chronologically they are separated by a short span of time, the few weeks from Jesus’ resurrection to his ascension. The import­ance of John 20:28, together with its pivotal placement just before Acts, means that it sets the pattern for the aposto­lic preaching of Jesus in Acts.

This brings us to the crucial question: In the book of Acts, did the apos­tles preach Jesus as God or Jesus as the resurrected Lord? I think we already know the answer.

Here is an inconvenient fact: Even trinitarians admit that in the book of Acts, Jesus never calls himself theos (God), and that the apostles proclaimed Jesus as the risen Lord rather than a divine Lord. That is the clear answer to my question!

Let’s get this clear: In the book of Acts, Jesus is never called theos by the apostles or by Jesus himself, a solid fact that is not disputed in New Testa­ment scholar­ship. This is even admitted by the trinit­arian Brian J. Wright in a statement we have already quoted:

No author of a Synoptic Gospel explicitly ascribes the title θεός to Jesus. Jesus never uses the term θεός for himself. No sermon in the book of Acts attributes the title θεός to Jesus.

In the book of Acts, the apostles never proclaimed Jesus as God. On the contrary, they consistently proclaimed that Jesus was raised from the dead. At Pentecost, Peter told the multitudes that “God raised him up” (Acts 2:24) and that “God raised up this Jesus” (v.32). In the next chapter, Peter said, “You killed the author of life, whom God raised from the dead” (3:15); and, “God raised up his servant” (v.26). Throughout his sermon, Peter was accompanied by John, the one who recorded Thomas’s exclamation in John 20:28!

If it is really true that John 20:28 teaches the deity of Jesus, why didn’t the apostles preach it once in the book of Acts? And whom do we follow as the pattern for our gospel message, the apostles of Jesus Christ or trinitarian scholars?

There are many academic papers on the apostolic preaching of the risen Jesus in the book of Acts (e.g., The Resurrect­ion in the Acts of the Apostles, I. Howard Marshall), but I cannot find a single academic paper on the preaching of Jesus’ deity in Acts!

Jesus’ rebuke of Thomas—“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed”—is illuminated by Romans 10:9 which says, “If you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you shall be saved.” In the Bible, saving faith is not about believing that Jesus is God but believing that God raised Jesus from the dead, a work by which Jesus was made “Lord” in an exalted sense (Acts 2:36).

Conclusion of Point 3: The trinitarian claim that John 20:28 equates Jesus with God does not align with the aposto­lic proclamation of the risen Jesus in the book of Acts, and is therefore false.

Point 4: There is more explicit evidence for the deity of Yahweh in one verse, Exodus 20:2, than for the deity of Jesus in the whole New Testament, including John 20:28

In my two decades as a trinitarian, I was deeply troubled by the fact that the Bible would never explicitly say that Jesus is God. Verses such as John 20:28 come tantalizingly close, but why doesn’t the Bible “seal the deal”? Why not add a few more words to make it explicit and unassailable and incontrovertible? In my trinitarian days, I would sometimes wonder if the Bible even cares about the deity of Jesus.

So why doesn’t Jesus verbally confirm Thomas’s declar­ation with some­thing like, “Yes, Thomas, I am your Lord and your God”. That state­ment alone would be enough to con­vince me of Jesus’ deity, even today.

The indirectness of Jesus’ alleged deity in John 20:28 ought to be contrasted with the explicit affirmation of Yahweh’s deity in Exod­us 20:2: “I am Yahweh your God”. That’s it! That is 100% explicit! In one clear statement, we get the equat­ion, Yahweh = God. This equation is not a solitary one-off statement, but something that is repeated several hundred times in the Bible in various forms, all explicit:

  • “Yahweh God” (11 times in Genesis 2 alone)
  • “Yahweh, God of heaven and God of earth” (Gen.24:3,7)
  • “Yahweh your God” (17 times in Exodus alone)
  • “Yahweh, God of Israel” (Ex.5:1; 32:27; 34:23)
  • “I am Yahweh your God” (Ex.6:7; 16:12; 20:2)
  • “Yahweh our God” (Ex.8:6,22,23)
  • “Yahweh, Yahweh, God of compassion” (Ex.34:6)

I quoted only from Genesis and Exodus. With repeated use of the BibleWorks program, I estimate that the Bible has about 400 instances of the explicit equa­tion Yahweh = God in its various forms. By con­trast, the trinitar­ian equation Jesus = God does not occur even once in the Bible!

If “Yahweh God” could occur 11 times in Genesis 2 alone (that is, 11 times in 25 verses), why don’t we ever see “Jesus God” even once in the Bible (that is, zero times in 31,102 verses)? Why don’t we ever see phrases such as: “Jesus, God of Abraham” or “Jesus, God of heaven and earth” or “Jesus your God” or “Jesus, God of Israel” or “I am Jesus your God” or “Jesus, Jesus, God of compass­ion” (despite the fact that compassion is integral to Jesus’ nature)?

The total absence of Jesus = God in the Bible has compelled some to argue that Jesus is God by the indirect equation Jesus = Yahweh = God. There are many pro­blems with this, but I will state only three.

Firstly, whereas the equation Yahweh = God occurs hundreds of times in the Bible, the equation Jesus = God or the equation Jesus = Yahweh occurs not even once, which would be in­expli­cable if Jesus is God.

Secondly, the Bible never speaks of God and Yahweh as two sep­arate persons, yet it would often make a sharp dis­tinction of per­sons between God and Christ as seen in verses such as 1Tim.5:21 (“in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus”) and most strikingly 1Cor.11:3 (“the head of Christ is God”). See also 1Cor.8:6.

Thirdly, Yahweh declares His exclusive deity in Isaiah 45:5, “I am Yahweh, and there is no other, besides me there is no God,” which aligns exactly with the fact that the Father is “the only true God” (John 17:3). Hence Yahweh is the Father, not the Son.

The total absence of the equation Jesus = God in the Bible ought to be taken for deep reflection by trinitarians. Searching for Jesus’ deity in the Bible is like trying to squeeze water from a dry stone. The Bible—the living word of God—is not giving trinitarians the very thing they want most. The Bible’s total silence on Jesus’ deity is the very reason for Brian J. Wright’s colossal efforts to search the Bible for refer­ences to Jesus as theos, only for Wright to conclude that John 20:28 is the only verse in the New Testa­ment that, with full cer­tainty, refers to Jesus as theos (“God”).

Have we forgotten the meaning of “explicit”?

Yet not even John 20:28 has an explicit reference to Jesus as God. At best we have a strong inference from Thomas, but even that could be nothing more than an exclamat­ion of surprise at the sight of the risen Lord. In fact, many trinitarian commentaries use the exact word “exclam­ation” to describe Thomas’s utterance of surprise, “My Lord and my God!” The ambiguity of this verse regarding Jesus’ deity troubled me in the summer of 1983 when I was teaching Adult Sunday School in Ottawa, Canada, as a trin­itar­ian.

It seems that trinit­ar­ians have forgotten the meaning of the word “explicit”. An explicit statement from Jesus would be something like, “Yes, Thomas, I am your Lord and your God”.

To drive home the plain meaning of “explicit,” let me ask a simple question: Why is the deity of the Father not debated by Christians? Because the Bible states it explicit­ly again and again. Examples include: “peace from God our Father” (Rom.1:7); “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom.15:6); “there is one God, the Father” (1Cor.8:6); and so on. But where do you find a statement such as “there is one God, Jesus Christ”? There is not a single explicit state­ment in the whole Bible of the deity of Christ, not even in John 20:28.

It is crucial for us to demand from trinita­rians the highest stand­ard of explicitness for John 20:28 for the simple reason that, accord­ing to Wright, this verse stands alone in the Bible in calling Jesus theos with full certainty. Yet Wright wants to use this sole exception (which is not even explicit) to overthrow the entire weight of evid­ence in the rest of the Bible! We must bear in mind that Wright himself admits that “Jesus never uses the term θεός for him­self” (p.230); this all-encompass­ing fact would include John 20:28-29 in its scope.

I recently came upon a book with an intriguing title, Was Jesus God? (Oxford University Press), in which Richard Swinburne, a prominent Christian philosopher at Oxford and a trinitar­ian, searches the Bible and church doctrine for evidence that Jesus is God. The fact that such a provoca­tive title, Was Jesus God?, could even be conceived by a trinitarian scholar shows that the Bible may have little evidence, perhaps zero evidence, for the deity of Jesus.

Swinburne gives deep and philosophical reflections on the church and her beliefs, but offers no explicit proof from the Bible that Jesus is God. He finds mainly indirect evidence such as that God raised Jesus from the dead. In fact Swinburne finds more evidence for Jesus’ deity in the historic faith of the church than in the Bible.

In the final chapter titled “Final Conclusion,” Swinburne displays cautious uncer­tainty when he says that “it is very probable that Jesus was God”. What? Only “very probable”? As a responsible scholar, he refrains from expressing a level of certainty that is unwarranted by the biblical data. Two pages later he admits that some NT passages “deny this doctrine” of “the divinity of Jesus”. On the next page he says, “It is undisputed that Jesus did not teach this doctrine” of the Trinity. This is quite a concession from a learned trinitarian.

Another committed trinitarian, Robertson McQuilkin, in his care­ful work, Understanding and Applying the Bible, gives sound advice that is urgently needed in the Christian world today. In chapter 16 of his book, in the section titled, “Base the Doctrine Solely on the Bible,” McQuilkin cautions the reader not to base doc­trine on inference but on explicit Bible teach­ing. He immediately goes on to give an example of such an inference: “In fact, the doctrine of the Trinity is such an inference. But the way in which the three ultimately relate is not revealed in Scripture, and thus our theories for relating them should be held tentatively.”

Most of you in this conference would have read Sir Anthony F. Buzzard’s Jesus Was Not a Trinit­arian: A Call to Return to the Creed of Jesus. Chapter 4 of this book, “The Titanic Struggle of Scholars to Find the Triune God in the Bible,” contains some eye-opening admissions by prominent trinitarians who struggle to account for the paucity of bibli­cal references to Jesus as God.

Since the Bible does not explicitly say that Jesus is God, trinitar­ian­ism is ultimately a doctrinal edifice that is built on arguments from silence; weak inferences; vague parallels; the conflation of per­sons; the misrendering of Greek prep­osit­ions; the last-resort appeal to mystery and to tradition; the reversal of bibli­cal terms (e.g., changing the bibli­cal “Son of God” into the unbiblical “God the Son”); and the use of highly philo­so­phi­cal con­cepts (e.g., homoousios, an origin­ally Gnostic term that trinitarians have adopted for depersonal­izing God into an essence).

Point 5: If Jesus is really called “God” in John 20:28, this verse would support modalism, not trinitarianism

John 20:28 has a complication that is known in NT scho­larship: In the Greek text of John 20:28, Thomas does not merely say “God” (theos) but “the God” (ho theos), with the article ho. This crucial fact does not come out in English translations of the Bible.

The presence of the article “the” in John 20:28 makes the title “the God” too strong to apply to Jesus because it would undermine the trinitarian assertion that Jesus shares a divine essence with the Father. We must bear in mind that trinitarians, in arguing for Jesus’ deity in John 1:1, stress that “God” in “the Word was God” has no article.[1]

The problem runs even deeper because if Jesus is “the God,” this would rule out the Father as God, as admitted by some prominent trinitarians.[2] The trinitarian claim that John 20:28 equates Jesus with theos would make Jesus “the God” and not just “God,” and would lead to one of two possibilities, both of which are detest­able to trinitar­ians. One possibil­ity would be that Jesus is “the God” to the exclu­sion of the Father as God (a blas­phemous statement). The other possibility—to safe­guard the deity of the Father—would be that Jesus = the Father; this would be the error of modalism or Sabellianism.[3]

What trinitarians seek for Jesus in John 20:28 is not “the God” but “God” (a distinction that is vital to the trinitarian interpretation of John 1:1). Some early manuscript copyists realized that John 20:28 poses a problem for trinitar­ianism, so they “solved” it by deleting the arti­cle “the” from “the God” in this verse but also in other verses with similar Christolo­gi­cal difficulties.

Bart D. Ehrman is one of the world’s leading NT textual critics, and this is acknowledged even by those, including myself, who might not agree with all his conclusions on the state of the New Testament manuscripts.[4] In his important work, The Orthodox Corrupt­ion of Scripture,[5] Ehrman explains how some early copy­ists simply deleted the problematic word “the” from “the God” (ho theos) in John 20:28:

Another passage that can be taken to suggest that Christ is “God” himself (i.e., ho theos, with the article) occurs near the end of the Fourth Gospel, and here again one should not be surprised to find scribes modifying the text. Upon seeing the resurrected Jesus, Thomas ex­claims, “My Lord and my God” (ho theos mou). The passage has caused interpreters problems over the years; Theodore of Mopsuestia argued that the words were not addressed directly to Jesus but were uttered in praise of God the Father. Modern commentators have also found the phrasing problematic, because unlike the statement of 1:1, where the Word is theos (without the article), here Jesus is expressly enti­tled ho theos. How can one avoid drawing from this designation the conclusion that he is the one and only “God”? Several scribes of the early church adroitly handled the matter in what can be construed as an anti-Patripassianist [i.e., anti-modalist] cor­ruption: the prede­cessor of codex Bezae and other Gospel manuscripts simply omitted the article. Jesus is divine, but he is not the one “God” himself. (pp.311-312, footnotes omitted, Greek transliterated) [6]

Point 6: Jesus is not worshipped in the New Testament

Despite the immense problems with the trinitarian interpret­a­tion of John 20:28, most trinitarians will never surrender the belief that Jesus is called “God” in John 20:28. If this issue cannot be resolved to every­one’s satisfact­ion, then we ought to widen our examination to include the crucial question of whether Jesus is actually worshipped as God in the New Testa­ment. If it is really true that Jesus is called “God” in John 20:28, we would expect Jesus to be worshipped again and again in the New Testament: in Acts, in Paul’s letters, in John’s letters, in Revelat­ion. Again and again and again.

But as we will see, the clear answer from the biblical data is, “No, Jesus is not worshipped in the New Testament. On the contrary, he teaches us to worship the Father.” This leads us to the next chapter.



[1] Most trinitarians regard “the God” (ho theos, with the article ho) as being too strong to apply to Christ because it undermines trinitarian doctrine. Marcus Dods, a well-known trinitarian, says: “The Christian doctrine of the Trinity was perhaps before anything else an effort to express how Jesus Christ was God (theos) and yet in another sense was not God (ho theos), that is to say, was not the whole God­head” (Expositor’s Greek Testament, Greek transliterated).

[2] For example, C.K. Barrett, a well-known trinit­arian scholar, in a comment on John 1:1, says: “The absence of the article indicates that the Word is God, but is not the only being of whom this is true; if ὁ θεὸς [ho theos, the God] had been written, it would have been implied that no divine being existed outside the second person of the Trinity [i.e., it would been implied that only Christ, not the Father, is God].” (The Gospel According to St. John, my explanatory words in brackets added)

[3] Modalism, also called Sabellianism, says that God, in salvation history, is man­i­fested to believ­ers in one of three modes, Father, Son, and Spirit. These are three modes of the one God, analogous to the fact that H2O can be liquid, ice, or vapor.

[4] For example, Daniel B. Wallace, in the book I referred to, agrees that Ehrman is “a scholar with impecca­ble credentials in textual criticism”. In fact, Ehrman was hand­picked by Bruce M. Metzger, the great textual scholar, to work on the 4th edition of Metzger’s classic work, The Text of the New Testament.

[5] Full title, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christologi­cal Controversies on the Text of the New Testament (2011 revised edition, Oxford University Press).

[6] Ehrman goes on to give two other similar cases of corrupt­ion of Scripture. The first is in Mark 2:7 where the Pharisees say, “Who can forgive sins but God alone”. Early trinitarians wanted to say that “God” in this verse refers to Jesus, but the difficulty for them is that the Greek text has “the God” rather than “God”. So the early codex Bezae altered the text “by omit­ting the emphatic eis. Now, by implicat­ion, Christ is still divine, yet he is not the embodiment of the Father himself” (words in quotation marks are Ehrman’s).

The other case is in Mark 12:26 where Jesus refers to God’s words spoken to Moses from the burning bush: “I am the God of Abra­ham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” Trinitarians insist that the one who spoke these words to Moses was the preincarnate Christ; but again the problem for them is that the Greek text of Mark 12:26 has “the God” rather than “God” (“the God of Abraham”). Not surpris­ingly, several manu­scripts simply deleted “the articles in the passage, so that the divine name identifies himself as theos (God) but not ho theos (the God).” (Ehrman)

 

 

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