“That man might become God…” On its surface this statement simply sounds blasphemous. Interpreted in a wrong manner, it would be worse than blasphemous. When read correctly, however, it is the very essence of salvation itself. “To go to heaven…” from my childhood this phrase has been used as the goal of a Christian life. But, interpreted in its most common manner, it is only a Christianized version of paganism.
The distinction between these two statements can be found in their treatment of the interior life. The first, “to become God,” suggests profound, even transcendent change within a person. The second, “to go to heaven,” suggests only a change of location. It is this change in location that is essentially pagan.
It is essentially pagan, meaning that it differs in no way from the sentiments of the ancient Romans, Greeks and the Norse. For to “become a God” in their pantheon would only mean a change in location. The gods of the ancient pagans differed in no way from human beings, other than being bigger, more powerful and in a larger location. But they had their faults. They could be greedy, angry, vindictive, jealous, lustful, etc. And because this was so, human beings needed to be careful not to offend them or to provoke their envy.
For many people the statement, “to become God,” still carries a pagan meaning. It infers the acquisition of divine power and ability and somehow becoming a rival to the one God. This is the blasphemous meaning of the phrase and we do well to instinctively oppose it. We sometimes say of someone, “He thinks he’s some sort of a god,” and we never mean it as a compliment.
But within the New Testament and in the long history of Christian teaching, there is a perfectly acceptable use of the phrase. In 2 Peter we read:
Grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord, as His divine power has given to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him who called us by glory and virtue, by which have been given to us exceedingly great and precious promises, that through these you may be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust. (2Pe 1:2-4 NKJ)
This is synonymous with concepts such as being “transformed” into the image of Christ (Ro. 8:29; 2Cor 3:18). But the right understanding of this “divinization” is not a transformation into a pagan deity, nor a rivaling of the One God. Indeed, the Fathers, with later theological precision, are careful to say that we become “by grace” what God is “by nature.”
But it is utterly essential to the Christian telling of the gospel, that our salvation should be understood in terms of transformation, of an inner metamorphosis towards the image of Christ. Salvation is not a mere change in location (going to heaven).
And this makes sense when it is considered thoughtfully. The problems within our existence are not rooted in location. I do not hate, cheat, lie and hurt others simply because I’m living in the wrong place, and my re-location to some ideal paradise will not, in-and-of-itself, make a difference in what must be changed. If you put me in paradise right now, with no change in me, then I’ll ruin the place for others in very short order.
I have observed on a number of occasions that parish Churches are either paradise or a colony of hell. This is true simply because of the state of the heart. Those who carry hell in their hearts make the world hell for all around them. Those who carry paradise within are the bringers of paradise. And so we pray when we approach communion that the Holy Gifts would be “neither for our judgment nor our condemnation,” but “for the healing of soul and body.”
That “healing of soul and body” is measured by “the fullness of the stature of Christ” (Eph. 4:13). Anything less than this is not the salvation promised in the Scriptures. In truth, if heaven is not dwelling in our hearts, then nothing outside of us will seem as heaven. And if hell is dwelling in our hearts, everything around us will seem like hell. In the words of St. Macarius:
The heart itself is but a small vessel, yet dragons are there, and there are also lions; there are poisonous beasts and all the treasures of evil. But there too is God, the angels, the life and the kingdom, the light and the apostles, the heavenly cities and the treasuries of grace—all things are there.
This marks the daily struggle of the Christian – the life of paradise versus the life of hell. These are not external rewards and punishments but simply ways of speaking about the state of the heart – ways of describing what we are becoming.
It has been my experience that those who judge others are almost always inwardly condemning themselves. Those who regularly speak well of all and even excuse others have an inward peace. It is troubling that there are so many of the former and so few of the latter. Will there be many who are saved?