Why Not Grab For Godhood?

Latter-day Saints hope to be exalted to become Gods, like their Heavenly Father. What’s wrong with that? Isn’t that exactly what God wants us to enjoy someday? Lately, I have been surprised to see that some LDS, rather than hiding this doctrine, have gone on the offensive and started making an aggressive case for this belief.

An LDS pen pal of mine argued recently that it is God’s “greatest joy and purpose to provide a way for all His children to become like Him, because there is absolutely no better or happier way to be.” He believes that “the most wonderful thing a perfect, celestial being could possibly do is to enable others to become like Himself. Doing this is the ultimate expression of humility and love. A perfect, all-loving, completely righteous, all powerful Being could really do no less.”

Nicene Christianity teaches that human beings cannot be, and ought not strive to be, equal with God. The LDS response is that “we are to be of the same mind as Christ, who thought it not robbery to be equal with God.”

The above quote cites the King James translation of Philippians 2:6. Is this the best way to read what Paul wrote? Let’s take a closer look.

Here’s the literal wording in this verse: “Who [meaning Christ], being/existing [hyparchōn] in the form of God, did not think/consider equality with God to be a thing-to-be-grabbed” [harpagmon, KJV “robbery”]. Despite the King James tradition of how to translate this verse, other translations since 1900 (ASV, ESV, NAS, NIV, NLT, and RSV) all translate the word harpagmos as “something to be grasped.” Here’s why.

The King James and other English versions in its day were influenced by the related noun harpax, meaning “robber” or “mugger,” someone who robs by snatching. While harpagmos can mean “robbery,” it is often used to mean the seizing of prey, plunder, or women, for which “robbery” is not so precise a way to render the word. What all of these examples have in common is the meaning of “snatching.”

Harpagmos can also mean grabbing for a prize or a piece of good fortune. Heliodorus tells of a seductress who asks a young man why he does not regard the presence of a pretty girl who desires him as a harpagmos or a wonderful “find.” Eusebius of Caesarea writes that the apostle Peter “considered death through a cross as a harpagmos because of the hope of salvation.” That’s why the Liddell-Scott classical Greek lexicon identifies Philippians 2:6 as one place where harpagmos means “prize to be grasped.”

The next verse tells us what Christ did instead of what Paul said he could have done in verse 6. Christ was already God, Paul says. But although he could have pulled rank and grabbed for his divine status and its benefits, verse 7 says that Christ chose to go the opposite direction: he literally “emptied himself” [heauton ekenōsen, KJV “made himself of no reputation”]. He made himself like a slave, lowered himself to our human level, and submitted to the most hideous, humiliating death of a Roman cross.

So Philippians 2:6 means the opposite of what the LDS cite it to mean. It does not mean that we should aspire to be equal with God like Jesus, who thought that being equal with God was not robbery (grabbing for what we are not entitled to). It means that instead of thinking it was OK to grab for Godhood and its privileges, Christ chooses to humble himself and lay aside the privileges of being God.

The LDS approach leads us to understand the opposite: “Jesus thought being equal with God was not robbery, therefore, we should grab for it, too.” That leads us to the mistake made by Adam and Eve, who found that the prospect of being like God and determining good and evil for themselves was too good not to grab for, an act of rebellion rather than faithfulness.

Latter-day Saints will also appeal to 2 Peter 1:4, where Peter tells his readers that God has given us all we need so that we may become “partakers of the divine nature.” The Orthodox tradition comes perilously close to reading this verse the way the LDS do. But even the Orthodox are compelled to limit our participation in the divine nature to God’s “communicable” attributes such as holiness and love, which humans can share, and in which indeed we ought to become like God. Peter is not suggesting that we will be able to inherit God’s “incommunicable” attributes like omnipresence, omnipotence, or omniscience, attributes which belong to God alone.

How can it be good to take God’s place? Doesn’t it detract from God’s worthiness of worship? We end up with nothing unique about God. Godhood becomes a cheapened commodity, a privilege that any person who does what is required has a right to expect. This doctrine appeals to our human desires to be worshipped and to call the shots over our own world. It is not Biblical doctrine at all; it turns Biblical doctrine on its head.

And it flies in the face of where the Bible says it will all end: rather than us inheriting worlds of our own where we will be worshipped, the Bible teaches that Christ will reign forever and ever (Revelation 11:15), and we will worship him (Revelation 22:3). Yes, we will reign over God’s new world with him (Revelation 22:5), but there is nothing about us receiving worship, or receiving worlds of our own.

Rather than grabbing to become God, the Biblical goal is well captured by the answer to Question 1 in the Westminster Shorter Catechism, a goal on which all Nicene Christians can agree: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.”