One of the most common words to describe salvation until the Middle Ages was deification. Deification describes how someone can by grace become like God. The African Christian Athanasius famously summarized the doctrine by saying, “God became man, so that we could become God.”
Now, the language of “become God” ruffles our feathers today. But these Christians did not mean that we possess God’s being or something like that. They basically meant the same thing that we mean by the word sanctification.
The reason why the language of deification troubles us today is possibly because we divide the human and divine realms sharply in the West. God is up there; we are down here. And there is no connection (see Bart Ehrman, How Jesus Became God, 2014: 3–4). In this paradigm, the term deification seems especially unhelpful and misleading: why say deification if you simply mean that you become like God?
Part of the answer lies in how ancient peoples (including Jews and Greco-Roman peoples) conceived of the divine-human divide.
Bart Ehrman describes evidence of deification, namely, “the recognition that, in this instance, a person had been so great that he been taken up at death into the ranks of the gods” (How Jesus Became God, 2014: 28). The context of Ehrman’s statement is the deification of Julius Caesar who receives the honour of both man and deity (28).
Ehrman also records the story of Ovid who records the story of Philemon and Baucis who meet Jupiter and Mercury (disguised as humans; pp. 19–20). Philemon and Baucis treat the two strangers well and learn that they are gods. So they ask to serve the gods at their shrine. And so they do.
Philemon and Baucis serve the gods and eventually die at the same time, turning into two trees that share one trunk. And eventually, they too receive worship as gods. Ehrman records the words of Ovid who says:
They now are gods, who served the Gods;
To them who worship gave is worship given. (20)
Faithful worshippers of the gods become themselves gods.
How does this work? Well, Ehrman speaks of the continuum between divinity and humanity (p. 44) in the Greco-Roman world. And he also (somewhat less successfully) speaks about this seem continuum in the Jewish world.
The continuum within the Jewish world is less clear than the Greco-Roman world—but many Jews lived within a Greco-Roman culture and so these worlds overlap greatly.
For Ehrman, much of the continuum involves angelic beings, attributions of deity to kings in the Old Testament, the son of Man figure, and certain Second Temple texts (47–84). Fair enough. There is a sense of a divine hierarchy in both the Old Testament and later texts.
But the picture is not quite what it is in the larger Greco-Roman culture, largely because of the Jewish conviction of monotheism. Certainly, this monotheism did not mean that the world was not populated by spiritual beings. But it meant the process of deification was not underscored as it was in non-Jewish thought.
Deification in Christianity?
If ancient Judaism provided some framework for a hierarchy of spiritual beings, then the language of deification from the Greco-Roman world gave a paradigm for spiritual growth. Being baptized in Christianity and its Jewish roots, no Christian would affirm that a believer could become God by essence. But the language of deification was a shorthand term for being like God.
Today, we say things like “spiritual growth” or “growing in faith” as shorthand terms for a similar process. These are cultural shorthands (but growing from biblical ideas) for the process of sanctification (i.e., becoming holy like God).
The early Christians used language common in their day that was rooted in ancient Judaism which includes the Bible. But the reality they described was thoroughly biblical.
They affirmed what Peter affirms in 2 Peter 1:3–4:
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.
The phrase “you may become partakers of the divine nature” refers to the following virtues listed in verses 5–10. It simply means becoming like God is. To be holy like he is, to be love like he is.
Should We Speak of Deification Today?
Probably not. The language of deification is confusing because it sounds like we mean that we become God as God in essence. That’s not what Christians meant in the early church, and their cultural dictionary allowed for the term deification to be understood broadly.
We don’t have that same cultural dictionary. Certainly, we should use the word deification when speaking of how early Christians conceived of salvation. But the words justification, sanctification, and glorification make better sense to people today (but still must be explained!). They also have a solid root in the language of the Bible. So let’s stick with them as our primary words.
Now, ahem, I might also suggest that we make the word union as in union with Christ the most central term that we use to describe salvation. But that’s for another day ….