(Phil. 2:7) Did Jesus cease to be God on Earth?

CLAIM: Some cultists point out that Jesus “emptied Himself” (v.7) of his deity, when he came to Earth. Did Jesus really cease to be God?

RESPONSE: While Jesus was undoubtedly fully human (1 Tim. 2:5; Heb. 2:14, 17; 1 Jn. 4:2), he was also fully God (Mk. 2:5-7; Jn. 1:1; 5:18; 8:58; 10:30; 20:28-29). Here, Paul explains that Jesus laid aside the use of his divine attributes –not the attributes themselves (Phil. 2:6-7). Instead of using his own divine attributes, Jesus depended fully on the Spirit to perform his miracles (Jn. 5:19; Lk. 4:18; Rom. 8:11; Mt. 26:53). In fact, the Bible repeatedly points out that Jesus’ miracles were due to the empowering of the Holy Spirit –not Jesus’ own power (Lk. 5:17; Acts 2:22; Acts 10:38).

While he was on Earth, Jesus lacked the use of omniscience (Lk. 8:45; Mt. 24:36; Lk. 2:52), omnipotence (Mk. 6:5; Jn. 5:19), and omnipresence (Jn. 4:4). Cultists assume that Jesus could not have been God; otherwise, he would not lack these attributes. However, these passages make sense in light of the fact that Jesus gave up the use of his divine attributes, while he was on Earth.

We need to be clear: Jesus did not cease to have his divine attributes on Earth. Instead, he ceased to use these attributes. We might compare this to an Olympic runner, who enters into a three-legged race. While the runner is still the fastest man on Earth, he has chosen to take on another person in addition to himself. This doesn’t subtract from his nature; instead, it adds to it. At any moment, the runner could cut the other person loose, and he would still be the fastest person on Earth. However, he willingly chooses to take on limitations for the sake of the race. In the same way, Jesus’ humanity didn’t subtract from his deity; instead, it added to it. Jesus added a human nature in addition to his divine nature. Philosopher Paul Copan illustrates:

Imagine a spy on a dangerous mission, carrying in his mind top-secret information valuable to the enemy. To avoid divulging answers in case he’s caught and tortured, he takes along a limited-amnesia producing pill with an antidote for later use. If the spy uses the amnesia pill, he would still possess the vital information in his mind; given these temporary conditions required to carry out his mission, he chooses to limit his access to the information that’s stored up in his mind. Similarly, during Jesus’ mission to earth, He still possessed the full, undiminished capacities of divine knowledge and power, and He had access to those capacities as necessary for His mission. But before the foundation of the world, Father, Son, and Spirit freely determined together that the Son would limit or restrain the use of those powers to accomplish His overall mission (John 17:5,22–26), having access to knowing, say, the time of His return (Matt 24:36) and, as we’ll see, knowing that it was impossible for Him to sin or to be vulnerable to temptation (cf. Jas 1:13). However, (2) He didn’t lose essential divine attributes; rather, He voluntarily, temporarily suppressed or gave up access to using certain divine capacities and powers He possessed all along. Like a father holding back the full force of his powers while playing soccer or baseball with his kids, so the Son of God, before coming to earth, determined to restrain His divine capacities. Jesus’ human consciousness significantly interacted with His divine consciousness and wasn’t cut off from certain heavenly illuminations like the glow of divine light that streams through a cloth curtain. Jesus, however, didn’t regularly rely on His divine consciousness while on earth but primarily operated in His human consciousness, just like us, with the added depth of divine awareness. Being fully human, Jesus freely and fully depended on the Spirit’s power as He sought to carry out His Father’s purpose.[1]

Some critical theologians object that it is the attitude of Christ that is the focus of this passage. He was a human that didn’t try to be God. But as James White observes, this view is untenable with a careful reading of the text:

Is it humble, for example, to be a newly hired employee who does not seek to immediately take over the position of the president of the company? Are you considered “humble” if you do not try to usurp your boss’s authority? Do we look at the janitor at the White House, for example, and say, “Oh my, what a humble man he is, for he did not today attempt to take over the president’s job!” No, of course not. Such is not humility, it is simple common sense. In the same way, if the Lord Jesus were merely a spirit being, a creature, how would it be “humble” of Him not to seek to become equal with God himself?[2]

[1] Copan, Paul, and William Lane Craig. Contending with Christianity’s Critics: Answering New Atheists & Other Objectors. Nashville: B & H Academic, 2009. 225-226.

[2] White, James R. The Forgotten Trinity. Minneapolis, MN. Baker Publishing Group. 1998. 126-127.