Episode 19: Thinking about the Trinity (2) Did Jesus pre-exist?
Our guest, Sam Walton explains his thoughts on this question to Josh and Jon. The legacy of Jesus of Nazareth is felt today in all kinds of ways, in religion, in culture, music and art. But what about the question that Christians and others have been asking and debating for centuries – Did Jesus pre-exist? Was he alive in some sense before being born into a quiet small town in Israel about 2000 years ago? And if that question is answered with a yes or with a no, does it change anything for Christians? Enjoy the conversation and let us know what you think!
Sam starts out by recognising that there has been much debate about this question, for 1700 years or more. Many Christians have understood Jesus to be an eternal being, co-equal with God the Father, of one substance with the Father as one of the persons of a triune Godhead. From the outset Sam gives his position that God the Father is one and that Jesus is the Son of God, an incredibly special, integral part of God’s plan, but that he was born as a human and his existence started at a point in time roughly 2000 years ago, not at the beginning of time.
What is pre-existence?
Josh then attempts to give an everyday example of pre-existence. Aside from the idea of ‘pre-existing conditions’ in a medical sense, all he can come up with is that he has the ingredients for a sandwich which he is looking forward to making and so, in a sense it pre-exists in his mind! In the discussion Sam and Josh recognise that pre-existence is often quite notional and that the Bible uses similar ideas and expressions when describing God and the things that are in his mind as though they exist even if they haven’t happened yet.
Sam then explains the importance of recognising that we all have biases. That is not a bad thing in itself, it just means we have to be aware of them. When we start looking at the Bible we also have to remember that it comes to us from a certain context, that is a Jewish, Hebrew context with a clear monotheistic worldview and we should recognise that the New Testament texts were produced with that worldview as the background framework. Whatever our personal bias may be, we need to recognise that starting point.
In that framework Sam then takes us to the Jesus birth narratives in Matthew and Luke and notes that there is no indication in either of them that Mary was giving birth to someone or something that had existed in another form before. There is no genuine incarnation language, they use the language of normal birth (although not normal conception). Another feature of the Gospel narratives that Sam highlights is that both Matthew and Luke start with a genealogy that demonstrates Jesus’ descent from David. This is directly stated to be the fulfillment of a promise to David of a special descendant. Sam points out that the promise and its fulfillment is less true if Jesus arrives from an external pre-existing source.
The three then look at John 1:1-14, probably the most famous and most debated passage on this subject! “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God and the word was God.” Because in verse 14 of this chapter John says “the word was made flesh” it is often assumed that Jesus always was the word right from the beginning with God. Sam demonstrates that this isn’t really a natural way to read the text and there is strong precedent in Jewish thought for the idea of things being in God’s mind and purpose before they come into being. He quotes examples of Jewish writers saying that the Torah, and the Garden of Eden, were in heaven with God before they existed. The New Testament uses this language about Jesus and so we need to read John with that in mind, or we will misunderstand it. Sam then gives an example from Ephesians 1:3-5 of this type of language.
Sam develops his thoughts from John 1 to introduce the idea of ‘personification’. He uses Proverbs 8:22 and Proverbs 31 to show how wisdom is described as though it was a person. This is a literary device which is easily recognised and can also help to understand the language used in the New Testament about God’s wisdom, plan or purpose to bring a Son into being.
Josh then asks a question about why the beginning of John’s Gospel is so different from the others, which Sam explains as probably being because John is aiming to achieve something specific with his Gospel which is outlined in John 20:31 “so that you might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the son of God”. This in itself suggests that John is trying to portray Jesus as the Messiah, the son of God rather than as anything else.
Does it matter?
The conversation then moves on to whether this whole question of pre-existence matters to Christians. Sam gives two reasons why he thinks it does; firstly, the answer to the question “who is Jesus?” has to be one of the most basic questions that a Christian needs to answer and it seems unlikely that the answer should be complicated or an unfathomable mystery. Secondly, Jesus’ death and resurrection and the forgiveness of sins that flows from that is the central claim and hope of Christians. If that is not true then faith is vain according to 1 Corinthians 15:14-16. It seems like it matters if Jesus’ resurrection was not really that, but a restoration to something he had been beforehand.
Sam then closes by explaining how inspiring he finds the idea of Jesus as the human, Son of God who conquered temptation and overcame sin so that we can do the same.