theosis · divinization · deification
A couple of years ago, I made a trip to meet a friend with whom I’d become acquainted through this website. Over pizza, our conversation turned to God. I began sensing that her experience of God was a class apart, that she was always in God’s presence. I asked her to describe what her relationship with God felt like, and she whispered in awe-struck amazement, “It feels . . . like there’s no difference between us!”
That was my first encounter with someone who had become spiritually awakened. Union with God was once considered the goal of the Christian life. If you’re not familiar with the idea of spiritual awakening or divine union in this life, this page will challenge you. (Just don’t flame me until you’ve read it carefully, including the references.) 😉
a gift and calling by god’s grace
Theosis, (also called divinization, deification, or transforming union) was one of the most important of early Christian doctrines, but it has become such a well-kept secret, that is nearly unknown to most contemporary laymen. It means participating in, and partaking of, God’s Divinity. It is likely to sound so alien to our ears that we might quickly dismiss it as some heresy, rather than realize this is the heart of the Christian calling.
Yet, from the first chapter of Genesis, to Christ the Word of God, through the Apostles, to numerous saints, theologians, and Christian writers throughout the centuries and today, the message is clear: God made us to be like him, wants us to become like Him, and will ultimately transform us into being like him. From the second-century St. Ireneaus, to the twentieth-century C. S. Lewis, some theologians have used the most shocking language to bring home how shocking this gift of God is: “becoming gods,” or even “becoming God.”
God created man in the image of himself, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them.
Know that I am with you always, yes, even to the end of time.
—Jesus, Matt. 28:20
You are the light of the world.—Jesus, Matt. 5:14
You, therefore, must be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.
—Jesus, Matt. 5:48
You should pray like this: Our Father …
—Jesus, Matt. 6:9
… the fully-trained disciple will always be like his teacher.—Jesus, Luke 6:40
The Kingdom of God does not come visibly, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is, ‘ because the kingdom of God is within you.—Jesus, Luke 17:20b-21, NIV
But to all who did accept him he gave power to become children of God, to all who believe in the name of him who was born not out of human stock or urge of the flesh or will of man but of God himself.— John, 1:12-13
The Bride is only for the Bridegroom.
—John the Baptist, John 3:29
I am the light of the world.—Jesus, John 8:12
Jesus answered: Is it not written in your Law: I said, you are gods? So the Law uses the word gods of those to whom the word of God was addressed, and scripture cannot be rejected.
—Jesus, John 10:34-35
I tell you most solemnly, whoever believes in me will perform the same works as I do myself, he will perform even greater works.—Jesus, John 14:12
I am the vine, you are the branches.—Jesus, John 15:5a
. . . the Spirit and our spirit bear united witness that we are children of God. And if we are children we are heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, sharing his sufferings so as to share his glory.”—St. Paul, Rom. 8:15-17
They (those who love him) are the ones he chose specially long ago and intended to become true images of his Son, so that his Son might be the eldest of many brothers.—St. Paul Rom. 8:29
Now you together are Christ’s body; but each of you is a different part of it.
—St. Paul, I Cor.12.27
And when everything is subjected to him, then the Son himself will be subject in turn to the One who subjected all things to him, so that God may be all in all.
—St. Paul, I Cor. 15:28
Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we, with our unveiled faces reflecting like mirrors the brightness of the Lord, all grow brighter and brighter as we are turned into the image that we reflect; this is the work of the Lord who is Spirit.—St. Paul, 2 Cor. 3:17-18
… the two will become one body. . . This mystery applies to Christ and the Church.— St. Paul, Eph. 5:31-32
…if God has made you son, then he has made you heir.—St. Paul, Gal. 4:7
For the Son of God became man, that we might become God.—St. Athanasius, De inc.
My dear people, we are already the children of God but what we are to be in the future has not yet been revealed; all we know is, that when it is revealed we shall be like him because we shall see him as he really is.—St. John, I John 3:2
May they all be one, Father, may they be one in us, as you are in me, and I am in you, so that the world may believe that it was you who sent me. I have given them the glory which you gave to me, that they may be one as we are one. With me in them and you in me, may they be so completely one that the world will realise that it was you who sent me, and that I have loved them as much as you loved me.—Jesus, John 17:21-23
Now we are seeing a dim reflection in a mirror; but then we shall be seeing face to face. The knowledge that I have now is imperfect; but then I shall know as fully as I am known.—St. Paul, I Cor. 13:12
In this way we are all to come to unity in our faith and in our knowledge of the Son of God, until we become the perfect Man, fully mature with the fullness of Christ himself.
—St. Paul, Ephesians 4:13
The glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.—St. Paul, Col. 1:27
… when he shall come to be glorified in his saints, and to be admired in all them that believe in that day.
—2 Thess. 1:10a, KJV
For this is why the gospel was preached even to the dead, that though judged in the flesh like men, they might live in the Spirit like God.—I Peter 4:6 RSV
He has given us all the things that we need for life and for true devotion, bringing us to know God himself… through them you will be able to share the divine nature.
— II Peter 1:3-4a
God became man, so that man might become God.
—Early Christian Proverb
“the Word became flesh and the Son of God became the Son of Man: so that man, by entering into communion with the Word and thus receiving divine sonship, might become a son of God”—St. Irenaeus, Adv Haer III 19,1
He has called men gods that are deified of His Grace, not born of His Substance.
Let us applaud and give thanks that we have become not only Christians but Christ himself. Do you understand, my brothers, the grace that God our head has given us? Be filled with wonder and joy—we have become veritable Christs!
—St. Augustine of Hippo
Souls wherein the Spirit dwells, illuminated by the Spirit, themselves become spiritual, and send forth their grace to others. Hence comes . . . abiding in God, the being made like to God, and, highest of all, the being made God.
—St. Basil the Great, On the Spirit.
let us become the image of the one whole God, bearing nothing earthly in ourselves, so that we may consort with God and become gods, receiving from God our existence as gods.
—St. Maximus the Confessor
Christ has no hands but yours.—St. Teresa of Ávila
The whole creation is eagerly waiting for God to reveal his sons… From the beginning until now, the entire creation has been groaning in one great act of giving birth; and not only creation, but all of us who possess the first-fruits of the Spirit, we too groan inwardly as we wait for our bodies to be set free.—St. Paul, Rom. 8:19, 22-23
The Only-begotten Son of God, wanting us to be partakers of his divinity, assumed our human nature so that, having become man, he might make men gods.
—St. Thomas Aquinas
The center of the soul is God.
—St. John of the Cross, The Living Flame of Love
Souls wherein the Spirit dwells, illuminated by the Spirit, themselves become spiritual, and send forth their grace to others. Hence comes . . . abiding in God, the being made like to God, and, highest of all, the being made God.
—St. Basil the Great, On the Spirit.
“the highest of all things desired is to become God.”
—St Basil the Great
It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship…
—C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory
God said to this hairless monkey, “get on with it, become a god.”
—C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed
Morality is indispensable: but the Divine Life, which gives itself to us and which calls us to be gods, intends for us something in which morality will be swallowed up. We are to be remade. . . . we shall find underneath it all a thing we have never yet imagined: a real man, an ageless god, a son of God, strong, radiant, wise, beautiful, and drenched in joy.—C. S. Lewis, The Grand Miracle, p. 85.
(God) said that we were “gods” and He is going to make good His words. If we let Him-for we can prevent Him if we choose—He will make the feeblest and filthiest of us into a god or goddess, dazzling, radiant, immortal creature, pulsating all through with such energy and joy and wisdom and love as we cannot now imagine, a bright stainless mirror which reflects back to God perfectly (though, of course, on a smaller scale) His own boundless power and delight and goodness. The process will be long and in parts very painful; but that is what we are in for.
—C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity 174-5
You are not a human being having a spiritual experience—you are a spiritual being having a human experience.
Becoming God doesn’t mean we become all-knowing, all-powerful, or that we remember saying “let there be light.” It really means becoming Christ, or becoming divine—that God’s God-ness is experienced and known not as something outside and separate, but as a part of our own being. It means knowing God as Jesus knew the Father, so like Jesus, we are with him, fully human, and fully divine.
This is a difficult teaching to accept at first. It is one thing to think of ourselves as children of God in the sense that, like all creation, we ultimately come from God. But it is quite another to believe in the biblical usage of the words children and sons, because their implications of likeness, growing up, and inheritance are much stronger than that. “the power to become children of God,” (John 1:12) indicates something much more than the fact that he created us.
It would be less shocking to consider this transformation a purely moral one: that our goal of “godness” just means “goodness” or “godliness,” in the moral sense, coupled with the reward of eternal life, another divine quality. It certainly is that, but the indications from both Scripture and Tradition are that it is much more—a transforming union with God that makes us also Christ, at once human and divine, as Jesus was. This is the completion and perfection of salvation, to become Sons and Daughters of God with, within, and like him, the Son of God.
children of god
Paul teaches that as Adam was the first man, so Christ is the “last Adam,” superseding all that has come before. All who are born in him will be children of God, so even more surely than we are children of Adam, we are the children of Christ. Elsewhere, he describes us as being given the “spirit of sons,” and declares that “the Spirit and our spirit bear united witness that we are children of God. And if we are children, we are heirs of God and co-heirs with Christs, sharing his sufferings so as to share his glory.” (Rom. 8:15-17) Sharing his glory. I don’t know how many times I might have read that or heard that without letting it hit me. We will share his glory!
Theosis is described in Scripture in many ways—children inheriting from their Father and growing up to be like their Father is just one example. This is present even in the first chapter of the Bible. After God creates animal life by telling the earth to produce every kind of creature (Gen. 1-24-25), God does something completely different with man. He makes man directly, not indirectly, and makes him “male and female” to be like him, charged with ruling the rest of creation. (1:26-27) The implication is man is a little god, by the grace of God. (Of course, Genesis 3 describes how something went wrong with that!)
bride of christ
Another image is the “divine marriage.” Jesus is the Lover of the Church and the Christian soul. He is the Bridegroom and we are the Bride. He will marry us, and we will become one with him. Jesus repeatedly described himself as the Bridegroom, probably bringing up the powerful love imagery of the Song of Songs to his listeners’ minds. This image of theosis carries with it a powerful message of what changes us—Christ’s unfailing and total passion for us. Theosis is considered the fruition of grace and love, nothing that comes to us by right or by nature. Our union with Christ is passionate, ardent, joyous and life-giving.
Paul describes this transformation of love as leading to a union so profound there are no barriers: “the two will become one body…This mystery applies to Christ and the Church” (Eph. 5:31-32), which leads us to…
the body of christ
This image goes even farther in bringing home the depth and immediacy of theosis—the Body of Christ. This is the one we are probably most familiar with, and maybe we have become too familiar with it to be shocked by its spiritual implications. Bridegroom and bride will share their bodies intimately, but a persistent theme in Paul’s revelation is that Christ lives in our bodies, and together, we are his body.
In other words, the Incarnation was not a just a one-time event, but is the pattern of how Christ chooses to work on Earth. As God the Son was incarnate in Jesus, the risen Christ indwells us, enfleshed in all his people. He literally lives within these cells of skin and blood. And if Christ, who is both human and divine, lives within us, we become both human and divine as well. A book title I saw recently said it well—One Jesus, Many Christs. Or, in Jesus’ own words “I am the vine, you are the branches.” How close is a living branch of a vine to that vine? It is part of the very same organism!
The divinized Christian is a living Eucharist, a vessel presenting God’s spirit to the world, constantly welling up within them. He is transforming this world, by living within us, and we are his hands, feet, and mouths. Instead of asking why God allows so much suffering on Earth, we should ask ourselves why we allow it!
light of the world
Another image of theosis is seen in the use of the words sun and light. Jesus identified himself as “the light of the world,” yet on another occasion called his disciples the light of the world.” John teaches us that He is the “true light that enlightens every one” (Jn.1:9) Paul says we are like mirrors that not only reflect God’s brightness, but which are transformed into the light which they reflect.(2 Cor. 3:17-18)
There are many more Biblical images of this wonderful work of God. He changes us like living water welling up within us, by living in him and he in us, by knowing him, and by becoming his brothers, just to name a few more.
theosis and the second coming
Theosis has eschatological implications which are seldom addressed. Christ is returning. and his parousia (literally presence, but usually mistranslated as “coming”) will be bodily. But his body has changed. We are his body. Is the man-sized form of Jesus of Nazareth the central part of his return, or does it have something to do with a divine manifestation of him throughout his whole body, a body of millions and millions of members, a body which covers the earth, which he longs and prays for to become more and more perfect, more holy, manifesting him more clearly, for the purpose of ultimately bringing in everyone?
A Pentecostal minister, J. Preston Eby, examines this idea in depth. Looking for His Appearing is a series of 48 booklets now available on the Web containing well over 250 pages of intense Biblical examination of the ideas of parousia and theosis, written from a (very) conservative Protestant perspective. As of yet I have found absolutely no better resource for the Biblical evidence of theosis.
Eby contends that many of the “end-time” prophecies concerning the return of Christ, are fulfilled by the ultimate revelation and perfecting of Christ’s presence in us. Eby’s insights are sometimes astounding:he points out that the word astrapê translated as “lightning” in Matt. 24:27 (one of the main “proof texts” that supposedly show the parousia of Christ is a sudden event), is the same word translated as “shining” in Luke 11:33) With this in mind, context indicates that the image is not of lightning, but of sunrise. A better translation would be:
If, then, they say to you, “Look, he is in the desert,” do not go there; “Look, he is in some hiding place,” do not believe it; because the presence (parousia) of the Son of Man will be like shining (astrapê) in the east and illuminating (phanetai) far into the west. (Matt. 24:26-27 Jerusalem Bible, my substitutions)
When the mistranslations are corrected, the emphasis shifts from suddenness to the gradual dawning of the Presence of the Lord. Thinking that he could be secretly “here” or “there,” is contrasted with His Presence revealed unmistakably everywhere. Eby has hundreds of other thought-provoking examples as well.
Matthew Fox, an Episcopal priest known for his many works on Christian mysticism, agrees. The final section of his masterwork, The Coming of the Cosmic Christ, is titled “A Vision of the Second Coming,” and considers the coming of the Kingdom of God to be the work of the God’s children acting in their divinization, restoring the Earth and rebuilding all human institutions to eliminate hunger, hopelessness, and violence.
I have come to believe that God has also entrusted us with far more of the responsibility of saving the world than we might commonly suppose. He is the vine, we are the branches. He is the Light of the world, and we are the bulbs through whom it shines through. Christ is creating little Christs, flooding the world with mini-Christs, and our responsibility is transform ourselves and our world through the love of Christ, and the light of Christ, the Good News of Christ, into ever more and more Christedness. Theosis is one more reason why I believe the “emergency airlift” idea of “the Rapture” is completely mistaken.
the goal of creation
However, theosis doesn’t end here. St. John wrote that there is more to come. “My dear people, we are already the children of God, but what we are to be in the future has not yet been revealed; all we know is, that when it is revealed we shall be like him because we shall see him as he really is.” (I John 3:2) So what it means is something we don’t know. Something that hasn’t been revealed. Something presently beyond us, in spite of the fact that we are already children of God, already his bride, already his body, and already his light. The one thing we do know, whatever it means, it means becoming like God.
St. Paul seems to have had a similar revelation, and he declares this final event is nothing less than the climax of all creation itself. “The whole creation is eagerly waiting for God to reveal his sons… From the beginning until now, the entire creation has been groaning in one great act of giving birth.” (Rom.8:19,22)
Where does it end? Where does it lead? What does “becoming God” actually mean in its consummation? Paul wrote that all the enemies of God will become subject to God, and then Christ will subject himself to the Father, and when everything is subject to God, God will become “all in all.” (I Cor. 15:28). All in all. Perfect union.
theosis and the church
When I started going to the Catholic Church, I’d frequently things hear things like: “we are Christ to one another,” “I saw Christ in that person.” My impression was “Wow! Catholics are, like, you know, so totally spiritual, dude!” (Over time I learned better!) But the Catholic Church has kept this spiritual teaching alive from its very beginning with Christ, Paul and John, and numerous sections of the Catechism refer to the divine sonship and divinization of man and our partaking of his Divine nature. (see sections 257, 260, 265, 398, 460, 1265, 1812, 1988, 1999). The Eastern Orthodox Church has gone even farther, refining divinization to the point that it is a central doctrine, some even say the doctrine of spirituality, and there it is widely discussed and taught as such.
Theosis is far less well-known in most Protestant circles, although some, for instance, Quakers, have kept an traditional emphasis on Christ as the “Inner Light,” and Pentecostals and Charismatics are particularly aware of the Indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Anglican C. S. Lewis believed strongly in deification in the traditional sense (some of his quotes are presented here), and John Wesley was strongly influenced by theotic thought from the Church Fathers.
Some points of clarification: deification does not mean that we will only have a divine nature, but that like Christ, we will be one, with God, both human and divine. It is not “future evolution,” it is the consummation of present grace. It also does not mean that we become part of the essence of God, but rather our human nature, and our identities, are transformed and united with “the energies of God.”
Thomas Aquinas described it like a poker being held in a fire. The poker becomes a fire, in that it takes every attribute of the fire. It burns, radiates heat and light, emits energy as it is transformed by the fire’s energy. And yet, it though it has “become fire,” it is unquestionably iron as well.
What does this union with God look like? It can be as singular as Jesus enduring the Cross to pronounce forgiveness on all. It can be as inspiring as the transformation of Francis of Assisi into a person of such mercy and love that he has been called “alter Christus” (another Christ). However, more often it is the process at work in people yielding themselves to God so humbly that you would not think that there is anything unusual about them at all. Yet they have yielded their selves to the point where God fills them completely, and they always aware of being “one with God,” the Ground of Being.
One who has united with God in this life can only continue to go deeper after death. Mary has received graces from God to preach around the world for almost twenty centuries, pouring out her love and prayers for this world, as Christ pours out his. And soon after her death, the hyperactive St. Terése of Lisieux began making the first of hundreds of reported appearances to minister to others. Perhaps this is part of becoming “gods with God by the grace of God!”
The Christian understanding of theosis is not trivial or pat. It’s not a casual, New-Agey “Sure, I’m a god” idea that avoids the realities of profound humility and commitment. This transformation comes by choosing to be so empty that God can fill us totally. The ego gets lost, just as a wax form is lost when a jeweler pours molten gold to make a ring. It is a process which demands self-emptying, which most of us resist, and resistance makes the emptying too painful. In many of the references to theosis in the Bible, suffering and death are also mentioned. Christ died to demonstrate the complete selflessness of perfect love, and our union with him also involves death—the death of the ego and eventually the death of the body. Uniting ourselves to Christ changes us through love and humility. A willingness to “share his sufferings so as to share his glory” (Rom. 8:17) leads to a truly great glory, living in divine Presence. This is a gift beyond any and all possible merit, a gift of the most unspeakable grace. Whenever I think about the divinization that God is calling us to, calling me to, I am filled with deep awe, amazement, and immense gratitude. I don’t think anyone who can speak blithely about this understands it. I myself do not. All I know is that our God is good.
But far and away the most wonderful part of theosis is that it begins here! It starts today.
theosis and other religions
In spite of my caution against the usually too-casual New Age conception of deification, I think the Churches have built unnecessary walls around this revelation. Most religions have a mystical tradition, and the heart of all mysticism is union with God—no matter by what name or concepts the Absolute is called. And that union with the Absolute is of course, theosis. I believe there is a largely unexplored potential for inter-religious cooperation and understanding at the deep, universal level of this quest for mystical union with the Absolute. In Hinduism, this transforming union is called in Self-realization or liberation; in Islam, it’s fana; in Buddhism it’s enlightenment, and in all traditions, it’s awakening.
Many great teachers on the mystical path have seen the value of learning from the common strands in their own faith and other faiths; for instance, Thomas Merton, John Main, Laurence Freeman, and Bede Griffiths are but a few of many Catholic priests who have learned much from Eastern spirituality, and the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh, the world’s two most prominent Buddhist writers, frequently refer to the teachings of Jesus.
Maranatha! Our Lord Comes!
links to other sites dealing with theosis · divinization · deification
Many of these links treat theosis as an academic item of interest, rather than as the essence of the spiritual life. Some are also strident about why their interpretation of theosis is the “right” one. Still, there are diamonds here. . .
Protestant and Catholic Perspectives
- Looking for His Appearing A massive study on divinization and parousia themes throughout the Bible from a Pentecostal(!) perspective, by J. Preston Eby. Unique study on how the completion of theosis within God’s people fulfills “end-time” prophecies, as the ultimate manifestation and revelation of Christ. Divided into 48 online booklets, this is a goldmine of references with often brilliant insights. While this study is seriously marred by bigotry against traditional churches (“Babylon”) and very amateurish writing, it is strikingly original, impassioned, and offers a wealth of insights available nowhere else.
- Theosis in Chrysostom and Wesley: An Eastern Paradigm of Faith and Love Examination of the Methodist’s founder’s idea of theosis.
- Grace and Divinization of Humanity A good Catholic page on theosis
- Divinization Steven Kellmeyer’s well-written presentation step-by-step from the Bible. Catholic apologetic view.
- Salvation as Happiness: Thoughts by the itinerant Ukrainian Philosopher-Theologian H. S. Skovoroda (1722-1794) Interesting page which describes the culmination of theosis as an event, equated with enlightenment.
- Gleanings from Orthodox Christian Authors and Church Fathers – Theosis a collection of quotes on theosis.
- Achieving Your Potential in Christ: Theosis: Plain Talks on a Major Doctrine of Orthodoxy Theosis site by Coptic Orthodox priest Anthony M. Coniaris.
- Religious Pluralism in the Romanian Context Romanian Baptist pastor explains the Orthodox view of theosis at length.
- I said, you are gods: Orthodox Christian Theosis and Deification in the New Religious Movements Brendon Pelphrey’s study contrasting Orthodox and other conceptions of theosis/deification.
- Salvation by Christ Orthodox scholar Carmen Fragapane’s apologetics regarding theosis.
- Spirituality Short description of theosis by the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.
- What Eastern Christians Believe Lisa Moeller’s succinct description of theosis and the development of Orthodox spirituality.
- Deification and the Restoration of Humanity Matthew Steenberg’s academic paper on the development of deification.
- Deification Short but good treatment on theosis is actually part of a longer section on understanding the spiritual thought behind Orthodox iconography. Superb site.
- Theosis or Yoga; [Gnostic] Church of the East’s short page on theosis. Quotes from the Gospel of Thomas.
- Mormon Deification compared to Orthodox Christian TheosisAn LDS rebuttal to the Pelphrey article above.
- Godhood: Man’s Divine Potential Short page on theosis. (Latter-Day Saints)
- The Divine Potential of Human Beings: The Latter-Day Saints Perspective An FAQ page.