I’ve waded through the arguments and read the commentaries, and most scholars agree. When it comes to the question of the divinity of Jesus, it seems there is one, inescapable conclusion: Jesus isn’t God. Whoever you imagine God to be, Jesus isn’t him (or, if you prefer, her). The standard, unsatisfactory, argument goes something like this. The God of the universe created all things: the universe, stars, planets, all creatures great and small, humanity, and this fragile earth, our island home. God is infinitely powerful, infinitely present in all things, infinitely knowing of all things. Jesus, as it is said in modern thought (patristic theology operates quite differently), worked supernatural miracles, demonstrated supernatural knowledge of others, and ultimately was raised from the dead as confirmation of his inherent god-ness.

But try as I might, I’m not convinced and the holes in the modern argument have some major gaps. Jesus was certainly a charismatic figure, but his miracles fall alarmingly short of omnipotence, particularly when it comes to his unfortunate death at the hands of the comparatively more powerful Roman empire. Secondly, it’s patently obvious that Jesus wasn’t omnipresent. He lived in a body and was subject to the same laws of physics you and I are. Walking on water is, admittedly, unusual, but it’s not like he flew or teleported from Jerusalem to Hong Kong. A teleporting Jesus might have tipped the scales for me, but none of the records of his life say he did this. Finally, there are many things it seems that Jesus didn’t know. He might have known who was going to betray him, but he didn’t know that the mustard seed isn’t actually the smallest of all the seeds on the earth. I’ll allow that Jesus was a smart guy, but if he wanted to prove he was the all-knowing God of the universe it would have helped his cause if he had invented something spectacular (perhaps a time machine?).

So there you have it. Jesus isn’t God. Case closed.

Or is it? The logic of the above argument rests upon something of a fallacy which the New Testament authors largely avoid, namely that the identity of God is a knowable quantity — against which Jesus’ divinity can be measured. When one’s understanding of Jesus is subject to preconceived doctrines of God, the result is disastrous for one’s Christology. The God of metaphysics (omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, etc.) is patently not Jesus, but the direction of argument taken by many of the New Testament authors actually flows in the reverse. For them, it’s not that Jesus is to be identified with what is already known about God, but that the Jesus reveals who God is. Depending on the author, this claim takes a variety of forms.

One may (rightly) assume that the apostle Paul believes “God” to be the God of the Old Testament, but his own views are far more nuanced. For Paul, the God in whom Abraham believed is the God who “gives life to the dead” (Romans 4:17) and the subsequent narration of Abraham’s life is thoroughly informed by the revelatory event of Jesus’ death and resurrection. For Paul, the fallout from the apocalyptic meteor of Jesus’ life/death/resurrection fundamentally altered the landscape of his theological landscape so that it was impossible for Paul to conceive of God apart from Jesus. He is the image of God, whose glorious death and resurrection is the glory of same God who created the world. The face of God is none other than the face of Jesus (2 Cor. 4:4-6).

Similarly, the Gospel of Mark is wholly devoted to an accurate understanding of Jesus, apocalyptically unveiled in his death. If Jesus understood his death as complete godforsakenness, citing Psalm 22:1, it is precisely after this death that Jesus is rightly identified as the Son of God by the Roman centurion. The pairing of these two apparently paradoxical statements serves as an ingenious critique of the tendency to understand Jesus’ miracles as manifestations of divinity. Rather than misunderstanding God to be a God of supernatural power, Jesus reveals that God is irreducibly disclosed through the powerlessness of his death. The sub contrario God of the Gospel of Mark is revealed through Jesus’ suffering.

This revelatory motif in Mark is magnified into a dominant melody in the Gospel of John. Right from the very beginning, the author of John concludes his prologue with the startling thesis, “No one has ever yet seen God,” but that the only-begotten Son (Jesus) has made him known (John 1:18). What ensues is a thorough critique of definitions of God’s identity that are formed apart from Jesus. The law and the prophets are not self-sufficient or foundational, but point to Jesus (5:46-47). The language of Jesus’ being sent by God serves as a controlling metaphor for God’s exclusive self-disclosure in Jesus (8:25-26). To hear from God is to listen to Jesus’ words (8:47). Those who say they know God prove to be liars because they do not believe Jesus (8:54-55), who is none other than God himself (8:58).

More examples could be given, to be sure, but the point has been sufficiently made. As far as the New Testament is concerned, God cannot be conceived of independently of Jesus. Rather than measuring Jesus against some authoritative standard of divinity, Jesus himself determines what God looks like to begin with. As Paul Zahl wrote, “The prism through which all light concerning God is reflected is Jesus” (p. 5 of his Short Systematic Theology). Our understanding of God must begin from “the bottom up…with the existence and ministry of Jesus in his own time and space, and it states that it is entirely agnostic concerning anything other than what he has given us to know of the essential attributes of God” (p. 7). With all due respect to the hymn “Immortal, Invisible,” the almighty God that hides in majesty from sight has no obvious relation to Jesus.

There is a natural, human tendency to imagine God as the opposite of our limited, finite existence. But this infinite, all-powerful, all-knowing God turns out to be a complete enigma in view of the vanity which gave rise to hope in such a god in the first place. How might this god relate to the inability to consistently do the right thing and not end up a homeless, friendless, failure? How does one explain the incomprehensible tragedies of human history, let alone the death of a close loved one? Sometimes life can be beautiful, but the weight of occasional darkness often overshadows these glimpses of life. For many, the trauma of life is enough to say that God doesn’t exist. An all-knowing, omnipotent God also perhaps makes God an indifferent monster (cue Richard Dawkins). If this god is not hated or resented for their apathy, then he or she is certainly one who is feared, and the anxiety of its worshippers to somehow mollify him or her by way of one’s righteous living is understandable.

If one begins with theology (an understanding of who God is) and then moves to Christology (an understanding of Jesus), the resulting verdict concerning Jesus’ status as God is a negative one. But if the equation is flipped — God is Jesus — then the complexities of our own life as it relates to this God are surprisingly alleviated.

Rather than trying to force Jesus into the mold of some mythological God, it’s more emotionally satisfying and biblically appropriate for Jesus to be the prism through which the light of God is refracted into the unstable varieties of our life. While many now seek to find God through supernatural experiences of illumination and ecstatic awe, this enterprise is looking for God in all the wrong places. The crucified God is exclusively concerned with our holy experiences of suffering, regret, defeat, frustration, and humiliation. We are not to ascend to God by engineering emotional highs, but the “man of sorrows” is already there to be found in our quite normal experiences of death.

A doctrine of God that starts with Jesus’ life also provides an insuperable anchor in one’s beliefs about God, who ceases to be a mysterious figure looming frustratingly beyond our vision. While our lives may be marked by constant variation, it’s consoling to know that God doesn’t change with the weather. This translates the question of God’s present activity into the past tense of Jesus’ life. The God of the present one ultimately finds in this Jesus was a forgiving God of love, grace, and (yes) power to give life to the death. Thanks be to Jesus. However much our life succumbs to the pressures of our frailty, if God is Jesus then there is a certainty that God will make things right — whether in this world or the next.