McDowell’s Trilemma Argument (hereafter: MTA), can be found in The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict (hereafter: NETDV) by Josh McDowell (see pages 158-163).
…Jesus definitely claimed to be God (see below and in Chapter 6). So every person must answer the question: Is His claim to deity true or false? (NETDV, p.158)
The first key premise of MTA is this:
- Jesus claimed to be God.
This first premise appears to be false. Jesus did NOT claim to be God. Or, to be more accurate, there is no good reason to believe that Jesus claimed to be God. That is to say, none of the canonical Gospels report Jesus as having asserted the claim “I am God” nor the claim “Jesus of Nazareth is God”. However, it is possible to IMPLY that a person is God without saying so directly, so it is possible that Jesus IMPLIED that he was God, but did so without saying so directly.
To determine whether Jesus IMPLIED this, we need to understand the meaning of the following sentence:
JIG: Jesus of Nazareth is God.
Based on my analysis of the sentence “God exists”, the meaning of (JIG) can be analyzed as follows:
Jesus of Nazareth is God IF AND ONLY IF:
(a) Jesus of Nazareth is an eternally bodiless person, and
(b) Jesus of Nazareth is an eternally omnipotent person, and
(c) Jesus of Nazareth is an eternally omniscient person, and
(d) Jesus of Nazareth is an eternally perfectly morally good person, and
(e) Jesus of Nazareth is the creator of the universe.
So, for Jesus to clearly IMPLY that he was God, Jesus would have to make the following claims:
I am an eternally bodiless person, and an eternally omnipotent person, and an eternally omniscient person, and an eternally perfectly morally good person, and I am the creator of the universe.
There is no passage in any of the canonical Gospels where Jesus asserts that he has any of these basic divine attributes. Thus, Jesus did NOT directly claim to be God, and Jesus also did NOT clearly IMPLY that he was God, nor does Jesus clearly INDICATE that he was God, based on the words and teachings of Jesus found in the canoncial Gospels.
Although Jesus does not use the terms “bodiless person” or “omnipotent” or “omniscient” or “perfectly morally good” or “the creator of the universe”, he does say things about the nature and characteristics of God that are very similar in meaning, and that strongly suggest these ideas. So, it appears that the concept of “God” that is present in the words and teachings of Jesus (according to the canonical Gospels) corresponds closely with my analysis of the sentence “God exists”, even though Jesus does not use any of the key terms in my analysis of “God exists”.
But, since Jesus can suggest or indicate these various divine attributes without using the specific terms in my analysis (i.e. “bodiless person”, “omnipotent”, “omniscient” etc.), perhaps he claimed to possess one or more of these divine attributes without using the specific terms found in my analysis of “God exists”.
Jesus does not speak of God as a “bodiless person”, but he does speak of God as a “spirit”, which implies that God is a “bodiless person”. Does Jesus ever claim to be a “spirit”? There are no passages in any of the canonical Gospels where Jesus claims to be a spirit. There are, however, passages where Jesus implies that he is NOT a spirit (Mark 14:8, 14:22, 14:37-39, Luke 24:39, John 20:27).
Because Jesus NEVER claimed to be a “bodiless person”, and NEVER claimed to be a “spirit”, and because Jesus repeatedly asserted that he had a physical body made of “flesh and bones”, Jesus clearly implied that he was NOT a spirit and NOT a bodiless person. Therefore, Jesus clearly implied that he was NOT God.
In this post, we will look at another of the divine attributes and determine whether Jesus used alternative terminology to imply that he possessed that attribute.
Jesus never directly claimed to be “omnipotent”, and he never claimed to be “all-powerful” or “almighty”. But did Jesus use other words or phrases to IMPLY that he was eternally omnipotent?
McDowell asserts that Jesus claimed to have “all power in heaven and in earth (Matt. 28:18)…” (McDowell quoting John Walvoord in McDowell’s book, co-authored with Bart Larson, Jesus: A Biblical Defense of His Deity, p.54), and he takes this to be a claim by Jesus to be omnipotent.
There are two problems with using this verse from Matthew as evidence that Jesus claimed to be eternally omnipotent. First, most modern translations of Matthew 28:18 use the word “authority” rather than the word “power”:
ASV: And Jesus came to them and spake unto them, saying, All authority hath been given unto me in heaven and on earth.
NASB: And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.
NET: Then Jesus came up and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.
NIV: Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.
NLT: Jesus came and told his disciples, “I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth.
NRSV: And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.
RSV: And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.
So, it is likely that Jesus was talking about AUTHORITY here, not POWER.
Here is some commentary on this verse by N.T. scholar M. Eugene Boring:
The basis for the words of commission is the claim of the risen Jesus that all authority has been given to him by God (cf. 11:27). The risen Jesus is pictured as Lord of heaven and earth–the cosmic ruler in God’s stead (cf. Phil 2:5-11); Col 1:15-18; Heb 1:1-3), the king in the present-and-coming kingdom of God, the one who represents God’s cosmic rule. The babe worshipped by Gentiles and mocked at his crucifixion as “king of the Jews” (2:1; 27:11, 29, 37) has assumed his throne and begun to reign. The lowly Son of Man has been enthroned as the exalted Son of Man (cf. Dan 7:13-14); his resurrection was not only his vindication but also his enthronement.
(The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume VIII, p.503)
Boring uses the expression “all authority” and does not use the expression “all power”. He understands this passage to be talking about Jesus becoming a “king” and a “ruler” and that Jesus has “assumed his throne and begun to reign.” But all of this language speaks of AUTHORITY not of POWER. In this passage, Jesus claims to have been given great AUTHORITY, not unlimited POWER.
According to the book of Genesis, God put human beings in charge of the Earth:
Genesis 1:26 (NRSV)
26 Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”
When God put humans in charge of the Earth, he gave humans AUTHORITY over the Earth, according to Genesis. But that does not mean that God gave humans unlimited POWER over the Earth. Animals sometimes injure or kill humans. Fires, floods, storms, volcanoes, and earthquakes sometimes injure or kill humans. Humans do not control the weather. Humans do not control geological forces. So, God giving authority over the Earth to humans does NOT imply that God made humans omnipotent or all-powerful, or even that God gave humans unlimited power over the forces of nature on the Earth. AUTHORITY over X is not the same as unlimited POWER over X. Thus, the claim that God gave Jesus AUTHORITY in “heaven and on earth” does NOT imply that God gave Jesus unlimited POWER over what happens in “heaven and on earth”.
Second, Jesus states that this power or authority “has been given to me” which implies that at some previous point in time he did NOT have “all authority in heaven and on earth”. In order to be God one must be eternally omnipotent, not just omnipotent for one day or one month or one year or one century.
In Matthew 28:18, Jesus only claims to have a great deal of authority (not power), which was (allegedly) given to him by God at some point in time. So, in that verse Jesus does NOT claim to be an all-powerful person, and Jesus does NOT claim to have been all-powerful from eternity. In fact, if one prefers the translation using the word “power”, then Jesus implied that he was for a period of time NOT all-powerful, and thus Jesus implied that he was NOT God, based on the translation of Matthew 28:18 that uses the word “power”.
Another passage from the Gospel of Matthew might be used as evidence for the view that Jesus implied his own omnipotence:
Matthew 11:27 (NRSV)
27 All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.
There are at least three problems with interpreting this verse as a claim to the divine attribute of eternal omnipotence.
First, whatever it is that Jesus is talking about, it had “beeen handed over to me by my Father”. As with Matthew 28:18, this implies that there was a previous point in time when it was not yet the case that Jesus possessed this attribute. Thus, if we interpret “all things” to mean “all power”, then Jesus is implying that he did not always have such power, and thus Jesus is implying that he was NOT eternally omnipotent, and thus that he was NOT God.
Second, this verse sounds rather similar to Matthew 28:18, which is probably about AUTHORITY rather than about POWER, so that gives us reason to doubt that Matthew 11:27 is about power. The author of Matthew might have intended for verse 11:27 to be read and interpreted in relation to the similar sounding verse Matthew 28:18.
Third, the context of this statement is clearly focused on KNOWLEDGE rather than on POWER. Immediately after the sentence speaking about “all things” having been “handed over to” Jesus by God, Jesus speaks about how only God “knows the Son” and how only the Son “knows the Father”. Furthermore, if we look at the verses immediately preceding verse 27, we see that those verses also are focused on KNOWLEDGE rather than POWER:
Matthew 11:25-27 (NRSV)
25 At that time Jesus said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants;
26 yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.
27 All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.
Note that in verse 25 Jesus refers to important bits of wisdom that God has revealed to some people as “these things”. Thus, when Jesus speaks of “All things” in verse 27, this appears to be a reference back to the bits of wisdom that God has revealed to some people. The most likely meaning of the expression “All things” is thus, “all of the important spiritual, theological, and moral truths and principles that God wants to reveal to (some) human beings”. It is unlikely that this expression was intended to refer to “complete power and control over everything that exists”.
So, for these three reasons, it is unlikely that Jesus is implying in Matthew 11:27 that he was eternally omnipotent.
McDowell puts forward a few Gospel passages (by quoting John Walvoord who in turn cites some Gospel passages) as evidence for Jesus being omnipotent:
The evidence for the omnipotence of Christ is as decisive as proof for other attributes. Sometimes it takes the form of physical power, but more often it refers to authority over creation. Christ has the power to forgive sins (Matt. 9:6), all power in heaven and in earth (Matt. 28:18), power over nature (Luke 8:25), power over his own life (John 10:18), power to give eternal life to others (John 17:2), power to heal physically, as witnessed by his many miracles, as well as power to cast out demons (Mark 1:29-34)… (McDowell quoting Walvoord, Jesus: A Biblical Defense of His Deity, p.54)
Keep in mind that the main question at issue in relation to MTA is not whether Jesus was in fact eternally omnipotent, nor is the issue whether Jesus’ disciples or the authors of the NT believed Jesus to be eternally omnipotent. The question at issue here is whether Jesus CLAIMED or IMPLIED that he was eternally omnipotent.
1. The “Power” to Forgive Sins
Matthew 9:6 (NRSV)
6 But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he then said to the paralytic—“Stand up, take your bed and go to your home.”
First of all, as this translation indicates, Jesus appears to be talking about AUTHORITY here, not about POWER.
Second of all, it is easy to forgive someone’s sins. All you have to do is say “I forgive you” to the person who wronged you, and mean it. No special supernatural power is required to perform this mundane human action.
Third, it is so easy to forgive that Jesus demanded that his followers forgive those who wrong them “seventy-seven times”:
Matthew 18:21-22 (NRSV)
21 Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?”
22 Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.
The real trick, of course, is to forgive someone for wrongs they have committed against another person, when you (who are doing the forgiving) are not the person who was wronged. If a friend of mine steals money or something valuable from me, then I can forgive him or her for that selfish action. But if a friend of mine steals money or something valuable from somebody else, someone who I don’t even know, then how can I forgive my friend for the wrong against that other person?
The obstacle here is not that I lack some magical “forgiveness power”; the problem is that I don’t have the RIGHT to forgive my friend for wronging somebody else. The problem is one of AUTHORITY, not POWER. Perhaps God, unlike mere mortals, can forgive my friend for wronging somebody else, but not because God has some supernatural “forgiveness power”. God can perform such forgiving only if it is MORALLY RIGHT for God to do this, only if God has the MORAL AUTHORITY to hand out that sort of forgiveness.
Fourth, according to the Gospel of John, Jesus bestowed such forgiveness authority on his inner circle of disciples:
John 20:22-23 (NRSV)
22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.
23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
If having the authority to forgive a person’s sins means that one is eternally omnipotent, then we would have to conclude that each one of the eleven remaining disciples from the inner-circle must also be eternally omnipotent. But that is absurd and is contrary to the doctrines of the Christian faith, so this argument proves too much. The claim that someone has the authority to forgive sins does NOT imply that this person is eternally omnipotent.
2. All “Power” in Heaven and in Earth
I have already discussed this passage above.
3. “Power” Over Nature
According to the Gospels, Jesus sometimes performed amazing nature miracles:
Luke 8:22-25 (NRSV)
22 One day he got into a boat with his disciples, and he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side of the lake.” So they put out,
23 and while they were sailing he fell asleep. A windstorm swept down on the lake, and the boat was filling with water, and they were in danger.
24 They went to him and woke him up, shouting, “Master, Master, we are perishing!” And he woke up and rebuked the wind and the raging waves; they ceased, and there was a calm.
25 He said to them, “Where is your faith?” They were afraid and amazed, and said to one another, “Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?”
Remember, the question at issue is NOT whether Jesus was in fact eternally omnipotent, nor whether his disciples believed he was eternally omnipotent. The issue is whether Jesus CLAIMED or IMPLIED that he was eternally omnipotent.
First, even if this event showed that Jesus was omnipotent, it at most only shows he was omnipotent for a brief span of time, not that he was eternally omnipotent. This is one reason why the words and claims of Jesus are important for the issue of whether he was eternally omnipotent, because actions and demonstrations of power can only show that he had great power at that particular time.
Second, the power to stop a storm is, at best, only evidence of omnipotence, not proof of omnipotence. One must also have power over floods, fires, earthquakes, gravity, inertia, electromagnetic forces, insects, predators, the sun, the moon, billions of stars, etc. This is one reason why the words and claims of Jesus are important for the issue of whether he was eternally omnipotent, because actions and demonstrations of power can only show that he had a particular sort of power at that particular time.
Third, even if this event showed that Jesus was eternally omnipotent, that does not mean that Jesus CLAIMED or IMPLIED that he was eternally omnipotent. Actions are often even more ambiguous than words. It is very difficult to clearly claim or imply some specific idea without uttering clear words and sentences expressing that idea.
Fourth, the words that Jesus uttered in this situation (according to the passage from the Gospel of Luke) cast serious doubt on the view that Jesus was claiming or implying himself to be eternally omnipotent. Jesus asks his frightened disciples “Where is your faith?” Given Jesus’s radical beliefs about faith, the implication appears to be that his disciples could have calmed the storm themselves, if they simply had strong FAITH in the power and mercy of God:
Mark 11:23 (NRSV)
23 Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you.
Jesus taught his disciples that they could perform amazing nature miracles too, if they just had strong FAITH. Making a mountain rise up into the sky and move a mile or more and then drop into the ocean would be an even more fantastic nature miracle than calming a storm. But Jesus taught and believed that his disciples could perform such nature miracles if they developed a strong faith in God.
Note the phrase “it will be done for you” at the end of Mark 11:23. Who is performing the action here? God. God is answering a prayer request: “God, please move this mountain into the sea.” So, it is not the person of faith who directly CAUSES the mountain to rise up and move to the ocean, but it is the eternally omnipotent God (to whom the person of great faith prayed) who moves the mountain into the sea.
In speaking of FAITH here, Jesus implies that he had strong faith in the power and mercy of God, and could request that God calm a storm, and as a result of his strong belief that this “will come to pass”, God would do this for him. Jesus also implied that his disciples were just as capable of making such a request of God and having God do this for them, if they simply had strong faith. Jesus IMPLIED only that he had strong faith in the mercy and power of God, not that he (Jesus) was omnipotent that day, nor that he (Jesus) was eternally omnipotent.
Jesus did NOT believe that his disciples were eternally omnipotent, and such a belief is clearly contrary to the doctrines of the Christian faith. Thus, this argument (from the nature miracle of calming a storm) proves too much, because if performing such a miracle implies that one is eternally omnipotent, then it follows that the disciples of Jesus were eternally omnipotent, and that anyone who has strong faith in the power and mercy of God must also be eternally omnipotent, which is absurd.
4. “Power” Over His Own Life
According to the Gospel of John, Jesus claimed to be able to choose when he would die and also to choose to come back to life:
John 10:17-18 (NRSV)
17 For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again.
18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”
First, having power over life and death in the second half of the first century, does not mean that Jesus had this power for all eternity, so this is not proof that Jesus is eternally omnipotent. The statements of Jesus about this matter are important for assessing the significance of this evidence.
Second, power over life and death is only one sort of supernatural power, so this is, at best, only evidence of omnipotence, not proof of omnipotence. The statements of Jesus about this matter are important for assessing the significance of this evidence.
Third, Jesus concludes with the statement “I have received this command from my Father”. This statement indicates that Jesus is talking about AUTHORITY here, rather than POWER. God has commanded that Jesus suffer death by crucifixion, and God has commanded and thus authorized Jesus to come back to life after suffering and dying on the cross. Thus, the point appears to be NOT about Jesus having POWER over his death, but about Jesus being given AUTHORITY over his death by God.
Fourth, in general, the Christian faith asserts that “God raised Jesus from the dead” (Acts 2:24, 2:32, 3:15, 3:26, 4:10, 5:30, 10:40, 13:30, 13:37, Romans 10:9, 1 Cor. 6:14, 15:15, etc.), so the resurrection of Jesus can be seen as evidence of God’s omnipotence rather than as evidence of Jesus being omnipotent.
The case of the resurrection of Jesus is thus analogous to other nature miracles performed by Jesus: they are CAUSED by God in response to Jesus’s FAITH in God; they are not CAUSED by the exertion of supernatural powers possessed by Jesus. If Jesus had the power to overcome his own death, then the resurrection would fail to establish that GOD was giving his seal of approval to Jesus by CAUSING Jesus to rise from the dead. If Jesus was the cause of his own resurrection, then his resurrection would fail to show God’s approval of Jesus ministry and of Jesus teachings. The resurrection would then provide no evidence that Jesus was a prophet of God or a savior of mankind who had been sent by God.
5. “Power” to Give Eternal Life to Others
John 17:1-2 (NRSV)
1 After Jesus had spoken these words, he looked up to heaven and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you,
2 since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him.
First, having the “power” to give people eternal life on judgment day does not imply that Jesus always had this “power”, thus this is, at best evidence of omnipotence, not proof of eternal omnipotence. Thus, it is important to pay attention to Jesus’s words and statements about this matter.
Second, the “power” to give people eternal life is only one sort of power, so this is, at best, only evidence of omnipotence, not proof of omnipotence. Thus, it is important to pay attention to Jesus’s words and statements about this matter.
Third, the above translation, and other modern translations (e.g. NIV and NASB), use the word “authority” here rather than the word “power”. Jesus is claiming that God will give him the AUTHORITY to be the judge of all human beings; that Jesus will be the one to decide who goes to heaven and who goes to hell.
But being the judge of mankind is NOT the same as being the executioner. Although Jesus claims to be the one to make the decision on the eternal fate of each human being, this is completely compatible with it being the case that GOD is the one who carries out the punishments and rewards, that it is GOD who will cause some people to have eternal life in heaven and others to have eternal misery in hell. Having the AUTHORITY to make this decision is NOT the same as having the POWER to implement the decision. Jesus is only claiming to have been given the AUTHORITY to make this important decision.
6. “Power” to Heal Various Diseases and to Cast Out Demons
According to the canonical Gospels, Jesus could heal various diseases and cast demons out of people:
Mark 1:32-34 (NRSV)
32 That evening, at sunset, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons.
33 And the whole city was gathered around the door.
34 And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.
First, this event only shows that Jesus had influence over diseases and demons for a particular period of time, not that Jesus always had this “power”. So, this is, at best, evidence of Jesus being omnipotent, not proof that Jesus was eternally omnipotent.
Second, “power” over demons is only one sort of supernatural power, and power to cure diseases is only one sort of power, so this event is, at best, only evidence of Jesus being omnipotent, not proof of his omnipotence.
Third, as with nature miracles and granting eternal life to some people, this event is best understood in terms of Jesus having AUTHORITY over diseases and demons, rather than Jesus having POWER over diseases and demons. It is because Jesus had strong FAITH in the power and mercy of God, that Jesus could request God to cure a person’s disease or to remove a demon from a person, and God would then respond by doing what Jesus requested.
Fourth, Jesus taught that his disciples would themselves be able to “cast out many demons”:
Mark 3:14-15 (NRSV)
14 And he appointed twelve, whom he also named apostles, to be with him, and to be sent out to proclaim the message,
15 and to have authority to cast out demons.
Note that Jesus gave his disciples AUTHORITY to cast out demons, not the POWER to cast out demons.
Furthermore, Jesus related his success in exorcism to his FAITH in God:
Matthew 17:18-20 (NRSV)
18 And Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him, and the boy was cured instantly.
19 Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why could we not cast it out?”
20 He said to them, “Because of your little faith. For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.”
The problem is NOT that his disciples were lacking in some supernatural powers; the problem was their lack of FAITH in the power and mercy of God. With faith in God “nothing will be impossible” for an ordinary human being, because (according to Jesus) God will respond to the requests of a person who has FAITH in God, and God is eternally omnipotent, and thus able to do anything that a person of FAITH asks him to do.
Jesus also gave his disciples the AUTHORITY to heal the sick:
Matthew 10:1 (NRSV)
10 Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness.
This argument, like others previously considered, proves too much. If being able to “cure every disease” and “cast out many demons” means that a person is eternally omnipotent, then we must also conclude that each disciple in the inner-circle of Jesus’s disciples was also eternally omnipotent, but this is absurd and contrary to the doctrines of the Christian faith.
The question at issue here is NOT whether Jesus was in fact eternally omnipotent, nor whether his disciples or the authors of the NT believed that Jesus was eternally omnipotent. The question at issue is whether Jesus CLAIMED or IMPLIED that he was eternally omnipotent.
In the canonical Gospels, Jesus never directly CLAIMED to be eternally omnipotent, nor omnipotent, nor all-powerful, nor almighty.
Furthermore, based on the Gospel passages that McDowell points to concerning Jesus’ alleged omnipotence, Jesus never IMPLIED that he was eternally omnipotent, nor that he was omnipotent. The passages that McDowell puts forward in support of Jesus being omnipotent fail for the following reasons:
- Omnipotence for a day or a year is not the same as eternal omnipotence.
- Having one sort of supernatural power is not the same as having all possible power.
- Using a supernatural power is not the same as CLAIMING or IMPLYING that one has that supernatural power.
- A claim to have been given a supernatural power implies that one has not always possessed that power.
- A claim to have AUTHORITY over something is not the same as a claim to have unlimited POWER and CONTROL of that something.
- Jesus generally spoke of himself as having been given great AUTHORITY by God, not great POWER.
- Jesus taught his disciples that they too could have great AUTHORITY (to forgive sins, over natural phenomena, over diseases, over demons) by means of FAITH in the power and mercy of God and by prayer requests to God.
In general, the evidence provided by McDowell proves too much, because the same logic can be used to prove that Jesus’s disciples were also eternally omnipotent, which is absurd and contrary to the doctrines of the Christian faith.