After Jesus rose from death, He appeared to the disciples, but Thomas was not with them. When they told Thomas that Jesus is alive, he refused to believe them. But a few days later Jesus again appeared to them. This time Thomas was with them. When He saw Jesus, and when Jesus showed him His wounds, the doubting Thomas exclaimed with great joy: “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28). Jesus did not rebuke Thomas.
This event occurred between Jesus’ death and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Jesus therefore already completed His work on earth, as reflected in the gospels, and His disciples would soon start to preach in the power of the Holy Spirit, as recorded in Acts. We may therefore evaluate Thomas’ words by asking:
1. Did Jesus teach that He is God?
2. Did the disciples at that time believe that Jesus is God?
3. Did the disciples afterwards preach that Jesus is God?
4. What did Thomas mean with the words ho theos?
Proof of the Deity of our Lord Jesus Christ
Many people understand the phrase “my Lord and my God” as clear proof of the Deity of Christ. The Pulpit Commentary describes these words as the climax of the Gospel. For Spurgeon this is a most plain confession of Jesus’ Deity. This view is supported by the following:
The words “my Lord” can only refer to Christ (compare with John 20:13). The natural meaning of the word words “My Lord and my God” is therefore that his Lord was also his God.
David used similar words to describe Jehovah: “My God and my Lord” (Psalm 35:23). Thomas, as an Israelite, knew this and would never have applied these words to any person whom he did not believe to be God.
If Jesus were not God, the Lord Jesus would have corrected Thomas. But the Lord said, “Thomas, because thou hast seen Me, thou hast believed” (John 20:29 KJV).
There is really no significant question as to how the original text reads.
But Thomas did not refer to Jesus as God.
If the remainder of the New Testament confirmed that Jesus is God, we would grant Spurgeon his point, but strong circumstantial evidence exists that Thomas could not have referred to Jesus as God:
1. The disciples were never taught that Jesus is God.
2. The events in the immediate context of John 20:28 show that the disciples did not believe that Jesus is God.
3. The events in the book of Acts began a few weeks after Jesus appeared to Thomas. If the apostles really believed that Jesus is God, that would have been their message in Acts, but such a statement is never found in Acts.
4. Paul was given the task of interpreting the dramatic Christ-events and to teach the church through his letters. He did not teach that Jesus is God.
5. Only about seven verses in the entire New Testament are interpreted by some as saying that Jesus is God, but each and every one of them are disputed; either the original text or the interpretation. Brian J. Wright—a Trinitarian—after a detailed study, concluded that John 20:28 is the only verse in the New Testament that, with full certainty, refers to Jesus as God.
6. Prominent Trinitarians admit that the New Testament does not teach that Jesus is God.
These points are discussed below in more detail.
1. The disciples were never taught that Jesus is God.
After Thomas exclaimed, “My Lord and my God,” Jesus responded, “because thou hast seen Me, thou hast believed.” What did Thomas not believe before he saw Jesus alive? Did he not believe that Jesus is God?
Thomas, like all Jews, was a strict monotheist: “Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one” (Deut. 6:4) was the foundation of Judaism. It would require some effort to convince him that Jesus is God.
Jesus never taught His disciples that He is God.
Jesus never used the term θεός (theos = god) for Himself (Wright p.230), but rather described Himself as the Messiah and as the Son of God. Jesus consistently made a distinction between Himself and God. For example:
A little time before He appeared to Thomas, Jesus, in prayer, referred to the Father as “the only true God” (John 17:3). In using the word “only,” Jesus excluded Himself as “true God.”
A few days before He appeared to Thomas, He said to Mary Magdalene “go to My brethren and say to them, ‘I ascend to My Father and your Father, and My God and your God’” (20:1, 17).
Why would John report that the Father is “the only true God” and then a little later write that Thomas said that Jesus is God?
Just three verses after Thomas’ exclamation, John summarized his gospel as follows:
“These have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God” (John 20:31).
In other words, Jesus identified Himself as Christ; not as God.
Son of God
Some people, when they read the words, “Son of God,” understand this to mean “God the Son,” but the latter title is never found in the Bible. An analysis of all the “Son of God” passages in the Bible indicate that this is a synonym for the title “Christ,” a Greek word that means “the anointed one,” or “the chosen one.” The following verses contain the title “Son of God,” but also a second title, which indicates what “Son of God” means:
Nathanael answered Him, “Rabbi, You are the Son of God; You are the King of Israel.” (1:49)
She said to Him, “Yes, Lord; I have believed that You are the Christ, the Son of God, even He who comes into the world” (11:27).
“These have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God” (20:31).
The high priest said to Him, “Tell us whether You are the Christ, the Son of God” (Mt. 26:63).
The disciples did not yet understand who Jesus is.
None of the Synoptic Gospels explicitly ascribes the title θεός to Jesus. John 1:1 does use the word θεός to describe Jesus, but this gospel was written much later than the others. The sublime things which John wrote was revealed to John and Paul through the Holy Spirit decades after the events of John 20:28. When Thomas exclaimed, “My Lord and my God,” the Holy Spirit was not yet poured out. The disciples did not yet understand who Jesus really is. Thomas had no idea of the profound concepts that God would later reveal to John. It is unthinkable that Thomas, when He saw the risen Jesus, thought of Him as the same as or equal to the Only True God (John 17:3).
Since Jesus did not teach that He is God, where would Thomas have learned that Jesus is God? Rather, when Jesus was killed, the disciples doubted “that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.” When He was raised to life again, they believed; not that He is God, for they were never taught that He is God, but that He is the Christ.
2. The disciples did not believe that Jesus is God.
The events of that time show that the disciples did not believe that Jesus is God. If they believed that Jesus was God, they would not have “all fled” just a few days earlier. when Jesus was arrested.
The confession of the two disciples walking along the road to Emmaus demonstrated the thoughts of Jesus’ followers at that time. Speaking to the resurrected Christ, whom they mistook as just a traveler, they described Jesus as “a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God…and they crucified him; but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:19-21).
And, as we have seen, just three verses later John summarizes his message as “that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God” (John 20:31).
3. Jesus is not proclaimed as God in the book of Acts.
John 20:28 and the book of Acts are chronologically separated by only the few weeks between Jesus’ resurrection and his ascension.
If the apostles believed that Jesus is God, that would have been their constant and main message in Acts, but in the book of Acts the apostles never proclaimed Jesus as God. No sermon in the book of Acts attributes the title θεός to Jesus. Rather, they consistently proclaimed that God raised Jesus from the dead. At Pentecost, Peter told the multitudes that:
“God raised him up” (Acts 2:24),
“God raised up this Jesus” (v.32),
“You killed the author of life, whom God raised from the dead” (3:15), and
“God raised up his servant” (v.26).
Thus Acts continues to make a distinction between God and Jesus, for if God raised Jesus up, then the Father only is called God. If it is true that John 20:28 teaches the deity of Jesus, why didn’t the apostles preach it even once in the book of Acts?
4. Paul did not teach that Jesus is God.
Paul was given the task of interpreting the dramatic events of the first century and to teach the church through his letters. And Paul did not teach that Jesus is God.
If Jesus was God, Paul’s letters would have taught this explicitly. An explicit statement would be something like, “Yes, Thomas, I am your Lord and your God”. While the New Testament never explicitly says that Jesus is God, the Old Testament explicitly and repeatedly announced Yahweh as God, for instance: “I am Yahweh your God” (Ex. 6:7; 16:12; 20:2). Yahweh is identified as God about 400 times in the Old Testament (phrases such as “Yahweh God – Yahweh, God of heaven – Yahweh your God – Yahweh, God of Israel – Yahweh our God – Yahweh, God of compassion”), but not once do we find an equivalent explicit statement in the New Testament, saying that Jesus is God.
To the contrary, like the gospels, Paul continued to make a distinction between God and Jesus. For example, similar to what Peter said in Acts, Paul wrote that God raised Jesus from death:
“If you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom. 10:9).
Other examples of where Paul makes a sharp distinction between God and Christ are 1 Tim. 5:21 (“in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus”) and most strikingly 1 Cor. 11:3 (“the head of Christ is God”). For many other examples, see The New Testament makes a distinction between God and Jesus.
According to some translation of Romans 9:5 Paul referred to Jesus as God, but the article on Romans 9:5 shows that it is all a matter of punctuation, and all punctuation in the Bible is interpretation.
5. Only John 20:28 refers to Jesus as God.
There are about seven verses that are sometimes interpreted as saying that Jesus is God, but in each in every case either the original text or the interpretation is in dispute. Brian Wright, himself a Trinitarian, after careful and detailed study, concluded that John 20:28 is the only verse in the New Testament that, with full certainty, refers to Jesus as God. (And then the current article also disputes that this verse proves that Jesus is God.)
Some Trinitarians consequently admit that the New Testament does not teach that Jesus is God.
Richard Swinburne, a prominent Christian philosopher at Oxford, wrote a book titled, Was Jesus God? (Oxford University Press). In it he searches the Bible and church doctrine for evidence that Jesus is God. Swinburne concludes with cautious uncertainty that “it is very probable that Jesus was God,” but he offers no explicit proof from the Bible. He finds more evidence for Jesus’ deity in the teachings of the Church Fathers. He admits that some NT passages “deny this doctrine” of “the divinity of Jesus.” He says, “It is undisputed that Jesus did not teach this doctrine” of the Trinity. This is quite a concession from a brilliant Trinitarian. Swinburne does believe that Jesus is God; not because that is what the Bible teaches, but on the basis of reason only.
The trinitarian Brian J. Wright, after in depth study, admitted:
No author of a Synoptic Gospel explicitly ascribes the title θεός to Jesus. Jesus never uses the term θεός for himself. No sermon in the book of Acts attributes the title θεός to Jesus.
The immediate and wider context therefore prevents us from interpreting theos in John 20:28 as describing Jesus as God. It forces us to consider alternative interpretations. Three options are proposed below. Two are alternative meanings of the word theos, namely:
1. Mandated by God to represent Him, and
The third alternative proposes that theos, in this verse, does not refer to Jesus, but to the Father.
To understand these alternative meanings requires a short explanation of the Greek word Θεός, which is transliterated theos, often translated “God.” Strong defines theos to include the following four meanings:
1. A deity – (a god)
2. Especially (with ho) the supreme Divinity – (the God)
3. A magistrate;
Today we use “God” as a personal name for the supreme Divinity, similar to the names John and Paul. The Greek of the New Testament has no word exactly equivalent to “God,” for it did not differentiate between lower case and capital letters. The Greek word theos is therefore actually equivalent to our word “god,” with a small g. As stated by Strong, depending on the context, theos can be translated “God” or “god” or “Godly.” Even a person appointed by God as magistrate may be called theos. In the New Testament theos was, for instance, applied to:
The gods of the nations (1 Cor. 8:5);
The Roman governor (Acts 12:22);
The Devil (2 Cor. 4:4); and
People who received divine authority from God (John 10:35);
See The Meanings of the Word theos for a more detailed discussion.
Option 1: Mandated by God to represent Him
To translate theos as “God” requires additional information in the context to identify the supreme Deity. The circumstances surrounding John 20:28, as described above, do not justify theos to be translated as “God.”
One of the alternative meanings of theos is a person who is mandated by God to speak and act for Him (Strong’s magistrate). For instance, Jesus referred to people, “to whom the word of God came,” as “gods” (John 10:35). This is a quote from Psalm 82:6 and probably refers to the judges of the Old Testament. Since the Father did send Jesus and gave Him His message (John 8:16, 26), Thomas could have described Jesus as theos in this sense, namely that He has been mandated by God to represent Him.
Option 2: Godlike
Another possible meaning of theos, mentioned by Strong, is “Godlike.” This is a qualitative use of the word, as opposed to a definite (the god) or indefinite (a god) use.
John, in the prologue, after years of meditation, in the first verses of his gospel declared that “ the Word (Jesus) was theos” and the Creator of all things. It is possible that John 1:1 uses theos in the same sense as in John 20:28. In a series of articles on the translation of John 1:1, it was concluded that John 1:1c should not be translated “The Word was God” for the word theos is used in a qualitative sense in that verse. In other words, it should be translated as “the Word was Godlike,” or, using words from Philippians 2, “the Word was in the form of God and had equality with God.”
It is therefore possible that Thomas used theos to describe Jesus as God-like.
Option 3: “My God” refers to the Father.
Since the Greek word theos is used for all gods, the writers of the New Testament generally identified the supreme Deity by adding the definite article “ho” before theos. (See Strong’s definition above.) The phrase ho theos is translated “God.” (Translators drop the definite article and capitalize the G.) “God,” in the New Testament, except for a handful of disputed instances, always identifies the Father. (See The NT distinguishes between God and Jesus.)
In the Greek of John 20:28, Thomas did not merely say theos; he said ho theos mou, literally “the god of me.” This has some problematic implication, and can be understood in at least three different ways:
(A) Only Jesus is God.
In other words, the Father is not God.
To show that this may be the implication, consider the words of CK Barrett, a well-known trinitarian scholar. He comments as follows on John 1:1, which lacks the article before theos: “The absence of the article indicates that the Word is God, but is not the only being of whom this is true; if ὁ θεὸς [ho theos] had been written, it would have been implied that no divine being existed outside the second person of the Trinity.” (The Gospel According to St. John)
In other words, if ho theos is applied to Jesus, it means that only Christ is God and the Father is not God. This is obviously not true.
(B) Jesus is the Father.
There are people who believe this, namely that the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are one Person, appearing in three different modes. This is called Modalism or Sabellianism. This view is rejected by most, for there are many indications in the Bible that the Father and Son are different Person. For instance, Jesus prays to the Father, and at His baptism God speaks from heaven.
(C) John referred to the Father when he wrote ho theos.
The previous two possible explanations link theos to Jesus, but are not acceptable. The only remaining possibility is that Thomas, in the extreme joy of the moment, exclaimed “my God” as a praise directed at God, the Father, for raising Jesus. In other words, that he blurted out something like “Oh my Lord (Jesus) and oh my God (the Father). Since ho theos always refers to the Father, it should also have that meaning in John 20:28.
“If you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom. 10:9).
Could Thomas’ confession be explained by this verse? Both words “Lord” and “God” appear in this verse, but “God” is identified as the Father.
After Jesus’ resurrection, He appeared to His disciples. When Thomas saw Him, he exclaimed, “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28). Jesus did not rebuke Thomas. Many people understand this as clear proof of the Deity of Christ.
The events of John 20:28 occurred in time between Jesus’ death and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Jesus therefore already completed His work on earth, as captured in the gospels, and soon His disciples will start to preach through the power of the Holy Spirit, as recorded in Acts. We can evaluate Thomas’ statement by asking four questions:
Did Jesus teach that He is God? Jesus did not teach that He is God, but always maintained a clear distinction between Himself and God. None of the Synoptic Gospels explicitly ascribes the title θεός to Him. John summarized Christ’s message as “that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God” (John 20:31).
Did the disciples at that time believe that Jesus is God? If they did, they would not have run away a few days earlier when Jesus was arrested. The two disciples walking along the road to Emmaus, lamenting Jesus’ death, said that Jesus “was a prophet.”
Did the disciples afterwards teach that Jesus is God? If the apostles believed that Jesus is God, that would have been their message in the book of Acts, but such a statement is not once even found in Acts. To the contrary, they consistently taught that God raised Jesus from death, thus making a distinction between God and Jesus.
What did Thomas mean by the words ho theos? In the New Testament ho theos (the god) always refers to the Father.
The contextual evidence does not allow for the interpretation of John 20:28 as saying that Jesus is God. Above three alternative interpretations are offered. Which of them is correct, is not important. One day soon we will be able to ask Thomas exactly what he meant. What is more important is that John 20:28 cannot be taken as proof that Jesus is God.
The fact that the New Testament does not refer to Jesus as God is not the full story. Other articles show that God created all things through His Son, that Jesus is equal to God, that Jesus is “the first and the last” (Rev. 1:17) and that “in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form” (Col. 2:9). It simply was the practice of the New Testament to refer to the Father alone as God. We should not put too much emphasis on the title “God,” but rather ask who Jesus really is. Perhaps the reader should next read Does Philippians 2 say that Jesus emptied Himself of equality with God?