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Some hold that Jesus did not have literal pre-existence. How do those who believe this then exegetically reconcile it with passages such as

John 3:13

"No one has ascended into heaven except the One who descended from heaven - the Son of Man."

John 3:31

"The One who comes from above is above all. The one who is from the earth belongs to the earth and speaks as one from the earth. The One who comes from heaven is above all."

John 6:38

"For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but to do the will of Him who sent Me."

John 6:62

"Then what will happen if you see the Son of Man ascend to where He was before?"

John 8:38

"I speak of what I have seen in the presence of the Father, and you do what you have heard from your father."

John 8:58

“Truly, truly, I tell you,” Jesus declared, “before Abraham was born, I am!”

John 13:1

"It was now just before the Passover Feast, and Jesus knew that His hour had come to leave this world and return to the Father."

John 13:3

"Jesus knew that the Father had delivered all things into His hands, and that He had come from God and was returning to God."

John 16:27

"For the Father Himself loves you, because you have loved Me and have believed that I came from God."

John 16:28

"I came from the Father and entered the world. In turn, I will leave the world and go to the Father.”"

John 17:5

"And now, Father, glorify Me in Your presence with the glory I had with You before the world existed."

Philippians 2:6-7

"Who, existing in the form of God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in human likeness."

Colossians 1:16

"For in Him all things were created"

Colossians 1:17

"He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together."

and so on. The case seems scripturally overwhelming, does it not? How could Jesus not have a literal pre-existence, given all these verses (and more we could add)?

What hermeneutic principles or specific interpretations do they use to deal with these sorts of passages?

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    To all the nay-sayers ;) this is a composite question. I could ask each one individually here, or put them all together because (I suspect) there are common hermeneutical processes involved in the exegesis of these sorts of passages by those who think Jesus started when Luke 1 seems to say he did. But I have no problem with someone moving it to C. SE. Jul 12 at 18:23
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    Questions can ask about multiple passages, but I think it only really works on BH.SE when they're about the same wording in multiple passages. This collection of passages just has too many different concepts, making it a theological synthesis question. I will migrate it.
    – curiousdannii
    Jul 12 at 23:23

3 Answers 3

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I am quite sure that there are people who deny Jesus' pre-existence for a multitude of reasons of which I am unaware so I cannot speak for all. In the one arena in which I have some familiarity, as near as I can tell, the process seems to be two-fold.

First, a hard disconnect is made between the Word and Jesus Christ by stating that Jesus had a definitive beginning in the womb of Mary and, therefore, could not have existed prior. Much emphasis is placed upon verses pointing to Jesus' humanity and his human relationship with God.

Second, to cement the disconnect, all scriptures hinting at continuity between the Word and Jesus (making up a large part of OP's list) are shuffled under the umbrella of "notional existence".

The argument ends up looking something like this very simplified rendering. Jesus is the name given to a flesh and blood person who began to actually exist in the physical universe at either conception or birth and did not actually exist anywhere else prior to this event. Prior to his birth Jesus was foreknown in the mind of God as His divine plan, the Logos. Among many things this plan incorporates the creation (which was actualized/spoken into being early on), the redemption (which has begun to be actualized), and the bringing in of everlasting righteousness (which is still yet to come). So, there may be parts of the Logos which are still only "notionally existent", parts that are in the process of being "actualized" and, I suppose, parts that are no longer "notions".

Believers (in the here and now) are referred to as glorified in Romans 8:30 even though the actual glorification is yet future because God's foreknowledge is so perfect that what He foresees can be spoken of as already accomplished. In the same way, the advent of Jesus was "notionally existent" in the mind of God from before the foundation of the world but not "actually existent" until his birth. This is the sense in which the Word became flesh and dwelt among us ... this part of God's "plan" was set into motion.

Rather than treat each verse in the OP I will apply the above to just one by way of demonstration:

"And now, Father, glorify Me in Your presence with the glory I had with You before the world existed." - John 17:5

Those who deny Jesus' pre-existence might say that, based upon the preponderance of verses that indicate Jesus' humanity, and coupled with the biblical belief that humans do not pre-exist themselves, Jesus must be referring to himself back when he was "notionally existent" in God's mind. Therefore, the glory that Jesus had with God before the world existed must have been a "notional glory" and when he asks to be glorified again with that glory he is actually asking for that "notional glory" to be actualized. In other words they might say that Jesus is asking that the glory that God always had in mind to bestow upon him upon completion of his mission before he really existed be given to him now that he really does exist and has completed his mission.

Here are some related questions: Do Biblical Unitarians teach a current, "notional", glory of Jesus?

How do Biblical Unitarians understand "the glory of the Father's own self" that Jesus claims he had before the world was?

How do deniers of Jesus' preincarnate existence interpret John 17:5?

Various verses where Jesus speaks about returning to or coming from the Father are treated in a similar fashion, transitioning reference between notional and actual existence.

Generally speaking, those who deny Jesus' pre-existence do the same sorts of things of which they accuse Trinitarians (for instance) and which we are all inclined to do, if we are honest: They put special weight and emphasis upon Scripture that buttresses their position and bring in extra-biblical notions to color the meaning of Scriptures which are less favorable.

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Some hold that Jesus did not have literal pre-existence. How do those who believe this reconcile it with the following passages?

There are many ways to understand a text. Even when it seems uncomplicated, it is often read with some kind of filter that the reader has inherited or been taught. Maybe not formally taught, but the original intent of the passage is massaged to fit within the construct they are used to.

Does Jesus pre-exist his conception/birth? We can only wonder what form he might have had as we are not told. Is he the Eternal Son who is God? We cannot know by scripture as this title is never given. Neither is Jesus mentioned anywhere until the angel gives the name to Joseph Luke 2:21, Matt 1:20. Is Jesus the angel of the Lord? Again, no clear revelation, no hard evidence but plenty of scripture to clearly refute such ideas.

Apparently, the verses listed are irrefutable affirmation of the pre-existence of Jesus. So let’s see if the chosen verses stack up to logic, context and veracity. There is usually no need to examine every comma, every tense and nuance of the Greek. Mostly, all one needs to do is maintain every verse in harmony with others. Let no contradiction be created by reading a verse according to a pre-set construct or by a biased translation. If we let the original text speak to us instead of speaking into the text those ideas devised centuries after the Apostles.

John 6:38 "For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but to do the will of Him who sent me."

While it’s easy to focus on the ‘coming from heaven aspect’ because it seems to affirm traditional dogma, the other phrase does not. For Jesus to have his own will creates a contradiction for those who think God and Jesus are one eternal substance. Two wills? By Jesus’ own words, ‘a house divided cannot stand’. There is no denying the opposing nature of Jesus’ will or it would not need to be set aside to obey the Father. We know that Jesus always submitted and obeyed the Father’s wishes, the Father’s will, but he had to set aside his own, sometimes contrary, will to do so.

‘I have come down from heaven’. There is no doubt Jesus is ‘not of this world’. Why? Because he was without sin.

Then he told them, “You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world. John 8:23

This world is not like heaven. God is heavenly, true, holy, faithful, without fault. He is not of this corrupted and deceived world. But when the disciples were found in Jesus

the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.

Jesus being from above, does not automatically make him from heaven literally. There are other things that came from heaven. Of course, not literally, but they were from Heaven because God sent them.

‘all good and perfect gifts come from heaven’ James 1:17

‘There was a man sent from God’ John 1:6

it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. John 6:32

The precedent is well established – those things sent from heaven is not intended to be taken literally unless dogma insists. Logic and context says no – Jesus does not have to literally come from Heaven based on these verses.

Jesus said that he came from heaven, meaning that he came from God; God was his source. God said He would open the windows of heaven and pour out a blessing Mal 3:10. Everyone understood the idiom being used, and no one believed that God would literally pour things out of heaven. The Pharisees asked Jesus to show them a sign from heaven Matt 16:1. They were not asking for Jesus to call some physical thing down from heaven.

John 3:31 "The One who comes from above is above all. The one who is from the earth belongs to the earth and speaks as one from the earth. The One who comes from heaven is above all."

John 16:27 "For the Father Himself loves you, because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God."

John 16:28 "I came from the Father and entered the world. In turn, I will leave the world and go to the Father.”"

Jesus is the only one since Adam that was without sin in a world filled with sin. When he entered the world, we don’t need to read in that he came from somewhere else in a physical sense. Only by a filtered construct does the human Jesus born of Mary, had somehow also been in heaven previously.

John 13:3 "Jesus knew that the Father had delivered all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was returning to God."

John 13:1 "It was now just before the Passover Feast, and Jesus knew that His hour had come to leave this world and return to the Father."

These verses are very telling. If the traditional view is so irrefutable, so undeniable, so true to the text, why do we find words added to the Holy Bible to support human dogma?

There is not one solitary original verse about Jesus ‘returning’, ‘going back’ or similar – NONE! Those words have all been added. See John 16:5,28, 13:1,3, 20:17, 14:28 for these additions. Further – why are they still there?? With all the spiel of 'revising the text' to be the most accurate and authentic from our bible publishers and yet, blatant errors and additions remain adding a bias to the text it should not have. We want to emphasise the ‘Jesus is God’ idea so we’ll have him ‘return’ to heaven after his resurrection - surely no one will notice!

I can hear the cries of, ‘it’s inferred anyway, of course he’s going back!’ We should stick to the facts, to the text once inspired and delivered. Not the additions of men who for hundreds of years after the Apostles, added their own biased dogma to the Holy Bible. No, we should strive to seek out and maintain the intended text without creed obeisance and honouring the additions of men. By allowing inference and assumption to guide our reading all manner of contradictions arise.

John 3:13 "No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven - the Son of Man."

Again, yes Jesus descended from heaven – his Father sent him, and the Father is above all, above the earth and the god of this world and age. Jesus is from above simply because he is not from below where fallen man is. Like the gifts from heaven, descending can readily be seen as a figure of speech to highlight the difference between God’s purposes and man’s purposes. If one wants to be literal with ‘descending’ then there is no other scripture to support – who and what was he before he ‘descended’? There is no answer except by invention and imagination.

John 6:62 "Then what will happen if you see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before?"

Translators have translated (anabainō ἀναβαίνω) as “ascend”. Anabainō simply means to go up. It is used of going up to a higher elevation as in climbing a mountain (Matt. 5:1, 14:23...), of Jesus coming up from under the water at his baptism (Matt. 3:16; Mark 1:10), of plants that grow up out of the ground (Matt. 13:7; Mark 4:7, 8, 32).

From the context, “coming up to where he was before”, is referring to the resurrection of Christ from the grave and not his forthcoming ascension. Christ was simply asking how they would react when they saw him come up out of the ground, be resurrected, and be where he was before - alive, and on the earth. Everything depending on him being raised from the dead. If they could believe that - and they soon would, they could believe anything he told them.

John 8:38 "I speak of what I have seen in the presence of the Father, and you do what you have heard from your father."

I speak that which I have seen with my Father: and you do the things that you have seen with your father. DRB

There is no ‘presence’ in the Greek. Another bias to add flavour to the text. We know Jesus, later in v44, told them who their father was – the devil. So, going by the context, had they ‘seen’ the devil? No. So why should we assume Jesus had ‘seen’ his Father either? We know from other texts that to see often means to know. Jesus knew what his Father was up to as all he did and said was from his Father – he didn’t need to be in heaven or to have pre-existed to know.

John 8:58 “Truly, truly, I tell you,” Jesus declared, “before Abraham was born, I am!”

Possibly THE most over-imagined verse in the bible (after John 1:1-3) for those affirming Jesus’ pre-existence. Because ‘before’ must mean, ‘I was alive’, ‘I existed before’, ‘I am eternal’. If the verse had any solid clues, we wouldn’t be talking about it. Context and supporting scripture must be sought. The bible is self-interpretive, this should be the primary objective if immediate context seems lacking. We don’t jump to our own conclusions or blindly accept those of others who have followed tradition down a pot-holed track.

If Jesus existed before Abraham, we are not told, but we are told something important through Paul.

Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. It does not say "and to seeds" as of many but "and to your seed" as of one, who is Christ. Gal 3:16

Jesus is descended from Abraham, and of course David etc, how can he be before in time? He cannot as Jesus. Was he something other? We are not told. Does John 1:1-3 say Jesus? No, it does not, as much as so many seem to think it does, conflating the logos and Jesus as if they are the same. At this juncture, they are not the same as Jesus only began through Mary when the ‘logos was made flesh’ ~ 2000 years ago. These are the plain facts; no amount of theological construct can change that. IF Jesus pre-existed his holy conception, he wasn’t called Jesus according to the bible. The logos isn’t a living entity according to 1John 1. The alternative translations of, ‘the logos was divine’, or ‘what God was, the word was’, harmonises with other scripture perfectly.

John 17:5 "And now, Father, glorify me in Your presence with the glory I had with You before the world existed."

Who is Jesus? Who does scripture say he is? He is the logos made flesh. Jesus understood his beginnings. The word/logos was with God in the very beginning. Jesus IS NOW that logos which was in the beginning, made into a man through Mary! 1John 1 explains the logos as a ‘which’, a ‘what’ – not a who. We cannot simply dismiss this fact if it doesn’t fit the narrative we might be used to. There is no other entity unless we make one up. Can we not believe Jesus without twisting his words to fit a manmade theology scripture is silent about?

Now this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom You have sent. John 17:3

This is the revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him Rev 1:1

Jesus knew the end of his mission was imminent. While desperate to avoid it if possible, he was strengthened by the knowledge of what he was doing and what a glorious result would be obtained, Heb 12:2. The glory of God’s handiwork, the wisdom, the brilliance, the magnitude, the perfect outcome designed in from the beginning. Many seem to have trouble grasping the tussle with evil that plagues mankind – the tragedy, the injustice, the pain, suffering and untold death – the hopelessness that seems to go on and on. God’s plan included this suffering, but it was only for a time.

The intention was not to create a perfect beginning, only to see it fall over catastrophically because of a naughty Arch Angel. The intention all along was to allow suffering, sin and death, but this would be resolved, but be part of the experience of choosing a way other than God. Adam and Eve had this choice but were deceived to disobedience. The second/last Adam had this choice too and although he clearly struggled, he sought the help he needed (Heb 5:7) to persist, to resist, to overcome (John 16:33) and triumph for all creation.

The glory Jesus speaks of is that glory God displayed in His creation plan – initiated through His logos, brought to completion in His embodied logos, while yet to be completed when Jesus prayed to his Father and God, a final stage is about to be established and Jesus will share in that glory when raised up and exalted to the place beside his God.

All creation is only what it was intended to finally be in Jesus – which brings us to -

Colossians 1:17 "He is before all things, and in him all things hold together."

Again, the new creation that is under Jesus’ dominion – still in service to God. As firstborn of creation, Jesus has facilitated the final stages of salvation by his death and new life – the first of all men to rise to new spirit life. This life given by the Father, it is not inherent in Jesus. The whole plan of creation was always designed to be fulfilled in Jesus - the logos made flesh. That's why he is before everything as the 'cornerstone', the foundation of all God had done. That's why all things find true meaning and ultimate purpose in him. Without him, there would be no point to Genesis at all!

a time is coming and even now has arrived, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. For just as the Father has life in Himself, so He gave to the Son also to have life in himself; and He gave him authority to execute judgment John 5:25-

When did God grant this ‘life that He had’? At Jesus’ resurrection.

having been put to death in the flesh, but having been made alive in the spirit 1Pet 3:18

Philippians 2:6-7 "Who, existing in the form of God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in human likeness."

The idea that Jesus, as God, somehow emptied himself of being God so he could be tempted and die and still resurrect himself when dead, because he didn’t really die. Was it some kind of charade with a two-natured Son who never exists in the bible, yet now sits NEXT to God as heir to all things that he supposedly made Heb 1! Followed by the equally bizarre idea that Jesus went from one form to another at this pivotal moment of not being God anymore and being a servant instead. This is read into the text without any consideration of all the other texts about this same matter.

Jesus is always in the form of God - always the image of God, always the vision of God's glory to the eyes of men. While he is holy and without sin, he represents his Father in all things. ‘If you have seen me, you have seen the Father’ – oh, because Jesus is empty of God how would that work? Jesus was the same since he was born – always carrying the presence of God in all he did and said while growing in obedience as the humble servant.

Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. 31And behold, you will conceive in your womb and give birth to a son, and you shall name Him Jesus. 32He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David; … 34But Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” 35The angel answered and said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; for that reason also the holy Child will be called the Son of God Luke 1:30-

Jesus didn't empty himself of being God - that would be silly and impossible if he was God to begin with – we are never told. He willingly, humbly denied himself the luxuries, the benefits, the privilege of being the son of the King, the son of God - but he remained as the form of God at all times. Hanging on the cross, not remotely deserving of death, let alone the suffering, his most humiliating and shameful moment (but also perhaps the most glorious), he was still the righteous and holy man who carried the love and plan of God’s salvation to the grave. Jesus’ whole life was as a servant – God’s servant, foretold in Is 42. As a loyal and trusting servant, Jesus sought to subject his will to the Father. His whole life was like that – all the days of his flesh.

Heb 5:7 ‘In the days of his flesh, he offered up both prayers and supplications with loud crying and tears to the One able to save him from death’.

Nothing could keep him ‘alive’ except God. We are told nothing about a dual nature, no mysterious eternal co-equal Son in this supreme challenge to the death. Jesus is always the servant and always the form and image and representative of God. He didn’t stop being any of those things. We are warned not to accept another Jesus but to recognise him as coming in the flesh – not in the spirit or as God! He said after his resurrection he was not a spirit. How can God in whatever contrived form not be a spirit?

many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh, have gone out into the world. Any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist. 2John 1:7

This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 1John 4:2

Coming in the flesh does not readily lend itself to also coming as God. Well, John is quite sure, he calls out other ideas as anti-Christ and not of God’s spirit. What other spirit could he be referring to?

But when the fullness of the time came, God sent His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law Gal 4:4

"For in him all things were created" Colossians 1:16

Clearly the context is the new creation – the church, the new way with believers gifted the holy spirit as a deposit until Christ’s return to earth. We don’t need to be too clever to simply read on to see, “things IN heaven and ON earth”. Oh, so this is not a Genesis creation because “God made the heavens and the earth” Gen 1:1. This is about things ON the earth and IN heaven.

The lead up to this passage-

For He rescued us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation:

The firstborn of the dead and of creation. We know when Jesus was born – it wasn’t at the Genesis of creation. It was ~2000 years ago to Mary as the Gospels explain quite clearly. And with no mention of him except in prophecy, any idea of Jesus pre-existing is based on a made-up theology and no solid biblical evidence. The way these verses are read to support such an idea shows them taken out of context and using biased translations like

but in these last days He has spoken to us by His Son, whom He appointed the heir of all things, through whom also He created the world Heb 1:2.

‘world' is αἰῶνας aiōnas or ‘ages’, not world or universe. This proof-text reading is seized on by those pushing a traditional theology not in harmony with the biblical facts. Again, there is no scripture expressing Jesus is God, is spirit, has eternal life until it was given him at his resurrection. No verse about him pre-existing unless it is read-in and Jesus is made a liar when he says,

as it is, you are seeking to kill me, a man who has told you the truth, which I heard from God John 8:40

A pre-existing Jesus cannot be a man, he cannot be an angel, he cannot be God just because we have always been taught such things. NO, simply because we are not told these things anywhere. Only by depending on biased evidence, poorly chosen words, added words, bad translations, errant theology that has no basis in scripture. What was taught by Jesus and the Apostles speak of the one true God the Father, and His son Jesus, born of Mary to save the world.

God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers through the prophets in many ways… in these last days, He has spoken to us in His son. Heb 1:1-2

If the son always existed, why is God only speaking through him in these last days? If he was OT Jehovah as some fancy, the scripture makes no sense. That’s the trouble with proof-text methodology - it sounds great until we search the scriptures to ‘see if these things are so’. Soon enough, we find that they are not and there is another story that when understood without biased reading and biased translations, we see the magnificent truth waiting for us.

Why is Jesus made heir to all things if he (allegedly) made everything?

Why does Jesus have a God? – did and still does.

Why is he only described as a man?

Why are we warned about other Jesus’s?

Why is Jesus sitting next to God? Is there more than 1 true God?

Some hold that Jesus did not have literal pre-existence – perhaps because they are able to understand the text free of artificial rendering, imposed theology and traditional dogma.

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    +1 I've made a summary list as another complementary answer, largely inspired by your answer. Jul 16 at 18:57
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    +1 After reading several of your other answers making the case against Trinitarian doctrine, I think this is one of the most important: addressing preexistence. One question (sorry if you have addressed this elsewhere): what kind of being Jesus is? More than human belonging to a unique species of which he is the only member? Or is Jesus a glorified 100% human we can all aspire to be after death? Nov 1 at 8:53
  • Thx +1! We don't need to leave it to the imagination. Heb 2:17 For this reason he had to be made like them, fully human in every way... To be fully human has to include not being anything else - or that would not be fully human anymore. He is the first of many brethren Rom 8:29 Indicating also that he is the first of a batch, not different, except w/o sin.
    – steveowen
    Nov 1 at 9:22
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Mike and Steve's answers are both good and useful. I want to offer a high-level summary of the main ways these proof-texts are explained by those who believe Jesus' existence started at his conception.

  1. Figurative language ('sent' from God doesn't mean literally going from one 'place', heaven, to another 'place', earth, for ex. - the prophets are sent, John the Baptist was sent, and so on).

  2. Translators' bias ('return' isn't actually said in John 13:1 or 3, for ex.).

  3. Grammatical or semantic ambiguity ('before' meaning temporal or in rank, 'creation' referring to new creation, not old, and so on).

  4. Notional pre-existence (a common idea in ancient Jewish society, for example, the name of the Messiah exists before the foundation of the earth, cf. the Babylonian Talmud).

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