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Stephen H. Webb


The Problem with Preexistence

Re-framing the questions.

In the first chapter of his wide-ranging and well-written book, He Came Down From Heaven: The Preexistence of Christ and the Christian Faith, Douglas McCready confesses that his topic is something of an oxymoron. He is right. The pre and exist of preexistence, often pinned together by a hyphen like siblings stuck in the back seat on a long car ride, add nothing in their combination to our understanding of Jesus Christ. Jesus exists, and he exists prior to everything, so talking about his preexistence is incoherent. He certainly does not exist prior to his own existence, which the term seems to imply.

Of course, theologians often retool ordinary words with technical meaning. This word, however, is neither ordinary nor precise. In fact, preexistence actually does not apply to anything, because nothing exists prior to his saying so, and he exists like nothing else. It would be better to speak of his eternal existence than his preexistence.

If preexistence were merely confusing, it might be worth salvaging, but its damage extends beyond the rules of grammar. Although this word has a long history of theological use, it actually drives a wedge into the life of Jesus Christ. The pre of preexistence suggests, in an insidious fashion, that Christians worship a split person if not a split personality: Jesus of Nazareth the miracle worker who had a prior career as the Son of God.

The truth is that Jesus exists in a manner that befuddles the way we are cursed to divide time into before, now, and after. We preexist ourselves, to coin a variant of this term, because we are always looking to the receding past to discover who we are. We have a problem with time, not Jesus. Rather than view the existence of Jesus Christ through the prism of our fragmented sense of time, we should let the coherent wholeness of his life judge our own. The Son of God mixes together time and eternity as if they were as easily interchangeable as mayonnaise and Miracle Whip. That is why we can hope that the ...

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