"Ye Are Gods?"
Orthodox and Heretical Views on the Deification of Man
from the Christian Research Journal, Winter/Spring 1987, page 18. The Editor-in-Chief of the Christian Research Journal is Elliot Miller.
Is the belief that men were created to be "gods," either in this life or in some future exaltation, a Christian teaching? Is it in any sense Christian to speak of the "deification" of man -- to say that God created or redeemed man in order to become deity? What do various religious groups who use such language today mean? Are they all saying the same thing? Are all who use such terminology heretics? If not, how do we tell the difference? All of these questions will be addressed in this article.
DIFFERENT IDEAS OF DEIFICATION
The first step in answering these interrelated questions is to recognize that talk about men being gods cannot be isolated from basic world views, or conceptions of the world and its relation to God. Norman Geisler and William Watkins have pointed out that there are seven basic world views: atheism (no God), polytheism (many gods), pantheism (God is all), panentheism (God is in all), finite godism (a finite god made the world), deism (a God who does not do miracles created the world), and theism, or monotheism (a God who does miracles created the world), which is the biblical view (and is held by orthodox Jews and Muslims as well as Christians). Not all doctrines can be neatly categorized into one of these seven world views, since some people do hold to combinations of two views; but such positions are inherently inconsistent, and usually one world view is dominant.
In this article our concern will be with doctrines of deification which claim to be strictly Christian. (This means that we will not discuss, for example, New Age concepts of deification.) Varieties of such "Christian" views on deification can be found among adherents of monotheism, polytheism, and panentheism.
It may surprise some to learn that a monotheistic doctrine of deification was taught by many of the church fathers, and is believed by many Christians today, including the entire Eastern Orthodox church. In keeping with monotheism, the Eastern orthodox do not teach that men will literally become "gods" (which would be polytheism). Rather, as did many of the church fathers, they teach that men are "deified" in the sense that the Holy Spirit dwells within Christian believers and transforms them into the image of God in Christ, eventually endowing them in the resurrection with immortality and God's perfect moral character.
It may be objected that to classify as monotheistic any doctrine which refers to men in some positive sense as "gods" is self-contradictory; and strictly speaking such an objection is valid. Indeed, later in this study it shall be argued that such terminology is not biblical. However, the point here is that however inconsistent and confusing the language that is used (and it is inconsistent), the substance of what the Eastern Orthodox are seeking to express when they speak of deification is actually faithful to the monotheistic world view. The language used is polytheistic, and in the light of Scripture should be rejected; but the doctrine intended by this language in the context of the teachings of the fathers and of Eastern Orthodoxy is quite biblical, and is thus not actually polytheistic.
Thus, it should not be argued that anyone who speaks of "deification" necessarily holds to a heretical view of man. Such a sweeping judgment would condemn many of the early church's greatest theologians (e.g., Athanasius, Augustine), as well as one of the three main branches of historic orthodox Christianity in existence today. On the other hand, some doctrines of deification are most certainly heretical, because they are unbiblical in substance as well as in terminology.
Two examples of polytheistic doctrines of deification are the teachings of Mormonism and Armstrongism, although adherents of these religions generally do not admit to being polytheists.
The Mormons are very explicit in their "scriptures" that there are many Gods; for example, the three persons of the Trinity are regarded as three "Gods." Since they believe that many Gods exist but at present worship only one -- God the Father -- at least one Mormon scholar has admitted with qualifications that their doctrine could be termed "henotheistic." Henotheism is a variety of polytheism in which there are many gods, but only one which should be worshipped. Thus, the meaning of deification in Mormonism is radically different than that of the church fathers who used similar terms, despite Mormon arguments to the contrary.
The Worldwide Church of God of Herbert W. Armstrong (who died early in 1986) claims to believe in only one God. However, Armstrongism defines "God" as a collective term (like "church" or "family") referring to a family of distinct beings all having the same essential nature. Presently this "God family" consists of two members, God the Father and Christ, but it is their plan to reproduce themselves in human beings and so add millions or even billions to the God family. Therefore, by the normal use of words on which our categorizations are based, Armstrong's world view is also polytheistic.
An important example of a panentheistic doctrine of deification within professing Christianity is Union Life, founded by Norman Grubb, who at one time was a respected evangelical leader. In 1980 Cornerstone, an evangelical magazine, ran an article arguing that Union Life was teaching pantheism or panentheism. Union Life has attempted to argue that panentheism, unlike pantheism, is not heretical (despite Grubb's admission that he does not know the definition of pantheism!). However, neither pantheism nor panentheism separates the creation from the essential nature of the Creator, though panentheism does posit a differentiation in which the creation is the expression of the Creator. The heretical nature of Union Life is made evident by such statements as, "there is only One Person in the universe," "everything is God on a certain level of manifestation," and "Nothing but God exists!" Therefore, Union Life's claim to following the tradition of the church fathers is no more valid than that of the Mormons.
Positive Confession: Monotheistic or Polytheistic?
Not all views of the deification of man are easily classifiable. Perhaps the most difficult doctrine of deification to categorize into one of the seven basic world views is that of the "positive confession" or "faith" teachers, including Kenneth Copeland, Kenneth Hagin, Frederick K.C. Price, Charles Capps, Casey Treat, and many others.
In brief, the "faith" teaching maintains that God created man in "God's class," as "little gods," with the potential to exercise the "God kind of faith" in calling things into existence and living in prosperity and success as sovereign beings. We lost this opportunity by rebelling against God and receiving Satan's nature. To correct this situation, Christ became a man, died spiritually (receiving Satan's nature), went to Hell, was "born again," rose from the dead with God's nature, and then sent the Holy Spirit so that the Incarnation could be duplicated in believers, thus fulfilling their calling to be little gods. Since we are called to experience this kind of life now, we should experience success in everything we do, including health and financial prosperity.
Some aspects of this teaching have been documented and compared with Scripture in articles published in previous issues of this journal. Regarding the claim that men are "little gods," there is no question (as shall be demonstrated shortly) that the language used is unbiblical, but are the ideas being conveyed contrary to Scripture as well? Specifically, is the world view of the "faith" teaching monotheistic or polytheistic?
A simple answer to this question is somewhat elusive. The positive confession teachers have made statements that seem polytheistic, and yet often in the same paragraph contradict themselves by asserting the truth of monotheism. At least two positive confession teachers, Frederick K.C. Price and Casey Treat, have admitted that men are not literally gods and have promised not to use this terminology again. In many cases, the dominant world view appears to be monotheism, with their teachings tending at times toward a polytheistic world view. It seems best, then, to regard the "faith" teaching as neither soundly monotheistic nor fully polytheistic, but instead as a confused mixture of both world views.
This means that the "faith" teaching of deification cannot be regarded as orthodox. Their concept of deification teaches that man has a "sovereign will" comparable to God's, and that man can therefore exercise the "God kind of faith" and command things to be whatever he chooses. At least one "faith" teacher, Kenneth Copeland, seems to regard God as finite, since he says, speaking of Adam, "His body and God were exactly the same size." Again, it is the context in which the doctrine appears that determines whether the teaching is orthodox or heretical. In this case, there seems to be significant evidence to show that some, at least, of the "faith" teachers have a heretical view of God, as well as a heretical view of the nature of the believer. Nevertheless, there also appears to be evidence that not all of the "faith" teachers are heretical in the same sense as, say, Mormonism or Armstrongism.
At this point we will turn to the biblical teaching relating to this subject to see whether the Bible teaches deification at all.
THE BIBLICAL TEACHING
All of the various doctrines of deification discussed above appeal to the same passages of Scripture and the same biblical themes to validate their teaching. Besides the passages where men are called "gods" or "sons of God," there are the biblical themes concerning men in the image of God; the close relationship between Christ and Christians; and the statement in 2 Peter 1:4 that Christians are "partakers of the divine nature." In this article we shall discuss briefly each of these texts and themes.
Are Men Called "Gods" in Scripture?
The Bible in both Old and New Testaments explicitly and repeatedly affirms that there is only one God (e.g.,Deut. 4:35-39; Isa. 43:10; 44:6-8; 1 Cor. 8:4-6; 1 Tim. 2:5; James 2:19). Therefore, the Bible most definitely rejects any sort of polytheism, including henotheism.
The Scriptures also very clearly teach that God is an absolutely unique being who is distinct from the world as its Creator (e.g.,Gen. 1:1; John 1:3; Rom. 1:25; Heb. 11:3). This teaching rules out pantheism and panentheism, according to which the world is either identical to God or an essential aspect of God. Since He is eternal, omnipresent, omnipotent, and omniscient, God is totally unique, so that there is none even like God (e.g.,Ps. 102:25-27; Isa. 40-46; Acts 17:24-28). The Bible, then, unmistakably teaches a monotheistic world view.
In the face of so many explicit statements that there is only one God, and in light of His uniqueness, it may seem surprising that anyone would claim that the Bible teaches that men are gods. However, there are a few passages in Scripture which seem to call men "god" or "gods." Most or all of these, however, are irrelevant to any doctrine of deification. In practice, the question of whether the Bible ever calls men "gods" in a positive sense focuses exclusively on Psalm 82:6 ("I said, 'you are gods'") and its citation by Jesus in John 10:34-35.
The usual view among biblical expositors for centuries is that Psalm 82 refers to Israelite judges by virtue of their position as judges representing God; it is, therefore, a figurative usage which applies only to those judges and does not apply to men or even believers in general. If this interpretation is correct, Psalm 82:6 is also irrelevant to any doctrine of Christian deification.
An alternative interpretation agrees that the "gods" are Israelite judges, but sees the use of the term "gods" as an ironic figure of speech. Irony is a rhetorical device in which something is said to be the case in such a way as to make the assertion seem ridiculous (compare Paul's ironic "you have become kings" in 1 Corinthians 4:8, where Paul's point is that they had not become kings). According to this interpretation, the parallel description of the "gods" as "sons of the Most High" (which, it is argued, is not in keeping with the Old Testament use of the term "sons" of God), the condemnation of the judges for their wicked judgment, and especially the statement, "Nevertheless, you will die as men," all point to the conclusion that the judges are called "gods" in irony.
If the former interpretation is correct, then in John 10:34-35 Jesus would be understood to mean that if God called wicked judges "gods" how much more appropriate is it for Him, Jesus, to be called God, or even the Son of God. If the ironic interpretation of Psalm 82:6 is correct, then in John 10:34-35 Jesus' point would still be basically the same. It is also possible that Jesus was implying that the Old Testament application of the term "gods" to wicked judges was fulfilled (taking "not to be broken" to mean "not to be unfulfilled," cf. John 7:23) in Himself as the true Judge (cf. John 5:22,27-30; 9:39). Those wicked men were, then, at best called "gods" and "sons of the Most High" in a special and figurative sense; and at worst they were pseudo-gods and pseudo-sons of God. Jesus, on the other hand, is truly God (cf. John 1:1,18; 20:28; 1 John 5:20) and the unique Son of God (John 10:36; 20:31; etc.)
Neither the representative nor the ironic interpretation of Psalm 82 allows it (or John 10:34-35) to be understood to teach that men were created or redeemed to be gods. Nor is there any other legitimate interpretation which would allow for such a conclusion. The Israelite judges were wicked men condemned to death by the true God, and therefore were not by any definition of deification candidates for godhood.
If, then, the deification of man is to be found in Scripture, it will have to be on the basis of other biblical texts or themes, as Scripture gives men the title of "gods" only in a figurative or condemnatory sense.
The Image of God: An Exact Duplicate?
One biblical teaching upon which great emphasis is usually laid by those who teach some form of the deification of man is the doctrine of man as created and redeemed in the image of God. Of the many examples that could be given, two will have to suffice. Casey Treat's claim that man is an "exact duplicate" of God is based on his understanding of the meaning of "image" in Genesis 1:26-27. The Mormon apologetic for their doctrine that God is an exalted Man and that men can also become Gods typically appeals to the image of God in man, and to the parallel passage in Genesis 5:1-3 where Adam is said to have begotten Seth "in his own likeness, after his own image" (Genesis 5:1-3).
These claims raise two questions. Does the creation of man in the image of God imply that God Himself is an exalted man (as in Mormonism), or perhaps a spirit with the physical form or shape of a man (as in Armstrongism)? And does the image of God in man imply that men may become "gods"? There are several reasons why such conclusions are incorrect.
First, there are the biblical statements which say that God is not a man (Num. 23:19; 1 Sam. 15:29; Hos.11:9). Second, there is the biblical teaching on the attributes of God already mentioned, according to which God obviously cannot now or ever have been a man (except in the sense that the second person of the triune God became a man by taking upon Himself a second nature different from the nature of deity). Third, in the context of Genesis 1:26-27 and 5:1-3 there is one very important difference between the relationship between God and Adam on the one hand and Adam and Seth on the other hand: Adam was created or made by God, while Seth was begotten by Adam. To create or make something in the image or likeness of someone means to make something of a different kind that nevertheless somehow "pictures" or represents that someone (cf. Luke 20:24-25). It is therefore a mistake to reason backwards from the creation of man in God's image to deduce the nature of God. Genesis 1:26-27 is telling us something about man, not about God.
Besides the passages in Genesis (see also 9:6), the Old Testament says nothing else about the image of God. The New Testament teaches that man is still in God's image (1 Cor. 11:7; James 3:9), but also says that, in some unique sense, Christ is the image of God (2 Cor. 4:4; Col. 1:15). Christians are by virtue of their union with Christ being conformed to the image of God and of Christ resulting finally (after this life) in glorification (2 Cor. 3:18; Rom. 8:29-30), which includes moral perfection (Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10) and an immortal physical body like Christ's (1 Cor. 15:49; cf. Phil. 3:21).
Orthodox biblical theologians and scholars do have some differences of opinion as to how best to define and explain what these passages mean by the "image of God." However, these differences are relatively minor, and do not obscure the basic truth of the image, which is that man was created as a physical representation (not a physical reproduction or "exact duplicate") of God in the world. As such, he was meant to live forever, to know God personally, to reflect His moral character -- His love -- through human relationships, and to exercise dominion over the rest of the living creatures on the earth (Gen. 1:28-30; cf. Ps. 8:5-8).
From the biblical teaching on the image of God, then, there is nothing which would warrant the conclusion that men are or will ever be "gods," even "little gods," as the "faith" teachers often put it.
Sons of God: Like Begets Like?
Although men are never called "gods" in an affirmative sense in Scripture, believers in Christ are called "sons" or "children" of God (John 1:12; Rom. 8:14-23; Gal. 4:5-7; 1 John 3:1-2; etc.). Based on the assumption that sons are of the same nature as their father, some conclude that since believers are sons of God, they must also be gods. This reasoning is thought to be confirmed by those passages in John's writings which speak of believers as being "begotten" or "born" of God (John 1:13; 3:5-6; 1 John 2:29; 3:9; 4:7; 5:1,4,18).
As convincing as this argument may seem, it actually goes beyond the Bible's teaching and is at best erroneous and at worse heretical. The above Scriptures do not mean that the "sonship" of believers is a reproduction of God's essence in man for the following reasons.
1/ In one sense all human beings are God's "offspring" (Acts 17:28), so that even Adam could be called God's "son" (Luke 3:38); yet this cannot mean that human beings are gods or have the same nature as God, for the reasons already given in our analysis of the "image of God".
2/ Paul speaks of our sonship as an "adoption" (Rom. 8:15,23; Gal. 4:5), which of course suggests that we are not "natural" sons of God.
3/ John, who frequently speaks of Christians as having been "begotten" by God, also tells us that Jesus Christ is the "only-begotten" or "unique" Son of God (John 1:14, 18; 3:16, 18; 1 John 4:9). At the very least, this means that we are not sons of God in the same sense that Christ is the Son of God, nor will we ever be. Christ was careful to distinguish between His Sonship and that of His followers (e.g., John 20:17). For this reason Kenneth Copeland's assertion that "Jesus is no longer the only begotten Son of God" must be regarded as false doctrine.
4/ Finally, the New Testament itself always interprets the spiritual birth which makes believers sons, not as a conversion of men into gods, but as a renewal in the moral likeness of God, produced by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, and resulting in an intimate relationship with God as a Father who provides for His children's needs (Matt. 5:9, 45; 6:8, 10, 32; 7:11,21; Rom. 8:14-17; Gal. 4:6-7; 1 John 2:29; 3:9; 4:7; 5:1-5).
The biblical doctrine that believers in Christ are children of God is a glorious teaching, to be sure, and what it means we do not yet fully know (1 John 3:2). But we do know something about what it means, as well as what it does not mean. It does mean eternal life with Christ-like holiness and love, in which the full potential of human beings as the image of God is realized. But it does not mean that we shall cease to be creatures, or that "human potential" is infinite, or that men shall be gods.
Union with Christ: Are Christians Incarnations of God?
The doctrine that Christians are adopted sons of God is closely related to the doctrine of the spiritual union between Christ and Christian believers. This union is expressed both as a union between Christ and the individual believer and as a union of Christ and the church. Paul in particular teaches that Christians are "in Christ" (a phrase which occurs over 160 times in Paul's letters), "with Christ" in His death, burial, resurrection, and ascension (Rom. 6:3-8; Eph. 2:5-6), corporately the "body" of Christ (Rom. 12:4-5; 1 Cor. 12:12-27; Eph. 1:22-23; 4:12; Col. 1:18), that they have Christ, or the Spirit of Christ, dwelling within (Rom. 8:9-11; 1 Cor. 3:16; 6:17-20; 2 Cor. 13:5; Eph. 3:16-17), and that Christ Himself is their "life" (Gal. 2:20; Col. 3:4). On the basis of this teaching, many have concluded that Christians are in fact either a corporate extension of the Incarnation (as the church) or replications of the Incarnation (as individual Christians). Such a conclusion is often tied to the teaching of some concept of deification. The question is, does the Bible support such a conclusion?
As with the doctrine of Christians as the sons of God, such ideas go far beyond the teaching of Scripture. To say that believers are "in Christ" means that they are somehow spiritually united to Christ, not that they are Christ. When Paul says that we have been crucified, buried, raised, and ascended with Christ, he is not speaking literally, but means simply that by virtue of our legal identification and close spiritual relationship with Christ we benefit by His death and resurrection. The teaching that the church is the body of Christ is also not to be taken literally, and should not be pressed to imply that the church is Christ or even an essential part of Christ. That the relationship between Christ and the church involves a substantial union without the church becoming Christ is best seen in the figure of the church as the bride of Christ (Eph. 5:28-32): the bride is physically united to her husband, yet they remain distinct. The Spirit indwells the believer, to be sure, but the believer does not become divine as a result, any more than the temple under the old covenant became a part of God simply because His presence filled it (cf. 1 Cor. 3:17). Christ is our life, not in the sense that our individuality is replaced by His person, but in the sense that we have eternal and spiritual life through our union with Him.
Finally, the notion that each believer is somehow a duplicate of the Incarnation deserves a closer look. The rationale for this view is that an "incarnation" is defined as the indwelling of God in a human being; and since, we are told, this is as true of the Christian as it was of Christ, it follows that the Christian, as Kenneth Hagin puts it, "is as much an incarnation as was Jesus of Nazareth." The error in this reasoning lies in the definition of "incarnation." Christ was not merely God dwelling in a human being, a heresy (known as Nestorianism) the early church condemned because it meant that the Word did not actually become flesh (John 1:14) but only joined Himself to a human being. Rather, the incarnate Christ was one person in whom were perfectly united two natures, deity and humanity; the Christian is a person with one nature, human, in whom a separate person, God the Holy Spirit (and through Him, the Father and the Son as well), dwells.
Does Partaking of the Divine Nature Make Us Gods?
In 2 Peter 1:4 we are told that through God's promises Christians may "become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world by lust." This text, even more so than Psalm 82, has suggested to many a doctrine of deification. And indeed, if by deification one means simply "partaking of the divine nature," then such "deification" is unquestionably biblical. The question, then, is what does Peter mean by "partakers of divine nature"?
Since the word "divine" is used earlier in the same sentence ("His divine power", verse 3), where it must mean "of God," "divine nature" must mean God's nature. The word "nature," however, should not be understood to mean "essence." Rather, as the context makes evident, Peter is speaking of God's moral nature or character. Thus Christians are by partaking of the divine nature to escape the corruption that is in the world because of sinful lust, and are instead to exhibit the moral attributes of Christ (cf. verses 5-11).
DISCERNING ORTHODOX FROM HERETICAL TEACHINGS
It is not always easy to tell the difference between heretical and orthodox doctrines. Often people of different religions use the same or nearly the same words to express widely different ideas. One of the marks of the "cults," in fact, is the use of Christian terminology to express non-Christian concepts. This is very much the case with deification.
How, then, can Christians tell the difference? There are four essential elements to an orthodox view of the relationship between God and man, and any doctrine which compromises or denies these teachings is less than soundly orthodox. These four elements are monotheism, trinitarianism, incarnationalism, and evangelicalism.
Monotheism, as has already been explained, is the view that a single, unique, infinite Being (called God) created all other beings out of nothing, and that this Creator will forever be the only real, true God. Trinitarianism is the distinctive Christian revelation of God, according to which the one God exists eternally as three distinct but inseparable persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Incarnationalism is the teaching that the second person of the Trinity (called the "Word" in John 1:1, 14, and the "Son" in Matthew 28:19), without ceasing to be God, became flesh, uniting uniquely in His one undivided person the two natures of deity and humanity. Evangelicalism is the belief that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.
With these four criteria of orthodoxy in mind, how do the various doctrines of deification measure up? The doctrines of the church fathers, as well as of Eastern Orthodoxy, are, as we have already indicated, thoroughly orthodox on all four points. Mormonism and Armstrongism fail on all four counts, and are therefore heretical. Union Life appears to hold to the Trinity and salvation by grace, but sets these doctrines in the context of panentheism; therefore, it too is heretical.
But what shall we say about the "faith" teachers? They do affirm a monotheistic world view and generally affirm the Trinity (though there is some evidence of confusion on that score). Some at least of these teachers consider the Christian to be as much an incarnation as Jesus, and thus fail the third test. Most speak unguardedly of man as existing in "God's class," of being the same "kind" as God, and so forth, even while occasionally making disclaimers about men never becoming equal to God. Are these teachers heretics, or are they orthodox?
It may be that a simple black-or-white approach to this question is inappropriate in some cases. Certainly these teachers are not to be placed in the same category as Mormonism and Armstrongism, since the "faith" teachers affirm monotheism and trinitarianism. Yet too many statements have been made by these teachers which can only be called heretical, though it may be that such statements are due to carelessness or hyperbole and not actual heretical belief. It is to be hope that the "faith" teachers will recognize the errors of their unbiblical statements and repent of them. Until that time, their doctrine of men being "little gods" is so far from being orthodox that it should not be placed in that category either. How, then, should we categorize such teachings?
In recent years ministries which specialize in discerning orthodox from heretical teachings have been using the term "aberrational" to describe teachings which do not fit neatly into either the orthodox or heretical category. Specifically, "heretical" teaching explicitly denies essential biblical truth, while "aberrational" teaching compromises or confuses essential biblical truth. Both are in error, but a heresy is an outright rejection or opposition to truth, while an aberration is a distortion or misunderstanding of truth only. Aberrational teachers affirm the essential doctrines of orthodoxy, and then go on to teach doctrines that compromise or are otherwise inconsistent with orthodoxy, while heretics actually deny one or more of the essentials.
It we apply this distinction to the cases at hand, their usefulness becomes apparent. Mormonism and Armstrongism both explicitly reject certain essential teachings of orthodoxy; they are therefore heretical. Union Life rejects monotheism in favor of panentheism; it is also heretical. Many of the "faith" teachers affirm the essentials, but then go on to teach doctrines which undermine their professed orthodoxy; their doctrine is aberrational and false. On the other hand, there are, unfortunately, at least some "faith" teachers (for example, Kenneth Copeland) whose teachings are so opposed to orthodoxy that they can only be regarded as heretical.
It is not always easy to decide whether a teaching is orthodox, aberrational, or heretical. Nevertheless, it can be done, and we should not allow the unpopularity of making doctrinal judgments to deter us from the necessary (if sometimes unpleasant) task of evaluating questionable teaching. In doing so, we must avoid the extreme of labeling as heretics absolutely everyone who uses the term "deification," as well as the extreme of regarding as Christian any doctrine of deification which makes reference to Christ. It is the substance of each doctrine which must be examined as the basis for discerning whether it is orthodox, aberrational, or heretical. Only in this way can the church's calling to "test the spirits, to see whether they are from God" (1 John 4:1) be fulfilled.
1 Norman Geisler and William Watkins, Perspectives: Understanding and Evaluating Today's World Views (San Bernardino, CA: Here's Life, 1984).
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