John 3:16 says that Jesus was begotten, and someone I was witnessing to said that means he was created by God. I don’t think this is true, but I don’t know how to answer this objection.
In John 3:16, there is some debate over the term for “begotten,” which is the Greek word monogenes . The issue is over what the end of the word, genes , is derived from (the options are either gennao , which means beget , and genos, which refers to kind ). It may be that Jesus was “begotten,” from which we gain the doctrine known as eternal generation, or it may simply mean that Jesus was the Father’s “one unique/one and only son,” in a similar way to how the word is used of Isaac in Hebrews 11:17 even though Abraham had more sons than Isaac. Isaac was the child of the promise, and perhaps John 3:16 is referring to that sort of a situation – Jesus is God’s unique Son, the child of many promises.
First, we must note that in John 8:58, Jesus says that “before Abraham was, I am.” This phrase is not just showing that Jesus existed before he was born as a human (a fact attested to in many parts of the New Testament), or that Jesus existed in the past just before Abraham. It is meant to show that Jesus has eternally existed as God, since he is using the “I am” statement that God used in the Old Testament, which was the identification of his personal name, Yahweh (Jesus is identified as Yahweh in several other places in Scripture, as well). He is claiming to be the eternal God! We know this because, in this narrative, the Pharisees only ridiculed him when he appeared to be saying he knew Abraham, but they picked up stones to stone him, something they often did in cases of “blasphemy,” when it was clear that Jesus was equating himself with God. And for those who might think that the way Jesus called himself God’s Son was no different than others might say it, pay attention to John 5:18 where they try to stone him for calling himself God’s Son in a way that implied he was equal with God. Keep in mind that this is in the same book, written by the same author who called Jesus the begotten Son of the Father in John 3:16, which illustrates that John is not meaning to say the Son of God is a created being.
Second, let’s put aside the debate on whether monogenes means “one unique son” or “only begotten son” (the truth may, in fact, include elements of both!) and just assume for a second that it means only begotten son. What does this term “begotten” really mean? In this divine sense, “begotten” is always eternal, and not like creaturely forms of begetting. It does not speak to birth, it speaks to a relational type, kind, and quality. It speaks to the fact that this second person of the Trinity is of the same nature and essence of the first person of the Trinity, the Father. Like begets like. In the divine sense, this begetting is eternal and necessary, and so it does not happen at a point in time. To show what a part of the difference is between begetting and creating, consider the following: a human creates a chair, but begets a daughter. That is how humans do it because they are material creatures in nature. God is of another type, but the analogy of begetting is still helpful. When Jesus is called begotten, it is referring to his sharing of the nature and essence with the Father, like how a human daughter will share in the humanness of her parents. The nature and essence of the Son is the nature and essence of Yahweh, which is necessarily eternal, uncreated, and not contingent. Since Jesus shares in the eternal divine nature, he could not have been born or created in time. He is necessarily eternal. For more information on “eternal generation,” I recommend a wonderful book entitled Retrieving Eternal Generation (Zondervan Academic, 2017).
And, furthermore, we should note that even the language that calls Jesus “firstborn over all creation,” such as in Colossians 1:15, is meant to show his status above creation and all that exists, not that he was a part of creation or that he was created at any point. And we know that because the Bible affirms of the Son in Colossians 1:16-17, immediately following the verse after he is called the “firstborn over all creation,” that “For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”
The answer then is no, the Son of God was not created in time because he is not a created being. He has existed eternally and necessarily with the Father and the Holy Spirit. The term “beget” is analogical; it is meant to help us understand something of his divine nature in human terms, but we must interpret it within what else we know of the divine nature, which necessarily rejects any understanding of God being created, since God exists necessarily and eternally. It is meant to say that Jesus shares in the divine nature eternally, which is triune; and elsewhere it is affirmed that Jesus is not created, but he is Creator. Interestingly, whether one believes the term is meant to say “begotten” or “one unique/one and only,” nothing of the conclusion is changed. Both speak to the divine identity of the God-Man.