Is Jesus a Legend, Lunatic, Liar, or Lord?
The most critical issue of the Christian faith is the identity of Jesus of Nazareth. Christianity stands or falls on who Jesus Christ is. What He said, did, or taught are important, but they are not foundational. Jesus’ identity is. He is more than just the founder of Christianity; He is Christianity. If you substitute anyone else for Jesus—the greatest Christian theologian or the most beloved pastor or the wisest teacher, take your pick—Christianity would collapse.
Jesus asked His disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” (Matt. 16:15). This same question rings down through the centuries. Who is Jesus Christ? Is He just a man? Is He a religious prophet? Is He a great moral teacher? Or, as Christians claim, is He really God in the flesh? When Peter answered this question, he replied for all Christians throughout the ages: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (v. 16). If Peter is right, if there is even the remotest possibility that Jesus Christ is God, then it is crucial that everyone investigate this matter. For if Jesus is God, then what He says about sin, salvation, judgment, how to live an abundant, joyful life … indeed, everything He said must be true. Our eternal destiny rests on our answer to the question, Is Jesus really God?
In this chapter, I will show that what the Bible says about Jesus and what Jesus says about Himself will provide the evidence we need to affirm Jesus’ deity. But you should take note that the validity of this evidence rests on the reliability of the Bible. If the Bible doesn’t contain truthful information, we can discount what it says about Jesus. But, as we determined in previous chapters, the Bible is not only reliable historically, but it’s totally inerrant because it’s God’s written revelation. So what it states—even about Jesus—must be true.
THE BIBLE’S WITNESS
JESUS REALLY LIVED
We have already seen that the Bible was written by men who personally knew Jesus or His apostles and therefore recorded the facts of Christ’s life based on first-hand testimony. Moreover, extra-biblical sources, such as Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus and Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, also confirmed Jesus’ existence and the movement He began. The evidence for Jesus’ historicity is so great hardly any scholar ever questions it. Even Jewish and atheistic critics agree that Jesus Christ really existed.
What the critics do reject, however, is the Christian claim that Jesus is more than a mere man, that He is also God. But this is inconsistent. The same evidence that demonstrates Jesus was a historical person also demonstrates that He was truly God incarnate. So the only rational way to reject the evidence for His deity is to reject the evidence for His historicity, which virtually on one does anymore. In fact, those few remaining hard-core critics who try to dismiss the abundance of facts proving Jesus’ historicity, to be consistent, would have to do the same with about everyone else in recorded history. If all the evidence pointing to Jesus is wrong, then so is the evidence pointing to Socrates, Caesar Augustus, Galileo … name your person. No one’s historical reality is as well substantiated as Jesus’.1 If He goes, we might as well close down history classes and departments. They won’t have much to teach anymore.
JESUS HAD DIVINE ATTRIBUTES
The Bible reveals that Jesus possesses attributes only God could possess. For example, Jesus is omnipresent—everywhere present at the same time (see John 14:16, 26; 16:7, 13 with Matt. 18:20; 28:20). He is omniscient—has infinite knowledge (Matt. 24:24–25; John 16:30; 21:17; Luke 6:8; 11:17). Jesus is also omnipotent—all-powerful. He created the universe (Col. 1:16), exercises power over death and gives eternal life (John 5:25–29; 6:39), controls nature (Mark 4:4; Matt. 21:19), overpowers demons (Mark 5:11–15), and heals diseases (Luke 4:38–41). He performs miracles too (John 5:36; 10:25, 37–38; 20:30–31). Moreover, Jesus is eternal; He pre-existed with the Father from all eternity (John 1:1–2). Jesus’ life reveals other characteristics reserved only for God:He accepts worship (Matt. 14:33), forgives sins (Matt. 9:2), and commits no wrong (John 8:46). So Jesus’ behavior and character exhibits deity.
Although some of the marks of deity (performing miracles, knowing the future, etc.) ascribed to Jesus can also be seen among His apostles and some Old Testament prophets such as Moses and Elijah, in all cases their power to perform these feats had its source in God (see 1:18). Jesus, on the other hand, is His own source of power and authority by virtue of divine mandate (see Matt. 28:18; Mark 2:10; 3:15; John 10:18).
The Deity of Christ
John 16:30; Matt. 24:24–25; John 13:21–26; Matt. 12:25
Matt. 28:18; John 1:3; John 5:25–29; Mark 4:41; Mark 5:11–15; Luke 4:38–40
In addition to this, Jesus is referred to by the Old Testament name for God. In the Hebrew Bible, the sacred name for God was YHWH, likely pronounced Yahweh. When the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into the Greek around the middle of the second century b.c., Yahweh was translated into the Greek word kyrios (Lord). In Romans 10:9 and 13, 1 Corinthians 12:3, Philippians 2:11, and other passages, the word Lord, when applied to Jesus, refers to Yahweh, the sacred Hebrew name for God.
Furthermore, Jesus is called God by the New Testament writers and apostles, including John (John 1:1, 14), Paul (Col. 2:9; Titus 2:13), the author of Hebrews (Heb. 1:3, 8), Peter (Acts 2:34–39; 2 Pet. 1:1), and Thomas (John 20:28).
JESUS FULFILLED MESSIANIC PROPHECY
One of the major evidences for the deity of Jesus is fulfilled prophecy. They apostles often appealed to fulfilled prophecy as proof that Jesus was the Messiah prophesied in the Old Testament. Jesus knew that He fulfilled these futuristic utterances and used this knowledge to confirm His own claims to be the Messiah (the Son of God incarnate). He referred to the teachings of Scripture to reveal Himself to His disciples (Luke 24:25–27) and taught that prophecy about Himself must be fulfilled (Matt. 26:54, 56). He claimed that the entire Bible bore witness to Him (Luke 24:27; John 5:39).
The Bible contains several hundred prophecies relating to the birth, life, ministry, death, resurrection, and future return of Jesus Christ. Almost thirty of them were literally fulfilled in one twenty-four-hour period just prior to His death (e.g., those relating to His betrayal, trial, crucifixion, and burial). Some of the most important prophecies about Christ accurately predicted His birthplace (Mic. 5:2), flight to Egypt (Hos. 11:1), the identity of His forerunner (Mal. 3:1), His entering Jerusalem on a donkey (Zech. 9:9), betrayal for thirty pieces of silver (Zech. 11:12), humiliation and beating (Isa. 50:6), crucifixion with other prisoners (Isa. 53:12), hand and feet wounds (Ps. 22:16), side wound (Zech. 12:10), soldiers gambling for His clothing (Ps. 22:18), His burial in a rich man’s tomb (Isa. 53:9), resurrection (Pss. 16:10; 49:15), and second coming (Ps. 50:3–6; Isa. 9:6–7; Dan. 7:13–14; Zech. 14:4–8).
Important Old Testament Prophecies About Jesus
OT Prophecy & Scripture
Born of a virgin (Isa. 7:14)
Born in Bethlehem (Mic. 5:2)
Preceded by a forerunner (Mal. 3:1)
Entered Jerusalem on a donkey (Zech. 9:9)
Betrayed for 30 pieces of silver (Zech. 11:12)
Spat on and struck (Isa. 50:6)
Crucified with other prisoners (Isa. 53:12)
Pierced through hands and feet (Ps. 22:16)
Pierced through His side (Zech. 12:10)
Soldiers gambled for clothing (Ps. 22:18)
Buried in a rich man’s tomb (Isa. 53:9)
Would be resurrected (Ps. 16:10)
Would return a second time (Dan. 7:13–14)
Jesus could not have accidentally or deliberately fulfilled these prophecies. Obviously, events such as His birthplace and lineage, method of execution, soldiers casting lots for His garments, or being pierced in the side are events beyond Jesus’ control. Peter Stoner and Robert Newman, in their Book Science Speaks, demonstrate the statistical improbability of any one man, accidentally or deliberately, from the day of these prophecies down to the present time, fulfilling just eight of the hundreds of prophecies Jesus fulfilled. They demonstrate that the chance of this happening is 1 in 1017 power. Stoner gives an illustration that helps visualize the magnitude of such odds:
Suppose that we take 1017 silver dollars and lay them on the face of Texas. They will cover all of the state two feet deep. Now mark one of these silver dollars and stir the whole mass thoroughly, all over the state. Blindfold a man and tell him that he can travel as far as he wishes, but he must pick up one silver dollar and say that this is the right one. What chance would he have of getting the right one? Just the same chance that the prophets would have had of writing these eight prophecies and having them all come true in any one man, from their day to the present time, providing they wrote using their own wisdom.2
It is mathematically absurd to claim that Jesus accidentally or deliberately fulfilled Old Testament prophecy. Obviously, this evidence stands as a powerful demonstration of Jesus’ messiahship.
JESUS PERFORMED MIRACLES
Still another way in which Jesus demonstrated His deity is through miraculous acts. Jesus told His followers that if they do not believe His words, they should believe His miraculous works (John 10:37–38). The New Testament authors also recognized the value of miracles to validate Christ’s claims (see Acts 2:22).
Jesus performed countless miracles: He healed the sick, made the blind see, changed water into wine, quieted the sea, cast out demons, walked on water, raised Lazarus and others from the dead, and fed five thousand men (plus women and children–Matt. 14:21) with only five loaves of bread and two fish. These miracles were not done clandestinely. All were performed before believers and unbelievers and under a variety of circumstances. As with other events in Jesus’ life, His miracles were recorded in the Bible by eyewitnesses.
It’s significant that the question of miracles was not a controversy in Jesus’ day, or, for that matter, throughout most of church history. In John 11:45–48, after Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, the chief priests and the Pharisees convened a council to decide what to do about Jesus’ growing popularity. The issue they discussed was not whether He actually performed miracles, but rather how to stop Him from performing more so His popularity would wane. The Jewish authorities didn’t deny He performed miracles. Instead, they claimed that He got His power to perform miracles from Satan (Matt. 9:34; 12:24; Mark 3:22). They couldn’t refute what they and many hundreds of people saw.
Miracles are dramatic and clear evidence that Jesus is the Son of God, and they were used by Christ to validate this claim to the world.
JESUS ROSE FROM THE DEAD
The most important evidence for the deity of Jesus Christ is His resurrection (Rom. 1:4). The resurrection sets Jesus apart from all other religious leaders and unquestionably shows Him to be God. Because evidence supporting this historic event is so essential and enormous, we’ll take the entire next chapter to deal with it. So now we’ll move on to what Jesus claimed about Himself.
It’s one thing to show from Scripture that Jesus possesses divine attributes; it’s still another to demonstrate that Jesus actually claimed to be God. If Jesus never affirmed His deity, then the evidence presented so far would be suspect. Christians could be charged with misinterpreting Scripture, and the New Testament authors with misunderstanding Jesus’ identity and mission. On the other hand, if Jesus did claim to be God, and if the Bible supports this claim by demonstrating He possesses attributes of deity, then surely we have sufficient evidence that Jesus is God.
Once again, our evidence rests on the proven historical reliability of the Bible, which supports the Bible’s claim that it’s divinely inspired and inerrant. If the Bible is God’s Word, then not only what the authors of Scripture say about Jesus must be true, but what Jesus Himself says must also be true. And Jesus does claim divine status in numerous ways.
Jesus makes several explicit statements concerning His deity: “I and My Father are one” (John 10:30); “If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also; and from now on you know Him and have seen Him. … He who has seen Me has seen the Father” (John 14:7, 9).
In Mark 14:60–64 (see Matt. 26:63–66), Jesus is questioned by Caiaphas, the high priest. In response to Caiaphas’s question as to whether Jesus was the “Christ, the Son of the Blessed,” Jesus acknowledged His deity by stating “I am.” Caiaphas had no doubt that Jesus was making such a claim. He referred to it as blasphemy, and the rest of the religious leaders agreed by condemning Jesus to death. Caiaphas even ripped his clothes, a customary reaction upon hearing blasphemy, which Jesus’ claim to be equal with the Father was to the high priest. According to Jewish law, blasphemy was a capital offense punishable by stoning. In fact, this charge provided the Jews with their only legal excuse to have Jesus crucified. (Compare this with John 5:16–18, where the Jews were seeking to kill Jesus because He was “making Himself equal with God.”
Still another direct claim to deity is found in John 8:56–58. Speaking to the Jews, Jesus said, “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad…before Abraham was, I AM.” If we compare this passage with Exodus 3:13–15, we see that the phrase “I AM” in John 8:58 is a claim by Christ to be the Yahweh of the Old Testament. In Exodus 3:14, “I AM” is the divine name Yahweh, by which God revealed Himself to Moses at the burning bush. It emphasizes God’s eternal self-existence. Thus in John 8:58, Jesus is saying more than the fact that He existed prior to Abraham. It is a distinct claim to be God, the one and only. Once again, it is evident that the Jews understood this claim. In verse 59, we read that they picked up stones to throw at Him for what they considered to be His blasphemous self-affirmation.
In many other direct ways, Jesus claimed to be God. He said He was “Lord even of the Sabbath” (Matt. 12:8). Who but God could be this? He tells a paralyzed man that his “sins are forgiven” (Mark 2:5). Who but God can forgive sins? Jesus said to the multitudes in His famous Sermon on the Mount, “You have heard that the ancients were told … but I say to you …” (Matt. 5:21, 27, 31, 33, 38, 43, 44, nasv). Who but God could speak with such finality, with such authority? In Matthew 23:34, Jesus says, “I am sending you prophets and wise men” (nasv). Who but God can do this?
In addition to these claims to deity, there is other evidence to consider. For instance, Jesus claimed to have God’s authority. Whereas other religious leaders pointed men away from themselves and to their respective gods, referring to themselves as mere spokesmen, Jesus referred to Himself as the very source of authority and truth (Matt. 28:18; John 14:6).
Jesus also equated people’s attitudes about Himself with their attitudes toward God. He said that to know Him is to know God (John 8:19), to see Him is to see God (John 12:45), to believe in Him is to believe in God (John 12:44), and to hate Him is to hate God (John 15:23).
The titles “Son of Man” and “Son of God,” which indicate deity, were taken by Jesus as applying to Him. “Son of Man” frequently occurs in the Old Testament (see Dan. 7:13–14). By the time of Christ, it had tremendous messianic significance. And the Messiah was believed to be divine, as Isaiah 9:6 makes clear, where we read that the Messiah is called “Wonderful Counselor” (referring to the Messiah as a supernatural counselor) and “Mighty God” (designating Yahweh). By taking the title “Son of Man” for Himself, Jesus declared His deity, as the Jews recognized (see Matt. 26:64–65; Luke 22:69–71).
Although, in the Old Testament, the title “Son of God” is applied to angels, Adam, and the Hebrew nation, it denotes deity in the New Testament. In Matthew 26:63–65, Jesus accepted the title when the high priest applied it to Him in a messianic sense. Once again, the Jewish reaction to His claim demonstrates that they understood Jesus to be calling Himself God.
Jesus also used the “Son of God” title to underscore His special union with God the Father (John 3:16). Moreover, the repeated use of son with father may be alluding to Jesus’ equality with the Father in the Godhead. Since Jesus the Son is part of the triune Godhead, “Son of God” likely means that Jesus is a part of the Godhead.
THE TRILEMMA ARGUMENT
So far three important truths have been established: (1) Jesus is an historical person, (2) He possesses the attributes of God, and (3) He claimed to be God. Since the Bible is God’s Word, this is sufficient to establish beyond doubt that Jesus is who He claims to be—God.
Unfortunately, many non-Christians will not take the time to evaluate this evidence. And although the historicity of Jesus is seldom doubted, most non-Christians believe that Jesus is simply a great moral teacher or religious philosopher. They do not accept Him as God.
For such people, there remains a simple, rational exercise to determine whether Jesus is deity. It’s called the trilemma argument. It poses three options for Jesus: (1) Jesus says He is God, but He knows that’s not true, so He’s a deceiver (a liar); (2) Jesus really thinks He is God, but He isn’t, so He’s a madman (lunatic); (3) Jesus claims to be God because He really is God (Lord). If we accept the fact that Jesus is an historical person who claimed to be God, then these are the only rational options. Notice that moral teacher and religious philosopher are not included. He could not be either if He was a liar or a lunatic. And certainly if He is God, He is infinitely greater than either one. C. S. Lewis makes the point clearly and forcefully:
I’m trying here to prevent anyone from saying the really silly thing that people often say about Him: “I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.” That’s the one thing we mustn’t say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said wouldn’t be a great moral teacher. He’d either be a lunatic—on a level with the man who says he’s a poached egg—or else he’d be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But don’t let us come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He hasn’t left that open to us. He didn’t intend to.3
WAS JESUS A LIAR?
If Jesus claimed to be God and yet knew He was not, He was lying. In fact, He was a liar of the worse kind because He tricked people into following a religion that, if not true, would inevitably lead them away from the true God and into eternal damnation. But given what the Bible reveals about Jesus’ teachings and the life He lived, He could not have been a deceiver. Nor is it likely that a liar would have had the profound and lasting influence He has had. No other person in history has been considered as morally righteous and honest as Jesus has. He taught His followers to be truthful at all costs, to give sacrificially to others, and to share unconditionally. Jesus not only taught these things but lived them. His was not the character of a liar.
Besides, even supposing Jesus knew He was leading people astray regarding His deity claims, it seems ludicrous that He would suffer brutal torture and the excruciating execution by crucifixion just to maintain a lie. Someone may die for something he thinks is true, but certainly not for something he knows is false. It is hard to imagine that Jesus would have lived such a monumental lie when it brought
JESUS CLAIMS TO BE GOD
Him no material gain, no immediate fame, and eventually led to a horrible death.
WAS JESUS A LUNATIC?
Is it possible Jesus actually thought He was God but was self-deluded? Many people have claimed divine status, but their madness was virtually always obvious. Does what we know about Jesus fit this image? Not in the slightest.
Neither the Bible record nor the testimony of history gives the barest hint that Jesus was a lunatic. He showed none of the symptoms of madness common to people suffering from mental disorders or hallucinations. His teachings were not the ravings of a madman. He never exhibited signs of paranoia or schizophrenia. He was never rash or impulsive. Under all circumstances, even when suffering the anguish of the cross, Jesus appeared self-assured and in complete possession of His senses. Regardless on what subject He spoke, His advice was always profound, insightful, intelligible, and reliable. His instructions in all areas of human relationships (religious, moral, political, psychological, social) were so reliable that they have molded and shaped Western civilization for nearly twenty centuries. Jesus has set countless thousands of people free from the bondage of mental illness, drugs, and alcohol. There is not a shred of evidence that Jesus Christ was anything less than fully sane.
IS JESUS LORD?
Logic and the preponderance of evidence force us to eliminate liar and lunatic choices. And there’s only one option left—Lord. If anyone made a decision for Christ based on no other evidence than probability and common sense, he would be driven to conclude that Jesus Christ is who He claimed to be: God in bodily form, the Savior of all who trust in Him by faith.
The significance of this is, literally, a matter of life and death. If Jesus Christ is God, which He is, then what He teaches about sin and salvation is not merely the speculation of a great moral teacher but the very words of God. Jesus said that He is the only way to achieve eternal life (John 14:6). In light of the evidence, it would be foolhardy to reject His claim.
1 Some excellent books on Jesus’ historicity are Gary R. Habermas’s THE VERDICT OF HISTORY (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1988); F. F. Bruce’s JESUS AND CHRISTIAN ORIGINS OUTSIDE THE NEW TESTAMENT (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1974); E. M. Blaiklock’s JESUS CHRIST: MAN OR MYTH? (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1974).
2 Peter Stoner and Robert Newman, SCIENCE SPEAKS (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1976), 106–107.
3 C. S. Lewis, THE CASE FOR CHRISTIANITY (New York, NY: Macmillan no date), 45.
Story, D. (1997). Defending your faith. Originally published: Nashville : T. Nelson, c1992. (75). Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications.