Who is Jesus of Nazareth?
While many have asked and offered to answer the question, “Who is Jesus of Nazareth?”, no one can escape the evidence that He was a historical person and that His life radically altered human history.
As world-renowned historian Jaroslav Pelikan put it: “It is from His birth that most of the human race dates its calendars, it is by His name that millions curse, and in His name that millions pray.”
Due to His influence, Jesus of Nazareth has been transforming lives for almost two millennia. In the process, He has rewritten the direction and outcome of human history. It’s a fact that the teachings of Jesus have been a force of overwhelming good throughout the history of the world. Unfortunately, it also is true that much harm has been committed in Jesus’ name — both by the church at large, and by individuals seeking to use Him to further their own agendas.
Who did Jesus claim to be? What did He attempt to gain through His ministry and sacrificial death? Clearly, Jesus thought it fundamentally important what others believed about Him. He wasn’t interested in neutrality, for instance; He frequently taught that His followers must be all in — or eventually be left out. When Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” He wasn’t making meaningless, abstract statements. His divinity was central to His messages; Jesus regarded the two as inseparable.
Per the great Christian apologist C. S. Lewis, “A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else He would 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 let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”
C.S. Lewis popularized this “Trilemma” argument, though it has earlier roots in the writings of Scottish Christian preacher “Rabbi” John Duncan, and Watchman Nee in his 1936 book, Normal Christian Faith. The 3-legged stool of this argument quickly gets to the heart of the matter: will we accept Jesus — or not?
Was Jesus a liar, lunatic — or Lord? Let’s look at each option.
~ Was Jesus a Liar? ~
If Jesus knew He was not God, then He was lying. But if he was a liar, then He also was a hypocrite, as He told others to be honest, whatever the cost. If that’s the case, then we can say that would make Jesus unspeakably evil, as He deliberately told others to forsake their religious beliefs and trust Him for their eternal destiny. Jewish religious leaders actually did charge Jesus with having a demon (John 8:48), which Scripture decidedly refutes. And if Jesus knew He was lying, then He was a fool, as His claims led to His crucifixion.
But would a liar teach his followers, as Jesus did throughout the Gospels, to adhere to a profoundly moral code? Could such a massive deceiver teach unselfish, ethical truths and live the morally exemplary life that Jesus did? The very notion is ridiculous.
John Stuart Mill, a philosopher, skeptic, and antagonist of Christianity, still admitted that Jesus was a first-rate ethicist supremely worthy of our attention and emulation:
“But about the life and sayings of Jesus there is a stamp of personal originality combined with profundity of insight….in the very first rank of men of sublime genius of whom our species can boast. When this pre-eminent genius is combined with the qualities of probably the greatest moral reformer, and martyr to that mission, who ever existed upon earth, religion cannot be said to have made a bad choice in pitching on this man as the ideal representative and guide of humanity; nor, even now, would it be easy, even for an unbeliever, to find a better translation of the rule of virtue from the abstract into the concrete, than to endeavor so to live that Christ would approve our life.”
To put that succinctly, Mills is saying that Jesus was a perfect example of all that He taught.
Let’s also consider this equally long statement by William Lecky, a noted Irish historian and dedicated opponent of organized Christianity, because it’s just so darn good:
“It was reserved for Christianity to present to the world an ideal character, which through all the changes of eighteen centuries has inspired the hearts of men with an impassioned love; has shown itself capable of acting on all ages, nations, temperaments, and conditions; has been not only the highest pattern of virtue but the strongest incentive to its practice; and has exercised so deep an influence that it may be truly said that the simple record of [Jesus’] three short years of active life has done more to regenerate and to soften mankind than all the disquisitions of philosophers, and all other exhortations of moralists.”
As church historian Philip Schaff adds, Jesus was a “character so original, so complete, so uniformly consistent, so perfect, so human and yet so high above all human greatness” who could be neither fraud nor fiction. Schaff adds that Jesus “never lost the even balance of His mind,” but “sailed serenely over all the troubles and persecutions, as the sun above the clouds, who always returned the wisest answer to tempting questions, who calmly and deliberately predicted His death on the cross.” I personally haven’t met any other human who lived up to Jesus’ behavior…have you?
In his book Cold-Case Christianity, cold-case homicide detective J. Warner Wallace lists these three decisive motives at the heart of any misbehavior: financial greed, sexual or relational desire, or power.
Jesus wasn’t interested in any of them. The New Testament writers tell us that He taught His disciples to give to the needy, and to not store up earthly treasures. And no evidence exists that Jesus was motivated by lust or relationships. The Gospels stress the respect that Jesus displayed toward women, including those who followed and supported His ministry. And rather than gain power for Himself, Jesus modeled serving others and giving without expectation of return, even to the wicked and ungrateful. He taught His disciples to do the same. If Jesus had been interested in personal power, He would have stepped into the political role people expected of Him. Instead, He shunned it.
~ Was Jesus a Lunatic? ~
So if Jesus wasn’t a liar, is it feasible that He mistakenly thought He was God? After all, one might be both sincere — but also sincerely wrong. Christian philosopher Peter Kreeft deftly shows why we must reject the option of Jesus being a lunatic:
“A measure of your insanity is the size of the gap between what you think you are and what you really are. If I think I am the greatest philosopher in America, I am only an arrogant fool; if I think I am Napoleon, I am probably over the edge; if I think I am a butterfly, I am fully embarked from the sunny shores of sanity. But if I think I am God, I am even more insane because the gap between anything finite and the infinite God is even greater than the gap between any two finite things, even a man and a butterfly. Well, then, why not liar or lunatic? But almost no one who has read the Gospels can honestly and seriously consider that option. The savviness, the canniness, the human wisdom, the attractiveness of Jesus emerge from the Gospels with an unavoidable force to any but the most hardened and prejudiced reader.”
“Jesus has in abundance precisely those three qualities which liars and lunatics most conspicuously lack: (1) His practical wisdom, His ability to read human hearts …. (2) His deep and winning love, His passionate compassion, His ability to attract people and make them feel at home and forgiven, His authority; and above all (3) His ability to astonish, His unpredictability, His creativity. Liars and lunatics are all so dull and predictable! No one who knows the Gospels and human beings can seriously entertain the possibility that Jesus was a liar or a lunatic, a bad man.”
The idea that Jesus was self-deceived or delusional is simply not compatible with the impression He has left on history. So viewing Jesus as a lunatic is our second ridiculous option.
~ Is Jesus Lord? ~
In the first century, when people were given a number of answers about Jesus’ identity, Jesus asked His disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter responded, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God (Matthew 16:15-16). Like Peter, we can decide to believe that Jesus made truthful claims about being God — and then accept or reject Him as our personal Savior.
Yes, Jesus was put to death by the Romans. But was that the end of the movement that He launched three years earlier? We have to shout a resounding “No!”, if the millions who call Him “Lord” are to be counted. Jesus stands head-and-shoulders above all other self-proclaimed “saviors,” because He is clearly at work among His people. His presence is palpable, when His people draw near. He is still answering our prayers (even when the answer is no!), and guiding us.
God’s Word tells us that we each must choose for ourselves whether or not to believe that Jesus is Lord. Can the Bible prove that Jesus is God? No. But we can take heart that archeological discoveries continue to prove its legitimacy as a truthful document. The Bible does clearly show us that Jesus, as a proven historical figure, was amazing in the way He demonstrated love. He gave all credit to God the Father, with whom He said He was equal. As the apostle Paul wrote in the New Testament, “these are written that you might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name” (John 20:31).
So we are left with two ridiculous options — and one that must be given weight as entirely possible. Historians disagree with this, of course, saying that faith can’t be used as a measure of proving truth. Really? Sometimes I feel very sad for people who refuse to consider options, simply because they can’t see or feel them for themselves. Faith, it seems to me, identifies the real risk takers among us. And definitely the wisest. 😉
We cannot put Jesus on the shelf as a great moral teacher; evidence strongly favors Jesus being so much more. Still undecided on whether Jesus is liar, lunatic, or Lord? Join us next week as we look at Old Testament prophesies fulfilled by Jesus.
This blog post highlights Josh and Sean McDowell’s recently revised apologetics classic, Evidence That Demands a Verdict. We are certain this fully updated and expanded resource will be an effective evangelism tool for you, and strengthen your faith by answering the toughest questions tossed to you by skeptics. Know what you know, because it’s true. But share this truth with LOVE!
If you’d like to start from the first blog post in this series, click here: Apologetics: Apologizing for Believing in God?.