Was Jesus Christ a liar, lunatic, or Lord?
While many have asked and offered to answer this question, the evidence clearly shows 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 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.
Did Jesus claim to be a liar, lunatic, or Lord?
Clearly, Jesus thought it fundamentally important what others believed about Him. He wasn’t interested in neutrality. 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.”
How can we discern if Jesus was 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.
John Stuart Mill, a philosopher, skeptic, and antagonist of Christianity, 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.”
Mills is saying that Jesus was a perfect example of all that He taught. His words and actions matched.
Let’s also consider this statement by William Lecky, a noted Irish historian and dedicated opponent of organized Christianity: “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 notes 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.”
Rather than gain power for Himself, Jesus modeled serving others. He taught His disciples to do the same. Jesus shunned stepping into the political role people expected of Him, because it wasn’t His purpose.
Was Jesus a Lunatic?
So if Jesus wasn’t a liar, is it feasible that He only thought He was God?
Christian philosopher Peter Kreeft deftly shows why we must reject this option: “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.”
He adds: “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 not compatible with the impression He left on history. This third option holds no merit.
Is Jesus Lord?
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.
The Bible tells us that we each must choose for ourselves whether or not to accept Jesus as Lord — and be held accountable for our decision. Can the Bible prove that Jesus is God? No. But archeological discoveries continue to prove the Bible’s legitimacy as a truthful document. So why wouldn’t we accept Jesus? His actions validated His words. His resurrection proved His deity.
We cannot put Jesus on the shelf as just a great moral teacher; evidence strongly favors Jesus as Lord.
This blog post highlights Josh and Sean McDowell’s updated and revised apologetics classic, Evidence That Demands a Verdict. We are certain this 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.
If you’d like to start from the first blog post in this series, click here: Apologetics: Apologizing for Believing in God?.