“Some people think of Jesus as a remarkable man but basically in the same category as Buddha, Moses, Confucius, and Gandhi: a good man, a holy man, but just a man.
This view, however, is hard to reconcile with what Jesus says and does. Jesus claims to be Lord over the Sabbath (Luke 6:1-5). Jesus forgives sins committed against God (Mark 2:5-12). Jesus says He is the one Who gives eternal life (John 3:16). Jesus says no one can convict Him of sin (John 8:46). Jesus changed the name of Simon to Peter (Matt. 16:13-19). As Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli point out, “For a Jew, changing names was something only God could do, for your name was not just a human, arbitrary label but your real identity, which was given to you by God alone. In the Old Testament, only God changed names, and destinies—Abram became Abraham, Sari became Sarah, Jacob became Israel.”iii Jesus says, “I am the way the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).
And when His life was threatened and His enemies surrounded Him, Jesus said, “Amen, amen, I say to you, before Abraham came to be, I AM.” In attributing the sacred name of God, “I AM,” to Himself, Jesus was making Himself equal to God. His enemies understood this as blasphemy: “So they picked up stones to throw at Him; but Jesus hid and went out of the temple area.” (John 8:57-59). Given the claims that Jesus makes about Himself, is it reasonable to believe that Jesus was simply a holy man and wise teacher?
In his classic book Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis answers no. In fact, he says this is the one thing we can’t say about Jesus. “A man who was merely a man,” Lewis writes, “and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on the 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.” Lewis outlines three possibilities. Jesus is either a liar, a lunatic, or the Lord. He could not have been simply a good person, a saintly sage.
Was Jesus a liar?
One possibility is that Jesus knew He was not God but said He was; in other words, He deliberately lied. But it is hard to believe that a man hailed throughout the centuries as a paragon of goodness could have spent His life intentionally misleading and deceiving His disciples in this way. If Jesus knew He was not God but claimed to be God nevertheless, He wasn’t a good person—He was the worst religious charlatan of all time. If Jesus lied to His disciples about being God, then He misled to their violent deaths those who trusted Him most. He also led billions of people into the sin of idolatry. No, if He deliberately deceived others about His identity, Jesus was not a holy man, but a deeply narcissistic and malicious person.
This is not how most people perceive the Jesus of the Gospels. His life was so radically unlike other religious hucksters who claim to be God (or a prophet of God). Con artists claim to be God in order to amass wealth and a harem of young women to be their brides. But the character of Jesus is radically unlike that of a con man. He amassed no wealth and did not have even one wife, let alone a harem. Jesus did not seek power—“My kingdom is not of this world,” He said (John 18:36)—but rather laid down His life as a suffering servant. Jesus did not act like a lying con artist.
Was Jesus a lunatic?
If Jesus was not a liar, was He perhaps just mistaken about His identity? Maybe He wasn’t a liar because although He was not God He really thought He was God. In other words, Jesus was massively mistaken, but not a deliberate deceiver.
If Jesus was not divine but honestly and mistakenly thought He was, then Jesus was not a wise person. He was, therefore, very unlike Confucius, or Moses, or a sage. Kreeft and Tacelli note, “There are lunatics in asylums who sincerely believe they are God. The ‘divinity complex’ is a recognized form of pathology. Its character traits are well known: egoism, narcissism, inflexibility, dullness, predictability and an inability to understand and love others as they really are and creatively relate to others.” But Jesus is radically unlike a lunatic babbling in an insane asylum. His moral teachings stressed the importance of loving your neighbor, forgiving your enemies, and caring for those in need.
Moreover, the way Jesus responds to the traps set for Him indicates not a raving madman totally disconnected from reality but someone with practical wisdom. Consider, for example, when His enemies bring to him a woman caught in adultery. They set a brilliant trap: “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” If Jesus says she should not be stoned, then He is acting against the laws of the community and against the authority of Moses. His enemies could then accuse Him of heresy and rebellion. If Jesus says that she should be stoned, then He is acting against His own teaching to show mercy to others. His enemies can then accuse Him of self-contradiction. Whatever He says, His enemies think they have Him trapped.
Jesus replies, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” In saying this, Jesus avoids acting against the Law of Moses, avoids contradicting Himself, and convicts those who want to stone her of their own sin. In the wisdom of His teaching and in the prudence of His actions, Jesus shows He is no madman.
Now, if Jesus was not a liar (because that would make him evil), and Jesus was also not a lunatic (because everything He says and does in the Gospel suggests otherwise), this only leaves the option that Jesus was Who He claimed to be: one with the Father; the Way, the Truth and the Life; and the Son of God.”