If you were to Google the name Jesus today, you'd instantly get over 2 billion hits. Search for Jesus in Amazon books and you'll find over 50,000 results. Given the smorgasbord of competing views, can we still have confidence in the historical Jesus?
Many people want to regard Jesus not as God but as a good, moral man, an exceptionally wise prophet who spoke many profound truths. Scholars often pass off that conclusion as the only acceptable one that people can reach by the intellectual process. Many people simply nod their heads in agreement and never trouble themselves to see the fallacy of such reasoning.
Jesus claimed to be God, and to Him, it was of fundamental importance that men and women believed Him to be who He was. Either we believe Him, or we don't. He didn't leave us any wiggle room for in-between, watered-down alternatives.
One who claimed what Jesus claimed about Himself couldn't be a good moral man or a prophet. That option isn't open to us, and Jesus never intended it to be.
C. S. Lewis, former professor at Cambridge University and once an agnostic, understood this issue clearly. He writes:
I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish 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 is the one thing we must not say. 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.
Then Lewis adds:
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 up with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to. (1)
Was Jesus a Liar?
It amazes me to hear so many people say that Jesus was simply a good moral teacher. Let's be realistic. How could He be a great moral teacher and knowingly mislead people at the most important point of His teaching—His own identity?
If, when Jesus made His claims, He knew that He was not God, then He was lying and deliberately deceiving His followers. But if He was a liar, then He was also a hypocrite because He taught others to be honest whatever the cost.
Worse than that, if He was lying, He was a demon because He told others to trust Him for their eternal destiny. If He couldn't back up His claims and knew it, then He was unspeakably evil for deceiving His followers with such a false hope.
Last, He would also be a fool because His claims to being God led to His crucifixion—claims He could have backed away from to save Himself even at the last minute.
To conclude that Jesus was a deliberate liar doesn't coincide with what we know either of Him or of the results of His life and teachings. Wherever Jesus has been proclaimed, we see lives change for the good, nations change for the better, thieves become honest, alcoholics become sober, hateful individuals become channels of love, unjust persons embrace justice.
Was Jesus a Lunatic?
If we find it inconceivable that Jesus was a liar, then couldn't He actually have mistakenly thought Himself to be God? After all, it's possible to be both sincere and wrong.
But we must remember that for someone to mistakenly think himself God, especially in the context of a fiercely monotheistic culture, and then to tell others that their eternal destiny depended on believing in him, is no small flight of fancy but the delusions and ravings of an outright lunatic.
Today we would treat someone who believes himself to be God the same way we would treat someone who believes he is Napoleon. We would see him as deluded and self-deceived. We would lock him up so he wouldn't hurt himself or anyone else.
Yet in Jesus, we don't observe the abnormalities and imbalance that go along with such derangement. Here is a Man who spoke some of the most profound words ever recorded. His instructions have liberated many people in mental bondage.
Clark H. Pinnock, professor emeritus of systematic theology at McMaster Divinity College, asks: "Was he deluded about his greatness, a paranoid, an unintentional deceiver, a schizophrenic? Again, the skill and depth of his teaching support the case only for his total mental soundness. If only we were as sane as he!" (2)