The Case for Christianity

Part 3

Who is Jesus?


In this series of newsletters I am seeking to set forth the case for Christianity. In Part 1 of this series I laid out the argument for the reasonableness of our faith. The argument consists of three premises:

  1. The Bible is a basically reliable and trustworthy document of history.
  2. On the basis of this we have sufficient evidence to believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.
  3. Jesus Christ teaches that the Bible is the very Word of God.
Conclusion: Since the Bible is the Word of God, then Christianity is true.

In parts 1 and 2, I covered premise one and sought to establish the historical reliability and authenticity of the Bible. In this and next month's newsletter I will seek to take the historical evidence grounded by premise one and build the case for who Jesus is. I will argue from several angles that it is reasonable to believe that Jesus is God in the flesh.

Premise Two

The premise I will seek to defend says "On the basis of this [i.e., on the basis of historical reliability of the NT] we have sufficient evidence to believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God." The several lines of argument I will pursue are (a) the Lord, Liar, Lunatic argument, (b) the Sages argument, and (c) Jesus' resurrection.[1] These arguments will seek to set forth the claim that Jesus is who He claimed to be. Just as Jesus confronted the disciples in Caesarea Philippi, we too must come to terms with who Jesus is. As the Gospel of Matthew tells us

When Jesus came into the region of Caesarea Philippi, He asked His disciples, saying, "Who do men say that I, the Son of Man, am?" So they said, "Some say John the Baptist, some Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets." He said to them," But who do you say that I am?" Simon Peter answered and said, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." Jesus answered and said to him, "Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven."[2]

Lord, Liar, Lunatic

Probably one of the most commonly used arguments for the deity of Jesus is the Lord, Liar, Lunatic trilemma.[1] Perhaps many who have offered this argument were not aware that it was formulated by C. S. Lewis and presented over BBC radio and later in his seminal work Mere Christianity back in the 1940's. Lewis' own words are worth repeating.

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. 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.[4]

Who Did Jesus Claim To Be?

Given the sort of things Jesus said it is most reasonable to conclude that He was who He claimed to be, that is, God. However, is it true that Jesus ever said anything indicating He considered Himself God? Most certainly He did, and even His enemies understood Him this way.[5] For example, He claimed to have had glory with the Father,[6] He claimed to be the I AM,[7] He spoke with absolute authority,[8] He claimed that God was His Father,[9] He claimed to be one with the father,[10] He claimed to come forth from God,[11] He claimed to be the only access to the Father,[12] He claimed to be able to forgive sins,[13] He claimed to deserve absolute allegiance,[14] He claimed to be the judge of all mankind and to dishonor Him was to dishonor the Father,[15] and He accepted worship.[16]

As our trilemma points out, Jesus either was telling the truth or not. If He was not telling the truth, then He either knew He was not or He didn't know He was not. If He was not telling the truth and He knew He was not telling the truth, then He is a liar. If He was not telling the truth and He did not know that He was not telling the truth (i.e., he was deceived about His own deity) then He is a lunatic. If He is telling the truth, then He is Lord.

The strength of this argument lies in the fact that it is not reasonable to believe that Jesus was either a liar or a lunatic. Why? Because everything else in His life indicates that He is a paragon of sanity and decency. Indeed, even non-believers throughout history have conceded the moral superiority of Jesus of Nazareth. Thus, unless one has philosophical objections, there is no reason to reject the thrust of the argument and conclude that indeed Jesus is God.

The Lord, Liar, Lunatic Argument

                          JESUS CLAIMS TO BE GOD
                            (two alternatives)
                         /                      \
                        /                        \
                       /                          \
                      /                            \
           Claims were false                      Claims were true 
           (two alternatives)                            |
            /              \                             |
           /                \                            |
   He knew His           He did not know                 |
claims were false      His claims were false             |
         |                    |                          |
         |                    |                          |
He made deliberate      He was sincerely                 |
misrepresentations         deluded                       |
         |                    |                          |
         |                    |                          |
         |                    |                          |
       LIAR                LUNATIC                      LORD
                                                 (two alternatives)
                                                   /            \
                                                  /              \
                                               You can         You can
                                               believe         disbelieve

Sages argument

Following closely in line with the Lord, Liar, Lunatic argument is what I have come to call the "Sages Argument." I encountered this argument in the interesting book by Peter Kreeft entitled Between Heaven and Hell.[17] Consider these two factors: some people have claimed to be God, most have not; some people are regarded as sages (i.e., they possessed great wisdom), most are not. There are four possible combinations of these categories. First, there are those who have not claimed to be God and are not regarded as sages. This is most people who have ever lived. Second, there are those who have not claimed to be God but are regarded as sages. Examples would be peoples such as Moses, Socrates, and Confucius. Third, there are those who have claimed to be God but are not regarded as being sages. These people have been generally regarded as insane. David Koresh would be an example. Fourth, there are those who have claimed to be God and are regarded as sages. Only one person in history fits this category; viz., Jesus of Nazareth. Thus, in a similar fashion as the Lord, Liar, Lunatic argument, the person of Jesus Christ imposes Himself upon us and forces us to a decision about who we think He is. The most reasonable explanation that accounts for the evidence is that Jesus is who He claimed to be, i.e., God.

Sages Argument

                            CLAIMED TO BE GOD

                        NO                        YES
               |                       |                      |
           NO  |      most             |        insane        |
               |     people            |                      |
REGARDED       |_______________________|______________________|
AS SAGE        |                       |                      |
               |     Solomon           |                      |
          YES  |     Socrates          |        Jesus         |
               |     Confucius         |                      |


No doubt the most famous aspect of the life of Jesus of Nazareth is His resurrection from the dead. In His resurrection, Jesus stands apart from all the gods and goddess that mankind in its futility has conjured up.[18] Far from being merely something that others have claimed about Him, Jesus of Nazareth predicted and accomplished His own resurrection from the dead.[19] In our claim that Jesus rose from the dead, we as Christians are not merely speaking metaphorically. By resurrection, we do not mean that Jesus rose "spiritually", nor merely that the memory of Jesus lives on in the hearts of His followers or in the continuance of His cause. Nor are we merely acknowledging His influence upon history. The doctrine of the resurrection proclaims that the literal, physical body of Jesus came back to life. But is it not a mere resuscitation. His body was raised glorified, albeit still physical.[20]

Many have claimed that the Christian doctrine that Jesus rose from the dead is too fantastic to be true.[21] Interestingly, the resurrection of Jesus has led people to conversion when they have sought to analyze it historically.[22] The accounts of the resurrection of Jesus in the New Testament has been subjected to rigorous historical analysis more than probably any other aspect of the Bible. What exactly, then, have these historical analyses revealed about the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus? A careful examination shows that the conclusion that Jesus rose bodily from the dead is the best explanation for the evidence surrounding two substantiated facts from history: Jesus died and His tomb was found empty. In our next newsletter, I take up the task of showing why a resurrection from the dead is the only tenable explanation for these two facts.

End Notes
[1] I will deal with the Lord, Liar, Lunatic and the Sages arguments in this newsletter and with the resurrection next month. There are several books that I commend to your reading that deals with arguments for who Jesus is. Besides the Lewis, Geisler, and Kreeft works mentioned below, other books I would recommend are Josh McDowell, Evidence That Demands A Verdict: Historical Evidences for the Christian Faith (Campus Crusade, 1972); Gary Habermas and Anthony Flew, Did Jesus Rise From The Dead? The Resurrection Debate (New York: Harper & Row, 1987); and J. P. Moreland, Scaling the Secular City: A Defense of Christianity (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1987). Write to us for our ten page annotated bibliography of books on Christian apologetics.
[2] Matthew 16:13-17
[3] A trilemma is three pointed problem or puzzle, as distinguished from a dilemma, which is a two pointed problem or puzzle.
[4] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Macmillian Publishing Co., 1952): 55-56. I know of no formulation of the Lord, Liar, Lunatic argument before Lewis.
[5] Remember: If your opponent calls into question the authenticity of Jesus' words then take them back to premise one of the argument that established the historical accuracy of the New Testament.
[6] John 17:5 "And now, 0 Father, glorify Me together with Yourself, with the glory which I had with You before the world was." Compare Isaiah 42:8; 48:11 where Jehovah claims to never share His glory with another. Thus, for Jesus, a Hebrew, to claim to have had glory with God before the world was, is a claim to be God.
[7] John 8:55-59
[8] Matthew 7:24-29
[9] John 5:17-18. The Jews understood this as a claim of equality with God.
[10] John 10:30-33
[11] John 8:42-47
[12] John 14:6
[13] Matthew 9:2-7
[14] Luke 14:26 [14] John 5:21-23
[15] John 20:28-29
[17] Peter Kreeft, Between Heaven and Hell (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1982): 52-67.
[18] Some have argued that the notion of a "dying and rising god" is a common motif in world mythology and that Christianity merely borrowed the notion in its interpretation of the life of Jesus. This is patently false. I will address this and others claims about Christianity's supposed dependence upon the pagan religions for its own motifs in a future newsletter. For an excellent source on this topic see Ronald H. Nash, The Gospel and the Greeks [formerly Christianity and the Hellenistic World] (Dallas: Probe Books, 1992).
[19] Matthew 16:21; 20:17-19; Mark 8:31; 9:31; John 2:19; 10:17-18
[20] Controversy has erupted periodically in church history over the nature of Jesus' resurrection from the dead. Orthodox Christian theology has maintained that Jesus' resurrection from the dead was physical even if there were significant changes with His body. For a discussion of the contemporary status of the controversy over the nature of Jesus' resurrection from the dead and how the orthodox position is being challenged in evangelical circles, see, Normal L. Geisler, The Battle for the Resurrection (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1989).
[21] At the risk of being redundant, let me remind you that philosophical objections against Christianity (e.g., people do not rise from the dead) are not answered by historical arguments. Philosophical objections must be met with philosophical arguments. For a discussion of this point see the section "History versus Philosophy" in the January, 1994 (Vol. 2, no. 1) issue of the Issachar Institute Newsletter. For an in-depth analysis of this point see, Norman L. Geisler, Christian Apologetics (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1976).
[22] The most famous account of one who set out to disprove the resurrection of Jesus by historically analyzing the evidence involved the English journalist Frank Morison. His findings which led to his conversion to Christ are in his book Who Moved the Stone? (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1958).

Copyright 1994 by The Issachar Institute. All rights reserved. Displayed here with permission.

Part 4: Who is Jesus? - His Resurrection.
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