We have seen first-rate historical documents record Jesus of Nazareth claiming to be the eternal, personal, all-powerful and all-knowing God of all creation. Yet anyone can make such outlandish claims. We usually lock a person up who is talking like this. Is there any reason to believe Jesus’ claim to be God is actually true? At least three lines of evidence suggest the answer is ‘Yes.’ If the evidence is solid and confirms Jesus’ claim to be God, the second premise in the argument for inerrancy is verified.
There Are Only Three Options
Since we know Jesus did say he was God incarnate, we have only three options to explain such an outrageous claim: either he was deluded, he was outright lying, or he was telling the truth and really is God. In Mere Christianity C.S. Lewis called this the “Trilemma,” Peter Kreeft, professor of philosophy at Boston College, believes this is “the most important argument in Christian apologetics.” (Peter Kreeft, Fundamentals of the Faith: Essays in Christian Apologetics, p. 59.)
The form of this argument is known as a Disjunctive Syllogism. A syllogism is simply a formal argument with premises and a conclusion. This form—the disjunctive type—lists all possible options, and then eliminates them one by one until only one option remains, and therefore must be true. It can be written syllogistically as:
P or Q or R
Therefore Q or R
In this case, let P stand for Jesus being deluded—thinking he is God but is not. Let Q stand for Jesus intentionally lying and deceiving others about his identity. Finally, let R stand for him being who he claimed he was—God in flesh.
The structure of the argument is clearly correct. If you have three, and only three options and two are shown to be false, the third must be true. Therefore the truth is obtained by elimination.
However, arguments of this type (disjunctive syllogisms) can easily go wrong, and some accuse the Trilemma of making this error. So it is important to first understand this pitfall, and determine whether this argument falls into this trap.
The error a disjunctive syllogism can make is failing to list all possible options. This is known as the “false dilemma” fallacy. In this case, if there is a fourth option besides Jesus being a Liar, Lunatic, or Lord, then just because the first two options are eliminated, the third option—that he is Lord—does not follow.
Some have suggested a fourth option is more reasonable. Staying with “L” options, they argue Jesus was a Legend. He did not claim to be God, but rather his followers put these words in his mouth (perhaps even centuries later). Thus Jesus was neither lying, deluded or truly God. He was simply misunderstood (if he ever existed at all).
As should be clear from my previous articles in this series, the “Legend” option runs aground on the shore of evidence for the historicity of the gospels and Jesus’ direct and indirect claims to be God incarnate. Therefore the Trilemma is not guilty of being a false dilemma. There are only three options: either Jesus was crazy, lying, or God.
Was Jesus Deluded?
Let’s take these three possible options one at a time. First, was Jesus perhaps simply deluded, truly believing he was God due to mental illness? If so, he was severely disturbed, for his claim was not a small delusion. To truly believe you are the eternal God, the hope of the world and determiner of everyone’s eternal salvation is the grandest delusion possible. This is even more so in such a strict monotheistic culture such as first-century Israel. To develop such a delusion in this culture meant going against everything you were taught from your earliest days.
So is there good reason to believe Jesus was mentally disturbed? Is his life marked by the signs of mental imbalance? Would a professional diagnose him with a psychosis? The answer is no. In fact, his life is marked by just the opposite: poise, self-control, balance, deep insights into some of the most profound issues of the ages, and overflowing love for others. This is the conclusion of almost everyone who studies his life and words, including professional mental health professionals. Psychiatrist J.T. Fisher perhaps summarized it best when he wrote:
If you were to take the sum total of all authoritative articles ever written by the most qualified of psychologists and psychiatrists on the subject of mental hygiene—if you were to combine them and refine them and leave out the excess verbiage . . . and if you were to have these unadulterated bits of pure scientific knowledge concisely expressed by the most capable of living poets, you would have an awkward and incomplete summation of the Sermon on the Mount. And it would suffer immeasurably through comparison. (J. T. Fisher, A Few Buttons Missing: The Case Book of a Psychiatrist, p. 273)
Was Jesus Lying?
P seems to be highly unlikely. It is reasonable to rule out Jesus being mentally ill having delusions of grandeur. Therefore we are down to either Q or R. Either Jesus was intentionally misleading others or he was in fact who he claimed to be. Is there good reason to believe he may have by lying about his identity?
No. This option is as unsupported as the previous one. One of the cornerstones of Jesus’ teaching was honesty. For instance, in passages such as Matt. 15:15-20, John 3:20-21, and John 14:6 he presses the point that honesty is one of the highest values to pursue, and did so convincingly. It is hard to imagine someone being that focused and persuasive on this point, while his whole life is a colossal contradiction! Possible, but not probable.
But perhaps most telling against this possibility is that Jesus would have been the greatest of fools to continue with this charade once he realized where it would lead. As we have seen, his claims to be God did not gain him honor by the masses, but just the opposite. The religious leaders, and the masses who followed them, responded with calls for his head (see last week’s article for more on this). If he knew his claim to be God was a lie, surely he would have stopped when he didn’t get the benefits he desired.
If for some reason he wanted to continue the lie, he would have at least gone somewhere else to try to pass himself off as God, and not continue doing so in the strictly monotheistic culture of first-century Judaism. With a little planning he could have gone to Egypt (where he spent some time as a child—Matt. 2:13-21) or Greece. Surely these less monotheistic cultures would have been more open to his claim to deity (and as an extra bonus, they were much more significant and influential nations at the time).
But instead he continued to tell others he was God in Judea, eventually dying for this claim. How can we make sense of this if he knew it to be a lie? If he was making this up, then he died knowing this was a lie. Many die for untruths, but not what they know to be untruths. Therefore it is unreasonable to believe he knew this to be a lie. For these reasons, Jesus lying about his identity is not a viable option.
Jesus Must Have Been Lord
So we are left with the only other option—Jesus was actually who he claimed to be. He was God in flesh! To continue the quote from C.S. Lewis cited in last week’s article:
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. (Mere Christianity, p. 56)
This is one solid piece of evidence in support of Jesus’ claim to be God. A second line of evidence is the prophecy, foretold hundreds of years before his birth, that he fulfilled, showing he was the Messiah (God incarnate). That will be the topic of next week’s article.
Until then, grace and peace.
For further reading, see Peter Kreeft and Ronald K. Tacelli’s Handbook of Christian Apologetics, pp. 158-174.