Who Did Jesus Think He Was?

Liar, lunatic, or Lord?  According to a famous quote by C.S. Lewis these are the only three choices we have about Jesus’ identity: 

“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 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.  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 patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher.  He has not left that open to us.  He did not intend to.” (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, New York, NY: Touchstone, 1996, p. 56)

For Lewis of course, the implication is that Jesus couldn’t have been a lunatic—his teaching was as cogent and lucid as any teacher has ever been.  And he couldn’t have been a liar—his character was as pure and impeccable as anyone who has ever lived.  The only logical option then is to fall at His feet and proclaim Him Lord. 

This is a tight argument.  The conclusion is undeniable.  Unless…Jesus never claimed to be God; unless, He didn’t believe He was the Son of God.

In fact, this is the “out” for people who deny Jesus could be God.  For over a century now, a group of scholars have challenged the assumption that Jesus believed He was the divine Son of God.  They argue that the Gospels can’t be trusted to give us reliable historical information.  Like the telephone game, the stories about Jesus were exaggerated.  And so, this is how the legend of his divinity began.  

The places in the Gospels where Jesus claims to be divine can’t reliably be traced back to something He said.  The early church or gospel writers invented them.  In reality, He was—and saw Himself as—nothing more than a human prophet or teacher.  Bart Ehrman is probably the most prominent contemporary scholar making this argument. 

Another scholar, Reza Aslan, has argued that Jesus saw Himself as a Zealot, nothing more than a revolutionary leader appointed by God to bring about His earthly kingdom.  Messiah?  Maybe.  God?  No way!

If these scholars are correct, then Lewis’s seemingly conclusive argument loses all its force.  If these scholars are correct, then there is a fourth option, one that is much more reasonable than the rest: rather than a divine being, Jesus thought of Himself, and presented Himself, as a human teacher or leader.

As I mentioned in a previous blog about the Resurrection, the criterion of embarrassment is one of the most powerful tools at scholars’ disposal.  If something recorded in the Gospels is embarrassing to the early church or counterproductive to its mission, we can be very certain it’s historical—the early church or gospel writers would never have invented it.   

In Mark 13:32, Jesus says: “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”  He’s talking about His return, the Second Coming, the End of the World.  It’s kind of an important thing!  And yet, He professes ignorance.  How can that be?  If He’s the all-knowing, divine Son of God, this is something He should know! 

Not only did this saying represent a terrible embarrassment for the early church (“Some God you believe in—He doesn’t even know the most important date in history!”), it continues to be an enduring embarrassment for believers everywhere (“How could He be God if He’s ignorant about something so central to your faith?”)

Obviously, by the criterion of embarrassment, this saying would never have been invented by the early church or gospel writers.

But take a good look at what else Jesus says here.  In this saying that we can be very confident goes back to Jesus Himself, He also professes to be the Son of the Father, God.  He professes to be higher than the angels, a position only God has.  In other words, this saying clearly reveals that He thought He was THE divine Son of God.

As recent scholarship is demonstrating more and more, the historical evidence Jesus thought this way is abundant.  There is much more to corroborate what this verse tells us about who Jesus thought He was. 

Of course, this doesn’t tell us exactly how He understood His divine Sonship (that He was the Second Person of the Trinity, for example).  It’s impossible to get into His mind.  It’s hard enough for a trained psychologist to figure out how someone sitting right in front of them understands their core identity.

But this verse is stunning.  It comes as close as we can to understanding what a figure from ancient history actually thinks their core identity is.  And it demonstrates that Jesus understood Himself to somehow be “the Lord”.

Liar, lunatic, or Lord?  Lewis was right.  These are the only options.  And if that’s the case, He is Lord.  His love is the power and logic that drives the universe.  Falling at His feet and confessing Him as Lord and God is, by far, the wisest thing we can do.

Do you find Lewis’s logic compelling?  Why or why not?  Go to the “Contact E.J.” page of the Raising Jesus website and let me know what you think.  I’d love to hear from you!  Also, please “Like” our Facebook page, subscribe to our YouTube channel, and keep telling your friends about us!

About Me

E.J. Sweeney is a true skeptic. He needs to see to believe. Hard Evidence. Compelling Proof. Solid Logic. This is what he believes in. In college, he encountered questions that the superficial faith he was raised on couldn’t handle. So he began a quest for Truth, a quest for the answers to life’s ultimate questions.

EJ Sweeney

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