What sort of person claims to be God?
When I was twelve years old, I had a strange encounter with someone who claimed to be the Son of God.
My brother and I were waiting at the train station near our home one autumn evening, on the way to a school concert in which we were both playing. We were the only ones at the station until a man walked across the platform and over to us. He introduced himself and began telling us about his trip from America to visit Ireland. It was a pretty normal conversation to begin with. But it quickly became rather strange. He told us, in a matter-of-fact way, that he was the Son of God.
It’s fair to say that I was incredibly sceptical from the start. I thought he was either lying or playing some sort of strange joke on us. So I asked him, “How do we know you’re telling the truth?” He offered up some evidence for his claim. He said that he’d spent the afternoon surfing on forty-foot waves in Belfast Lough. You might not be familiar with this particular stretch of water, but that isn’t normal. It’s miraculous. There’s a reason why Hawaii is the surf capital of the world and Belfast isn’t. The lough doesn’t see waves higher than about five feet. So if this was true, it would certainly show a degree of mastery over nature which might back up his claim. But, bizarrely, we hadn’t heard anything about it. Surely, if it had happened, we would have seen it on the news?
Then he said “In one year’s time, you’ll hear all about me. I’ll make headlines across the world, and everyone on earth will know who I am.” This was in 2001. By his prediction, he should have been world famous in 2002. And yet seventeen years later the world still doesn’t know who this mysterious character is. So I was sceptical at the time. But I now know for certain that he wasn’t telling us the truth, because his claims didn’t come true. There is simply no evidence for me to believe him, and plenty of counter-evidence to doubt him.
When someone claims to be the Son of God or God himself, we’re right to be sceptical. It makes perfect sense to examine and weigh up the evidence to see if that person is telling the truth or not. So over the course of two posts we’ll consider a couple of questions: Did Jesus ever claim to be God?; and if so, what evidence is there to support his claim?
Who is Jesus?
Throughout the centuries, people have found the person of Jesus to be absolutely fascinating. It’s no exaggeration to say that he was the most influential person who ever lived. Today, almost 2000 years after his death, he has a worldwide following of millions of people. The number one best-selling book in the world, the Bible, is all about him. And even our calendar system is based around his birth.
So whatever you think about Jesus, it’s undeniable that he’s an immensely influential person. But there are lots of different ideas about who Jesus is. For Christians, he’s the Son of God. For Muslims, he is Īsā, a highly respected prophet. And for Dan Brown, in the Da Vinci Code books, Jesus was a prophet who the church conspired to turn into God himself. But which one of these views, if any, is correct?
A survey was carried out in the UK a few years ago by an organisation called Barna. One of the questions they asked was “What do you think about Jesus?” One in five people said they believe that Jesus was “God in human form who lived in the 1st Century.” But 29 percent of people believed that Jesus was “a prophet or a spiritual leader, but not God.” And this was the most common answer given. So was Jesus just a good spiritual leader or teacher? Was he, perhaps, a prophet sent by God? Or is he more than this?
Is Jesus just a good teacher?
There’s no doubt that Jesus taught profound and insightful spiritual lessons. Millions of people around the world all testify to the goodness of his teaching. For example, there’s the ‘golden rule’, which commands followers to treat other people as you would have them treat you (Matthew 7). And his teaching in the sermon on the Mount is held up by many people as the greatest ethical teaching ever given. Gandhi, for example, wasn’t a Christian, but he admired the Sermon on the Mount so much that he meditated on it every day.
But the crucial question is this: Is Jesus just a good teacher? Or was he more than this? And when we look at the evidence, we see that Jesus cannot only be a good teacher and nothing more, because of what he said and did. He claimed to be God, and some of the things he did show us that he isn’t just a good man.
Jesus claimed to be God
What’s interesting is that Jesus never claimed to be only a good man. In John 10:30 he says “I and the Father are One.” We only need to look at his listeners’ reaction to his statement, to know what he was saying. They said, “You, a mere man, claim to be God” (John 10:33). Again, in John 8:58 Jesus said, “Before Abraham was born, I am!” Jesus here isn’t claiming to be just a moral man, but is actually using one of God’ titles from the Old Testament, “I AM.” He is clearly saying that he is one with God. And his listeners understood this very well, because they picked up stones to kill him. They were convinced he was committing blasphemy.
So Jesus wasn’t merely claiming to be a teacher of morality, like the Buddha. He wasn’t claiming to be the leader of a religion or a prophet, like Muhammed. He wasn’t just trying to help people improve their morality or get closer to God. Instead, he was claiming to be God himself. This brings us back to our first question: What sort of person claims to be God? C.S. Lewis, a popular Christian author and novelist, saw a problem with this very popular idea that Jesus is just a good man. After looking at the evidence in the New Testament, he concluded that Jesus can only be one of three things: a liar, a lunatic, or the Lord himself.
He said, “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.”
This is a great summary of the various views of who Jesus is, and it’s often referred to as Lewis’s ‘trilemma.’ But let’s just add one more possibility in there, because an increasingly popular view held by many people today is that Jesus was a legendary figure. So the four options are: Lunatic, Liar, Legend, or Lord. In the next post we’ll assess each of these options one by one.