Jesus stands apart from other prominent religious leaders in some unique ways.
I’m tired of ignoring that I march to a different beat.Charlie Sheen1
Is being different a good thing? It depends. But either way, differentness certainly brings distinction.
A popular assumption is that all religions are pretty much the same—several paths to the same destination. By this logic, religious leaders, then, must be essentially identical. But are they?
There are, of course, many similarities among the founders and leaders of major world religions. Muhammad (Islam), Buddha (Buddhism), Joseph Smith (Mormonism), and other historical religious figures all claimed, like Jesus, to speak prophetically and offer insight into the human condition.
Yet Christians believe that Jesus stands apart from other prominent religious leaders because of several peculiarities about his life, teachings, death, and resurrection.
Living a Different Life
The Bible claims that Jesus is the only man to have ever lived a perfect, sinless life. Whether or not you believe the Bible to be true, it can’t be denied that in the writings composed about them, no other religious leader makes such a statement or is credited with such a life.
Consider the questionable actions of a few major religious leaders, even though they were generally considered to be good people:
- Moses, one of the main leadership figures in Judaism, murdered an Egyptian.2
- Muhammad, the founder of Islam, reportedly killed many who disagreed with him.3
- Krishna, of the Hindu faith, allegedly murdered his uncle.4
- Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism, abandoned his wife and son to achieve “enlightenment.”5
But even in the Bible, murder6 and abandonment7 are sometimes condoned or even encouraged. So how can Jesus be different from the above if the teachings about him seem to include approval of this type of behavior?
Well, regardless of the reasons for actions like these, all religious leaders have said it is best to avoid this behavior. But only Jesus actually did that.
He is the only one who can profess perfection. Even his followers backed up his claim through their testimonies. Peter said that Jesus “committed no sin”8 and John likewise stated that “in [Jesus] was no sin.”9
Jesus’ ability not only to promote faultless actions but to live into perfection sets his life apart from that of all other people.
A Different Message
Then there is Jesus’ unique teaching. While other religious leaders pointed toward some other person or entity for inspiration, Jesus pointed to himself and claimed to be God in bodily form.10
Muhammad confessed to being only a man and directed people to Allah.11 Buddha never claimed the ability to save people himself but pointed them to the Noble Eightfold Path that saves.12
But Jesus declared, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”13 He did not profess to show people merely the way to salvation, but asserted that he himself is salvation.
Jesus made many other unique claims: He claimed not to be from this world but from heaven.14 He claimed to preexist Abraham, a man who had lived over 1,800 years before Jesus.15 He claimed to be “one” with God, which was recognized by the Jews as a claim of divinity.16
No other religious leaders to date have made such bold, radical, and—some would say—crazy statements about themselves.
Life After Death?
Yet undoubtedly, the most important—and odd—distinguisher between Jesus and all other religious leaders is his alleged resurrection. Both Buddha and Muhammad got sick and died. Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, was shot and killed.
Every other religious leader in history has died—and remained dead. No one claims otherwise about those leaders, not even their followers.
When it comes to Jesus, however, the message is different. The followers of Jesus throughout the centuries have claimed that after his crucifixion, Jesus conquered death and was made alive again.
Philosopher and theologian William Lane Craig offers four lines of evidence that point to the truth of the resurrection story:
- Jesus’ burial
- The empty tomb
- The fact that multiple people, often in groups, claimed that Jesus appeared to them after his death
- The origin of the followers’ belief in his resurrection17
Though other theories could explain each of these facts individually, Craig argues that the best—indeed, the only—explanation for all four is that God did in fact raise Jesus from the dead.18 The resurrection is the central idea upon which Christianity stands.19 That is, if it is true that Jesus defeated death to live an eternal life, then it follows that everything else Jesus said about himself must also be true.
Crazy or Different?
Sholem Asch, an early-twentieth-century Jewish writer who actually promoted Christianity, wrote, “Jesus Christ is to me the outstanding personality of all time, all history. . . . Everything he ever said or did has value for us today, and that is something you can say of no other man, dead or alive. There is no easy middle ground to stroll upon. You either accept Jesus or reject him.”20
Those who investigate his life, message, and alleged resurrection agree that ultimately Jesus is different from other religious leaders. His outrageous claims and supposed life after death limit our ability to place him in the simple “good moral teacher” category of most religious leaders.
There is not much room to argue that Jesus did not distinguish himself as a different kind of leader. Whether he was delusional, deceptive, misunderstood, or God incarnate, however, is left to each person to judge.