According to recent studies, the majority of the world’s population believes in God or a universal deity.1 Of course, people describe God in very different ways: personal deity, transcendent divine, higher power, or universal spirit. Nonetheless, we believe something or someone is above humanity and the universe as we know it. So when a particular person professes to be God, it’s a big deal. And Jesus—the Jewish teacher who lived in the first century CE—did just that.
There are more than enough reasons to believe that Jesus was not and is not truly God. For starters, it’s hard to imagine any human being actually embodying God. What would that look like? How does God become a person? Does this God-person go back and forth between spirit and human? Can this God-person get sick and die as a human? That wouldn’t be very God-like.
Besides, doesn’t Christianity believe in only one true God? Then how could Jesus be God? Does this have something to do with the Trinity? And why would God become a person in the first place?
These are all mind-blowing questions. But let’s suppose for a minute that God can become a human. He is God, after all.2 If he can create the universe, he can certainly enter into it. If he did become a human, how would he act? What would he do? What would he say? And are the things Jesus did and said the kinds of things we would expect from God?
Is Jesus God? Billions of people believe so. And his life has certainly altered the course of human history. Let’s explore the possibility.
The first thing to take into account is character. What was Jesus like? Two characteristics leap from the pages of the recorded accounts of his life: self-discipline and compassion.
Jesus demonstrated tremendous self-discipline in order to accomplish his task, taking pains not to be distracted by this world. He shunned crowds to spend time alone in prayer, refused to be crowned king by enthusiastic but misguided followers, and stood silent before his scheming accusers. His compassion was exemplified in his gracious attitude toward outcasts; his association with Samaritans, Gentiles, and Romans—all of whom Jews despised; his embrace of the poor and ritually unclean; and his forgiveness of those who executed him.3
But while these are admirable qualities, they don’t prove anything yet.
The Bible records Jesus performing many amazing miracles, which are described as “signs through which he revealed his glory.”4 Jesus healed people physically and psychologically, turned water into wine, calmed raging storms, multiplied food, walked on water, and even resuscitated people after they had died.5 But his greatest miracle was his own resurrection.6
Jesus’ followers claimed they literally saw Jesus back from the dead. It’s always possible that they were hallucinating or that it was all a hoax. But then we’re still left wondering why Jesus’ tomb was empty. What happened to Jesus’ body, and why was it never found?
If Jesus’ death and resurrection was a plot contrived by his disciples, why do the four resurrection accounts in the Bible have apparent inconsistencies? Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John would have made sure to get their stories straight. And why do they reveal women as the first witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection? In the ancient world, women were not considered credible witnesses. No one making up this story would have missed that detail.
Of course, no one can prove that the resurrection or any of Jesus’ miracles truly happened, but the evidence is compelling and worth considering.
Most provocative, though, is the fact that Jesus actually claimed to be God. For instance, Jesus used the following titles to describe himself: Son of God, Messiah, Lord, and Son of Man—all designations with divine implications in Jewish culture.7
He also made explicit statements about his divinity. In fact, Jesus could hardly have been more direct: “I and the Father are one,” he said.8 “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.”9
Consider a few other radical actions. Jesus accepted worship, prayer, and faith from his followers. Jesus forgave sins committed against God—an ability traditionally reserved only for God. While Old Testament prophets grounded their authority in God—“Thus says the Lord”—Jesus often grounded his authority in himself: “Truly I tell you.” And Jesus claimed that a person’s response to Jesus himself determined one’s eternal destiny.10
No wonder Jesus caused such an uproar—big enough that you and I are still talking about him almost two thousand years later.
A Great Moral Teacher
Many people suggest Jesus was simply a great moral teacher, and indeed Jesus’ character, teachings, and good deeds support this. But no great moral teacher (e.g., Buddha, Muhammad, or Gandhi) has ever professed to be God.
Author C. S. Lewis summarizes our challenge:
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.11
So what do you think? Lunatic, demon, or God?
- In the diverse landscape of the United States alone, 92 percent of adults said they believe in God or a universal spirit. Only 5 percent explicitly said, “Don’t believe in God;” the other 3 percent responded, “Don’t know/other.” Even among those who do not affiliate themselves with any particular religious group, 70 percent responded that they believe in God or a universal spirit. See Pew Research Center, “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, Religious Beliefs and Practices: Diverse and Politically Relevant,” June 2008, http://religions.pewforum.org/reports#.
- Most people refer to God with male pronouns (e.g., “he” and “him”), not because they think God is a male, but because they believe God to have a mind or personality in some way. English does not have neuter personal pronouns (besides the impersonal “it”), so according to traditional usage, “he” and “him” will have to suffice.
- For examples of each of these characteristics, see The Holy Bible, Luke 5:15–16, John 6:15, Mark 14:60–61, Luke 19:1–9, John 4:4–42, Matthew 15:21–28, Luke 7:1–10, Mark 1:40–45, and Luke 23:33–34.
- The Holy Bible, New International Version © 2011, John 2:11.
- For examples, see Mark 7:31–37, Mark 1:21–28, John 2:1–11, Mark 4:35–41, Matthew 14:13–33, and John 7:11–17.
- All four gospel accounts record the resurrection. Perhaps the most shocking and realistic account is Mark 16:1–8.
- For examples, see John 5:16–27, Matthew 7:21–23, and Mark 14:61–62.
- The Holy Bible, John 10:30.
- Ibid, John 14:9.
- For examples of these actions and sayings, seeLuke 24:52, John 16:23, John 14:1, Mark 2:5–10, Matthew 5:21–22, and Matthew 25:31–46.
- C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity: A Revised and Amplified Edition (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 52.
- Photo Credit: nito / Shutterstock.com.