This entry is largely drawn from Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith (Downers Grove: IVP and Nottingham: Apollos, 2011), 507-526:
One of the most famous passages in C. S. Lewis’s famous book Mere Christianity presents what has been called his “trilemma.” It runs as follows:
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. 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 patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.
Another way of putting something like this point would be as follows:
- If Jesus claimed divinity but was not divine, he was merely human.
- If (1), there are two basic options:
- He was either deceived or a deceiver.
- If (-3), if Jesus was neither deceived nor a deceiver, he was not merely human.
- If (4), he was divine.
Lewis’s trilemma has been justly criticized, however, because it fails to mention an alternative possibility: Perhaps Jesus himself never actually claimed deity. Perhaps, instead, the claim was put in his mouth, for whatever reason, by overzealous disciples and/or by the writers of the gospels. This is certainly an option that must be considered.
It is undeniably true that certain merely human religious founders or leaders have been deified after their deaths by enthusiastic followers. The Islamic prophet Muhammad was not among them, but later Muslims definitely attributed miracles to him that he never claimed for himself and that don’t appear in the most reliable and oldest historical sources about him. (For a glance at one strand of such late-developing material, see my essay “A Prophet Emerging: Fetal Narratives in Islamic Literature,” in Jane Marie Law and Vanessa Sasson, eds., Imagining the Fetus: The Unborn in Myth, Religion, and Culture [New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008].). The Buddha, by contrast, offers a very good example of subsequent divinization. Several hundred years after his death, various texts came to attribute supernatural elements to him.
And that delay is important to note. The process of deification, if it occurs, seems to require many decades or even centuries. But it can be argued that the primary texts regarding Jesus were written within only a few decades after his death, either by eyewitnesses or by writers (e.g., Luke) who consulted with eyewitnesses or other sources. Significantly, there is no original source for the teachings of Jesus in which he doesn’t make divine claims, whether explicitly or implicitly.
But could he have meant something different with his claims to divinity than Christians commonly assume? Could he have intended something like pantheism or nondualism? Could he have merely meant to say that he was unusually aware of the deity within him (and within all people)? Not likely. Such views belong more to India (and to such popular authors as Deepak Chopra) than to the religion of the Hebrew Bible and the Judaism of the first few common centuries. Jesus never once declared that God was the only reality and that all is fundamentally divine. Not, anyway, in any genuine historical text of which we know.
Well, back to the question of whether Jesus was, simply a bad man, a deceiver.
Why would he have knowingly — and falsely — claimed to be divine? It seemed to have gained him neither money nor power:
And Jesus said unto him, Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head. (Luke 9:58)
And no surprise: After all, the legal penalty for blasphemy in ancient Israel was stoning, as many people well knew:
Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I am. Then took they up stones to cast at him: but Jesus hid himself, and went out of the temple, going through the midst of them, and so passed by. (John 8:58-59)
Claiming deity in the monotheistic world of first-century Israel was probably not the surest path to popularity and a long, prosperous life. No culture was more intent on preserving the distinct prerogatives of God than ancient Judaism. In the end — or, anyway, in what seemed to be the end — Jesus was viciously scourged and then brutally crucified.
Could Jesus simply have failed in his scheme to become rich and/or powerful by means of an absurdly false claim of divinity? Maybe. But the figure portrayed in the New Testament gospels seems fiercely honest and deeply humble. Moreover, he seems quite intelligent — not dense. And one would need to be dense in order to imagine that claiming deity would work out well in first-century Judaea.
So perhaps he was insane? But there seems no evidence for mental illness in the gospels — which, remember, are our principal if not only historical sources for his mortal biography. Some skeptics will say that his very claims prove him insane, but that’s merely an instance of begging the question. Please note, though, that the writers of the gospels were so serenely confident in him that they actually included charges that Jesus was crazy (e.g., demon-possessed). The historian Will Durant makes this point quite well in arguing more generally for the honesty of the gospel writers:
Despite the prejudices and theological preconceptions of the evangelists, they record many instances that mere inventors would have concealed — the competition of the apostles for high places in the kingdom, their flight after Jesus’ arrest, Peter’s denial, the failure of Christ to work miracles in Galilee, the references of some auditors to his possible insanity, his early uncertainty as to his mission, , his confessions of ignorance as to the future, his moments of bitterness, his despairing cry on the cross; no one reading these scenes can doubt the reality of the figure behind them. (Will Durant, Caesar and Christ, vol. 2, The Story of Civilization [New York: Simon & Schuster, 1944], 557, emphasis added)
So, what if we allow that he was sane and that his moral teachings are not only sound but wonderful, while judging him personally to have been a fraud?
Yes, good teachers of ethics can have feet of clay, secret sins of omission and commission, and yet still be good teachers. (The Roman philosopher Seneca, who lived in the time of Nero, may have been one of those.). But to claim oneself to be God? That seems more than a bit much. And Jesus seems to have been genuinely courageous, honest, intelligent, wise, and compassionate. He doesn’t appear to have been a hypocrite. There were plenty of solid moral and religious teachers around. Why, of all of them, did Jesus have such an impact on those who heard him? Either hatred or possibly fear, or absolute adoration. As C. S. Lewis remarked of him, “There was no trace of people expressing mild approval.” (C. S. Lewis, “What Are We to Make of Jesus Christ?” in Walter Hooper, ed., God in the Dock [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970], 158.)
I’m grateful that the divine Son of God came down to us, took upon himself our flesh, and walked in our midst. #GiveThanks
Here’s a bit more on President Russell M. Nelson’s special presentation (#GiveThanks) from Friday last:
Russell M. Nelson: “The Story behind My Global Prayer of Gratitude”
In my 16 November 2020 blog entry, “Forgiveness, grace, and cosmic justice,” I argued that our innate desires for ultimate justice and for complete human flourishing make the idea of personal immortality desirable. I didn’t argue that such desires demonstrate the idea true. In fact, I said,
“This scarcely proves that the human soul is immortal, but it does demonstrate, I think, that a hope for immortality can be motivated by factors other than the mere personal fear of death.”
But what does it matter what I actually said?
I notice that I’m being attacked elsewhere online, on the ostensible basis of that very 16 November 2020 blog entry, for claiming that our wish for justice and human fulfillment proves that we are, in fact, immortal.
And, when someone quibbled with something else that she had said in a more general way, the person attacking me responded rather huffily that she’s not interested in his arguments. She’s concentrating on my remarks.
Let’s end on a more positive note, though, with three items from our Christopher Hitchens Memorial “How Religion Poisons Everything” File: