How to Know God

Jesus: God or Just a Good Man?

Analyzing our 3 options to explain His identity: a liar, a lunatic, or Lord?

Josh McDowell


Countless people throughout history have had their lives transformed by the God of the Bible. But even those who undergo great transformation with profound spiritual experiences still have questions about God. It’s no surprise that people who haven’t yet had an experience with God have questions too.

One question many wrestle with is whether Jesus is in fact God as opposed to just a good man, a moral teacher, a religious leader or a prophet. It is crucial that each person ask this question and find an answer, as Jesus Himself said that one’s answer to this question has eternal consequences (John 3:16-19; 14:6).

So, is Jesus God? And how can you know that for sure? We hope to help you answer with a faith-filled, “Yes. Jesus is God, and this is how I know...”


If you’re looking for an answer to one aspect of this question in particular, you can jump to it from here:


Did Jesus Ever Really Claim to Be God?

Many people claim that Jesus never said He was God. They say that as a religious figure, He revered God and only saw Himself as one part of God’s story. This is simply not true.

Based on the most reliable historical sources about the life of Jesus, Jesus claimed to be God more than once. Some of these statements were overt and clear, but Jesus was often more subtle in displaying His God-nature.

While Jesus walked on earth, He did not often speak frankly about being God. This is likely because His purpose when He came in the first century A.D. was to save people and bring them into a personal relationship with God — not to rule over people as a king. Jesus referred to his identity indirectly in statements like “I am the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6, New International Version) or “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12, NIV).

However, the New Testament — which is the part of the Bible that tells about the life and teachings of Jesus and the teachings of His first followers — records several instances in which Jesus affirms, or at least does not deny, that He is God. In a few cases, He identifies Himself as divine outright.

In John 10:30-33, Jesus says He is one with the Father God, which causes the devout Jews to want to execute Him for blasphemy. They say what His words imply: “You, a mere man, claim to be God” (NIV).

In Mark 14:61-63 (NIV), Jesus is on trial for His life and is asked, “Are you the Christ, Son of the Blessed One [that is, God]?” He answers, “I am,” and then calls Himself the “Son of Man,” which is a title used for an exalted heavenly figure in the Old Testament.

Was Jesus Simply a Great Teacher and a Good Man?

Josh McDowell is a writer and speaker who became a Christian after carefully examining the evidence that what the Bible says is true. In his book “A Ready Defense,” he says,

Jesus’ distinct claims of being God eliminate the popular ploy of skeptics who regard Him as just a good moral man or a prophet who said a lot of profound things. So often that conclusion is passed off as the only one acceptable to scholars or as the obvious result of the intellectual process. The trouble is, many people nod their heads in agreement and never see the fallacy of such reasoning.

McDowell quotes C.S. Lewis, the author, professor at Cambridge University and former antagonist to Christian faith. In his book “Mere Christianity,” he writes,

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 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 up with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.

Liar, Lunatic or Lord?

In light of the fact that Jesus did claim to be God, there are only three options. Either what Jesus said wasn’t true and He knew it, making Him a liar; what He said wasn’t true, and he did not know it, making Him delusional; or what He said was true, making Him Lord of the universe.

McDowell puts it like this,

If, when Jesus made His claims, He knew that He was not God, then He was lying and deliberately deceiving His followers. But if He was a liar, then He was also a hypocrite because He told others to be honest, whatever the cost, while He himself taught and lived a colossal lie. More than that, He was a demon, because He told others to trust Him for their eternal destiny. If He couldn’t back up His claims and knew it, then He was unspeakably evil. Last, He would also be a fool because it was His claims to being God that led to His crucifixion.

Many will say that Jesus was a good moral teacher. Let’s be realistic. How could He be a great moral teacher and knowingly mislead people at the most important point of His teaching — His own identity? You would have to conclude logically that He was a deliberate liar.

Historian Philip Schaff writes,

How, in the name of logic, common sense, and experience, could an imposter — that is a deceitful, selfish, depraved man — have invented, and consistently maintained from the beginning to end, the purest and noblest character known in history with the most perfect air of truth and reality? How could He have conceived and successfully carried out a plan of unparalleled beneficence, moral magnitude, and sublimity, and sacrificed His own life for it, in the face of the strongest prejudices of His people and age?

These scholars cannot conceive of Jesus lying about so crucial and clear an issue.

McDowell says,

If it is inconceivable for Jesus to be a liar, then couldn’t He actually have thought Himself to be God but been mistaken? After all, it’s possible to be both sincere and wrong. But we must remember that for someone to think himself God, especially in a fiercely monotheistic culture, and then to tell others that their eternal destiny depended on believing in him is no light flight of fantasy but the thoughts of a lunatic in the fullest sense.

This isn’t like someone thinking their ancestors came from Ireland when actually they came from Scotland. This would mean being mistaken not only about something fundamental to who you are but about something that would change every aspect of life for you and those around you.

McDowell says,

Someone who believes he is God sounds like someone today believing himself Napoleon. He would be deluded and self‑deceived....

In Jesus we don’t observe the abnormalities and imbalance that usually go along with [psychological disorder]. His poise and composure would certainly be amazing if He were insane. ...

Here is a man who spoke some of the most profound sayings ever recorded. His instructions have liberated many from mental bondage.

Or, as Psychiatrist J.T. Fisher states,

If you were to take the sum total of all authoritative articles ever written by the most qualified of psychologists and psychiatrists on the subject of mental hygiene — if you were to combine them and refine them, and cleave out the excess verbiage — if you were to take the whole of the meat and none of the parsley, and if you were to have these unadulterated bits of pure scientific knowledge concisely expressed by the most capable of living poets, you would have an awkward and incomplete summation of the Sermon on the Mount. And it would suffer immeasurably through comparison. For nearly 2,000 years the Christian world has been holding in its hands the complete answer to its restless and fruitless yearnings. Here ... rests the blueprint for successful human life with optimism, mental health, and contentment.

McDowell deduces,

I cannot personally conclude that Jesus was a liar or a lunatic. The only other alternative is that He was the Christ, the Son of God, as He claimed...

Who you decide Jesus Christ is must not be an idle intellectual exercise. You cannot put Him on the shelf as a great moral teacher. That is not a valid option. He is either a liar, a lunatic, or Lord and God. You must make a choice. ...

The evidence is clearly in favor of Jesus as Lord. Some people, however, reject this clear evidence because of the moral implications involved.

Bill Bright, the co-founder of Cru, wrote,

I have yet to meet a man who has honestly considered the overwhelming evidence concerning Jesus of Nazareth, who does not admit that He is the Son of God.

While some do not believe, they are honest in confessing, “I have not taken the time to read the Bible or consider the historical facts concerning Jesus.” Their attitude is founded upon an unfortunate childhood experience, the inconsistency of some Christian, or perhaps the influence of a college professor; but they admit that they have not honestly and sincerely considered the person of Jesus Christ and His claims on their lives.

(Excerpt from Jesus - Man, Myth, or God?.)

Jesus does not want people to worry, and He definitely does not want people wringing their hands wondering who He really is.

Jesus’ Life as Proof

More than blatantly stating his God-ness, Jesus showed it in the way He lived. From healing people and performing miracles to living a morally perfect life, He did what only God can do.

Jesus paid particular attention to the most vulnerable around Him (Luke 8:43-48; Matthew 19:13-14) and encouraged others to do the same. He challenged people in power who were exploiting the vulnerable (Matthew 21:12-13). While these things speak to His compassionate character and moral goodness, one could definitely argue that they don’t prove He is God.

But there are other aspects of Jesus’ life that reflect the supernatural and miraculous nature of God. For instance, if Jesus is the compassionate God incarnate, it would make sense that He’d use the supernatural power He possessed to help those who were hurting. And He did. There are several accounts of Jesus healing the sick (Mark 6:56), making the blind see (John 9:14) and bringing the dead back to life in the presence of those truly grieving (Mark 5:35-43).

You may have heard, however, that Jesus is not the only one to have done or been credited with miracles like these, and that’s true. But in the Gospel of John, Jesus addresses this issue, acknowledging some more unusual miracles, which He calls “signs,” that only He was known for. These are indicators that He wasn’t just a wonder-worker like others of his day but someone much greater (John 6).

In addition to these miraculous acts are miraculous facts. Many scholars agree that Jesus Christ, in His life, fulfilled more than 300 prophecies that had been written in the Old Testament centuries before He was born. The mathematical probability of any one person fulfilling even a dozen of the prophecies in the Jewish sacred text is infinitesimal — it’s virtually impossible unless God planned it in advance.

Some of the prophecies are broad, like Jesus’ lineage, but some include stark detail. One says the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2), while another says He will come out of Egypt (Hosea 11:1). Both were true of Jesus (Matthew 2:1-15). Another prophecy speaks of the Messiah being preceded by a forerunner proclaiming repentance (Isaiah 40:3-4). This was Jesus’ cousin John, who was less than a year older than Him and has a miraculous story himself (Luke 1:5-25).

But there is one miracle and one fulfilled prophecy that stands out among the others. Both the Old Testament (Leviticus 17:11; Isaiah 25:7–8) and Jesus Himself (Mark 9:31) predict it. It is that Jesus would be killed as an atonement for sin and would rise from the dead.

Jesus’ Death and Resurrection

The Old Testament is filled with stories about God’s mercy on His people because of His grace (Exodus 12:21–27), laws that point to a need for atonement for sin (Leviticus 17:11) and stories that, in retrospect, point to the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus (Numbers 21:9). But there are even more clear and evident Old Testament prophecies that describe Christ’s righteousness, death and resurrection and the salvation He brought. The Book of Isaiah does this vividly through passages like,

He was pierced for our transgressions,
He was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on Him,
and by His wounds we are healed. (Isaiah 53:5, NIV)

Jesus fulfilled these prophecies, written centuries before His own time, but He also predicted His own death and resurrection, preparing His disciples on more than one occasion. Matthew 16:21 (NIV) says:

Jesus began to show His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.

These things came to pass.

Jesus was publicly tortured, crucified — pierced with nails through his hands and feet — and then, after He had already died, stabbed in the side for good measure. In light of all of this, He was unquestionably deceased; there is no weight to the once-popular theory that He just fainted from pain. He was laid in a tomb enclosed by a large boulder, and trained Roman soldiers stood guard over it. Then, three days later, His body was missing from that tomb.

Paul E. Little, a professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, writes,

It is important to note that both critics and followers of Jesus agree that the tomb was empty and the body missing.

The earliest explanation circulated was that the disciples stole the body while the guards were sleeping. This makes little sense. This was an entire guard of highly trained Roman soldiers and falling asleep on duty was punishable by death.

Maybe the authorities moved the body? [Another] weak possibility. They crucified Jesus to stop people from believing in him. If they had Christ’s body, they could have paraded it through the streets of Jerusalem. In one fell swoop, they would have successfully smothered Christianity in its cradle. That they did not do this bears eloquent testimony to the fact that they did not have the body.

Another theory is that the women who were the first to see Jesus’ empty tomb were distraught and overcome by grief. [Perhaps they] missed their way in the dimness of the morning and went to the wrong tomb. In their distress they imagined Christ had risen because the tomb was empty. But again, if the women went to the wrong tomb, why did the high priests and other enemies of the faith not go to the right tomb and produce the body?

Furthermore, followers of Jesus by the hundreds claim to have seen him alive after his resurrection. Impossible as it sounds, the resurrection becomes the most likely explanation on the accounts of Jesus’ enemies and his friends.

The Changed Disciples

The change in attitude and behavior of the people who witnessed Jesus alive after death also serves as compelling evidence for the truth of His resurrection and God’s power through Christ.

While it can be difficult to judge something as true based on subjective experience, you cannot deny the records that show the followers of Christ — called His disciples — as confused, wavering in faith and, by and large, scattering at the first sign of trouble (Mark 14:50, Luke 22:54-62). Then, after the resurrection took place, those followers boldly preached Christ’s divinity and the salvation the comes from Him, resulting in their imprisonment, torture and execution.

Little writes,

Each of the disciples were tortured and put to death (individually and in different geographic locations) for proclaiming that Jesus was alive, risen from the dead. Men and women will die for what they believe to be true, though it may actually be false. They do not, however, die for what they know is a lie. If ever a man tells the truth, it is on his deathbed.

The lives of Jesus’ followers were changed not only because they walked with Him during His life, but because they saw Him rise from the dead.

Most of the New Testament is written by the disciples themselves. They hoped to leave this truth behind when they died. The Bible is filled with their accounts of what they saw, written under God’s inspiration.

Can We Trust the Bible?

In light of the fact that most of the evidence cited above is from the Bible, how do we know the Bible is trustworthy and true?

While there are other historical documents alluding to the events that take place in the Bible, or to the Bible itself, some of the best evidence of its reliability is the unparalleled number of historical manuscripts of the New Testament. The truth is, anything you believe to be historically accurate, even if you have a physical copy of its documentation, you have to take by faith—unless you were physically there and saw it for yourself. The idea that Pharaohs or Julius Caesar or George Washington ever existed and did what they did are things you read about in historical documents and then believe. If that is your standard, why should the Bible be any different?

Some of the best evidence of the Bible’s reliability is the unparalleled number of historical manuscripts of the New Testament. Textual critics — the people who study how texts were written, preserved, and changed over the course of their history — agree that the original copies of the New Testament books, the earliest of which were written 30 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, are very similar to what we have written in Bibles today.

There are only five total manuscripts of any of Aristotle's works, and all of those manuscripts were copied more than a thousand years after he lived. There are 5,000 ancient Greek manuscripts of the New Testament and 10,000 copies in other ancient languages — some from mere decades after the texts were composed — and they testify to the consistency of the text as it was copied and transmitted over time.

Archeological evidence also points to the veracity of the Bible. People and places that are only mentioned in the Bible and were once thought to be fictional have been discovered to be real.

Even so, pastor John Piper writes that this historical evidence is not usually what you need to believe in the truth of Scripture. Piper says that it is the evidence you find in nature, in your conscience, and in yourself when you read the Bible that attest to its validity — and God needs to open your eyes to that:

The only hope for us to see the glory of God in Scripture, and have a well-grounded confidence that it is the word of God, is for God to perform a miracle and take away our spiritual blindness that we are all born with. And Paul says God, in fact, does do this. God comes to us and he speaks a word of new creation just like he did in the old creation and says, “Let there be light.” And we are given life and new spiritual eyes. “God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6).

You know Christ is real. You know the gospel is real. And you know the Scriptures are true, because God says, “Let there be light.” You see the peculiar glory and you know this is not the mere work of man. This is of God.

If you wrestle with the validity of the Bible, the miracles Christ performed or the prophecies fulfilled, consider taking a step of faith and praying that God would open your eyes to the truth. Jesus’ life, death and resurrection — in addition to the lives and testimony of His companions and the solid foundation of the Bible — are proof that He is who He says He is: God.

How Can Jesus Be God and the Son of God?

One question you may still be asking is: How can Jesus be God? How could He live on earth and say He was God while also talking about God being in heaven? Does this make sense?

Yes, it does, because of the Trinity.

The Trinity is perhaps the most mysterious, beautiful and confounding doctrine of the Christian faith. It asserts that there is one God who exists eternally in three persons: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. While many have tried to explain the mystery with analogies and metaphors — from a three-leaf clover to the states of matter to the colors of a traffic light — the truth is all human explanations fall short. Humans are limited in their understanding.

But at the root of the doctrine of a trinitarian God are a few simple ideas. God is One, and He is above all. There is only one of Him in essence and character. But He is also relational — being three persons — and the Father, Son and Holy Spirit have loved, interacted with and rejoiced over each other for all of eternity. In Michael Reeves’ book “Delighting in the Trinity”, he delves into this theology, explaining that he believes this is where creation came from. An ever-giving God overflowed in love, truth and relationship, and from that came all that was good and free.

Some refuse to see Jesus as God or as one with the Father because they think He didn’t show up until the New Testament. But Christ Himself talks about references to himself, God the Son, throughout the Old Testament. After His resurrection, when His followers were still mourning, “He said to them, ‘How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter His glory?’ And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, He explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning Himself” (Luke 24:25-27, NIV)

The trinitarian God is present throughout the Bible. In Genesis 1, it is clear God the Spirit is active in creation. In John 1, you see that Christ the Son was dynamically involved in creation as well. References in the Bible to the trinitarian God, the three persons, interacting together in ministry simply become more abundant after Jesus became incarnate, taking on the life of a man, and even more so once He sent the Holy Spirit after His resurrection.

The Trinity is one of the most complex aspects of God. Because God is a mystery, you will never fully understand how the Trinity works, and that’s OK. The best thing you can do is keep reading the Bible to discover how it talks about God in His three persons. For another explanation, including helpful visuals about the Trinity, check out this video from the Bible Project called “God.”

What Does All This Mean for Me?

If you’ve read the page to this point or are otherwise familiar with its content, then you know the evidence that tells us Christ is God. Jesus claimed to be God and, as C.S. Lewis concluded, one has to accept that this means Jesus was deceiving us, was deluded or was in fact God. There is historical and scriptural evidence based on Christ’s life, death and resurrection and the disciples’ accounts that points to His deity. The reliability of the Bible and the doctrine of the Trinity help support this conclusion as well. Now one thing remains: a decision.

If Jesus is God, what does that mean for you?

Christianity has undoubtedly changed the world and the lives of many individuals. But when it comes down to it, each person has to choose for him or herself what to believe about Jesus.

The Bible says everyone in the world is sinful and has fallen short. No one will be judged perfect or righteous on their own merit (Romans 3:32). Everyone needs forgiveness for the wrong they’ve done. You need someone to change you from the inside out. That is why Jesus, God in the flesh, came. He lived the perfect life you could not live (1 Peter 2:22) and died to pay for your sins (Romans 6:23) so you could live with him forever (2 Corinthians 5:21).

John 20:31 (NIV) says, “These [the events recorded in the Gospel of John] have been written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and” — more importantly — “that believing you might have life in His name.”

The evidence demonstrates Jesus is God, and you get to decide how to respond.

If you want to pray and ask Jesus to be Lord of your life, if you want to be one of His children, you can do that right now, in whatever words come to mind (He will hear and understand).

If you want to talk to someone about this decision, reach out to a mentor. There are always people willing and happy to chat with you.

If you want to learn more about who Jesus is, consider reviewing the study material in “Who Is Jesus Christ?” and answering the questions on your own or with a friend.

Previous Story

FAQ

©1994-2020 Cru. All Rights Reserved.