“And Jesus went out, and his disciples, into the towns of Caesarea Philippi: and by the way he asked his disciples, saying unto them, Whom do men say that I am? And they answered, John the Baptist: but some say, Elias; and others, One of the prophets. And he saith unto them, But whom say ye that I am? And Peter answereth and saith unto him, Thou art the Christ.” Mark 8:27-29
Theologians call it the “Trilemma.” It is the question every person must ask once they have ascertained that Jesus of Nazareth is indeed a person of true history; one who has seemingly impacted western civilization more than any other… The question is this; is Jesus of Nazareth a consummate liar, an absolute lunatic, or is He exactly who He claimed to be, the very Son of God?
Many will say, “Well, I don’t believe it is necessary to categorize Jesus as any of these…” A great many people will tell you that they believe that Jesus was a good man, and a great teacher who left us perhaps the most significant moral code ever conveyed to mankind. The beloved Christian writer, C.S Lewis, explains why this “escape clause” is not an option…
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… (Mere Christianity, Pg. 52)
So, we see that the answer most often given by the majority of people is the one that simply will not do; at best it is a cop-out… It is a much easier answer, a more comfortable answer; because it does not force one to consider the true implications of that age-old question, “Who is Jesus of Nazareth?”
At this point, many will only concede, “Well fine then; he must have been just a great con-man, or else he was truly insane.” “Either he was trying to con the people of his day into believing he was their long-awaited Messiah, or else he was truly deluded and actually believed it himself…”
But why then, more than two thousand years after He walked the earth, would the average person on the street today more likely claim that He was a good man and a great moral teacher? Was He a liar; was He a lunatic? What does the evidence indicate; what does history actually tell us about Jesus?
Was Jesus a liar?
It’s one thing if your friends and supporters say that you are a good person; it is quite another if even your enemies have to concede the same… The Sanhedrin tried for three years to catch Jesus in some lie or false teaching that they could pin on him, and they were shamed to silence every time. After examining him twice, even Pontius Pilate flatly declared, “I find no fault in this man.”
The fact is, most people are willing to hold to a lie only to the point that it does not cost them too dearly. When faced with severe enough consequences, most will confess their duplicity… Jesus faced one the most feared tortures ever devised by man, Roman crucifixion; but He would have most likely gotten off with only a severe beating if He had confessed to his supposed false declarations.
But when the High Priest demanded, “…tell us whether thou be the Christ, the Son of God,” Jesus calmly answered, “I am: and ye shall see the Son of Man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven” (Mark 14:62).
What an amazing statement to make… That, not only was He the Son of God, but that those accusing Him of wrong-doing would one day see Him sitting on the right hand of God Himself! What could Jesus have hoped to gain by such gross slander against the Word of God He claimed to believe and teach? This was no simple misrepresentation of facts or error in understanding. This was blasphemy of the highest order; unless, it were true…
Later that same morning, while standing before Pontius Pilate, Jesus had another opportunity to recant… But even after suffering being scourged by the dreaded Roman cat-of-nine tails, he remained silent. If Jesus was a liar, then he was also a fool, for his persistence in that lie led him to an agonizing death…
All of Scripture and history suggest that Jesus of Nazareth was certainly not an evil man seeking to deceive the people of His day. He seemingly gained nothing and lost everything for claiming to be the Son of God. So, could it be that He was indeed not attempting to deceive others, but had somehow deceived Himself? Was Jesus suffering from some great delusion; was Jesus perhaps insane?
Was Jesus a Lunatic?
We know a great deal more about mental illness today than was generally understood in Jesus’ day. We know there are many different types and levels of mental illness that plague mankind. Christian philosopher Peter Kreeft offers this commentary on what level of insanity we would need to consider in Jesus’ claims…
A measure of your insanity is the size of the gap between what you think you are and what you really are. If I think I am the greatest philosopher in America, I am only an arrogant fool; if I think I am Napoleon, I am probably over the edge; if I think I am a butterfly, I am fully embarked from the sunny shores of sanity. But if I think I am God, I am even more insane because the gap between anything finite and the infinite God is even greater than the gap between any two finite things, even a man and a butterfly… (Fundamentals of the Faith: Essays in Christian Apologetics. Pg. 60.)
So, understand, if Jesus was a mere man who indeed believed He was God in the flesh, then He was suffering from the greatest level of delusion possible… But is this what we see in the Scriptures; is this the kind of man we truly believe Jesus of Nazareth to be?
If you spend any time in the downtown area of Jacksonville, you will likely encounter individuals suffering from an assortment of mental illnesses. It rarely takes very long before you realize something is not quite right with them… My heart goes out to these people, and I’m thankful we have several organizations that specialize in helping them. And while one may feel for these folks and have a sincere desire to assist them, it is highly unlikely that you would also go to them for advice on serious matters. It is even more unlikely that multiple individuals would leave their jobs and families to follow such a person for several years and spend every waking hour listening to his teaching…
But that is exactly what many people did when they heard the words of Jesus. They left their jobs, their homes, and their families, to follow and hear the words of this poor, itinerant teacher from the despised town of Nazareth. Why would they do such a thing? Peter Kreeft writes that Jesus had in abundance three qualities that liars and lunatics often lack:
1. His practical wisdom, his ability to read human hearts;
2. His deep and winning love, his passionate compassion, his ability to attract people and make them feel at home and forgiven;
3. His authority, “not as the scribes,” and his ability to astonish, his unpredictability, his creativity.
Jesus wasn’t the kind of person you shunned or were afraid to be around. His words were not those of a lunatic… Once, when the Sanhedrin sent the temple guards to arrest Jesus, they returned astonished and empty-handed, claiming, “Never man spake like this man.”
Down through the centuries, many people more knowledgeable than I have written volumes on the Trilemma; most all have come to the same conclusion… Jesus was not a liar, nor a lunatic. Neither then was He only a great moral teacher. Where does that leave us then; just who is this Jesus of Nazareth? Your answer to that question is arguably the most important one you will ever give…
This article was composed from personal notes compiled primarily from the work of one of my favorite Christian Apologists, Josh McDowell, and his excellent book, The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict I & II. Copyright 1999.