Why I Am a Christian, Part 2: Because of Jesus

In his book Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis spelled out the famous trilemma about Jesus: either he was who he claimed to be–the Messiah, Son of God, Lord of all–or he was completely deluded or deceitful to the core.  He was not merely a great moral teacher.  Great moral teachers don’t make the kinds of claims he made about himself unless they are true.  For a man to claim to be God in the flesh when he is not, in fact, God in the flesh, is to commit blasphemy.  So, if Jesus was not God in the flesh, then he either blasphemed from a diabolical motive to deceive or because he was not right in the head.  Take your pick.  But we must put aside the nonsensical idea that he was nothing more than a great teacher.  As Lewis wrote, “He has not left that option open to us.  He did not intend to.” 

One of the main reasons I am a Christian is because I find Jesus to be a person who warrants my trust in what he has claimed about himself.  Almost no one would be willing to call him a crazy man or a blaspheming liar.  I know I certainly won’t.  And if he is not these things, then there is only one option left: he is God Incarnate.  And if he is God Incarnate, then his claim to be the center of the universe, the center of God’s redemptive activity, along with his claim of absolute lordship over the lives of every single human being, comes with a weight of authority that I cannot ignore.

There is one way to get around the trilemma, and that is to claim that the Jesus of the Gospels is not the real, historical Jesus.  One could argue that the Jesus who claims to be God and puts himself in the place of God is an invention of the early church, but the real Jesus was much more like an itinerant rabbi who specialized in moral teachings.  Many scholars argue that the claims of Jesus in the Gospels that indicate a high Christology are sayings placed on his lips by the early church, not his own words.

This argument simply will not do.  First, it is based on faulty presuppositions.  One of the most important rules in determining the authentic sayings of Jesus in critical scholarship today is the so-called “criterion of dissimilarity.”  In other words, anything that is attributed to Jesus that is dissimilar from the prevailing thought world of his Jewish background and that of the early church is judged likely to be authentic.  And while I would certainly agree that such statements are authentic, should we necessarily conclude that sayings that do not measure up are less likely to be authentic?  Jesus was, after all, a first-century rabbi and the founder of Christianity.  Is it really fair to pretend that we can abstract him from his context and then attribute to him such a faulty teaching ability that the real heart of his teaching very quickly became corrupted by the overzealous (and yes, blasphemous!) admiration that his followers had for him?  To insist on dissimilarity is to insist on an ahistorical Jesus, not a historical one. 

Second, this view requires us to believe that the early church continually produced new Jesus-sayings without any regard to whether they were truly his words or not.  But from the evidence we have, it appears that the New Testament authors were very concerned about truth in their reporting of history.  Luke places great emphasis on his research into eyewitness accounts (Luke 1:1-4).  When Paul faces a pastoral situation not directly addressed by Jesus, he doesn’t invent a Jesus-saying to address it.  He carefully distinguishes between what the historical Jesus said and what Paul as an inspired Apostle now says in light of a new situation (1 Cor. 7:10, 12).  And if the church was regularly in the habit of placing sayings on the lips of Jesus, then why are so many important issues left without any direct comment from him?  For example, the most important debate that rocked the infant church was on what terms to accept Gentiles: circumcised or uncircumcised?  We have no record that Jesus ever said a thing about this directly (certainly, much of what he said has implications for this debate, but there is no decisive word from him).  If the early church could have invented a Jesus saying to address this problem, then why do we have no Jesus saying that addresses it?  The best explanation is that the church simply did not engage in the practice; Jesus probably never addressed the question directly. 

Third, even if we accept the critical presuppositions about what constitutes an authentic saying of Jesus (which I don’t, but will for the sake of argument), we still cannot get around the fact that he made some wildly extravagant claims about himself.  Take Matthew 24:36, for example: “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.”  This saying cannot be attributed to the early church, for the church would not have invented a saying in which Jesus confesses his own ignorance about something.  So it must be authentic, even by critical standards.  While we normally pay closest attention to the fact that Jesus plainly says he does not know something, we should not miss the extraordinarily high Christology of this verse.  When he lists off those who do not know the day of his coming, he lists the angels of heaven first, and then himself, as though his own ignorance is more significant than theirs.  He stands above even the angels of heaven, subordinate to the Father alone!  How this coheres with an orthodox Christology is not my purpose to explain right now (I believe it does cohere).  The point, rather, is that even in this indisputably authentic statement, Jesus makes a wildly extravagant claim about who he is.  The Jesus of history, if he was not far more than a mere human being, was at the very least an egotistical maniac, prone to placing himself above all created things.  Almost everything he said and did (whether judged authentic or not by critical standards) is stamped with this kind of exalted view of himself. 

I find it extremely hard to believe that the person I encounter in the Gospels was a blaspheming lunatic or a blaspheming liar.  I find it even harder to believe that, if he was one or the other, he managed to hide that fact from those who knew him best and then to inspire them to lay down their lives even as they changed the world with the message that focused directly on him.  Some cult leaders (who are indeed egotistical, blaspheming lunatics) have managed to inspire a short-lived following, but none have had anything close to the far-reaching, enduring impact of this man.  He could not have been a mere moral teacher.  He made too much of himself for that.  I don’t find it possible to view him as a crazy man or a deceiver.  My only option is to bow at his feet and say, “My Lord and my God.”

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2 Responses to “Why I Am a Christian, Part 2: Because of Jesus”

  1. John Hoopman Says:

    I was wondering if you mind taking a moment and sharing something with me about your beliefs? This could also apply to any of your visitors here at the blog: if anyone reading this would like to email me your answer, I’d greatly appreciate it.

    The question is this: thinking about your religious belief and its importance to you, what is the SINGLE greatest thing that you think your faith gives you know or will give you in the future? When thinking about it, please consider that you are trying to convince another human being that your faith is the one they should choose and you can only make one single argument for accepting it.

    I greatly appreciate the help. Again, I’m not looking for a series of good reasons for believing what you do. Please limit your answer to ONE thing or advantage that your faith gives you.

  2. John Hoopman Says:

    Sorry! Email address is hoopman4you@yahoo.com

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