It is impossible for us to know conclusively whether God exists and what he is like unless he takes the initiative and reveals himself. We must know what he is like and his attitude toward us. Suppose we knew he existed, but that he was like Adolph Hitler – capricious, vicious, prejudiced, and cruel. What a horrible realization that would be!
We must scan the horizon of history to see if there is any clue to God’s revelation. There is one clear clue. In an obscure village in Palestine, almost 2,000 years ago, a child was born in a stable. His birth was feared by the reigning monarch, Herod. In an attempt to destroy this baby, who was said to be the King of Jews, Herod had many infants killed in what history knows as the “slaughter of the innocents.”
The baby Jesus and his parents settled in Nazareth, where he learned his father’s trade of carpentry. He was an unusual child. When he was twelve years old, he confounded the scholars and rabbis in Jerusalem. When his parents remonstrated with him because he had stayed behind after they departed, he made the strange reply, “Don’t you realize I must be about my Father’s business?” This answer implied a unique relationship between him and God.
He lived in obscurity until he was thirty, and then began a public ministry that lasted for three years. It was destined to change the course of history.
He was a dynamic person and we’re told that “the common people heard him gladly.” Unlike the religious teachers of his time, “He spoke with authority, and not as the scribes and Pharisees.”
It soon became apparent, however, that he was making shocking and startling statements about himself. He began to identify himself as far more than a remarkable teacher or a prophet. He began to say clearly that he was deity. He made his identity the focal point of his teaching. The all-important question he put to those who followed him was, “Who do you say that I am?” When Peter answered and said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:15, 16). He was not shocked, nor did he rebuke Peter. On the contrary, he commended him!
He made the claim explicitly, and his hearers got the full impact of his words. We are told, “This was why the Jews sought all the more to kill him, because he not only broke the sabbath but also called God his Father, making himself equal with God” (John 5:18).
On another occasion, he said, “I and the Father are one.” Immediately the Jews wanted to stone him. He asked them for which good work they wanted to kill him. They replied, “We stone you for no good work but for blasphemy; because you, being a man, make yourself God” (John 10:30-33).
Jesus clearly claimed attributes which only God has. When a paralytic was let down through a roof and placed at his feet, he said, “My son, your sins are forgiven.” This caused a great to-do among the scribes, who said in their hearts, “Why does this man speak thus? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” Jesus, knowing their thoughts, said to them, “Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, take up your pallet and walk’?” Then he said, in effect, ” ‘But that you may know that the Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins’ – he said to the paralytic — ‘I say to you, rise, take up your pallet and go home’ ” (Mark 2:5,7-11).
That the title “Son of man” is an assertion of deity, rather than being a disclaimer of it as some have suggested, is seen in the attributes Jesus claims as Son of man. These obviously are true only of God.
At the critical moment when his life was at stake because of this claim, he asserted it to the high priest, who had put the question to him directly: “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” He said, “I am.” Then he continued, “And you will see the Son of man sitting at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.” The high priest tore his clothes in a rage and said, “Why do we still need witnesses? You have heard his blasphemy” (Mark 14:61-64).
“So close was his connection with God that he equated a man’s attitude to himself with the man’s attitude to God. Thus, to know him was to know God (John 8:19, 14:7). To see him was to see God (12:45, 14:9). To believe in him was to believe in God (12:44, 14:1). To receive him was to receive God (Mark 9:37). To hate him was to bate God (John 15:23). And to honor him was to honor God (5:23).”1
As we face the claims of Christ, there are only four possibilities. He was either a liar, a lunatic, a legend, or the Truth. If we say he is not the Truth, we are automatically affirming one of the other three alternatives, whether we realize it or not. When friends of ours take this position, we should invite them to show us what evidence they have that would lead us to adopt it. Often they realize, for the first time, that there is no evidence to support their views. Rather, all the evidence points in the other direction.
One possibility is that Jesus Christ lied when he said he was God – that he knew he was not God, but deliberately deceived his hearers to lend authority to his teaching. Few, if any, seriously hold this position. Even those who deny his deity affirm that they think Jesus was a great moral teacher. They fail to realize those two statements are a contradiction. Jesus could hardly be a great moral teacher if, on the most crucial point of his teaching, i.e., his identity, he was a deliberate liar.
A kinder, though no less shocking possibility, is that he was sincere but self-deceived. We have a name for a person today who thinks he is God – or a poached egg! That name is lunatic, and it certainly would apply to Christ if he were deceived on this all-important issue.
But as we look at the life of Christ, we see no evidence of the abnormality and imbalance we find in a deranged person. Rather, we find the greatest composure under pressure. At his trial before Pilate, when his very life was at stake, he was calm and serene. As C. S. Lewis put it, “The discrepancy between the depth [and (let me add) shrewdness] of His moral teaching and the rampant megalomenia which must lie behind His theological teaching unless He is indeed God has never been satisfactorily got over.”2
The third alternative is that all of the talk about his claiming to be God is a legend — that what actually happened was that his enthusiastic followers, in the third and fourth centuries, put words into his mouth he would have been shocked to hear. Were he to return he would immediately repudiate them.
The problem with the legend theory is the discoveries of modern archaeology. It has been conclusively shown that the four biographies of Christ were written within the lifetime of contemporaries of Christ. Some time ago Dr. William F. Albright, world-famous archaeologist, now retired from Johns Hopkins University, said that there was no reason to believe that any of the Gospels was written later than A.D. 70. For a mere legend about Christ, in the form of the Gospel, to have gained the circulation and to have had the impact it had, without one shred of basis in fact, is incredible. For this to have happened would be as fantastic as for someone in our own time to write a biography of the late Franklin Delano Roosevelt and in it say he claimed to be God, to forgive people’s sins, and to have risen from the dead. Such a story is so wild it would never get off the ground because there are still too many people around who knew Roosevelt! The legend theory does not hold water in the light of the early date of the Gospel manuscripts.
The only other alternative is that Jesus spoke the truth.
From one point of view, however, claims don’t mean much.
Talk is cheap. Anyone can make claims. There have been others who have claimed deity. One was Father Divine, of Philadelphia, now deceased. I could claim to be God, and you could claim to be God, but the question all of us must answer is, What credentials do we bring to substantiate our claim? In my case it wouldn’t take you five minutes to disprove my claim. It probably wouldn’t take too much more to dispose of yours. It certainly wasn’t difficult to show that Father Divine was not God. But when it comes to Jesus of Nazareth, it’s not so simple. He had the credentials to back up his claim. He said, “Though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father” (John 10:38).
What were his credentials?
First, his character coincided with his claims. We saw earlier that many asylum inmates claim to be various people. But their claims are contradicted by their character. Not so with Christ. We do not compare Christ with others – we contrast him with all others. He is unique – as unique as God.
Jesus Christ was sinless. The caliber of his life was such that he was able to challenge his enemies with the question, “Which of you convicts me of sin?” (John 8:46). He was met by silence, even though he addressed those who would have liked to point out a flaw in his character.
We read of the temptations of Jesus, but we never hear of a confession of sin on his part. He never asks for forgiveness, though he tells his followers to do so.
This lack of any sense of moral failure on Jesus’ part is astonishing in view of the fact that it is completely contrary to the experience of the saints and mystics in all ages. The closer men and women draw to God, the more overwhelmed they are with their own failure, corruption, and shortcoming. The closer one is to a shining light, the more he realizes his need of a bath. This is true also, in the moral realm, for ordinary mortals.
It is also striking that John, Paul, and Peter, all of whom were trained from earliest childhood to believe in the universality of sin, all speak of the sinlessness of Christ: “He committed no sin; no guile was found on his lips” ( 1 Peter 2:22); “in him there is no sin” (1 John 3:5); Jesus “knew no sin” (2 Corinthians 5:21).
Pilate, no friend of Jesus, said, “What evil has he done?” He implicitly recognized Christ’s innocence. And the Roman centurion who witnessed the death of Christ said, “Truly this was the Son of God” (Matthew 27:54).
In Jesus we find the perfect personality. Ramm points out, “If God were a man, we would expect His personality to be true humanity. Only God could tell us what a true man should be like. Certainly there are anticipations of the perfect man in the piety of the Old Testament. Foremost must be a complete God-consciousness, coupled with a complete dedication and consecration of life to God. Then, ranked below this, are the other virtues, graces, and attributes that characterize perfect humanity. Intelligence must not stifle piety, and prayer must not be a substitute for work, and zeal must not be irrational fanaticism, and reserve must not become stolidity. In Christ we have the perfect blend of personality traits, because as God Incarnate He is perfect humanity. Schaff describes our Lord, with reference to this point of our discussion, as follows: ‘His zeal never degenerated into passion, nor His constancy into obstinacy, nor His benevolence into weakness, nor His tenderness into sentimentality. His unworldliness was free from indifference and unsociability or undue familiarity; His self-denial from moroseness; His temperance from austerity. He combined child-like innocency with manly strength, absorbing devotion to God with untiring interest in the welfare of man, tender love to the sinner with uncompromising severity against sin, commanding dignity with winning humility, fearless courage with wise caution, unyielding firmness with sweet gentleness!’ “3
Christ demonstrated a power over natural forces which could belong only to God, the author of these forces.
He stilled a raging storm of wind and waves on the Sea of Galilee. In doing this he provoked from those in the boat the awestruck question, “Who then is this, that even wind and sea obey him?” (Mark 4:41) He turned water into wine, fed 5,000 people from five loaves and two fish, gave a grieving widow back her only son by raising him from the dead, and brought to life the dead daughter of a shattered father. To an old friend he said, “Lazarus. come forth!” and dramatically raised him from the dead. It is most significant that his enemies did not deny this miracle. Rather, they tried to kill him. “If we let him go on thus,” they said, “everyone will believe in him” (John 11:48).
Jesus demonstrated the Creator’s power over sickness and disease. He made the lame to walk, the dumb to speak, and the blind to see. Some of his healings were of congenital problems not susceptible to psychosomatic cure. The most outstanding was that of the blind man whose case is recorded in John 9. Though the man couldn’t answer his speculative questioners, his experience was enough to convince him. “Though I was blind, now I see,” he declared. He was astounded that his friends didn’t recognize his healer as the Son of God. “Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a man born blind,” he said. To him the evidence was obvious.
Jesus’ supreme credential to authenticate his claim to deity was his resurrection from the dead. Five times in the course of his life he predicted he would die. He also predicted how he would die and that three days later he would rise from the dead and appear to his disciples.
Surely this was the great test. It was a claim that was easy to verify. It either happened or it didn’t.
The resurrection is so crucial and foundational a subject we will devote a whole chapter to it. If the resurrection happened, there is no difficulty with any other miracles. And if we establish the resurrection, we have the answer to the big question of God, his character, and our relationship to him. An answer to this question makes possible answers to all subsidiary questions.
Christ moved history as only God could do. Schaff very graphically says, “This Jesus of Nazareth, without money and arms, conquered more millions than Alexander, Caesar, Mohammed, and Napoleon; without science and learning, he shed more light on matters human and divine than all philosophers and scholars combined; without the eloquence of schools, he spoke such words of life as were never spoken before or since and produced effects which lie beyond the reach of orator or poet; without writing a single line, he set more pens in motion, and furnished themes for more sermons, orations, discussions, learned volumes, works of art, and songs of praise than the whole army of great men of ancient and modern times.”
Finally, we know that Christ is God because he can be experienced in the twentieth century. Experience in itself is not conclusive, but combined with the historic objective fact of the resurrection it gives the basis for solid conviction. What other hypothesis is there to explain all the data than the profound fact that Jesus Christ is God the Son?