Jesus: Liar, Lunatic, or Lord?
By Oleg Kostyuk
Jesus never existed. That was the dominant view in the Soviet Union throughout the twentieth century. The leadership of the country took this view so seriously that arguments against the existence of Jesus were included in school and university textbooks.
Today this view is far from dominant, as neither skeptics nor critical biblical scholars could refute the wealth of evidence for the existence of Jesus.1 But the debate over who Jesus really was has never been as intense as it is right now. The past decade has seen a particular increase in controversies regarding Jesus. In 2003 and 2005 it was Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, in 2006 it was The Lost Gospel of Judas, in 2007 it was The Lost Tomb of Jesus, in 2012 it was The Resurrection Tomb Mystery. To the believer it can be easy to dismiss all of these controversies as senseless noise coming from an unbelieving world; yet it is crucial to understand how truly inaccurate these claims are. While most people and scholars seem to agree that Jesus did in fact live, there is much discussion about the key question of who He really was.
Jesus Is God
For a Christian the key question is whether or not Jesus really was God. Some say that He was a wisdom sage;2 others opine that He was an apocalyptic prophet;3 still others say that Jesus was the Savior.4 There are even biblical scholars who claim that the Gospels themselves present impediments to the interpretation that Jesus was divine. Skeptics point to the fact that in the earliest Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) Jesus never explicitly claimed to be God. They claim that the concept of Jesus’ divinity was a later Christian invention that can be found only in the Gospel of John (John 8:58; 10:30; 20:28), which was written much later than the other three Gospels.5 So are they right? Is the divinity of Jesus simply an invention of early church founders?
The Gospel according to Mark is generally regarded as the first written account of Jesus’ life. From its very beginning we can see clear claims that Jesus was in fact God. Mark 2 tells the story of Jesus healing the paralytic. What is interesting to note in this story is that Jesus does not just heal the man, but forgives his sins. The crowd’s reaction to this statement is remarkable: “Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Mark 2:7, NIV).6 Those who witnessed this act knew that the forgiveness of sins is a prerogative only of God. But here Jesus clearly demonstrated His divinity by words and by action. In the same chapter Jesus goes on to declare that He is “the Lord of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:28). This was truly a bold statement. Even God Himself respected the Sabbath; so with this proclamation, Jesus was putting Himself on equal ground with God.
In the very next chapter we find another clear example of the divinity of Jesus. The scribes accused Jesus of casting out demons by Beelzebub, the ruler of the demons (Mark 3:22). But Jesus’ response presents another divine claim: “In fact, no one can enter a strong man’s house without first tying him up. Then he can plunder the strong man’s house” (verse 27, NIV). Satan is a strong man of this world, but Jesus is stronger, and He releases the hostages of satanic bondage. Only God has the authority to bind Satan.
A careful reading of the first few chapters of the first recorded Gospel suggests that (1) Jesus had authority to forgive sins; (2) He was the Lord of the Sabbath; and (3) He had authority over Satan. All of these are characteristics of God and God only.
Perhaps C. S. Lewis said it best in his book Mere Christianity: “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 with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”7
We live in a world in which very smart and learned people claim that Christ was no more than a wise teacher who was only later tagged as “divine” by His followers. Yet we see that even the earliest account of Jesus’ life has clear and overt references to His divinity. If God (in Jesus) was willing to come to our rescue, we can but give ourselves to Him in exchange—heart, warts, and everything. His atoning sacrifice is our only hope. His presence fills the hole left in our hearts when Adam and Eve listened to the serpent. His victory will be ours.
1 There are at least eight undisputable facts about Jesus: (1) Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist; (2) Jesus was a Galilean who preached and healed; (3) Jesus called disciples and spoke of there being 12; (4) Jesus confined His activity to Israel; (5) Jesus engaged in controversy about the Temple; (6) Jesus was crucified outside Jerusalem by the Roman authorities; (7) after His death Jesus’ followers continued as an identifiable movement; (8) at least some Jews persecuted at least parts of the new movement (Gal. 1:13, 22; Phil. 3:6), and it appears that this persecution endured at least to a time near the end of Paul’s career (2 Cor. 11:24; Gal. 5:11; 6:12; cf. Matt. 23:34; 10:17). Cf. E. P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1985), p. 11.
2 Scholars who suggest this viewpoint include John Dominic Crossan, Robert Funk, Burton Mack, and Stephen J. Patterson.
3 Bart Ehrman, Paula Fredriksen, Gerd Lüdemann, John P. Meier, and E. P. Sanders adhere to this theory.
4 Some representatives of the Jesus the Savior theory include Luke Timothy Johnson, Robert H. Stein, and N. T. Wright.
5 Bart D. Ehrman, Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and Why We Don’t Know About Them) (New York: Harper Collins, 2009), p. 249.
6 Texts credited to NIV are from the Holy Bible, New International Version. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
7 C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Macmillan, 1952), pp. 40, 41.
Oleg Kostyuk, a native of Ukraine, is the writer and host of CrossConnection, a weekly live program focusing upon the New Testament Gospels that airs on Hope Channel. He lives with his wife, Julia, in Columbia, Maryland, U.S.A. You can watch him every Tuesday on hopetv.org/crossconnection.