by Dr. Phil Fernandes
A chapter from his doctoral dissertation
© 1997, Institute of Biblical Defense, All Rights Reserved
The deity of Christ is hard to accept for many people. For one to admit that Jesus is God in the flesh is to admit that he owes Him complete allegiance. Recognition of Jesus’ Godhood calls for the abandonment of one’s autonomy. Therefore, many people refuse to worship Jesus as God and consider Him to be merely a great human teacher. Mohandas K. Gandhi said of Christ:
It was more than I could believe that Jesus was the only incarnate son of God. And that only he who believed in Him would have everlasting life. If God could have sons, all of us were His sons. If Jesus was like God . . . then all men were like God and could be God Himself.1
The internationally respected theologian, John Hick, also denies Christ’s deity:
Now it used to be assumed—and in some Christian circles is still assumed—that this Jesus, who lived in Palestine in the first third of the first century AD, was conscious of being God incarnate, so that you must either believe him or reject him as a deceiver or a megalomaniac. “Mad, bad, or God” went the argument. And of course if Jesus did indeed claim to be God incarnate, then this dilemma, or trilemma, does arise. But did he claim this? The assumption that he did is largely based on the Fourth Gospel, for it is here that Jesus makes precisely such claims. He says “I and the Father are one,” “No one comes to the Father, but by me” and “He who has seen me has seen the Father.” But it is no secret today, after more than a hundred years of scholarly study of the scriptures, that very few New Testament experts now hold that the Jesus who actually lived ever spoke those words, or their Aramaic equivalents. They are much more probably words put into his mouth by a Christian writer who is expressing the view of Christ which had been arrived at in his part of the church, probably two or three generations after Jesus’ death. And it is likewise doubted whether the few sayings of the same kind in the other gospels are authentic words of Jesus. How, then, did this Christian deification of Jesus—which began within the first decades after his death and was essentially completed by the end of the first century—take place? Such a development is not as hard to understand in the ancient world as it would be today. . .2
It is interesting that Hick admits that the New Testament, quotes Jesus as claiming to be God. Second, he acknowledges that the deity of Christ was being taught within a few decades of Christ’s death (which is what the creeds prove). And, third, Hick recognizes that the deity of Christ was completely established as church doctrine by the end of the first century AD. However, by admitting these three facts, Hick is inadvertently conceding that all the available evidence points to the authenticity of Christ’s claims to be God. Surely the apostles would have stopped this heresy (if indeed it was a heresy) when it started just decades after Christ’s death. The Apostle John would also have opposed this teaching as it was being established as church dogma at the end of the first century AD.
Contrary to what John Hick believes, true scholarship bases its decisions on the evidence, not on mere speculation. All the available evidence points to the fact that Christ did claim to be God. The eyewitnesses who heard these claims died horrible deaths refusing to deny their validity. No liberal scholar has ever proposed an adequate explanation as to how a legend that Jesus claimed to be God could develop while the original apostles (those who personally knew Christ) were still alive and leading the new church. Legends take centuries to develop into dogma.3 Any attempted origination of legends cannot get started while honest eyewitnesses are still alive (especially if these honest eyewitnesses hold positions of authority in the church). Therefore, liberal scholars like Hick can believe what they wish. However, to deny that Christ claimed to be God is to simply ignore all the available evidence. Liberal scholars throw out any passages of the Bible that do not agree with their antisupernaturalistic biases, but this is not true scholarship. True scholarship examines the evidence; it does not speculate as to how the evidence can be explained away. The World Book Encyclopedia is an example of the high regard in which many people esteem Jesus, while stopping short of calling Him God:
Jesus Christ was the founder of the Christian religion. Christians believe that He is the Son of God who was sent to earth to save mankind. Even many persons who are not Christians believe that He was a great and wise teacher. He has probably influenced humanity more than anyone else who ever lived.4
It is not wise to call Jesus merely a great man and teacher since He claimed to be God. For no merely great man or wise teacher would claim to be God. If Jesus claimed to be God, then we must view Him as either a liar, insane, or God. There are no other alternatives, and no ignoring of the evidence will help.
JESUS CLAIMED TO BE GOD
In chapter twenty-five it was shown that the message found in the New Testament is one and the same as the message of the first generation church. The ancient creeds found in the New Testament predate the New Testament and represent the teachings of the apostles themselves.5 Several of these ancient creeds teach the deity of Christ (Philippians 2:5-11; Romans 10:9-10; 1 Timothy 3:16). Therefore, there is no reason to doubt that Jesus claimed to be God. The leaders of the first generation church taught that Jesus is God, and they were willing to die for their testimony. Hence, there is no reason (apart from an a priori bias) to reject the claims of deity made by Christ in the New Testament. The Jews understood that Jesus was claiming to be God:
But He answered them, “My Father is working until now, and I myself am working.” For this cause the Jews were seeking all the more to kill Him, because He not only was breaking the Sabbath, but also was calling God His own Father, making Himself equal with God (John 5:17-18).
Whenever Jesus spoke of a unique Father-Son relationship between God the Father and Himself, the Jews understood Him to be claiming equality with God the Father. Jesus spoke to the Jews in their language. He communicated to them on their terms. They understood Jesus to be claiming to be deity. If Jesus never meant to claim to be God, then He was one of the poorest communicators who ever lived. If Jesus was misunderstood by His listeners, He should have clarified His words. A clear and articulate representation of His words would have been in His best interest; He was executed for blasphemy (Mark 14:60-64).
Jesus taught that He deserved the same honor that the Father deserved:
For not even the Father judges anyone, But He has given all judgment to the Son, in order that all may honor the Son, even as they honor the Father. He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent Him (John 5:22-23).
Since the Father is God, the honor due Him is worship. Therefore, Jesus taught that He also deserved to be worshiped. Despite the fact that the Old Testament Law forbid the worship of any being other than God (Exodus 20:1-6), Jesus accepted worship on numerous occasions (Matthew 2:11; 14:33; 28:9; John 9:38; 20:28-29). Jesus also stated:
You are from below, I am from above; you are of this world, I am not of this world. I said therefore to you, that you shall die in your sins; for unless you believe that I am He, you shall die in your sins. . . . Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was born, I am (John 8:23-24; 58).
The Jewish religious leaders understood Jesus’ claim to deity in this passage: “they picked up stones to throw at Him” (John 8:59). The comments of J. Dwight Pentecost are helpful:
Christ affirmed, “Before Abraham was born, I am!” (v. 58). “I AM” was the name of the Self-existing God who had revealed Himself to Moses at the burning bush (Exod. 3:14). Jesus Christ was claiming to be “I AM”, the Self-existent God. He was claiming eternity. To the Jews this was blasphemy.6
Merrill C. Tenney also elaborates on this specific claim of Christ:
In actuality the phrase “I am” is an assertion of absolute, timeless existence, not merely of a personal identity as the English equivalent would suggest. A comparison of the use of the phrase, “I am” with self-revelation of Jehovah in the Old Testament shows that much the same terminology was employed. God, in commissioning Moses (Ex. 3:14), said: “Thus shalt thou say to unto the children of Israel, I AM hath sent me unto you.” When the Jews heard Jesus say, “Before Abraham was born, I am,” they took the statement to mean not priority to Abraham, but an assertion of deity. To them it was blasphemy, and they picked up stones to cast at Him.7
It is important to note two things about this passage. First, Jesus did not say, “Before Abraham was, I was.” This would have been merely a claim to have preexisted Abraham. Though this would be a bold claim in itself, Christ actually said far more than that. Jesus was claiming that His existence is always in the present tense. In other words, He was claiming eternal existence for Himself. He was declaring himself to have absolutely no beginning. He was claiming that He was not bound by time. He was declaring Himself to be the eternal God. Second, Christ probably spoke these words in Aramaic (the common language of the Hebrews of his day). Therefore, He probably did not use the Greek words “ego eimi” for “I AM.” Rather, He would have used the Hebrew “YHWH.” This was the title for the eternal God. Out of reverence for God, the Jews never spoke this word. So here, Christ was not only be speaking the unspeakable title of God (YHWH), but He was using it to refer to Himself. Properly understood, this was probably Christ’s most unambiguous claim to deity. The Jews clearly understood this, and for this reason they attempted to stone him. Another clear claim to deity made by Christ is the following passage:
“I and the Father are one.” The Jews took up stones again to stone Him. Jesus answered them, “I showed you many good works from the Father; for which of them are you stoning Me?” The Jews answered Him, “For a good work we do not stone You, but for blasphemy; and because You, being a man, make yourself out to be God” (John 10:30-33).
Concerning this passage, Merrill F. Unger wrote, “Jesus asserted His unity of essence with the Father, hence His unequivocal deity. . . and the Jews understood Him.”8 In this passage, Jesus clearly claimed to be equal with God the Father. Christ said that His nature is identical to that of the Father. The Jews understood Him to be calling Himself God. They later sentenced Him to death for these claims to deity.
Jesus also made other claims to deity. He said that, “He who has seen Me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). When He prayed to the Father, He asked the Father to return to Him the glory which He and the Father shared before the universe was created (John 17:5).
The apostles were Jesus’ closest associates. They were more familiar with the teachings of Christ than anyone else and they called Jesus God (Matthew 1:23; John 1:1; John 20:28; Philippians 2:6; Colossians 2:9; Titus 2:13; 2 Peter 1:1). This is further confirmation that Jesus did in fact claim to be God.
Considering the strong evidence for the reliability of the New Testament, Christ’s claims to deity cannot be considered as legends. The teaching that Jesus is God predates the New Testament (as shown in the ancient creeds), and is best explained by attributing the source of this doctrine to Jesus Himself. It must be remembered that the apostles were not liars. They were sincere enough about their beliefs to die for them, and they recorded unambiguous statements made by Christ attributing deity to Himself.
The deity of Christ is not a legend. Jesus claimed to be God incarnate. Hence, one cannot consider Him to be simply a great man; for no mere man claims to be God. If Jesus is not God, then He was either a liar or insane. There are no other options.
JESUS WAS NOT A LIAR
The absurd idea that Jesus was a liar who claimed to be God can be easily refuted. For Christ is considered, even by many who reject His claim to deity, to have taught the highest standard of morality known to man. His teachings have motivated such actions as the abolition of slavery, government by the consent of the people, the modern hospital system, education for all children, and charitable programs for the needy. A liar could not have possibly encouraged these movements.
Christ has had a positive impact on mankind like no other person. It is extremely unlikely that so much good could come from a deceiver who led people astray by claiming to be God. The eyewitness accounts of the apostles display the tremendous love Christ had for people. It is not possible that a self-centered and egotistical liar could express genuine affection for his fellow man like that expressed by Christ. The question can also be asked, “Would a liar die for his lie?” It is doubtful that Jesus would lie and then suffer death by crucifixion as a consequence.
It has already been shown that the resurrection of Jesus was a historical event and not a hoax. But, why would God raise a blaspheming liar from the dead? Christ offered His resurrection as proof for His claims to deity (John 2:18-21; Matthew 12:38-40). Therefore, His resurrection proves the validity of His claims to be God. He claimed to be God and then proved it by doing what no mere man could do—He rose from the dead.
JESUS WAS NOT INSANE
Christ’s claims to deity have been shown not to be legends or lies, but the possibility remains that Jesus may have been insane. Could it be that Jesus claimed to be God because He was mentally disturbed?
Often, people compare Jesus of Nazareth with other respected religious leaders. However, very few of these leaders (if any) claimed to be God in a unique sense. Some have claimed to be God, but then teach that we are all God. Jesus claimed to be God in a sense that no other man could claim to be God. Usually, when a religious leader makes a claim as bold as this, it is evidence that he is unbalanced. Charles Manson and David Koresh are two examples of this type of religious leader. The evidence for their instability is obvious. However, this is not so in the case of Jesus. He made bold claims to deity, but also backed these claims by the life He lived and the things He did.
Declaring Christ to be insane is not a common view. Nearly everyone admits that He was a great teacher, even if they reject His deity. However, insane people make lousy teachers. The teachings of Christ are not the teachings of a mad man. They are the greatest teachings ever taught by a man, and this man claimed to be God incarnate.
The miraculous life of Christ is also evidence that He was not insane. Christ gave evidence for His bold claims through His supernatural works. The apostles were eyewitnesses of these miracles. Even the enemies of Christ, the Jewish religious leaders of His day, did not deny His miracles. Instead, they stated in their Talmud that Jesus “practiced sorcery.”9 Though they rejected Jesus’ message, they were forced to admit that He did supernatural works. However, the powerful influence for good that Christ has had upon mankind declares His miracles to be from God and not from Satan. Therefore, Jesus’ miracles show that He was not insane. They provide strong evidence to support His claim to be God.
Another piece of evidence that shows Christ was not insane is the fact that His life and works were prophesied hundreds of years before His birth. A small fraction of the prophecies He fulfilled are listed below:
- He was a descendant of Abraham (Genesis 12:1-3; fulfilled in Matthew 1:1-2 and Luke 3:34)
- He was from the tribe of Judah (Genesis 49:10; fulfilled in Matthew 1:3 and Luke 3:33)
- He was a descendant of Jesse (Isaiah 11:1; fulfilled in Matthew 1:5-6 and Luke 3:32)
- He was a descendant of David (Jeremiah 23:5; fulfilled in Matthew 1:1, 6 and Luke 3:31)
- He was born to a virgin (Isaiah 7:14; fulfilled in Matthew 1:18-25 and Luke 1:34-35)
- He was born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2; fulfilled in Matthew 2:1 and Luke 2:1-7)
- His birth announced by a star (Numbers 24:7; fulfilled in Matthew 2:1-2)
- His forerunner (Isaiah 40:3; fulfilled in Matthew 3:1-3 and Mark 1:2-4)
- The specific time of His first coming (Daniel 9:24-27 predicts that the Messiah would be executed before the temple would be destroyed. The destruction of the temple occurred in 70AD. Matthew 27:1-2, 26 states that Jesus was crucified when Pilate was governor of Judea. Pilate reigned as governor in Judea from 26AD to 36AD.)
- His miracles (Isaiah 35:4-6; fulfilled in Matthew 11:1-6)
- His parables (Psalm 78:2; fulfilled in Matthew 13:3)
- He was rejected by the Jews (Isaiah 53; fulfilled in Matthew 23:37; 27:22-25; Romans 10:1-3; 11:25)
- He received a wide Gentile following (Isaiah 42:1-4; fulfilled in Romans 9:30-33; 11:11 and confirmed in the history of the church)
- He was betrayed for 30 pieces of silver (Zechariah 11:12-13; fulfilled in Matthew 26:14-16)
- He was forsaken by His disciples (Zechariah 13:7; fulfilled in Matthew 26:56)
- He entered Jerusalem on a donkey while receiving a king’s welcome (Zechariah 9:9; fulfilled in Matthew 21:1-11)
- He was silent before His accusers (Isaiah 53:7; fulfilled in Matthew 26:63; 27:14)
- He was crucified (Psalm 22:16; fulfilled in Matthew 27:35)
- Soldiers cast lots for His garments (Psalm 22:18; fulfilled in Matthew 27:35)
- His bones were not broken (Psalm 34:20; fulfilled in John 19:31-34)
- His side was pierced (Zechariah 12:10; fulfilled in John 19:34)
- He was buried in a rich man’s tomb (Isaiah 53:9; fulfilled in Matthew 27:57-60)
- His resurrection from the dead (Psalm 16:10; fulfilled in Matthew 28:1-9)
- His ascension (Psalm 68:18; fulfilled in Acts 1:9-11)
- His position at the Father’s right hand (Psalm 110:1; fulfilled in Hebrews 1:3)
As was noted earlier, these are just a few of the many prophecies that were fulfilled by Christ.10 Even liberal scholars admit that these prophecies were recorded hundreds of years before Christ’s birth. Although they deny the traditional early dates of the Old Testament books, it is almost universally accepted that the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament) was completed two hundred years before Christ was born.11
Most liberals do not consider some of the prophecies listed above as having been fulfilled by Christ. This is because these liberals a priori deny the possibility of miracles. Since they deny Christ’s resurrection, they also deny that Christ fulfilled the Old Testament prophecy of the resurrection. Even if one removes the Old Testament predictions concerning the supernatural aspects of Christ’s life, one is still left with the evidence from the fulfillment of prophecies of the non-supernatural aspects of Christ’s life. Norman Geisler has noted that the chances of Christ fulfilling just sixteen of these prophecies by mere coincidence are 1 in 1045 (a one with forty-five zeroes after it).12
In fact, three of these Old Testament predictions concerning the Messiah—Daniel 9:26; Isaiah 42:4; Isaiah 53—are enough to prove that only Jesus of Nazareth meets the messianic qualifications. Daniel 9:26 stated that the Messiah would be executed before the destruction of the temple (which occurred in 70AD). Isaiah 42:4 teaches that the Gentile nations would expectantly await Christ’s law. Isaiah 53 declares that the Jews would reject their Messiah. Jesus of Nazareth is the only person in history who has fulfilled all three of these prophecies. He claimed to be the Jewish Messiah and was crucified around 30AD (forty years before the temple was destroyed), the Jews rejected Him, and He received a wide Gentile following.
The life of an insane man would not be prophesied. It is also unlikely that these predictions would refer to an insane man as the Messiah (God’s anointed one) and “the mighty God” (Isaiah 9:6). More than 200 years before Jesus’ birth, His life and works were predicted. He fulfilled these prophecies and performed many miracles. It is absurd for someone to call Jesus insane. To accept His claims is the only reasonable response.
The historical evidence shows that Jesus claimed to be God and proved it by raising Himself from the dead. History shows these claims are not legends, and that He was not a liar, insane, or merely a great man. Therefore, Jesus of Nazareth is God.
THEREFORE, JESUS IS GOD
The following ancient creed was formulated and proclaimed by the first generation church. It declares Jesus to be God and Savior, and instructs all creation to surrender to His Lordship:
Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore also God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those who are in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:5-11).
This ancient creed states that the day will come when all creation will bow down before Christ and confess that He is Lord. One can bow to Jesus now, or one can bow to Jesus later, but, the fact remains, that the day will come when all will bow before Christ, both the saved and the unsaved. The saved will bow before Jesus to worship Him as their Savior and King. The lost will bow before Him, due to their fear of His power and authority.
1 Mohandas K. Gandhi, Mahatma Gandhi Autobiography (Washington, D. C.: Public Affairs Press, 1948), 170.
2 John Hick, The Center of Christianity (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1968), 27-28.
3 Michael J. Wilkins and J. P. Moreland, eds., Jesus Under Fire (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1995), 154.
4 The World Book Encyclopedia vol. 11, (Chicago: World Book, Inc., 1985), 82.
5 Moreland, Scaling the Secular City, 148-149.
6 J. Dwight Pentecost, The Words and Works of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids: Academie Books, 1981), 288.
7 Merrill C. Tenney, John, the Gospel of Belief (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1948), 150.
8 Merrill F. Unger, Unger’s Bible Handbook (Chicago: Moody Press, 1966), 555.
9 Habermas, Ancient Evidence for the Life of Jesus, 98.
10 For a fuller treatment of Old Testament prophecies fulfilled by Christ, see: Josh McDowell, 141-177.
12 Geisler, Apologetics, 343.