In his book Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis famously wrote, “Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse.” Yet Lewis’s famous trilemma has been brought into question lately by contemporary writers such as Professor Ehrman, who wrote:
Jesus probably never called himself God…This means that he doesn’t have to be either a liar, a lunatic, or the Lord. He could be a first-century Palestinian Jew who had a message to proclaim other than his own divinity (Jesus, Interrupted., pg. 142).
However, the Catholic faith begs to differ, as it did so in the 4th century at the Council of Nicea, which declared that Jesus is light from light, true God from true God, consubstantial with the Father.
So who’s right?
To settle the question, let us go to the source, and look at the writings of both the Old and New Testaments to question what they have to tell us regarding Jesus.
Let us ask specifically, who exactly did Jesus claim to be, and did he prove it?
Beginning with the claims from Christ himself, we see in the Gospels that he takes to himself three titles in particular: that of the “Son of Man”, the “Son”, and finally “I am”, the name God revealed to Moses.
Beginning with the first title, we read in Mark:
…the high priest asked him, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” And Jesus said, “I am; and you will see the Son of man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven (Mk. 14:61-62).
Here, Jesus takes to himself the identity of the “Son of Man” from the Book of Daniel, where Daniel says over 500 years previously:
I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him…
…And to him was given dominion and glory and kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him (Dn. 7:13-14).
So what exactly is Jesus telling us by claiming to be this “Son of Man” predicted in the book of Daniel? At the very least, Jesus is claiming to be someone whose coming was predicted; and this is no small claim, as Fulton Sheen points out in his book “The Life of Christ”:
Reason dictates…(that if one)…actually came from God, the least thing that God could do to support His claim would be to pre-announce His coming…Reason further assures us that if God did not do this, then there would be nothing to prevent any impostor from appearing in history and saying, “I come from God,” or “An angel appeared to me and gave me this message.” In such cases, there would be no objective, historical way of testing the messenger.
By calling himself the “Son of Man,” Jesus is claiming to be an authentic messenger from God. And to this end, Jesus enters history at the exact time, and precise empire predicted by Daniel, along with living and dying as he predicted.
Regarding the time, here is Daniel:
Seventy weeks of years are decreed concerning your people and your holy city, to finish the transgression…from the going forth of the word to restore and build Jerusalem to the coming of an anointed one, a prince…(Dn. 9:24-25).
This date of “the anointed one’s” coming from the decree to rebuild the Jerusalem temple following the seventy weeks of years can be determined thus:
…from the going forth of the word to restore and build Jerusalem (Dn. 9:25). (Decree to Rebuild) Approximately ⁓ 457 B.C.
…Seventy weeks of years are decreed concerning your people and your holy city (Dn. 9:24). (70 years x 7 days in the week = 490 years)
Approximately ⁓ 457 B.C after 490 years = Approximately ⁓ 33 A.D (for more on this, see The Case for Jesus, Brand Pitre, Chpt. 8)
Then, regarding the empire in which the “Son of Man” was predicted to appear, here is Daniel again:
You, O king, the king of kings, to whom the God of heaven has given the kingdom, the power, and the might, and the glory…After you shall arise another kingdom inferior to you, and yet a third kingdom of bronze, which shall rule over all the earth. And there shall be a fourth kingdom, strong as iron, because iron breaks to pieces and shatters all things; and like iron which crushes, it shall break and crush all these…And in the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom which shall never be destroyed, nor shall its sovereignty be left to another people. It shall break in pieces all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand for ever…The dream is certain, and its interpretation sure. (Dan. 2:37-45).
What do we make of these visions that make up the context in which Daniel talks about this “Son of Man”? Based on the visions in chapter two, it seems that the kingdom of God, which the “Son of Man” will institute, will arrive in the third kingdom after the Babylonians. Those kingdoms, including the one in which the “Son of Man” will arrive in, can be historically ordered thus:
Babylonian Empire (6th C. B.C.)
Medo/Persian Empire (5th C. B.C.)
Greek Empire (4th C. B.C.)
Roman Empire (1st C. B.C.)
Lastly, regarding the life of this “Son of Man,” here are the predictions from Daniel with their fulfillment:
…an anointed one shall be cut off, and shall have nothing (Dn. 9:26) (which Jesus fulfills at his crucifixion).
…and he shall make a strong covenant with many (Dn. 9:27) (which Jesus fulfilled at the Last Supper, instituting the “new and everlasting covenant”).
…the people of the prince who is to come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary (Dn. 9:26) (Jesus fulfills this when the Roman empire, the kingdom promised to the “Son of Man”, destroys Jerusalem in 70 A.D.).
And although the book of Daniel might be less familiar to us Christians today, for the Jews in Jesus’s day, these prophecies were understood as clear predictions regarding the arrival of the Messiah. Josephus, the Jewish Historian, wrote in his first-century Antiquities:
We are convinced…that Daniel spoke with God, for he did not only prophesy future events, as did the other prophets, but he also determined the time at which these would come to pass. (Antiquities, Chpt. 11, P.7).
So, by calling himself the “Son of Man,” Jesus is claiming to have been one predicted, an authentic messenger of God; and because he fulfills the time, place, and description of such prophecies, we ought to believe him.
Along with calling himself the “Son of Man,” Jesus also refers to himself simply as “the Son.” As he says in Matthew:
All things have been delivered to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son…(Mt 11.27).
Now, if Jesus is “the Son” referred to in this verse, who is “the Father”? The answer is found in Isaiah, where the prophet writes:
Yet, O Lord, thou art our Father; we are the clay, and thou art our potter; we are all the work of thy hand (Is. 64:8).
Therefore, the “Father” is God; and if Jesus uses the father-son analogy to describe his relationship with God, then by questioning the analogy itself we can determine what Jesus is trying to tell us about himself.
From our experience, the most obvious fact about a father and his son is that they are not the same person. Consequently, the first point we can affirm is that Jesus is saying that there is a very real personal distinction between him and the Father.
Moreover, it is clear that sons come from their fathers. Therefore, we can also say that Jesus is claiming that he is from the Father. To summarize these two points, Jesus’ use of the father-son analogy, means that he is claiming to have a distinction of both origin and person to the father.
Besides the differences, there is one thing we can be sure sons always share with their fathers, a common nature. Every human father has human sons, not canine or feline sons. Thus, when Jesus calls himself the son of the Father who is God, he is claiming to be of the same nature as God. But to be of the same nature as God is to be God (for why God can only be one, see here).
And just in case there is any doubt that Jesus is claiming both that he is personally distinct from the Father and yet one with Him, he concludes the above-cited verse by saying “no one knows the Father except the Son” (Mt. 11:27).
To sufficiently treat the implications of this statement, we’ll have to take a small digression. We know from sound philosophy, that things that are known (concepts, ideas) must exist in the knower. For example, for those who know English, there is a very real sense in which the language resides in them, and that they have a kind of union with it.
Accordingly, when Jesus says that “no one knows the Father except the Son”, he is claiming that between him and the Father there is an especially unique union. And in John, this use of knowledge as an analogy for union becomes even clearer, as Jesus says:
No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known (Jn. 1:18).
According to John, this “Son” is the only one who has ever seen God, which is another way of saying that he is the only one who has known God, for sight is often used as a metaphor for knowledge; like when someone says, “I see what you mean.” Further, because this “Son” rests in the bosom, or the innermost part, of the Father, and since God is wholly immaterial (not extended in space) then this term must signify an immaterial union with God and at a profound depth.
Moreover, as we have said, to claim to be within God, who has neither composition nor extension, is in effect, to claim to be God. Therefore, in claiming to be “the Son,” Jesus is saying both that there is a personal, relational distinction between him and the Father, and also that he is equal to the Father, and therefore God himself.
To claim to be God is the absolute boldest claim that one can make, a claim his audience was likely to misunderstand; therefore, Jesus doubles down in our last title to consider: “I am.”
Similar to the “Son of man,” the name “I am” is also found in the Old Testament; this is Exodus:
Then Moses said to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I am who I am” (in the Greek: ἐγώ εἰμι). And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I am has sent me to you’” (Exodus 3:13-14).
Jesus will also refer to himself as “I am” in the Gospels, and in no less than three separate times. Here is one instance from Matthew:
But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” and they cried out for fear. But immediately he spoke to them, saying, “Take heart, it is I (ἐγώ εἰμι) (Mt. 14:26-27).
Then in the Gospel of John, Jesus proclaims himself as ‘I am’ on two occasions, the first in chapter 8 reads:
He said to them, “You are from below, I am from above; you are of this world, I am not of this world. I told you that you would die in your sins, for you will die in your sins unless you believe that I am he” (ἐγώ εἰμι) (Jn. 8:23-24).
The second instance, and possibly the more well-known, also occurs in John 8, as Jesus says:
Your father Abraham rejoiced that he was to see my day; he saw it and was glad.” The Jews then said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?” Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am” (ἐγώ εἰμι) (Jn. 8:56-58).
Along with these explicit claims to be God, Jesus also implicitly reveals his divine nature by ascribing to himself the authority and dignity which can only be possessed by God. For example, when he says “your sins are forgiven” or “something greater than the temple is here.”
Faced with the numerous and substantial ways in which Jesus, in fact, claims to be God, we’re right to ask the follow-up question: but did he prove it?
For Jesus to prove that he is God is quite a straightforward task: he must simply do that which only God can do. One action that would clearly demonstrate the divine identity is the performance of miraculous works since only the Author of nature can permit the suspension of the Laws of Nature. Another one, would be to infallibly predict the future since omniscience is required to know with absolute certainty what will come about through the future choices of free agents.
And although it’s true, that many prophets before Christ performed both miraculous works as well as prophesied, they did so only through prayer and recourse to God. But if one were to do miraculous works and prophesy of his own power and on his own authority, then it would demonstrate that such a person is God himself.
Jesus did this when he resurrected his own body, a miracle he performed while dead (in his humanity) (for more on the resurrection, see The Case for Jesus, chapter 12). Here are his words predicting the event:
For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life, that I may take it again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again; this charge I have received from my Father (Jn. 10:17-18).
Not only was Jesus able to predict and accomplish his resurrection, but he also predicted and accomplished (through his followers) the subsequent conversion of the nations. Here is his prediction of both, albeit in a subtle way:
An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign; but no sign shall be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so will the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth (Mt. 12:39).
Before looking at the parallel Jesus makes with Jonah, we should recount a couple of facts from Jonah’s life. The first is that he was sent to call the people of Nineveh to conversion. Then, as Jesus mentions above, Jonah finds himself swallowed by the whale.
At this point, it is often assumed that even though Jonah is swallowed by the whale, he is still alive.
But given a closer analysis, it’s evident that Jonah actually dies within the whale; and we know that he’s dead because when he prays for help, he mentions that is praying from Sheol, that’s the land of the dead. Here is the text:
I called to the Lord, out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and thou didst hear my voice (Jonah 2:2).
Moreover, when the whale spits up his bones on the beach three days later, God says to him, “Arise,” (in Greek: ἀνάστασις) which, of the 42 times the word appears in the New Testament, 41 of them are translated resurrection.
Then, after Jonah’s resurrection, he proceeds to Nineveh and as a result, the city of Nineveh is converted to the God of Jonah.
In summary, Jonah, after being sent to convert an unbelieving people, is killed, then rises from the dead three days later, and the result is the conversion of the entire city of Nineveh.
Similarly, Jesus is also sent to convert a people, he also dies, rises from the dead on the third day, and the result, just a few centuries later, is the Christianization of the entire Roman Empire.
It is a profound parallel, which Jesus predicted beforehand. And who could have expected, a world so deeply entrenched in paganism, would turn toward worshiping this man as the true God?
To conclude, given the evidence and faced with C.S. Lewis’s famous trilemma, we can confidently assert that Jesus Christ was neither a liar, nor a lunatic; but instead, that he was and is what he claimed and proved to be, Lord and God of all.
A word of thanks: this post is, in part, inspired and indebted to “The Case for Jesus” by Brandt Pietre.