In this blog article, I’ll be summarizing Dr. Gavin Ortlund‘s recent rehabilitation of C. S. Lewis’s “Liar, Lunatic or Lord” trichotomy, which he defended last year in a 41-minute interview (shown below) with Cameron Bertuzzi, who runs the Youtube channel, Capturing Christianity. After that, I’ll be playing devil’s advocate and responding as if I were a skeptic, instead of a Catholic. The views I advance here are not my own: my intention in playing devil’s advocate is to illustrate how an intelligent unbeliever might go about refuting this popular argument for Christianity. In so doing, I hope to persuade apologists like Dr. Ortlund that the argument should not be used against skeptics. Without further ado, here it is:
Who is Dr. Gavin Ortlund?
Dr. Gavin Ortlund (PhD, Fuller Theological Seminary) is a scholar, pastor, and writer, whose academic background is in historical theology. He also has a passion for apologetics. He serves as senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Ojai in Ojai, California, and is the author of a number of books, including Anselm’s Pursuit of Joy, 1-2 Kings: A 12-Week Study (Knowing the Bible), Retrieving Augustine’s Doctrine of Creation, Theological Retrieval for Evangelicals, Finding the Right Hills to Die On: The Case for Theological Triage, Theological Retrieval for Evangelicals, and more recently, Why God Makes Sense in a World That Doesn’t (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2021). Chapter 4 of the book contains a discussion of Lewis’s “Liar, Lunatic or Lord” trichotomy. I very much regret that I’m unable to comment on the argument presented in Dr. Ortlund’s book, as my Amazon spending budget is currently too tight for me to purchase a copy, so I have chosen instead to address Dr. Ortlund’s highly articulate online presentation of the argument in his interview with Cameron Bertuzzi, on Capturing Christianity (August 27, 2022). In the meantime, I would warmly encourage readers to check out Dr. Ortlund’s Youtube channel, Truth Unites. The videos are well put together and highly thought-provoking.
How did the “Liar, Lunatic, or Lord” argument originate?
Contrary to popular belief, C. S. Lewis was not the originator of the “Liar, Lunatic, or Lord” argument: it actually goes back to a Scottish pastor named John Duncan (1796-1870), who declared in his Colloquia Peripatetica (Edinburgh: Edmonston & Douglas, 3rd edition, 1871, p. 109), “Christ either deceived mankind by conscious fraud, or He was Himself deluded and self-deceived, or He was Divine. There is no getting out of this trilemma. It is inexorable.” A simpler dichotomy (Jesus was either God or a liar) can be traced back to the fourth-century Roman Neoplatonic philosopher and late-life convert to Christianity, Gaius Marius Victorinus (c. 297/300-370), who wrote of Jesus’ claim to divinity: “Saying these things he was God, if he did not lie; if however he lied, he was not the work of God perfect in all ways” (From the Generation of the Divine Word, cols. 1019c-36c, ref. col 1020 – see here for the background to his argument). For those who are interested n the history of the argument, Kyle Barton‘s online article, “The History of the Liar, Lunatic, Lord Trilemma” (May 4, 2012) is well worth perusing.
Additional alternatives to “Liar, Lunatic, or Lord”
In his interview with Cameron Bertuzzi, Dr. Ortlund carefully considers other alternatives that have been put forward since Lewis proposed his argument in Mere Christianity: namely, that Jesus’s claim to be God was a later legend that grew up about him (an alternative advanced by Professor Bart Ehrman), that Jesus was mistaken but not mad (an option favored by the arch-atheist and biologist Dr. Richard Dawkins), or that Jesus was a mystic who claimed divinity in a pantheistic sense. While Ortlund thinks the argument can be presented in a deductive form, he himself prefers to present it in an abductive form, as a challenge to the open-minded seeker after truth: which of these alternatives do you think best explains Jesus’ claim to divinity in the Gospels?
The argument in a nutshell
What Dr. Ortlund finds particularly striking is that within just two decades of Jesus’ death, people were already speaking of Jesus as God (or at any rate, equal to God) – notably in the hymn of Philippians 2:6-11, which refers to Jesus as pre-existent and as an object of worship, and declares that “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth.” Where did this belief come from and how did it develop? Furthermore, the Gospel of Mark, which portrays Jesus as forgiving people’s sins in Mark 2 and as claiming to be Daniel’s Son of Man at his trial in Mark 14, was written within living memory of Jesus’ death, probably during the late 60s. If the book had made false claims about Jesus’ status that Christians never actually made, then it would never have been selected to be one of the four Gospels by the early Church.
If Jesus did indeed claim divinity for himself, was he lying? Dr. Ortlund thinks not: as evidence, he points to Jesus’ trial. As recorded in the oldest Gospel (Mark), Jesus’ accusers were trying to build a case against him, but their testimony did not agree. Finally, the high priest asked him directly, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” and Jesus responded, “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven” – a response that led to his conviction for blasphemy. Evidently the Sanhedrin found the notion of Jesus returning as God’s right hand man to judge the world so outrageous that they agreed it merited nothing less than the death penalty. The question Dr. Ortlund poses is: if Jesus was a fraud, then why didn’t he take the easy way out and say nothing, rather than getting himself killed?
Was Jesus a lunatic, then? For Dr. Ortlund, Jesus’ profound wisdom and powerful influence upon the course of history preclude that option. Lunatics don’t typically attract mass followings; nor do their followers end up performing charitable works and founding dedicated public hospitals, as the early Christians did. Richard Dawkins’ suggestion that Jesus was honestly mistaken in his grandiose claims about himself won’t fly, either, in Ortlund’s view: anyone who asks people to die for him is not merely mistaken, but suffering from a full-blown delusion. In Mark 8:35 (a saying widely acknowledged as authentic), Jesus declares, “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it,” and just three verses later, he speaks of coming “in the glory of his Father with the holy angels” (Mark 8:38). He also claims to be Lord even of the Sabbath in Mark 2:27-28. Sane people do not make such inflated claims about themselves.
Dr. Ortlund has carefully read and re-read Professor Bart Ehrman’s book, How Jesus Became God, which disputes the premise that Jesus actually claimed to be God, dismissing it as a legend. (In an online response to a reader’s question on Lewis’s “Liar, Lunatic or Lord” argument, Ehrman robustly asserts that “any biblical scholar on the planet who is not a fundamentalist or conservative evangelical will tell you that the problem with this ‘proof’ is its major premise – namely, that … Jesus ‘called himself God.'”) However, in Ortlund’s view, Jesus’ repeated claim in the Gospels to be wielding divine authority in his ministry in the Synoptic Gospels is tantamount to a claim to divinity, as is his startling claim at his trial that he will come again at God’s right hand, to judge the living and the dead (Mark 14:62; see also Mark 13:26-27, in Jesus’ apocalyptic discourse).
The mythicist view that Jesus himself is a legendary figure who never existed is, as Ortlund notes, a ridiculous claim which virtually every contemporary historian, of whatever religious stripe, rejects.
Nor does Dr. Ortlund credit the proposal that Jesus was claiming divinity in a mystical sense: “I’m divine, you’re divine, we are all divine!” If Jesus had been a Hindu sage, born in India, such a proposal would have had merit, but for a first-century Jewish preacher to have publicly made such a claim in a deeply monotheistic society makes absolutely no sense.
Dr. Ortlund concludes that since all other proposed options fail, it is at least plausible to accept the Christian claim that Jesus was God.
THE SKEPTIC’S RESPONSE
From now on, I’ll be playing devil’s advocate and putting on my “skeptic’s hat.” I’ll be responding to Dr. Ortlund in the person of the skeptic.
Hi, Dr. Ortlund. I have three responses to your argument. First, I don’t know what you mean when you say that Jesus is God, and I don’t think you do, either. Second, taken as a whole, the New Testament doesn’t back up your central assertion that Jesus claimed to be God. Finally, scholars have identified no less than three considerations which severely weaken the force of your argument: (a) it rests on the mistaken assumption that the New Testament authors drew a sharp ontological distinction between God the Creator and His creatures, with nothing in between; (b) it makes a false assumption about that the Divine Name – namely, that it can only be used by its Author, God, and that it can never be transferred to another bearer (for example, the man we know as Jesus); (c) it incorrectly assumes that the New Testament authors are on the same page regarding Jesus’ identity, when in fact the evidence shows that they held very different views as to when Jesus became the Son of God (at his resurrection, baptism, birth, or from all eternity?), and that more exalted views of Jesus emerged over the course of time, although not in a linear fashion.
After critiquing your argument, which purports to show that Jesus was nothing less than God made flesh, I’ll be discussing whether a weaker version of your argument, which merely seeks to demonstrate that Jesus was a man sent by God to be the Savior and Judge of humanity, can still be defended. I conclude that this argument is much more convincing, because it’s more in keeping with what Jesus is recorded to have said about himself in the Synoptic Gospels, but it still needs to rule out the option that Jesus was a lunatic. Finally, I examine the “lunatic” option, and conclude that in the end, we cannot be sure that Jesus wasn’t a lunatic. A strong prima facie case can be made that he was.
1. What does it even mean to say Jesus is God?
It makes no sense to discuss the claim that Jesus is God, if you can’t explain what it means. Here’s the problem. Jesus was an historical individual. He was human, so by definition, he was limited. He grew in wisdom and in stature. He explicitly acknowledged that there were some things he didn’t know, and that there were some things he couldn’t do and that only God could do. And he was capable of suffering and dying. God, on the other hand, is unlimited. He doesn’t grow. He knows everything there is to know, and He can do anything He wishes. Being perfect in every way, God cannot suffer, and God cannot die. So the claim that Jesus is God strikes me as flat-out contradictory. Before I can address your defense of the “Liar, Lunatic or Lord” argument, you need to put forward a viable model that at least removes the contradiction. What’s your model, Dr. Ortlund?
Now, perhaps you will reply that in fact, we can all picture what it means for someone to be God. Heck, there’s even a song by Joan Osborne with the refrain, “What if God was one of us?” So it must be at least conceivable that God could come and live among us as a human being.
The Apollinarian Model of the Incarnation, and why it fails
However, this response won’t do, for it relies on “picture thinking.” Sure, we can all picture an individual in human form who can think God’s thoughts, speak God’s words, and do the mighty things that God does. But notice what we’re doing here. What we’re imagining is God’s mind controlling a human body, and making it speak and act as God would. That’s not orthodox Christianity; that’s Apollinarianism, or the fourth-century heresy that Jesus had a divine nature that was united to a living, ensouled human body, but that he had no human mind. By contrast, what mainstream Christianity teaches is that Jesus had a human mind, in addition to having the mind of God. Since he had both a fully divine nature and a fully human nature, he must have had both a divine Mind and a human mind. In other words, Jesus had two minds. At the same time, mainstream Christianity declares Jesus to be one person. You’re very familiar with the ecumenical councils of the Christian Church, so you’ll be well aware that the Council of Chalcedon (451 A.D.) laid down that Jesus was one person in two natures, while the Third Ecumenical Council of Constantinople (680-681 A.D.) decreed that Jesus has two wills – one Divine and one human – which entails that he must also have two minds or intellects. Do you agree with this claim, Dr. Ortlund?
The Paradox of the Incarnation
And now we’ve reached the crux of the problem. Does it even make sense to say that one and the same person has two distinct minds – let alone two radically different ones: an infinite one and a finite one? I’m inclined to say: “No, it doesn’t. No matter how good the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection, virtuous character and claims to divinity might appear, they can’t trump the claims of reason. The central Christian claim strikes me as complete and utter gobbledygook; therefore, I don’t need to waste any more time on it.” End of story.
At this point, you might try to answer me as follows: “Are you saying it’s a contradiction to say that one person might possess two minds? Very well, then: prove it!” The difficulty for me is that you might simply reject whatever definition of the term “person” I put forward, in your attempt to dissolve the alleged contradiction. But I put it to you that the onus isn’t on me, as a skeptic, to define the word “person,” which is quite a tricky philosophical term, as you know perfectly well. All I need to point out is that in everyday life, we count persons in the same way as we count minds. (There are a few individuals, notably split-brain patients, who seem to have badly fragmented minds, and some people might even want to say that they have two distinct minds – but on that view, it would also follow that they’re two distinct persons.) In short: a person with two minds appears to make no more sense than a human being with two bodies.
As if that were not bad enough, let us remember that for Christians of virtually any stripe, God the Father and Jesus His Son are distinct persons, who address each other as “you.” Thus the Father announces to Jesus at his baptism, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11), and Jesus cries out in anguish to his Father on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34). And in John’s Gospel, Jesus prays to his Father, “And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed” (John 17:5). Jesus is obviously not talking about his human mind here; on the orthodox view of the Incarnation, he can only mean his Divine Mind. Additionally, Jesus refers to the Holy Spirit as “he” (John 14:26; John 16:13). So within the one Mind of God (for God has only one Mind – see Isaiah 40:13; Romans 11:34-36; 1 Corinthians 2:16), there can be multiple persons: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
To sum up: according to the orthodox Christian view, one person can have two minds, and three persons can share the same mind. Peculiar, indeed!
Difficulties facing an alternative model of the Incarnation: Ontological Kenosis
Now, I’m not unaware that there are some Christians who profess that Jesus is God, but reject the “two-minds” model of the Incarnation. The principal alternative view is Ontological Kenosis, which holds that in becoming incarnate and living among us, God the Son actually gave up some of the divine attributes, before re-assuming them at his glorious resurrection. However, this view of the Incarnation runs into even more problems than the two-minds view. How can a Divine Person change like that? And how can a Divine Person be said to lack some of the essential divine attributes, even temporarily? And how could Jesus truly be said to be “fully God” while he lived among us, if he lacked the complete knowledge and power that God possesses?
Loke’s Kryptic Model of the Incarnation
Recently, Andrew Ter Ern Loke, who is Associate Professor in the Department of Religion and Philosophy at Hong Kong Baptist University, has put forward another view in his book, A Kryptic Model of the Incarnation (Ashgate, 2014), which has received a great deal of attention in the Christian media for its irenic attempts to synthesize the best of various competing models of the Incarnation. (For the many readers who, like myself, can’t afford the book’s hefty price-tag, chapter four of the book, in which Loke outlines his model and defends it against criticisms, can be viewed online here; here’s a 2015 interview with the Evangelical Philosophical Society, in which Loke discusses his views; here’s an excellent review of Loke’s book by a sympathetic reader; and here’s Loke’s online reply to Dr. Richard Sturch’s 2015 review of his book, in which he corrects some misunderstandings on Sturch’s part.)
On Loke’s Kryptic model, Jesus possessed the divine attributes of omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence during his life on Earth, but he didn’t have conscious access to them. Instead, they were within his “Divine Preconscious,” meaning that he could access them only if and when he needed to. For Loke, the term “preconscious” refers to those thoughts, memories, and items of knowledge, which the subject is not currently aware of, but can access whenever he wishes. (One example Dr. Loke gives is an individual’s knowledge of calculus, which they seldom consciously think about, but which they can access whenever they wish.) Jesus Christ had one consciousness but two minds. God’s omniscience and omnipotence were not part of Christ’s consciousness: instead, they were located in a “Divine Preconscious,” while Christ’s human mind had its own human preconscious (those thoughts, memories and facts relating to his life as a man, which he could access at will but which he wasn’t normally aware of). Thus the two minds of Christ shared “one consciousness which had distinct divine and human aspects,” as Loke puts it. For his part, Loke rejects the view (traditionally held by orthodox Christian theologians) that Jesus possessed two consciousnesses (one divine and one human), on the grounds that there could then have been an “I-Thou” relationship between these two consciousnesses, thereby making them two persons, which is the heresy of Nestorianism. The “middle view” that Loke seeks to defend is that Jesus had two minds, but only one consciousness.
A Critique of Loke’s views: How Loke fragments the Mind of God and undermines monotheism
Ingenious as Loke’s view undoubtedly is, I have to say that as a skeptic, I don’t think it gets us anywhere, either. My question is: what happened to God’s conscious Mind when God the Son became a man (Jesus Christ)? Loke says that because Christ’s consciousness had access to the divine preconscious, it continued to possess “all the essential divine properties which he had from eternity.” OK, fine. But what about the consciousness of God the Father and God the Holy Spirit? Remember: God has only one Mind. Did that Mind suddenly turn “preconscious” when God became man, so that there were many truths that it was no longer consciously aware of, but which it could still access if it needed to? That’s a very odd claim to make, in light of the Christian tradition that God cannot change; however, Loke rejects what he calls the “strong version of divine immutability and essential timelessness,” so he would presumably be prepared to bite the bullet here.
But the real difficulty for Loke’s view relates to Jesus’ saying that he didn’t know the day of his Second Coming and that only the Father knew (Mark 13:32). On Loke’s view, what this means is that God the Son was not consciously aware of the day, but that he could have accessed this information at any time. The Father, however, is said to be consciously aware of the day of Jesus’ Second Coming. So it follows that on Loke’s model, the content of the Father’s consciousness isn’t the same as the content of the Son’s. A problem now arises: do the Father and the Son share the same Mind? If Loke’s answer is “yes,” then he is saying that two persons who share the same mind can be conscious of different things! Bizarre. But if Loke’s answer is “no,” then he is saying that three minds can be said to be one Being (God). That’s even more bizarre – and, I would add, tri-theistic, as well. At any rate, it seems that Loke is forced into maintaining that the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit have different consciousnesses – an interpretation he confirms in his book, where he explicitly declares: “Unlike the Incarnate Logos, the Holy Spirit is always consciously aware of all truths” (p. 104).
Loke ventures even further in his book, where he writes concerning the Trinity, “The unity of three divine persons can be affirmed by postulating that the Trinity is one soul with three sets of rational faculties (Moreland and Craig 2003, 593-4), without thereby denying that God could have parts” (p. 85), and where he later adds that at the Incarnation, “part of the divine substance became a concrete part of Christ, and this part exemplified all of the essential divine properties” (p. 104). So God is a being composed of three rational and conscious faculties, one of which became incarnate, and all of which are said to share a common life, or soul. Mysteriously, we are not told what the life or soul of God consists in: since there are three consciousnesses in God, it must be something other than conscious thought, but what else could it be, since God is a Mind? What’s more, Scripture declares God to have one mind (Romans 11:34-36; 1 Corinthians 2:16), but Loke evidently thinks He has three. Do you call this monotheism, Dr. Ortlund? I don’t.
So it seems we aren’t even out of the starting gate yet, and the “Liar, Lunatic or Lord” argument is already bogged down in the mud. In your interview with Cameron Bertuzzi, Dr. Ortlund, you challenged the skeptic, “If you don’t believe that Jesus is God, give us an alternative hypothesis.” Here’s my reply: “First, tell me what your hypothesis means, and then I’ll present an alternative.”
2. Does the standard Christian view of the Incarnation agree with the Scriptural evidence?
(a) Why the “two-minds” account of the Incarnation doesn’t accord with what the New Testament says about Jesus
But let’s concede that the philosophical conundrum of a person having two minds (one divine and one human) is not an insuperable one, after all. There’s another major problem confronting the “Liar, Lunatic or Lord” argument. Nowhere in the Gospels does Jesus speak as if he possessed two minds. Not even once. That’s quite remarkable, as there are incidents when we’d really expect him to do so. Take Mark 13:32: “But concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” This would be the perfect place for Jesus to point out to his disciples that he actually has two minds: a Divine Mind which he shares with the Father, and a human mind which is limited in knowledge. But he doesn’t say that. And on the night before his death, Jesus utters the following prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane: “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” (Mark 14:36). Again, a Christian could argue that Jesus was referring here to his human will, not his Divine Will. But once again, Jesus never talks about himself as if he had two wills – not even one will that’s firmly in control of the other.
It gets worse. St. Paul refers to his fellow Christians as having “the mind of Christ” in 1 Corinthians 2:16. Evidently, he knows nothing about Jesus having two minds.
So the difficulty is this: the “two minds of Christ” model which we need in order to make sense of the Incarnation is one which appears utterly foreign to Scripture.
(b) Did Jesus call himself “God” in the Synoptic Gospels, either explicitly or implicitly?
The “Liar, Lunatic or Lord” argument also assumes that Jesus actually called himself God. However, most contemporary scholars believe that this is not the case, as Professor Bart Ehrman points out in a blog post titled “Liar Lunatic or Lord…..Is Jesus a Moral Teacher?” (January 17, 2013):
[A]ny biblical scholar on the planet who is not a fundamentalist or conservative evangelical will tell you that the problem with this “proof” is its major premise – namely, that (“since”) Jesus “called himself God.”… (Bolding mine – VJT)
Ehrman highlights the fact that in the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus never calls himself God; only in John’s Gospel does he do so:
One needs to ask why Matthew, Mark, and Luke never portray Jesus as calling himself God, or equal with God, or one with God. They certainly portray Jesus teaching a lot – for example, about God, about the coming kingdom of God, the apocalyptic crisis that is soon to appear, and what people must do in preparation for it to avoid the coming destruction.
But he doesn’t ever teach about his divine identity in these Gospels…
The most common way that scholars have explained this almost inexplicable omission in the Synoptic Gospels is simply that their authors did not think of Jesus as a divine being who was equal with God and pre-existed his birth, who became incarnate as the God-Man…
If this view is correct – I agree with it completely – then the earliest Gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke – did not understand Jesus to be a divine being who pre-existed his birth and was equal with God from eternity past.…
It was a view that almost certainly developed within the Johannine community (this, again, is the majority view among scholars who are not fundamentalists and very conservative evangelicals). And the ultimate payoff is that this view of the Fourth Gospel is not the view of the historical Jesus himself. It is a later view put on his lips by the author of John or his sources.
And so there is an easy response to the false conclusion that because Jesus called himself God, he *must* be a liar, a lunatic, or the Lord. The response is that the premise is false. The idea that Jesus called himself God is not historical. It is a Legend. And so the choices are Liar, Lunatic, Lord, or Legend. Not that Jesus himself was a legend. Far from it! But the idea that he called himself God is a legend.
Bishop Barron’s pushback against Ehrman: what about other passages in the Synoptics, where Jesus makes striking claims about himself?
Bishop Robert Barron, of Word on Fire Ministries, isn’t having a bar of Ehrman’s argument that Jesus is never called God in the Synoptics. In an online essay titled, Why Jesus is God: A Response to Bart Ehrman (April 15, 2014), he writes:
And affirmations of divinity on the lips of Jesus himself positively abound in the Synoptics. When he says, in Matthew’s Gospel, “He who does not love me more than his mother or father is not worthy of me,” he is implying that he himself is the greatest possible good. When in Luke’s Gospel, he says, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away,” he is identifying himself with the very Word of God. When he says in Matthew’s Gospel, in reference to himself, “But I tell you, something greater than the Temple is here,” he is affirming unambiguously that he is divine, since for first century Jews, only Yahweh himself would be greater than the Jerusalem Temple. Perhaps most remarkably, when he says, almost as a tossed-off aside at the commencement of the Sermon on the Mount, “You have heard it said, but I say…” he is claiming superiority to the Torah, which was the highest possible authority for first century Jews. But the only one superior to the Torah would be the author of the Torah, namely God himself. Obviously examples such as these from the Synoptic authors could be multiplied indefinitely. The point is that the sharp demarcation between the supposedly “high” Christology of John and the “low” Christology of the Synoptics, upon which the Ehrman thesis depends, is simply wrong-headed.
To be fair, I think Bishop Barron makes a good case that the contrast between John and the Synoptics is overdrawn. Some passages in the Synoptic Gospels do make rather grand claims about Jesus. However, I cannot help noting that Bishop Barron’s list of Gospel sayings in which Jesus allegedly affirms his divinity are mostly taken from the Gospel of Matthew. There’s a reason for that: Matthew was probably the last of the Synoptic Gospels to be written, somewhere between 80 and 135 A.D. Supporting evidence for this claim can be found in the Appendix below. Briefly, the evidence is that Matthew shows signs of having used codices, rather than scrolls, when writing his Gospel. Codices were a novelty in the late first century. So if Matthew’s Gospel was the latest, we should not be too surprised that it contains exalted passages about Jesus, as well as a command by the risen Jesus to his apostles, to baptize people of all nations “in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19). Luke’s Gospel also contains some striking passages about Jesus, which are similar in tenor to Matthew’s – e.g. Luke 14:26 (NASB), where Jesus forthrightly declares, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” (Yes, Jesus does say “hate.”) Luke also frequently refers to Jesus as “the Lord,” which was previously a divine title. But as we’ll see in Part 3, below, the use of God’s name in reference to Jesus is not a claim to divinity as such, but rather, a reference to his being specially authorized to speak in God’s name. So, how old is Luke’s Gospel? As the evidence in the Appendix shows, the Gospel contains a historical anachronism (the reference to an empire-wide census in Luke 2:1) that dates it to some time after 74 A.D., placing it some fifty or so years after Jesus’ death. The point here is that given their distance in time from the historical Jesus, we cannot be certain that the exalted passages in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke go back to Jesus.
Moreover, I think Bishop Barron over-eggs the evidence, when he claims that the verses he cites are tantamount to an affirmation of divinity on Jesus’ part, and I will observe in passing that most New Testament scholars don’t share his view. Consider Matthew 10:37 (“He who does not love me more than his mother or father is not worthy of me.”) One online commentary, by a ministry called Sharing Bread, pithily summarizes its meaning as follows: “Jesus intends to be our interest above all interests. He will not share His rightful throne with any other – no matter what or who it is.” That’s striking, but it’s not an affirmation of divinity. And far from intending to overturn the Torah, Jesus expressly declares: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished” (Matthew 5:17-18). Jesus is even more emphatic in Luke 16:17, where he affirms, “But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one dot of the Law to become void.”
As for Jesus saying, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away,” is he really claiming anything for himself here that he did not also claim for the Mosaic Law, in the passages cited above? Inferring a full-blooded claim to divinity from such a statement strikes me as problematic. All we can legitimately infer is that Jesus believed himself to be speaking with the voice of God. That’s an authoritative claim, but it’s not a claim to divinity.
(c) Jesus’ divinity: Countervailing evidence from Scripture
Any decent argument for the divinity of Jesus Christ should look at the totality of the New Testament evidence. It is certainly true that there are passages in the New Testament which either refer to Jesus as God, or suggest that Jesus was regarded as equal to God. However, we also find that there are other passages which either explicitly state that Jesus was not God, or which imply that Jesus was viewed as inferior to God. Let’s take a look at these. I’ll focus on five main sources: Mark’s Gospel, John’s Gospel, the Acts of the Apostles, St. Paul’s original letters (i.e. the seven letters which nearly all scholars agree that he wrote), and the letter to the Hebrews. I will not discuss the disputed Pauline letters (which are viewed by many scholars as pseudepigraphic).
(i) Jesus in Mark’s Gospel
Jesus forgives people’s sins
In chapter 2 of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus says to a paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Some scribes who are present take offense at Jesus’ words, muttering to themselves, “He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” Jesus rebukes them, and concludes, “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, pick up your bed, and go home” (Mark 2:10-11). And what conclusion did the crowds draw from witnessing this miracle? The Gospel of Matthew tells us: “When the crowds saw it, they were afraid, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to men” (Matthew 9:8). In other words, what the spectators inferred was not that Jesus was God, but that Jesus must have received special authority from God to forgive sins. Moreover, it is worth noting that this authority is limited: Jesus expressly declares that he has authority on earth to forgive sins, but makes no claim to be able to forgive sins in Sheol, or Hades (the realm of the dead).
Lord of the Sabbath
At the end of the same chapter, there is an episode where his disciples pluck grain on the Sabbath, because they are hungry. The Pharisees criticize Jesus for letting them do so, but Jesus firmly puts them in their place by citing the example of King David, who once entered the house of God and gave the bread of the Presence (which only priests may eat) to his hungry companions, triumphantly concluding with the words: “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord, even of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27-28, NASB). Many apologists believe Jesus to be declaring himself to be Master of the Sabbath, but I would argue that he wasn’t claiming any special titles for himself; the term “the son of man” simply refers to any individual human being. In other words, any human being matters more than the Sabbath does, because the Sabbath was made for human beings in the first place. Thus no Sabbath regulations can possibly take precedence over a hungry individual’s need to eat. This interpretation also explains why David and his companions had every right to eat the priestly bread on the Sabbath, whereas if the term “Lord of the Sabbath” applies only to Jesus, we would have no explanation. The passage is not about Jesus’ status at all.
Jesus and the Last Judgement
In Mark 8:38, Jesus warns his followers, “For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will also be ashamed of him when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels. Here, Jesus seems to be envisaging himself as the future judge of the human race – an exalted position indeed. The attentive reader will note that in this passage, Jesus is described as reflecting his father’s glory, rather than as possessing his own glory.
Jesus and the rich young man
In chapter 10 of Mark’s Gospel, we find Jesus saying to a rich young man who called him “Good Teacher,” “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone” (Mark 10:18). Some apologists have attempted to circumvent the force of this text by arguing that Jesus was merely testing the man, to see if he would acknowledge him as God – something he had never previously asked any other disciple of his to do. However, such a proposal amounts to special pleading. The clear implication of Jesus’ words in this passage is that he did not consider himself to be God. Catholic priest and Scripture scholar Fr. Raymond Brown (1928-1998) comments on this passage in his book, Jesus: God and Man (Milwaukee: The Bruce Publishing Company, 1967):
“Jesus is never called God in the Synoptic Gospels, and a passage like Mk. 10:18 would seem to preclude the possibility that Jesus used the title of himself. Even the fourth Gospel never portrays Jesus as saying specifically that he is God. The sermons which Acts attributes to the beginning of the Christian mission do not speak of Jesus as God. Thus, there is no reason to think that Jesus was called God in the earliest layers of New Testament tradition. This negative conclusion is substantiated by the fact that Paul does not use it in the title in an epistle written before 58.” (p. 30)
Jesus on the end of the world and the coming judgement
In Mark 13, Jesus engages a lengthy discourse about the coming description of the Temple, the end of the age, and the coming of the Son of Man, concluding, “But concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Mark 13:32). Again, let us put aside the apologist’s desperate suggestion that Jesus was only ignorant of the Last Day in his human mind, but not in his Divine Mind. The passage doesn’t say that. What it says is that only the Father knows. If Jesus believed that he shared the same Mind as the Father, he wouldn’t have said that.
The death of Jesus
In chapter 15, just before Jesus gives his final last cry on the cross, he shouts, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34). Again, if Jesus could feel forsaken by God, the clear implication is that he did not think of himself as God.
(ii) Jesus in the Gospel of John
While the Gospel of John contains the clearest statements in the New Testament declaring Jesus to be God (John 1:1-2, John 1:14, John 14:9, John 20:28), they also contain the clearest statements declaring him to be less than God the Father. In John 14:28, Jesus tells his disciples, “I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I.” Later, in John 17:3, while addressing the Father in prayer, he declares, “And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” The obvious implication of this text is that while Jesus can legitimately be called “My Lord and My God” (John 20:28) the Father alone is “true God” – in other words, Jesus is God in a secondary or derivative sense. Finally, in John 20:17,the risen Jesus tells Mary Magdalene, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” Jesus’ God is the Father.
The reader may be wondering about the “I am” sayings of Jesus, in John’s Gospel (John 4:26; John 8:58). These sayings also occur in the Synoptics (Matthew 24:5; Mark 14:62; Luke 22:70). As we’ll see in Part 3 below, one New Testament scholar (Dr. Daniel McClellan) has recently argued that in these passages, “the Christian scriptures are not including Jesus within the ‘unique identity’ of the deity of Israel, they are literarily asserting his endowment with the divine name.” In other words, Jesus is not claiming to be God, but the authorized bearer of God’s name. As we’ll see, such a claim has precedents in the Old Testament: the angel of the Lord in the book of Exodus possessed the same privilege.
(iii) Jesus in the Acts of the Apostles
In his sermon at Pentecost, the apostle Peter seems to suggest that Jesus only became Lord after his resurrection:
“This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing… Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.” (Acts 2:32-33, 36)
Earlier in the same chapter, Peter refers to Jesus of Nazareth as “a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst” (Acts 2:22). Remarkably, nowhere in the book of Acts is Jesus called “God,” even after his resurrection.
(iv) Jesus in St. Paul’s original letters
In his letter to the Romans (one of the seven letters attributed to Paul whose authorship is not contested by scholars), St. Paul refers to God’s Son, “who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 1:3-4). Later in the epistle, St. Paul speaks of “Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever” (Romans 9:5). The key point here is that even if Jesus is called God, it is by virtue of his resurrection, rather than by virtue of his being eternally generated from the Father (as orthodox Christian doctrine envisages). Jesus’ divinity is thus something bestowed on him by God.
Elsewhere, in his first letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul appears to envisage Jesus as pre-existent and as having played a key role in creation, but at the same time, he calls Jesus “Lord” rather than “God,” and subordinates his authority to that of the Father. Thus in 1 Corinthians 8:6, he declares: “for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.” And in 1 Corinthians 15:28, he tells his readers that when all things have been subjected to Jesus, “then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all.”
But, it will be asked, what about St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians, which seems to refer to Jesus as God incarnate? I should point out here that the meaning of the phrase “in the form of God” (Philippians 2:6) is still debated by scholars. In any case, after describing how Jesus emptied himself, taking on the form of a servant and humbling himself to suffer death on a cross, St. Paul continues:
Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:9-11)
Even a skeptical scholar like Professor Bart Ehrman acknowledges that in this passage, St. Paul is envisaging Jesus as possessing an authority equal to that of God Himself. However, the important point here is that Jesus is elevated to this exalted position by God, Who gives him a name after his resurrection, that makes him equal to God. Jesus’ divinity thus appears to be God-given.
(v) Jesus in the letter to the Hebrews
The letter to the Hebrews, which was probably written around 63 or 64 A.D., is often taken as affirming Jesus’ divinity, because of Hebrews 1:8, where the writer cites Scripture in order to emphasize Jesus’ superiority over the angels:
But of the Son he [the Father] says, “Your throne, O God, is forever and ever, the scepter of uprightness is the scepter of your kingdom.
A closer reading calls this view into question, and suggests that the writer actually held a subordinationist view of Jesus’ status. In an essay titled, “Jesus: Gospel Evidence and Jewish Expectations” in God, Reason, and the Evangelicals (University Press of America, 1987), N. F. Gier outlines the basis for this view:
The Book of Hebrews is another solid source for a subordinate Jesus, who rises in stature as he fulfills his mission. Jesus “was made lower than the angels” (2:9), but after “he had made purification for sins,” he became “much superior to angels” (1:3-4). Jesus had to be made like us “in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful priest in the service of God…”(2:17). This passage clinches our subordinationist interpretation: “Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered, and once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him and was designated by God to be a high priest, just like Melchizedek” (5:8-10, NIV).
The Evidence of Scripture: A Summary
We have seen that the “two-minds” view of the Incarnation seems to run afoul of what the Christian Bible says about Jesus. We have also seen that despite some striking statements made by Jesus about himself in Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels, there is no good evidence that Jesus actually called himself “God” in the Synoptic Gospels, either explicitly or implicitly. Finally, our brief survey of the New Testament sources reveals that while there are passages in which Jesus is described as God, his divinity is viewed as God-given, and he is still envisaged as less than the Father, who is “the only true God” (John 17:3).
3. If C. S. Lewis’ “Liar, Lunatic or Lord” argument is so convincing, then why don’t most New Testament scholars buy it?
There are no less than three major reasons why the vast majority of mainstream New Testament scholars don’t espouse C. S. Lewis’s “Liar, Lunatic or Lord” argument. First, it assumes that the New Testament authors drew a clear and bright dividing line between God the Creator and His creatures, with nothing in between, when in fact, the evidence shows that the term “God” was used very fluidly at the time, and that no Christian drew a sharp dividing line between God and creatures until the late second century. Second, the argument assumes that the Divine Name can only be used by its Author, God, and that it can never be transferred to another bearer (e.g. the man we know as Jesus) when in fact we have Scriptural instances of God bestowing his name on someone. Third, Lewis’s argument assumes that the New Testament authors all held the same view of Jesus’ identity, when in fact the evidence suggests that they developed increasingly exalted views of Jesus, as time went by. Let’s look at each of these reasons in turn.
(a) Did the New Testament authors draw a clear and bright dividing line between God the Creator and His creatures?
First, the argument presupposes that the New Testament authors drew a sharp ontological distinction between God the Creator and His creatures, with nothing in between. This view, as we now know, is completely anachronistic. It was true of most late fourth-century Christian philosophers, who had developed a highly refined notion of God, that we now call classical theism. It was also true of a few late second-century Christian philosophers, such as Theophilus of Antioch, who attempted to rebut educated pagan critics of Christianity by developing a more exalted notion of God. However, the idea of there being a rigid, impermeable boundary between God and His creatures is alien to first century Judaism and Christianity. Scholars are largely in agreement on this point.
Paula Fredriksen, the Aurelio Professor of Scripture emerita at Boston University, since 2009 has been Distinguished Visiting Professor of Comparative Religion at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem. A fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, she also holds two honorary doctorates in theology and religious studies. She has published widely on the social and intellectual history of ancient Christianity, and on pagan-Jewish-Christian relations in the Roman Empire. Author of Augustine on Romans (1982) and From Jesus to Christ (1988; 2000), her Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews, won a 1999 National Jewish Book Award. More recently, she has explored the development of Christian anti-Judaism, and Augustine’s singular response to it, in Augustine and the Jews: A Christian Defense of Jews and Judaism (2010); and has investigated the shifting conceptions of God and of humanity in Sin: The Early History of an Idea (2012). Her latest study, Paul: The Pagans’ Apostle (2017), places Paul’s Jewish messianic message to gentiles within the wider world of ancient Mediterranean culture.
In a recent interview with Derek Lambert of Mythvision, titled, Everything We Thought About Jewish Religion Was Wrong! (January 8, 2023), Professor Fredriksen explained that the term “god,” as used in the first century, was quite fluid:
Philo of Alexandria, who is an observant Jew in his fashion, writes a commentary on Genesis and talks about God creating the gods, which he associates with the stars and planets. And he calls stars and planets gods, which just makes good Mediterranean sense. We still call them Jupiter and Saturn and Venus and Mercury… That comes from somewhere. So Jews were actually very much at home in Greco-Roman antiquity. And you have synagogue inscriptions that manumit slaves… We can’t tell if it’s a pagan Godfearer or just a regular member of the Jewish community, who’s manumitting a slave in the synagogue, which is where you do this sort of thing, calling on the God of Israel, the highest and most blessed God, giving the name of the slave, putting her under the supervision of the synagogue, and calling as witness Zeus, Gaia, and Helios – the sky, the earth, and the sun. Those are gods… We have mosaic Zodiacs on Synagogue floors. That’s the wheel of heaven. Those are divinities.
The word “God” itself is stretchable. Right. Moses is called God in Exodus [Exodus 7:1] … Origen, in his commentary on Romans, says that David and Paul were not men, but gods. He calls them gods. And of course, the Roman emperor is a god. So God … is one of these stretchable, stretchable terms… We think of God as in a completely different category from humans, but in fact, it’s more like on a gradient. So … the multiplicity of divinity is something that ancient Jews, and Paul in particular, are perfectly aware of. Paul wouldn’t be talking about the god of this world. [2 Corinthians 4:4] He wouldn’t be talking about heavenly knees and earthly knees and subterranean knees in Philippians 2 if he weren’t also accommodating this idea of multiple divinities as part of the world.
[2:09 to 4:27]
There are some scholars who continue to insist that Jews and Christians in the first century upheld a rigid distinction between God the Creator and His creatures. Professor Richard Bauckham, FRSE FBA, is the most notable proponent of this view, which he defends in his 2008 book, Jesus and the God of Israel (for an excellent review, see here). However, Professor Bauckham’s arguments have been challenged by Dr. Daniel O. McClellan, who completed a master of studies in Jewish studies at the University of Oxford in July of 2010, and a master of arts in biblical studies at Trinity Western University (Vancouver, British Columbia) in 2013, and a Ph.D. in religion and religious studies from the University of Exeter in 2020. His areas of specialization are Second Temple Judaism, early Israelite religion, and textual criticism of the Hebrew Bible, and he currently works as a Scripture Translation Supervisor for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In the Appendix to his online book, Yahweh’s Divine Images (Ancient Near East Monographs, No. 29; 2022: SBL Press, Atlanta), Dr. McClellan addresses the arguments put forward by Richard Bauckham, in support of the traditional view that Jews and Christians in the first century believed in a clear and bright dividing line between Creator and creature:
Richard Bauckham (2008) is responsible for what I see as the most commonly cited articulation of that model, which argues that first-century Jewish communities asserted a “‘strict’ monotheism” (2) that is most clearly attested in the centrality of those divine roles — such as creator of all things — that “distinguish God absolutely from all other reality” (9). This ontological dichotomy of one single creator over and against all creation means that Jesus is either included “in the unique identity of this one God” (4), or is a created being that therefore cannot possess any “real divinity” (2). Since Jesus is so frequently identified as in some sense being one with, or being identified with, the deity of Israel, the former conclusion is preferred. The rhetorical goal here seems largely to be to find the core of Nicene trinitarianism in the Christian scriptures in order to assert a shared identity with the earliest community of Christians. The weight of Bauckham’s argument rest almost entirely on the clear and sharp conceptual boundaries he draws around identity, and between the dichotomies of monotheism/polytheism and creator/created.
Responding to Bauckham’s argument, McClellan points out that it is theologically anachronistic, invoking a concept (creation ex nihilo) that was not invented until the late second century, as well as a concept (“identity,” as understood by Bauckham) that is explicitly contemporary:
My fundamental concern with Bauckham’s model is the fact that these strict dichotomies simply cannot be shown to have been in circulation in the first century CE. The two most problematic are his notion of “identity,” which he acknowledges is drawn from contemporary Christian theologizing, and his ontological dichotomy of the creator over and against “all other reality,” which is a philosophical principle that presupposes creation ex nihilo, a reflective innovation of the second century CE (May 1994; Young 1991; Hubler 1995; cf. Niehoff 2005; Frederiksen 2020). There is certainly emphatic rhetoric in first-century Jewish literature regarding YHWH’s creation of “all things” — and this frequently included assertions that there is nothing created that was not created by YHWH — but this rhetoric is clearly aimed at asserting the deity’s sovereignty over all things and not at articulating a philosophical model of creation out of nothing. That is a thoroughly counterintuitive and reflective framework that cannot simply be presumed to be present in the absence of any articulation of it. The catalyst for that subsequent articulation and transmission was the accommodation of the Christian gospel to philosophical frameworks by the apologists of the late-second century, and more specifically, their need to defend the resurrection from the dead against the criticisms of Greek philosophy and groups usually labeled “gnostic.”
Without the imposition of these two dichotomies, the framework of Jesus’s inclusion “within the unique identity of the one God of Israel” (Bauckham 2008, ix) has no evidentiary purchase to gain among the first-century CE material remains. “Divine identity christology” presupposes the salience of philosophical frameworks that did not then exist, and therefore cannot adequately inform our reconstruction of the earliest conceptualizations of Jesus’s relationship with the deity of Israel. (pp. 201-202)
(b) Does an individual’s possession of the Divine name automatically make them God?
The “Liar, Lunatic or Lord” argument assumes that a Divine name can only be used by its author, God, and that it can never be transferred to another bearer. In a recent TikTok video (January 6, 2023), Dan McClellan exposes the flaws in this line of reasoning:
Hey, everybody. Jesus nowhere claims to be God in the New Testament. What Jesus claims is to be the authorized bearer of the Divine name and therefore to manifest the presence and divinity of God, and to have the power and authority to do what only God is supposed to be able to do. But that’s not new or unique to Jesus. That’s just the logic of divine images applied to a sentient personal being. And that’s a pattern that’s already developed in the Hebrew Bible, where we have the angel of the Lord, who similarly manifests God’s presence and divinity, and does what only God is supposed to be able to do, because as God explains in Exodus 23, “my name is in him.” And this tradition is further developed in the literature of Greco-Roman period Judaism – in the Enochic literature, for instance, where the Son of Man is endowed with the divine name and will be worshipped by everyone on earth, and manifests the presence of the Ancient of Days. And similarly, the angel Yahoel, from the Apocalypse of Abraham, explains that they do what only God is supposed to be able to do because of the Divine Name that dwells in them. So this is just Jesus aggregating or consolidating a number of pre-existing traditions regarding sentient divine images, and I discussed the evidence and the logic of this in much more detail in my book, YHWH’s Divine images, which you can access for free as a PDF on my linktree.
In his book, Yahweh’s Divine Images (Ancient Near East Monographs, No. 29; 2022: SBL Press, Atlanta), McClellan elaborates on his model:
The relationship of YHWH to the messenger of YHWH, however, directly parallels, in the earliest Christian literature, that of Jesus and the deity of Israel (Gieschen 1998).
The two most salient parallels are their shared exercise of divine prerogatives and their shared possession of the divine name. As discussed above, the messenger of YHWH is said in Exod 23:21 to have the authority to not forgive Israel’s sins, an allusion to Josh 24:19 and YHWH’s prerogative to do the same (Johansson 2011). The story in Mark 2:1–12 of Jesus’s healing of a paralyzed man and forgiving of his sins alludes to the same exclusive prerogative, which is put into the thoughts of the scholars, who incredulously wonder, “who can forgive sins except for the deity alone?” After discerning their thoughts, Jesus demonstrates that “the Son of Humanity [ho huios tou anthrōpou] has authority on earth to forgive sins” (v. 10) by healing the man’s paralysis… (2022, pp. 202-203)
Here’s the passage in Exodus 23:20-21, which Dr. McClellan was referring to:
“Behold, I send an angel before you to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I have prepared. Pay careful attention to him and obey his voice; do not rebel against him, for he will not pardon your transgression, for my name is in him.” (NASB)
Dr. McClellan goes on to discuss the passage in Philippians 2, where Jesus is bestowed by God with “the name that is above every name” – i.e. God’s name:
… A more explicitly Christian articulation of Jesus’s endowment with the divine name is found in the christological hymn of Phil 2:9: “Therefore the Deity has highly exalted him [auton hyperypsōsen] and has given him the name that is above every name [to onoma to hyper pan onoma], so that at the name of Jesus every knee may bend—in heaven and on earth and under the earth — and every tongue may confess that Jesus Christ is Lord [kyrios], to the glory of the Deity, the Father” (cf. Holloway 2017, 114–29). The assertion that Jesus is “Lord” can also be understood to reflect Jesus’s possession of the divine name, in light of the fact that kyrios (“Lord”) by this time period was overwhelmingly the preferred substitute for the Tetragrammaton in Greek Jewish literature…
The gospels add an additional rhetorical layer by repeatedly putting the Greek verbal phrase egō eimi, “I am,” into Jesus’s mouth (e.g., Matt 24:5; Mark 14:62; Luke 22:70; John 4:26; 8:58)…
Viewed through the framework developed within this book, the Christian scriptures are not including Jesus within the “unique identity” of the deity of Israel, they are literarily asserting his endowment with the divine name, enabling him — as with the messenger of YHWH — to exercise divine power and to be both identified with and distinguished from that deity. (2022, pp. 203-205)
To sum up: if Dr. McClellan is correct, then Jesus’ use of the Divine name cannot be taken as an indication that he is claiming equality with God. What it does indicate is that he regarded himself as the Divine Messenger, and as a Manifestation of God.
(c) Did the New Testament authors hold the same view of Jesus’ identity?
The “Liar, Lunatic or Lord” argument assumes that the New Testament authors are on the same page regarding Jesus’ identity: that is, they all shared similar beliefs regarding who Jesus is. And that’s simply not the case. In a blog article titled, The Doctrine of the Trinity: Where We Are So Far (March 7, 2021) Professor Bart Ehrman, who is a leading New Testament scholar, sketches an outline of how the views of the New Testament authors may have evolved, over the course of time (bolding is mine – VJT):
- Jesus himself did not claim to be a divine being and his earthly followers did not see him as divine.
- The turning point occurred when they came to believe he had been raised from the dead.
- Jesus’ followers did not think merely that at the resurrection Jesus’ cadaver came back to life and he returned to earth; they believed, at the outset, that God had taken him (body and all) up to heaven.
- In ancient thought, anyone taken up to heaven was made divine: they live with the gods, or God, as an immortal being, no longer a mere mortal.
- Some of Jesus’ followers later came to think he had not “merely” been exalted to be divine, but that he was born as a divine being (his mother was a virgin whom God impregnated).
- Some later still came to think he existed before his birth and was a divine being with God who became human.
- Some thought that at his resurrection God had actually made him *equal* with himself in power and authority.
- Some thought that as a divine being before his birth he had been in the beginning with God and created the universe.
- All of these ideas appear in the New Testament.
- But you cannot arrange the New Testament writings chronologically in order to see a clear linear progression from one view to the next. Ideas – of any kind (religious, political, economic, social, etc.) — almost never are strictly linear in their appearance and acceptance.
Summary: Why scholars reject the “Liar, Lunatic or Lord” argument
We have seen that New Testament scholars radically reject the hidden assumptions contained in C. S. Lewis’s “Liar, Lunatic or Lord” argument. They reject the assumption that the New Testament authors drew a clear and bright dividing line between God the Creator and His creatures, with nothing in between. They reject the assumption that God’s Name can only be used by God Himself, and that it can never be transferred to another bearer, such as Jesus. And they reject the assumption that the New Testament authors all held substantially the same view of who Jesus was.
Verdict on the “Liar, Lunatic or Lord” argument – and an invitation to Dr. Ortlund
So, let me sum up my case. First, the central Christian claim that Jesus is God cannot be stated coherently. Second, even if it could be stated coherently, it doesn’t gel with what the New Testament says about Jesus. The New Testament doesn’t envisage Jesus as having two minds, as orthodox Christians believe, and it doesn’t view Jesus as equal to the Father. Moreover, there seem to be a variety of views in the New Testament as to when Jesus became God’s Son: was it at his resurrection, at His birth, or from all eternity? Finally, Biblical scholars reject the argument’s hidden assumptions that the New Testament upholds a radical distinction between God and creatures, that God’s name cannot be transferred to anyone else, and that the New Testament authors all share the same view of Jesus’s divinity. So let me ask you, Dr. Ortlund: in view of the difficulties relating to C. S. Lewis’s “Liar, Lunatic or Lord” argument, will you now concede that it would be inadvisable to use it on skeptics such as myself?
4. Could a weaker version of C. S. Lewis’s argument still be used to defend Christianity?
(The Apostles’ Creed Song, by Adam Zarn, recorded on February 27, 2017.)
The conclusion we have reached so far is that it is at least doubtful whether the historical Jesus ever explicitly or implicitly claimed to be God. Consequently, any attempt to establish Jesus’ divinity on the basis of his claims about himself is doomed to failure.
Still, we might wonder whether a weaker version of the argument, which merely seeks to demonstrate that Jesus was sent by God to be the Savior and Judge of humanity, can still be defended. That would be sufficient to get us to an “Apostles’ Creed” version of Christianity, which does not call Jesus God, but which calls him “His only Son Our Lord,” who “sitteth at the right hand of God, the Father almighty; from thence He shall come to judge the living and the dead.” While that might sound very modest, some Christians might be happy to stop there.
Alternatively, a Christian who believes in the development of doctrine (as Cardinal Newman did) might argue that if we combine this simple Creed with the claim that the Christian Church, guided by the Holy Spirit, was legitimately authorized to develop and elaborate its doctrinal statements over the course of time, in order to combat heresies when they arose (such as Arianism in the fourth century), then that would constitute a strong argument for mainstream Christianity, without needing to establish that Jesus claimed to be God, during his life on Earth. However, in order for this line of argument to work, it would be necessary for the Church to put forward a model of Jesus’ divinity that answers the formidable objections raised in parts 1 and 2 of this essay, relating to the seeming incoherence of the doctrine that Jesus is God, and the difficulty of harmonizing it with Scripture.
The evidence that the early Christians viewed Jesus as the future Judge of humanity is very powerful: it can be found not only in Mark’s Gospel (Mark 13:26-27) but also in the writings of St. Paul (2 Corinthians 5:10). I might add that Dr. Bart Ehrman considers the Parable of the Last Judgement in Matthew 25:31-46, which speaks of the Son of Man as a future cosmic judge of the living and the dead, to be an authentic saying of Jesus. (UPDATE: I should point out, however, that Ehrman personally believes that Jesus did not think of himself as the future cosmic judge; rather, he looked forward to the future coming of a figure he referred to as the Son of Man, but did not identify himself with this figure. It was the early Christians who equated Jesus with this “Son of Man.”) Likewise, the teaching that Jesus is the Savior of the world was upheld by virtually every New Testament author, including St. Paul, as well as the Evangelist Mark, who portrays Jesus as declaring, “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45, ESV).
Given that it is at least reasonably likely that Jesus made these two claims about himself, can Christians make a persuasive argument that in making these claims, he was either lying or deluded or telling the truth about himself? As I see it, the success of this argument hinges on two premises: first, that only a deluded person would believe that he was the Savior of the world, and that he would be returning in glory at God’s right hand to judge the human race; and second, that Jesus was not, in fact, a deluded individual. The first premise sounds eminently plausible. Even if Jesus did not believe himself to be God, if he nevertheless believed that he would be returning at God’s right hand to judge the living and the dead, and if his belief was in fact a mistaken one, then I would agree that he wasn’t just wrong; he was suffering from delusions of grandeur. That leaves us with the second premise: that Jesus was not deluded. I shall evaluate this premise in part 5 below.
I conclude that a weaker version of C. S. Lewis’s argument has a much better chance of success in appealing to skeptics, because it’s more in keeping with what Jesus is recorded to have said about himself in the Synoptic Gospels. However, it won’t get you to orthodox Christianity; at best, it’ll get you to a belief in Jesus as Savior. What’s more, in order for the argument to work, we still need to show that Jesus was not deluded.
5. Can we rule out the supposition that Jesus was a lunatic?
Dr. Ortlund, I noticed that in his interview with you, Cameron Bertuzzi remarked that if he were a skeptic, seeking to undermine C. S. Lewis’s argument, he’d go for the “Lunatic” option. His instincts were correct. A surprisingly strong case can be made for the claim that Jesus was, in fact, severely deluded. In many passages in Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels (which are the ones that best preserve his teachings), Jesus talks like a dangerous cult leader. If he were alive today and talked like that, he would probably be arrested. Don’t believe me? Take a look at the evidence.
(a) Jesus actually expected people to hate their own family members
Now large crowds were going along with Him, and He turned and said to them, “If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his own father, mother, wife, children, brothers, sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple.” (Luke 14:25-26, NASB)
Hector Avalos (1958-2021), a former Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Iowa, comments on this verse in his book, The Bad Jesus: The Ethics of New Testament Ethics (Sheffield Phoenix Press Ltd., 2015). He insists that the word “hate” means precisely what it says: “Although the text seems as clear an expression of literal hate as any text found anywhere, Christian apologists have attempted to erase or lessen its negative connotations” (2015, p. 51). Unfortunately for apologists, the word for “hate” cannot be watered down: “The Greek word miseo has as consistent and as strong a meaning as any word in the entire Greek lexicon. It does not vary or is not subject to as much flexibility as other words may be” (2015, p. 54). Avalos concludes: “There are no compelling linguistic or historical reasons to deny that the Greek word miseo in Lk. 14.26 means what it means everywhere else we encounter it in the Greek scriptures” (2015, p. 88).
To be sure, there are two sides to any story, and there have been plausible arguments put forward by Christian scholars seeking to show that “hate” is either a hyperbole or simply means “love less.” All I will say is that the plain meaning of the verb is “hate.” On that point, Professor Avalos is surely correct.
(b) Jesus actively encouraged family division
“Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I came to turn a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a person’s enemies will be the members of his household. The one who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and the one who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me.” (Matthew 10:34-37, NASB)
“Do you think that I came to provide peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division; for from now on five members in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” (Luke 12:51-53, NASB)
Commenting on the above passages, Professor Avalos writes:
“How would we judge a modern religious leader who said that we should prefer him over our families? Why would we not treat such a person as an egomaniacal cult leader who does what all cult leaders do: transfer allegiance from one’s family to him or her. In other words, that demand would be viewed as unethical in itself.” (2015, p. 89)
Avalos adds that in Luke’s portrayal of Jesus, “Jesus was perpetuating a well-known tradition of leadership that was ultimately based on ancient Near Eastern master-servant and lord-vassal relationships, which demanded that the lord receive the total allegiance of any subordinates even at the expense of their own lives and families” (2015, p. 89). He concludes:
“Labeling his demand as a call to ‘radical discipleship’ appears to be another euphemistic attempt by New Testament ethicists to whitewash the hegemonic, despotic, egomaniacal and unethical view of submission that Jesus was demanding.” (2015, p. 89)
“Egomaniacal.” Doesn’t that suggest lunacy? And let’s be honest here. Don’t we all wish that Jesus had never said these words? He sounds a lot like Rev. Jim Jones.
(c) Jesus expected his followers to neglect their family duties
And He said to them, “Truly I say to you, there is no one who has left house, or wife, or brothers, or parents, or children for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive many times as much at this time, and in the age to come, eternal life.” (Luke 18:29-30, NASB)
And another of the disciples said to Him, “Lord, allow me first to go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Follow Me, and let the dead bury their own dead.” (Matthew 8:21-22, NASB)
“And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or farms on account of My name, will receive many times as much, and will inherit eternal life.” (Matthew 19:29, NASB)
Society rightly condemns deadbeat Dads. And yet, here is Jesus, praising those men who leave their wives and children behind, for his sake. Moreover, nowhere does he command them to see that their families are adequately provided for, before leaving them. This, I have to say, sounds like the behavior of a raving egomaniac.
The Ten Commandments tell us to honor our father and mother (Exodus 20:12). Yet Jesus tells his disciples to leave them behind and not even bury them! Again, this sounds very much like what a madman with delusions of grandeur would say.
To be sure, Christians can point to other passages (Mark 7:9-13) where Jesus criticizes the Pharisees for setting aside God’s commandment to provide for your father and mother. That may be so, but it seems that he didn’t always practice what he preached. In any case, I’m not trying to prove Jesus was mad; all I’m trying to show is that at times, he sounded a lot like a madman.
(d) Jesus apparently looked forward to the fact that most people will miss out on eternal life
“Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. For the gate is narrow and the way is constricted that leads to life, and there are few who find it.” (Matthew 7:13-14, NASB)
And someone said to Him, “Lord, are there just a few who are being saved?” And He said to them, “Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able.” (Luke 13:23-24)
“The Son of Man will send forth His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all stumbling blocks, and those who commit lawlessness, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 13:41-42, NASB)
“But when the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne. And all the nations will be gathered before Him; and He will separate them from one another, just as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats; and He will put the sheep on His right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.’… Then He will also say to those on His left, ‘Depart from Me, you accursed people, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels’ … These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matthew 25:31-34, 41, 46, NASB)
Here, Jesus seems to relish the final separation of the human race into those who are worthy of life (as shown by their care for the poor and needy) and those who are unworthy. The latter are not only abandoned but accursed. And pronouncing sentence upon the entire human race is Jesus himself, sitting on God’s right hand. Ask yourself: doesn’t this sound like a delusion of grandeur?
What’s more, the first two passages appears to suggest that those who attain to eternal life are a tiny minority (“few”), while those who miss out on eternal life are a great majority (“many”). No less an authority than Avery Cardinal Dulles acknowledges as much, in an article titled, “The Population of Hell” (First Things, May 2003): “Taken in their obvious meaning, passages such as these give the impression that there is a hell, and that many go there; more, in fact, than are saved.”
What’s more, that’s precisely how the early Church interpreted the words of Jesus. In an article in Crisis Magazine (January 19, 2023) titled, Dare We Fear That Most Men Be Damned?, Eric Sammons (who is the magazine’s Editor-in-Chief) notes:
…[U]ntil the 20th century it was assumed by the vast majority of Catholic saints and theologians that most would not be saved; they believed that if one were not a baptized practicing Catholic one would almost definitely not be one day united to God in Heaven (yes, theologians would acknowledge the “loophole” of “baptism of desire,” but until the middle of the 20th century that was assumed to be a very rare occurrence).
During those centuries of an exclusivist view of salvation the Church was driven to missionary work—she tirelessly evangelized the known world from the 1st century to the middle of the 20th…
…Remember all the saints who had this attitude over the centuries and were filled with joy and love for their neighbors. If you know someone is trapped in a burning building, do you condemn him for being there, or do you do all you can to rescue him?
To be fair, I should point out that not all scholars think that Jesus was saying, in the parable of the Last Judgement, that sinners go to Hell. Professor Bart Ehrman, in his recent book, Heaven and Hell (Oneworld, paperback, 2021, p. 165), makes a strong case that “eternal punishment” meant the second death – i.e. annihilation. But at the very least, Jesus seems to have believed that eternal life is for the few.
Now, I’m not denying that Jesus and his followers were driven by the highest of motives. But if you teach that salvation is for the few, and that you will be pronouncing sentence on all those who miss out on salvation, that makes you a strong candidate for being a madman, in my book.
Ask yourself this: suppose you knew for a fact that Jesus believed only 1% of the human race would be saved, while the remaining 99% would either be damned or annihilated. (If the thought of 99% of humanity being unsaved doesn’t bother you, try 99.99%.) Here’s my question: how would that affect your view of Jesus? If at some point, you’d be prepared to avow that anyone teaching such a harsh doctrine must be mistaken, then what you’re basically saying is: “I’ll believe in Jesus, as long as what he says conforms with my reason.”
And that’s precisely what I’m saying, Dr. Ortlund. I’m just being more honest and up-front about it. Because I can’t be sure that Jesus didn’t expect his followers to behave in a thoroughly anti-social manner (by hating and/or abandoning their own families), and because I can’t be sure that Jesus didn’t envisage 99% of humanity missing out on eternal life, then I’m withholding judgement on the question of whether Jesus was a “lunatic,” to use C. S. Lewis’s term. Shouldn’t you do the same?
So where does that leave us? In the end, we are left with a figure from history who probably saw himself as a Cosmic Judge who would be returning at God’s right hand – a figure who said some very profound things that have altered history for the better (especially his emphasis on charity), but who also made some very jarring, even disturbing statements. Was he a perfectly sane emissary from God, as he claimed to be, or was he a dangerous cult leader? In the end, Dr. Ortlund, I have to say that I honestly can’t be sure. And now, over to you.
Appendix: The Date of Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels
Matthew’s is probably the last of the Synoptics Gospels to be written. Rev. Alan Garrow, who is Vicar of St Peter’s Harrogate and a member of SCIBS at the University of Sheffield, has written extensively on the Synoptic Problem, which he claims to have finally solved. He makes a very convincing case, which readers can check out by viewing the videos on this page. Rev. Garrow favors the Matthew Conflator Hypothesis, according to which Matthew (who borrowed from Mark and Luke) was the last of the Synoptic Gospels to be written. He dates Matthew to somewhere between 80 and 135 A.D., on the grounds that Matthew shows signs of having used codices, rather than scrolls, when writing his Gospel. Garrow also thinks that Matthew and Luke used not only Mark as a source, but also an original (and shortened) version of the Didache, which he thinks was composed by the Apostolic Council of Jerusalem in 48 A.D.
When was Luke’s Gospel written? In a cogently argued article titled, When Were the Gospels Written and How Can We Know? (July 24, 2017), lawyer-turned-firefighter Doston Jones makes a convincing case that Luke’s Gospel was written some time after 74 A.D., based on his demonstrably false claim that an empire-wide census was held at the time of Jesus’ birth:
…Luke’s claim of an empire-wide or universal census is anachronistic. There was never a singular universal or empire-wide census instituted by Caesar Augustus. The censuses under Augustus were taken intermittently among the distinct Roman provinces at separate times/intervals as the regional political circumstances dictated – these censuses were not uniformly decreed or taken simultaneously throughout the empire at any time. In fact, there is no record or apparent possibility of a universal Roman census ever in the empire until Vespasian and Titus conducted a universal census in 74 CE. That Vespasian was the first to pursue a massive universal enrollment was one of the notable items of his reign. Apparently, the author of Luke’s gospel wrote his narrative considerably after this innovation and was unfortunately unaware that this practice was not historically typical nor was it practiced by Caesar Augustus. Luke erroneously and anachronistically retrojected geo-political features from his contemporary paradigm onto his nativity narrative. Whoops! So, the takeaway from Luke’s historical gaffe is that we can be assured that the Gospel of Luke was composed after 74 CE, and probably appreciably so.