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The doctrine of Christ's divinity is the central Christian doctrine, for
it is like a skeleton key that opens all the others. Christians have not
independently reasoned out and tested each of the teachings of Christ, received
via Bible and
Church, but believe them all on his authority. For if Christ is divine,
he can be trusted to be infallible In everything he said, even hard things
like exalting suffering and poverty, forbidding divorce, giving his Church
the authority to teach and forgive sins in his name, warning about hell
(very often and very seriously), instituting the scandalous sacrament of
eating his flesh-we often forget how many "hard sayings" he taught!
When the first Christian apologists began to give a reason for the faith
that was in them to unbelievers, this doctrine of Christ's divinity naturally
came under attack, for it was almost as incredible to Gentiles as it was
scandalous to Jews. That a man who was born out of a woman's womb and died
on a cross, a man who got tired and hungry and angry and agitated and wept
at his friend's tomb, that this man who got dirt under his fingernails should
be God was, quite simply, the most astonishing, incredible, crazy-sounding
idea that had ever entered the mind of man in all human history.
The argument the early apologists used to defend this apparently indefensible
doctrine has become a classic one. C. S. Lewis used it often, e.g., in Mere
Christianity, the book that convinced Chuck Colson (and thousands of
others). I once spent half a book (Between Heaven and Hell) on this
one argument alone. It is the most important argument in Christian apologetics,
for once .in unbeliever accepts the conclusion of this argument (that Christ
is divine), everything else in the Faith follows, not only intellectually
(Christ's teachings must all then be true) but also personally (if Christ
is God, he is also your total Lord and Savior).
The argument, like all effective arguments, is extremely simple: Christ
was either God or a bad man.
Unbelievers almost always say he was a good man, not a bad man; that he
was a great moral teacher, a sage, a philosopher, a moralist, and a prophet,
not a criminal, not a man who deserved to be crucified. But a good man is
the one thing he could not possibly have been according to simple common
sense and logic. For he claimed to be God. He said, "Before Abraham was,
I Am", thus speaking the word no Jew dares to speak because it is God's
own private name, spoken by God himself to Moses at the burning bush. Jesus
wanted everyone to believe that he was God. He wanted people to worship
him. He claimed to forgive everyone's sins against everyone. (Who can do
that but God, the One offended in every sin?)
Now what would we think of a person who went around making these claims
today? Certainly not that he was a good man or a sage. There are only two
possibilities: he either speaks the truth or not, If he speaks the truth,
he is God and the case is closed. We must believe him and worship him. If
he does not speak the truth, then he is not God but a mere man. But a mere
man who wants you to worship him as God is not a good man. He is a very
bad man indeed, either morally or intellectually. If he knows that he is
not God, then he is morally bad, a liar trying deliberately to deceive you
into blasphemy. If he does not know that he is not God, if he sincerely
thinks he is God, then he is intellectually bad-in fact, insane.
A measure of your insanity is the size of the gap between what you think
you are and what you really are. If I think I am the greatest philosopher
in America, I am only an arrogant fool; if I think I am Napoleon, I am probably
over the edge; if I think I am a butterfly, I am fully embarked from the
sunny shores of sanity. But if I think I am God, I am even more insane because
the gap between anything finite and the infinite God is even greater than
the gap between any two finite things, even a man and a butterfly.
josh McDowell summarized the argument simply and memorably in the trilemma
" Lord, liar, or lunatic?" Those are the only options. Well, then, why not
liar or lunatic? But almost no one who has read the Gospels can honestly
and seriously consider that option. The savviness, the canniness, the human
wisdom, the attractiveness of Jesus emerge from the Gospels with unavoidable
force to any but the most hardened and prejudiced reader. Compare Jesus
with liars like the Reverend Sun Myung Moon or lunatics like the dying Nietzsche.
Jesus has in abundance precisely those three qualities that liars and lunatics
most conspicuously lack: (1) his practical wisdom, his ability to read human
hearts, to understand people and the real, unspoken question behind their
words, his ability to heal people's spirits as well as their bodies; (2)
his deep and winning love, his passionate compassion, his ability to attract
people and make them feel at home and forgiven, his authority, "not as the
scribes"; and above all (3) his ability to astonish, his unpredictability,
his creativity. Liars and lunatics are all so dull and predictable! No one
who knows both the Gospels and human beings can seriously entertain the
possibility that Jesus was a liar or a lunatic, a bad man.
No, the unbeliever almost always believes that Jesus was a good man, a prophet,
a sage. Well then , if he was a sage, you can trust him and believe the
essential things he says. And the essential thing he says is that he is
the divine Savior of the world and that you must come to him for salvation.
If he is a sage, you must accept his essential teaching as true. If his
teaching is false, then he is not a sage.
The strength of this argument is that it is not merely a logical argument
about concepts; it is about Jesus. it invites people to read the Gospels
and get to know this man. The premise of the argument is the character of
Jesus, the human nature of Jesus. The argument has its feet on the earth.
But it takes you to heaven, like Jacob's ladder (which Jesus said meant
him: Gen 28:12; Jn 1:51). Each rung follows and holds together. The argument
is logically airtight; there is simply no way out.
What, then, do people say when confronted with this argument? Often, they
simply confess their prejudices: "Oh, I just can't believe that!" (But if
it has been proved to be true, you must believe it if you really seek the
Sometimes, they go away, like many of Jesus' contemporaries, wondering and
shaking their heads and thinking. That is perhaps the very best result you
can hope for. The ground has been softened up and plowed. The seed has been
sown. God will give the increase.
But if they know some modern theology, they have one of two escapes, Theology
has an escape; common sense does not. Common sense is easily convertible.
It is the theologians, now as then, who are the hardest to convert.
The first escape is the attack of the Scripture "scholars" on the historical
reliability of the Gospels. Perhaps Jesus never claimed to be divine. Perhaps
all the embarrassing passages were inventions of the early Church (say "Christian
community"it sounds nicer)
In that case, who invented traditional Christianity if not Christ? A lie,
like a truth, must originate somewhere. Peter? The twelve? The next generation?
What was the motive of whoever first invented the myth (euphemism for lie)?
What did they get out of this elaborate, blasphemous hoax? For it must have
been a deliberate lie, not a sincere confusion. No Jew confuses Creator
with creature, God with man. And no man confuses a dead body with a resurrected,
Here is what they got out of their hoax. Their friends and families scorned
them. Their social standing, possessions, and political privileges were
stolen from them by both Jews and Romans. They were persecuted, imprisoned,
whipped, tortured, exiled, crucified, eaten by lions, and cut to pieces
by gladiators. So some silly Jews invented the whole elaborate, incredible
lie of Christianity for absolutely no reason, and millions of Gentiles believed
it, devoted their lives to it, and died for it-for no reason. It was only
a fantastic practical joke, a hoax. Yes, there is a hoax indeed, but the
perpetrators of it are the twentieth-century theologians, not the Gospel
The second escape (notice how eager we are to squirm out of the arms of
God like a greased pig) is to Orientalize Jesus, to interpret him not as
the unique God-man but as one of many mystics or "adepts" who realized his
own inner divinity just as a typical Hindu mystic does. This theory take's
the teeth out of his claim to divinity, for he only realized that everyone
is divine. The problem with that theory is simply that Jesus was not a Hindu
but a Jew! When he said "God", neither he nor his hearers meant Brahman,
the impersonal, pantheistic, immanent all; he meant Yahweh, the personal,
theistic, transcendent Creator. It is utterly unhistorical to see Jesus
as a mystic, a Jewish guru. He taught prayer, not meditation. His God is
a person, not a pudding. He said he was God but not that everyone was. He
taught sin and forgiveness, as no guru does. He said nothing about the "Illusion"
of individuality, as the mystics do.
Attack each of these evasionsJesus as the good man. Jesus as the lunatic,
Jesus as the liar, Jesus as the man who never claimed divinity, Jesus as
the mystictake away these flight squares, and there is only one square
left for the unbeliever's king to move to. And on that square waits checkmate.
And a joyous mating it is. The whole argument is really a wedding invitation.
Ph.D., is a professor
of philosophy at Boston College. He is an alumnus of Calvin College
(AB 1959) and Fordham University (MA 1961, Ph.D., 1965). He taught at Villanova
University from 1962-1965, and has been at Boston College since 1965.
He is the author of numerous books (over forty and counting) including:
C.S. Lewis for the Third Millennium, Fundamentals of the Faith, Catholic
Christianity, Back to Virtue, and Three Approaches to Abortion.
Peter Kreeft's personal
web site | Other
excerpts of his writing
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