Read an Excerpt
THE CASE FOR CHRISTa journalist's personal investigation of the evidence of Jesus
By LEE STROBEL WITH JANE VOGEL
ZONDERVANCopyright © 2001 Lee Strobel
All right reserved.
Chapter OneDid Jesus Really Think He Was God?
Imagine that one morning as you poured yourself a bowl of Wheaties, a game ticket fell out of the box. Looking at it, you realized that you were the lucky winner of an all-expense-paid vacation to Hawaii!
Now, less than three weeks later, you're suited up and ready to take on the Pacific surf. Since you didn't happen to carry a surfboard with you on the plane, you stroll over to a little rental shack on the beach to check out a board.
Ahead of you in line are two guys trying to explain why they should get their deposits back even though they failed to return their surfboards.
"It was an act of nature, man," says the first guy. "This monster wave came and swept the board right out from under me. By the time I got my head above water, the board was out of sight. By now it's probably halfway to Hong Kong."
Then the second guy offers his excuse. "I didn't lose my board. But just as I was bringing it back, Keanu Reeves stopped me and said he needed it for a stunt in some new action film he's making. I figured it would be good publicity for your surf shop, so I let him have it. I'm sure he'll return it when he's done."
Now, the surf shop clerk, whowasn't born yesterday, knows a scam when he sees one. He figures that these guys have ripped off his boards and have the gall to try to get their deposits back besides. It shouldn't be too hard to check up on the Keanu Reeves story. A few phone calls will reveal whether he's on the island shooting a new movie. If he's not, the customer has been caught in a lie and the shop can prosecute. A runaway wave, now-that's going to be a little harder to confirm or disprove.
When I decided to test the claims of Christianity, right off the bat I figured that Christians had made a tactical error. Other religions believe in all kinds of invisible gods-sort of like the monster wave story-and that's kind of hard to pin down one way or the other. But Christians were basing their religion on the alleged teachings and miracles of someone they claim is an actual historical person-Jesus Christ-who, they say, is God.
This struck me as a major mistake. If Jesus really lived, he would have left behind some historical evidence. I couldn't call him up the way you could phone Keanu Reeves' agent, but if he really lived, then I ought to be able to find some information on him. I figured all that I needed to do was dig out the historical truth about Jesus. It would reveal that he was a nice man, maybe a very moral person and excellent teacher-but certainly not a god.
Frankly, I was pretty sure that Jesus himself would agree with me. The real Jesus, I was confident, would roll over in his grave if he knew people were worshiping him. I hadn't really studied Jesus' teachings, but I doubted that he had ever claimed to be anything more than a traveling teacher and an occasional rabble-rouser.
WHO DID JESUS SAY HE WAS?
A lot of the information we have about Jesus comes from the Bible. That's a problem right there, because why should we believe that the Bible is an accurate source of information? So I spent a lot of time investigating the accuracy of the Bible-especially the New Testament, which is where most of the information about Jesus is. Chapters 5 and 6 retrace that investigation.
Whether you believe the Bible is reliable or not, there's no denying that Christians consider the Bible their sourcebook for what they believe about Jesus. I suspected that Christians had misread the whole thing-that other people had made claims for Jesus that Jesus himself would never back up. If I could demonstrate from the Bible itself that Jesus never claimed to be God, then I wouldn't have to go any further.
The gospel of John in the New Testament opens with a majestic claim that Jesus, here called "the Word," is God.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.... The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
John 1:1-3, 14, NIV
As I read those claims (made, you'll notice, by one of Jesus' followers, not by Jesus himself), I wondered how Jesus would respond. Would he say, "Whoa! John got me all wrong?" Or would he nod approvingly and say, "Yep, I'm all that-and more"?
God - if he exists - is supposed to have certain characteristics, also called "attributes." One way of investigating whether Jesus is God is to see how well he measured up to those attributes. Here are some claims the Bible makes about Jesus. Of course, whether you believe those claims depends on whether you believe the Bible. You might want to wait to make up your mind on that until you've read chapters 5 and 6.
Attributes of God Claims about Jesus
Omniscience In John 16:30 the apostle (all-knowing) John affirms of Jesus, "Now we can see that you know all things."
Omnipresence Jesus said in Matthew (everywhere present) 28:20, "Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age."
Omnipotence "All authority in heaven (all-powerful) and on earth has been given to me," Jesus said in Matthew 28:18.
Eternality John 1:1 declares of (no beginning or end) Jesus, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."
Immutability Hebrews 13:8 says, "Jesus (unchanging) Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever."
"CALL ME CHRIST"
I found one account of what Jesus said about himself in another New Testament book, the gospel of Matthew. In a private meeting, Jesus asked his disciples, "Who do you say I am?" Peter answered, "You're the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the living God." Jesus' response? "God bless you, Simon, son of Jonah! You didn't get that answer out of books or from teachers. My Father in heaven, God himself, let you in on this secret of who I really am" (Matthew 16:15-17, The Message).
Although this conversation sounded as if Jesus might be claiming to be more than just the good teacher I'd had him pegged as, I wasn't convinced that the titles "Christ" and even "Son of the living God" necessarily had to be interpreted to mean "God." What did the people around Jesus think he meant when he said he was the Christ?
I found an answer to that question in a short but violent account in the gospel of John. Some of the Jewish leaders gathered around Jesus and said, "How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly." Jesus responded, "I did tell you, but you do not believe.... I and the Father are one."
While the claim, "I and the Father are one," didn't mean much to me, it clearly meant something very specific to the people listening to Jesus, because at once they picked up rocks to stone him! Why? "For blasphemy," they said, "because you, a mere man, claim to be God." (You can read this conversation in John 10:24-33.)
Some of Jesus' statements as they are recorded in the Bible don't seem to be clear claims that Jesus is God. I thought this might be an argument against the idea that Jesus claimed to be God. For an "expert's" opinion, I asked Dr. Ben Witherington, who has a whole string of degrees and memberships in societies that study the Bible and has written five books about Jesus.
NO CLEAR CLAIMS
To: Ben Witherington From: Lee Strobel Subject: no clear claims
Ben, you've looked into this subject. Isn't it true that Jesus didn't come right out and say, "I'm God"? Doesn't that mean he didn't see himself as God? -Lee
RE: NO CLEAR CLAIMS
To: Lee Strobel From: Ben Witherington Subject: re: no clear claims
Lee-Don't forget when Jesus lived! If he'd simply announced, "Hi, folks; I'm God," that would have been heard as "I'm Yahweh," because the Jews of his day didn't have any concept of the Trinity-God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. They only knew of God the Father-whom they called Yahweh.
So if Jesus were to say he was God, that wouldn't have made any sense to them-and it would have hurt Jesus' efforts to get his message out. In private with his disciples-that was a different story, but the Gospels mainly tell us what Jesus did in public.
STATEMENT OF A SKEPTIC
The Jewish leaders may have been convinced about who Jesus claimed to be, but I was still skeptical. In fact, I was attracted to one of Jesus' own disciples, a guy named Thomas, because he was just as skeptical as I was. Even when all the other disciples were claiming that Jesus had returned to life (I decided to look into that claim, too; see chapter 9), Thomas said he wasn't going to believe a thing unless he could personally examine the wounds in Jesus' hands and feet.
According to the New Testament records, Jesus did appear and invite Thomas to check out the evidence for himself. Thomas the skeptic changed his tune and proclaimed, "My Lord and my God!" (See John 20:28.)
Jesus didn't respond by saying, "Wait a minute! Don't go calling me God-remember, I'm just a great teacher and a very moral man." Instead, Jesus said, "You believe because you see me. Those who believe without seeing me will be truly happy" (John 20:29, NCV).
Now, I'd like to be truly happy as much as the next guy, but I was by no means willing to buy into the notion that Jesus had actually died and returned to life. As far as I was concerned, his whole death could have been a hoax-how else could he show up after his supposed execution? What I was becoming convinced of, though, is that Jesus really did claim that he was God.
Which raises another question: Was Jesus lying?
WAS JESUS LYING WHEN HE CLAIMED TO BE GOD?
The fact that Jesus claimed to be God doesn't necessarily mean that he was God. After all, plenty of people pad the truth a little to make themselves seem more than they are-like the bench-warmer who says, "Sure, I'm a starter on the team," hoping to impress his date, or the girl who passes herself off as an experienced waitress on her first job application. A lot of people will lie when there's something in it for them.
So what was in it for Jesus?
DYING FOR A LIE?
Christ's oldest biography describes how he was asked point-blank during his trial: "Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?" Jesus wasn't ambiguous. The first two words out of his mouth were: "I am."
Jesus: Great Moral Teacher?
Some people suggest that Jesus was a great moral teacher, but he wasn't God.
That argument just won't work. Great moral teachers don't lie and say that they are God. But Jesus did claim that he was God.
With Jesus, it seems to be all or nothing. Either he was a great moral teacher, in which case he wasn't lying when he said he was God, or he was lying, in which case he wasn't such a great moral teacher after all.
The high priest knew what Jesus was saying, because he angrily told the court, "You have heard the blasphemy." What was blasphemous? That Jesus was claiming to be God! This, I learned, was the crime for which Jesus was put to death. (You can read about the that in Mark 14:60-64. Granted, this information comes from the New Testament but, as you'll see in chapters 5 and 6, I found that there were good reasons for trusting the general reliability of the Bible's accounts of Jesus' life. You might want to withhold judgment until you get there.)
NO CLEAR CLAIMS
To: Ben Witherington From: Lee Strobel Subject: still not convinced
What makes you think Jesus was more than just a good teacher? I've heard that the idea that Jesus was more than that didn't get started until years after his death.
STILL NOT CONVINCED
To: Lee Strobel From: Ben Witherington Subject: re: still not convinced
Think so? Then why did the Roman authorities crucify Jesus? If he had merely been a teacher telling nice little parables, how did he end up on a cross? There had to be a reason why the sign above his head said, "This is the King of the Jews."
Either Jesus made that claim, or someone clearly thought he did.
So what did Jesus get for claiming to be God? He got tortured to death.
Imagine somebody holding a gun to the bench-warmer's head and saying, "So what's the truth? Are you really a starting player? Because if you are, you're going to die." How long do you think the player's going to hold on to that lie?
Yet Jesus held to his claim right to the end. Would somebody willingly die for a claim he knew was a lie?
TAKING THE BULLET
There's a story about an Army sergeant and a private who were doing survival training in the Rocky Mountains. As they made their way through the woods, suddenly they encountered a big, angry grizzly bear that was about to attack them.
Quickly the sergeant sat down, ripped off his heavy hiking boots, grabbed a pair of running shoes out of his backpack, and pulled them on.
"What do you think you're doing?" yelled the private. "You'll never outrun that bear!"
"I don't have to," called the sergeant over his shoulder as he sprinted away. "I only have to outrun you."
You don't have to be a genius to know when a leader doesn't have your best interests at heart. Maybe you've played for a coach who was more concerned with his record than with what was best for the team. Or you've worked for a boss whose only goal was to make herself look good. In a situation where it's him or you, this kind of leader is going to save himself, as the sergeant was trying to do.
Who Jesus Thought He Was Jesus claimed to be God. That claim got him killed. The question: Would Jesus be willing to die for a lie? Or was he willing to die because he believed he was telling the truth?
I know only one sure-fire way to determine whether a leader is really in my corner: Is he willing to take a bullet that was meant for me?
That's the kind of leader Jesus claimed to be. According to the gospel of Mark, Jesus told his followers that his purpose was "to give his life as a ransom for many." (See Mark 10:45.) He was willing to die a horrible death to pay for the sins of the world so that people could be made right with God. It would be like the sergeant in the story saying, "Private, you run for safety; I'll stay here and take on this bear."
It was becoming evident to me that Jesus didn't just claim to be God; he believed it. He wasn't pulling some kind of scam to get ahead by saying he was God. After all, what it got him was killed. And no one in his right mind dies for a lie.
Which raises another question: Was Jesus in his right mind?
Excerpted from THE CASE FOR CHRIST by LEE STROBEL WITH JANE VOGEL Copyright © 2001 by Lee Strobel
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.