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If Jesus isn’t God, he must be a lunatic: Here’s why

Lords' Prayer

James Tissot | Brooklyn Museum | Public Domain

Fr. Patrick Briscoe, OP - published on 02/13/22

CS Lewis provided a masterful line of argumentation, saying that we simply can't think of Jesus as merely a good moral teacher.

Christianity is often lined up among others as one of the world’s great religions. In this approach to faith, Jesus is presented alongside other ancient thinkers and teachers, like Plato, Aristotle, Moses, and Cicero.

It seems harmless enough. Christians believe that we live differently, because of a moral code that Christ has given to us. We hear a portion of that way of life presented in this Sunday’s Gospel:

Blessed are you who are poor,
for the kingdom of God is yours.
Blessed are you who are now hungry,
for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who are now weeping,
for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you,
and when they exclude and insult you,
and denounce your name as evil
on account of the Son of Man
Rejoice and leap for joy on that day!
Behold, your reward will be great in heaven. (Luke 6:20-23)

And yet, the person of Jesus Christ is not reducible to simply a moral code or a manner of living. Pope Benedict XVI writes in Deus Caritas Est, “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.”

To be a disciple of Jesus means not simply abiding by a set of rules or laws, but by being conformed to the Master. Being Christian means experiencing Christ as Lord.

The Trilemma

Fifty years before Pope Benedict wrote his masterful encyclical letter on the love of God (quoted above), another Christian scholar was thinking about the same question on the nature of Christ and life with him.

C.S. Lewis wrote the following in his bestselling book, Mere Christianity:

​​I am trying to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: “I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.” That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic–on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg–or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice.

For Lewis, it simply does not square to say that Jesus is a great moral teacher. Just a few chapters after Luke gives us this version of the beatitudes, Luke records Jesus’ great claim to be God. Luke tells us, “All things have been handed over to me by my Father. No one knows who the Son is except the Father, and who the Father is except the Son and anyone to whom the Son wishes to reveal him” (Luke 10:22).  Too many times in Scripture, Jesus himself directly claims to be God. 

How the argument works

Jesus cannot be simply a great moral teacher and have made all the claims about his own divinity that the New Testament holds. One could contest the reliability of the Scriptures of course, but at that point, one has to ask: Why believe the moral teaching? In other words, if the text is unreliable, why pick and choose from it? For C.S. Lewis, then, the reasonable options from the Gospel are: (1) Jesus is a lunatic, (2) Jesus is a liar, or (3) Jesus is Lord.

  1. A lunatic. Only an actually mentally unwell person, so this line of thinking runs, would claim to be God. In this reading, Jesus meant well, but was self-deluded. This preserves his moral integrity, I suppose, but again brings the legitimacy of his moral teaching into doubt. After all: Who would structure their life after the manner of living of someone psychologically deranged?
  2. A liar. According to this argument, Jesus simply lied about who he was. He was a man, just a man, and the times when he claims a divine identity are simply lies. According to this resolution, however, I fail to see how one could follow the moral teaching based on a deceptive master.
  3. Lord. This version of reconciling the difficulty holds, simply, that Jesus is who he says he is. He offers moral teaching, but he is no mere moral teacher among other moral teachers. Jesus Christ is the only begotten Son of the Father. He is our Lord.

C.S. Lewis doesn’t mince words as he makes this argument. He concludes, 

Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon; or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.

Faced with this argument, led by the Christian apologist C.S. Lewis, what are we to conclude? What, then, is reasonable to think about Christ? 

We ought to fall to our knees and worship the Lord. This is not a God who imposes unmanageable burdens. This is not a God who legislates the impossible. Jesus Christ has given us a way of life and he walks among us, giving us the strength to remain faithful to it, to carry on, to strive after happiness and peace.

Jesus Christ, our Lord, is himself our way of life. Let us cling to him with every fiber of our being, let us praise him with every breath we take. Let us proclaim with all the angels and saints down through the ages, “Jesus Christ is Lord!”

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