Was Jesus a Deceiver or Self-Deceived?

AS WE HAVE seen, in his quest for truth, former skeptic C. S. Lewis knew that he could not have it both ways with the identity of Jesus. Either Jesus was who he claimed to be—God in the flesh—or his claims were false. And if they were false, Jesus could not be a great moral teacher. He would either be lying intentionally or he would be a lunatic with a God complex. We’ll consider these last two possibilities in this chapter.

Even Jesus’ harshest critics rarely have called him a liar. That label certainly doesn’t seem to fit with Jesus’ high moral and ethical teaching. How could anyone think that the most righteous man who ever lived lied about his identity? But, Lewis argues, if Jesus isn’t who he claimed to be, we must consider the option that he was intentionally misleading everyone. We’ll start there.

Lying to Others

One of the best-known and most influential political works of all time was written by Niccolò Machiavelli in 1532. In his classic, The Prince, Machiavelli exalts power, success, image, and efficiency above loyalty, faith, and honesty. According to Machiavelli (Machiavellian principle), lying is okay if it accomplishes a political end.

Could Jesus Christ have built his entire ministry upon a lie just to gain power, fame, or success? It would seem that, if he had lied, some- one would have discovered it and exposed him. In fact, his Jewish opponents were constantly trying to expose Jesus as a fraud and liar. They would barrage him with questions in attempts to trip him up and make him contradict himself. Yet Jesus responded with remarkable consistency, never once being untruthful.

The question we must deal with is this: What could possibly motivate Jesus to live his entire life as a lie? He taught that God was opposed to lying and hypocrisy, so he wouldn’t have been doing it to please his Father. He certainly wouldn’t have lied for his followers’ benefit, since all but one were martyred rather than renouncing his Lordship. And so we are left with only two other explanations, each of which is problematic.

Personal Benefit

Many people have lied for personal gain. In fact, the motivation of most lies is some perceived benefit to oneself. What could Jesus have hoped to gain from lying about his identity? Power would be the most obvious answer. If people believed he was God, he would have tremendous power. (That is why many ancient leaders, such as the Caesars, claimed divine origin.)

However, the record shows that Jesus shunned all attempts to move himself in the direction of seated power, instead chastising those who abused such power and lived their lives pursuing it. In fact, Jesus continually reached out to those without power, demonstrating love and compassion.

It would seem that if power were Jesus’ motivation, he would have avoided the cross at all costs. Having one’s hands and feet nailed to a wooden cross strips a person of all power. Yet Jesus told his disciples that the cross was his destiny and mission. How would dying on a Roman cross bring him power?

Death, of course, brings all things into proper focus. And while many martyrs have died for a cause they believed in, few have been willing to die for a known lie. Certainly all hopes for Jesus’ own personal gain would have ended on the cross. Yet, to his last breath, he would not relinquish his claim of being the unique Son of God, a title that refers to Jesus’ deity.[1]

A Legacy

So, if Jesus was above lying for personal benefit, is it possible he made false claims about himself in order to leave a legacy? Certainly nothing in Jesus’ life or words is consistent with him lying, even to create a legacy. Furthermore, the prospect of being beaten to a pulp and nailed to a cross would quickly dampen the enthusiasm of most would-be superstars.

Here is another haunting fact. If Jesus were to have simply dropped the claim of being God’s Son, he never would have been condemned. It was his claim to deity and his unwillingness to recant that got him crucified.

If enhancing his credibility and historical reputation was what motivated Jesus to lie, one must explain how a carpenter’s son from a poor Galilean village could ever anticipate the events that would catapult his name to worldwide prominence. How would he know his message would survive? Jesus’ disciples had fled and Peter had denied him. Not exactly the formula for launching a religious legacy.

Do historians believe Jesus lied? Scholars from the past twenty centuries have scrutinized Jesus’ words and life to see if there is any evidence of a defect in his moral character. None have discovered any imperfection in him. In fact, even the most ardent skeptics are stunned by Jesus’ moral and ethical purity.

According to historian Philip Schaff, there is no evidence, either in church history or in secular history that Jesus lied about anything. Schaff argued, “How, in the name of logic, common sense, and experience, could a deceitful, selfish, depraved man have invented, and consistently maintained from the beginning to end, the purest and noblest character known in history with the most perfect air of truth and reality?”[2]

To go with the option of liar seems to swim upstream against everything Jesus taught, lived, and died for. To most scholars, it just doesn’t make sense. Yet, to deny Jesus’ claims, one must come up with some explanation. And if Jesus’ claims are not true, and he wasn’t lying, the only option remaining is that he must have been self-deceived.

Lying to Himself

Albert Schweitzer, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1952 for his humanitarian efforts, had his own views about Jesus. Schweitzer, a non- Christian, concluded that insanity was behind Jesus’ claim to be God. In other words, he believed Jesus was wrong about his claims but didn’t intentionally lie. According to Schweitzer’s theory, Jesus was deluded into actually believing he was the Messiah.

In his search for the real Jesus, C. S. Lewis considered this option carefully. He deduced that if Jesus’ claims weren’t true, then he must have been insane. Lewis reasoned that someone who claimed to be God would not be a great moral teacher. “He would either be a lunatic—on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell.”[3]

Most who have studied Jesus’ life and words acknowledge him as extremely rational and psychologically well balanced. Although his own life was filled with immorality and personal skepticism, the renowned French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–78) acknowledged Jesus’ superior character and presence of mind, stating, “When Plato describes his imaginary righteous man…he describes exactly the character of Christ….If the life and death of Socrates are those of a philosopher, the life and death of Jesus Christ are those of a God.”[4]

Not afraid to speak his mind, Bono continues his thoughts about Jesus by stating that a “nutcase” was the last thing one could label him. He argues, “So what you’re left with is either Christ was who He said He was—or a complete nutcase. I mean, we’re talking nutcase on the level of Charles Manson….I’m not joking here. The idea that the entire course of civilization for over half of the globe could have its fate changed and turned upside down by a nutcase, for me that’s far-fetched.”[5]

Liar, Lunatic, or Lord

So, was Jesus a liar or a lunatic, or was he the Son of God? The claims of Jesus Christ force us to choose. C. S. Lewis asks, “What are we to make of Jesus Christ?”[6] “The real question,” according to Lewis, “is not what are we to make of Christ, but what is He to make of us?”[7] True to his words, Lewis allowed Jesus Christ to change his life. The former atheist then challenges us to make up our own minds about Jesus, stating:

You must make your choice. 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 patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.[8]

In Mere Christianity, Lewis explores the options regarding the identity of Jesus, concluding that he is exactly who he claimed to be: the Son of God. His careful examination of the life and words of Jesus led this literary genius to renounce his former atheism and become a committed Christian.

The greatest question in human history is “Who is the real Jesus Christ?” Bono, Lewis, and countless others have concluded that God the Son visited our planet in human form. But if that is true, then we would expect him to be alive today. And that is exactly what his followers believe.

The writers of the New Testament unanimously state that Jesus conquered death after being crucified and buried. But in our secular world that requires proof, many have had difficulty believing such a feat possible. In the following chapters we will examine the evidence for the most astounding claim in history: that Jesus Christ rose bodily from a tomb three days after his crucifixion and death.