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
Now, the surf shop clerk, who wasn'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
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
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
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
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.