Back to Index
What Sort of God Did Jesus Claim to Be?
by Daryl E. Witmer
If Jesus never claimed to be divine at all, one could probably justifiably dismiss Christianity as the phony (albeit phenomenal) result of legends about Him which grew and spread subsequent to His death. But such postulates have often been roundly refuted, Biblically and extra-Biblically.
The case for the reliability of Scripture remains air tight despite the writings of Bart Ehrman, Dan Brown, Dennis McKinsey et al. And in the Bible even the Jesus Seminar agrees that Jesus referred to Himself as the “Son of Man.” He also said, “I AM.” Both are cryptic references to deity. He forgave sin, accepted worship, performed miracles, was resurrected.
Apart from the Biblical record there are also numerous telling references to Jesus by early historians with no axe to grind. There are historical traditions about the continued allegiance (after His death) and ultimate martyrdom of those who knew Jesus best. (Who would die for someone who didn’t even believe in Himself?) And there is the steady growth of Christianity, beginning while many of Jesus’ contemporaries remained alive. How could that have happened if Jesus Himself had resisted or refuted characterizations of Himself as being anything more than human while He was alive?
This seems to leave us with only two real possibilities: 1) Jesus claimed for Himself deity just as deity is defined in the Bible or 2) Jesus was not referring to the God described in the Bible when He said and did things attesting to deity.
A man with whom I was once in conversation outside our Study Center in Monson, Maine, said to me, “Of course Jesus claimed to be god. But what he meant was that he was an avatar, a yogi, or an enlightened spirit guide.”
How would you have responded to a statement of that sort?
Well, the man who made it is certainly not alone. Perhaps you yourself are among those who have postulated variations on that theme – that when Jesus claimed deity, He only meant to say that He was the embodiment, or incarnation, or reincarnation, of the Oneness (Brahman) that some say is the sacred power and source of the universe.
In other words, we should try to understand Jesus’ claims in the context of a more Hindu-like (Eastern) faith system, i.e. Of course Jesus claimed to be God, but only in the sense that we are all God.
Is this, after all, a realistic possibility?
Peter Kreeft, professor of philosophy at Boston College, has addressed this category of conjecture about as thoroughly as anyone ever has, and Peter Kreeft believes that it is not credible.
In Part 4 chapter 7 of his Handbook of Christian Apologetics, entitled The Quintilemma: Lord, Liar, Lunatic, Myth or Guru?, Kreeft cites “eight flat-out contradictions between Judaism and the universal teaching of all gurus,” concluding that “if Jesus really was teaching mysticism, if Jesus was not a rabbi but an ‘enlightened master,’ then he was not an enlightened master. For he totally deluded every-one always about everything!”
But, Kreeft writes: “Jesus was a Jew; this simple fact refutes the guru hypothesis. He never told anyone to convert from Judaism. He said he came to fulfill the law and the prophets, not destroy them. He did not found a new religion; he fulfilled the old one.” So “it is utterly unhistorical, uprooted and deracinated to see Jesus as a Hindu and not a Jew; as a kind of generic, universal type of ‘enlightened consciousness.’ You cannot ignore his Jewishness.”
In short, Jesus espoused the Judeo- Christian (and therefore Biblical) teaching that, among other things, God is a) infinite yet personal, b) separate from His creation, and c) knowable. Jesus repeatedly identified with traditional Jewish (and later Christian) theology about at least these (though not all) aspects of the divine nature.
Therefore, Jesus claimed to be God just as the term God is defined in the Bible. Which, if true, means that either He was 1) a great deceiver, 2) severely delusional, or 3) exactly who He said He was.
Options 1 and 2 have been answered elsewhere in our own literature, in the published writings of many distinguished scholars, and in the minds of countless reasonable observers throughout history who have concluded that the historical Jesus bore no evidence of being either an impostor or a kook.
“Therefore also God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those who are in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:9-11)