Arguably, the single, most important figure in history is one called Jesus of Nazareth. More books, articles, debates, and blogs have referred to him than any other figure in human history. People debate about him all the time, even about his racial identity: was he white, black, mixed, non-racial (he was Jewish, people!)? So guess what? Whatever you think or believe about him, it matters. Especially because of what he claimed about himself. And before I continue, yes, he was an actual historical figure, despite the minority of scholars today who wrongly dispute this (like Robert Price). Even the unbelieving historians of his day referred to him as an actual person who lived in society (e.g., Josephus, Tacitus, and Lucian).
Given his self-claims, there are three options for who he really was (I still think the argument C.S. Lewis popularized is helpful, so I’ll summarize it here; check out his book Mere Christianity for a better articulation of this). He was either 1) a liar, 2) a lunatic, or 3) the Lord. Let’s take the first option: liar. With this scenario, he lived in basic obscurity in a small town called Nazareth for about 30 years, then came out of nowhere and started preaching his message. He led this itinerant ministry for about 3-4 years, undergoing opposition here and there, and then all of a sudden, was killed. But he wasn’t just killed like Joseph Smith was killed (in a prison cell when a mob rioted and shot him dead). He was severely tortured via flogging (a Roman procedure that sometimes resulted in death; they would strip the perpetrator essentially naked and “flog” him with a leather whip containing pieces of metal, ivory, bone, and other sharp pieces), leaving his body like raw meat even before his crucifixion. Then, of course, we have the crucifixion. Some medical experts who have studied this horrific Roman form of capital punishment describe the pain of nails piercing through one’s wrists (not hands, people, wrists) as comparable to taking one’s funny bone and squeezing it with a wrench. Ouch. On a side note, Jesus wasn’t the only figure in history that was crucified. It was a common form of capital punishment in the Greco-Roman world reserved for the worst criminals (like serial killers). Anyways, the pain was so unbearable, it is impossible for someone to endure all that on the basis of a known lie. But not only that, how could a person who preached a high moral standard of living (even non-Christians commit themselves to the second greatest commandment to love your neighbor as oneself) commit such a treason of deceit against humanity? Is such a boldface lie consistent with that kind of preacher? Doubt it.
Okay, so maybe he didn’t lie, but maybe he actually believed he was the Son of God when he really wasn’t. He grew up in a country-town of Nazareth, and something happened to him one day where he was convinced that he was the Son of God. So he went and traveled and preached this message. He was a self-deluded prophet. He was a lunatic. Let’s go with this for a second. At least, this could account for why he endured the massive torture he did in the flogging and persecution. But again, we have a huge, significant problem. Given the brilliance he displayed in his ministry, as reported in the New Testament (namely Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), it is doubtful for him to be classified as a psychopath–brilliance is not a trait manifested by psychopaths (see your local psychotherapist for confirmation on this). And yes, I take the New Testament to be an historically accurate report of Jesus’ life and ministry–we really have no objective reason not to think so, even in spite of some difficulties in these reports (the difficulties actually support their historical accuracy in my opinion). Given the clever way Jesus evaded his opponents verbally and the brilliance he manifested in his many episodes of teaching (e.g., the Sermon on the Mount), resulting in multitudes following him, it’s again highly doubtful he was a psychopath. Deranged self-prophets are easily discernible and recognizable, aren’t they? Like that guy Harold Camping or David Koresh (although they may be more properly classified as liars than lunatics). So given all of this to be true, Jesus was probably not a liar and not a lunatic.
Before I get to the third option, there is actually a fourth option, that Jesus is legend. Particularly in the early 1900s with the quest for the historical Jesus, some scholars have examined the four Gospels and concluded that they are unreliable sources for determining the person and work of Jesus as a historical figure. To get into that discussion will require more time than I’d like to spend here, but check out Craig Blomberg’s Historical Reliability of the Gospels for a good argument. In short, there are very good reasons why the Gospels are a reliable picture of who Jesus was and said and did. And most of the contemporary literature that we have in our possession today point to a real Jesus having existed.
Therefore, the best explanation for who Jesus was, his preaching ministry, and his endurance of the horrific death penalty is that he is most probably the Lord he proclaimed to be. So back to my first point, what did he claim? He claimed that he is the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy of the Messiah that would come to save his people. He claimed that he is the way, the truth, and the life, and that it is only through him that anyone could come to God. He claimed that he is God (and not just a god, but GOD). And he claimed that he would return back to earth a second time (this time in glory) to gather his followers and pronounce judgment on unbelievers. Of course, his claims have massive implications, don’t they? So it does take more than mere probability to believe in him. That extra step from probability to certainty is what I call faith. Not blind faith. Reasonable faith. So we have two choices before us: we can either accept him or reject him. The religious leaders of his day rejected him and killed him. What about you?