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, brown, mixed…. non-racial? (By the way, he was Jewish/Middle-Eastern!) 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 try to dispute this. Even contemporary historians of Jesus referred to him as an actual person who lived in society (e.g., Josephus, Tacitus, and Lucian).
Given his self-claims, there are three viable 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, but overall gaining popularity, 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, but 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, especially today) commit such a treason of deceit against humanity? Is such a boldface lie consistent with that kind of preacher? Probably not.
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 the country-town of Nazareth, and maybe he was delusional, thinking 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. 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. Delusional people are usually exposed for their psychosis. Psychotic people, even in ancient times, are eventually found out. Most people recognize lunacy. Truth prevails.
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 in short, there are very good reasons why the Gospels are reliable attestations of who Jesus was and said and did. And other extant literature from the first century reflects that a real person Jesus, who fits the description in the Gospels, existed in reality.
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 Himself). And he claimed that he would return back to earth a second time (this time in glory) to gather his followers and judge those who reject him. 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 faith. Not blind faith. Reasonable faith. So we have two choices: either to accept him as he himself claimed to be or to reject him. The choice is unavoidable.