Is Jesus Just A Good Man?
Updated: Dec 4, 2020
When I was twelve years old, I had a strange encounter with someone who claimed to be the Son of God. My brother and I were waiting at the train station near our home one autumn evening, on the way to a school concert in which we were both playing. We were the only ones at the station until a man walked across the platform and over to us. He introduced himself and began telling us about his trip from America to visit Ireland. It was a pretty normal conversation to begin with. But it quickly became rather strange. He told us, in a matter-of-fact way, that he was the Son of God.
It’s fair to say that I was incredibly sceptical from the start. I thought he was either lying or playing some sort of strange joke on us. So I asked him, “How do we know you’re telling the truth?” He offered up some evidence for his claim. He said that he’d spent the afternoon surfing on forty-foot waves in Belfast Lough. You might not be familiar with this particular stretch of water, but that isn’t normal. It’s miraculous. There’s a reason why Hawaii is the surf capital of the world and Belfast isn’t. The lough doesn’t see waves higher than about five feet. So if this was true, it would certainly show a degree of mastery over nature which might back up his claim. But, bizarrely, we hadn’t heard anything about it. Surely, if it had happened, we would have seen it on the news?
Then he said “In one year’s time, you’ll hear all about me. I’ll make headlines across the world, and everyone on earth will know who I am.” This was in 2001. By his prediction, he should have been world famous in 2002. And yet seventeen years later the world still doesn’t know who this mysterious character is. So I was sceptical at the time. But I now know for certain that he wasn’t telling us the truth, because his claims didn’t come true. There is simply no evidence for me to believe him, and plenty of counter-evidence to doubt him.
When someone claims to be the Son of God or God himself, we’re right to be sceptical. It makes perfect sense to examine and weigh up the evidence to see if that person is telling the truth or not. So over the course of two posts we’ll consider a couple of questions: Did Jesus ever claim to be God?; and if so, what evidence is there to support his claim?
Who is Jesus?
Throughout the centuries, people have found the person of Jesus to be absolutely fascinating. It’s no exaggeration to say that he was the most influential person who ever lived. Today, almost two thousand years after his death, he has a worldwide following of millions of people. The number one best-selling book in the world, the Bible, is all about him. Even our calendar system is based around his birth. So whatever you think about Jesus, it’s undeniable that he’s an immensely influential person. But there are lots of different ideas about who Jesus is. For Christians, he’s the Son of God. For Muslims, he is Īsā, a highly respected prophet. And for Dan Brown, in the Da Vinci Code books, Jesus was a prophet who the church conspired to turn into God himself. But which one of these views, if any, is correct?
A survey was carried out in the UK a few years ago by an organisation called Barna. One of the questions they asked was “What do you think about Jesus?” One in five people said they believe that Jesus was “God in human form who lived in the 1st Century.” But 29 percent of people believed that Jesus was “a prophet or a spiritual leader, but not God.” And this was the most common answer given. So was Jesus just a good spiritual leader or teacher? Was he, perhaps, a prophet sent by God? Or is he more than this?
There’s no doubt that Jesus taught profound and insightful spiritual lessons. Millions of people around the world all testify to the goodness of his teaching. For example, there’s the ‘golden rule’, which commands followers to treat other people as you would have them treat you (Matthew 7). And his teaching in the sermon on the Mount is held up by many people as the greatest ethical teaching ever given. Gandhi, for example, wasn’t a Christian, but he admired the Sermon on the Mount so much that he meditated on it every day. But the crucial question is this: Is Jesus just a good teacher? Or was he more than this? And when we look at the evidence, we see that Jesus cannot only be a good teacher and nothing more, because of what he said and did. He claimed to be God, and some of the things he did show us that he isn’t just a good man.
Jesus claimed to be God
What’s interesting is that Jesus never claimed to be only a good man. In John 10:30 he says “I and the Father are One.” We only need to look at his listeners’ reaction to his statement, to know what he was saying. They said, “You, a mere man, claim to be God” (John 10:33). Again, in John 8:58 Jesus said, “Before Abraham was born, I am!” Jesus here isn’t claiming to be just a moral man, but is actually using one of God’ titles from the Old Testament, “I AM.” He is clearly saying that he is one with God. And his listeners understood this very well, because they picked up stones to kill him. They were convinced he was committing blasphemy.
So Jesus wasn’t merely claiming to be a teacher of morality, like the Buddha. He wasn’t claiming to be the leader of a religion or a prophet, like Muhammed. He wasn’t just trying to help people improve their morality or get closer to God. Instead, he was claiming to be God himself. This brings us back to our first question: What sort of person claims to be God? C.S. Lewis, a popular Christian author and novelist, saw a problem with this very popular idea that Jesus is just a good man. After looking at the evidence in the New Testament, he concluded that Jesus can only be one of three things: a liar, a lunatic, or the Lord himself.
He said, “I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse.” 
This is a great summary of the various views of who Jesus is, and it’s often referred to as Lewis’s ‘trilemma.’ But let’s just add one more possibility in there, because an increasingly popular view held by many people today is that Jesus was a legendary figure. So the four options are: Lunatic, Liar, Legend, or Lord. Let’s consider each of these different views.
Was Jesus insane? Did he have a psychological disorder like the ‘Messiah’ complex? This isn’t a new accusation against Jesus. In fact, during his own lifetime, people accused him of being mad. In John Chapter 8, we see that some of the people listening to Jesus thought he was mad. And again in John 10:20 his opponents said, “He is demon-possessed and raving mad.” And it wasn’t only some people in Jesus’ time who thought he was mad. In 1910 a doctor called Charles Binet-Sanglé declared that Jesus suffered from a mental illness known as “religious paranoia.” He suggested that Jesus showed signs of paranoia and suffered from hallucinations . So what are we to make of this?
In their book, “Mad or God”, two Christian psychiatrists, Andrew Sims and Pablo Martinez, examined Jesus’ life from a medical perspective. They concluded that, far from being insane, Jesus actually had “the soundest mind of all” . They outline the four features common to all mental illnesses, which include: symptoms; loss of function; disturbance of relationships; and disturbance in self-image. According to these four criteria, Jesus didn’t display any signs of mental illness whatsoever.
For example, he had complete clarity of thought, exemplified in his teaching which is still viewed today as incredibly wise and ethical. It isn’t the teaching of someone with psychosis, which is often incoherent. He wasn’t distressed by constant attacks to his character, or threats to kill him. He was able to carry out his activities and in fact was very productive: preaching, healing people, travelling very widely, and spending time in prayer and meditation. He had a packed schedule, without having a nervous breakdown. There was no disturbance or erratic behaviour in his relationships. In fact, he had many followers who were totally dedicated to him. He had devoted friends such as John, Peter, Mary, and Martha, who he had the deepest of relationships with. And there is no evidence that he had a mood disorder like depression or anxiety. As Martinez and Sims comment, “There is nothing to substantiate a claim of delusion, hallucination, thought disorder or any other indicator…There is no record, in his case, of depression, anxiety or impairment of judgment” .
So if Jesus wasn’t mad, was he a liar? There are two reasons why we can say with confidence that he wasn’t. Firstly, there’s the response of his followers, demonstrating his character and moral authority. Jesus claimed to be God. His disciples were with him every day for around three years. If you spent a day with me, you would know that I am not God. I could make all the claims I like but you would know from my behaviour that I am not divine. My shortcomings and flaws would quickly shatter any illusions that I am god-like. And I don’t think I’m alone in that. We recognise that to be human is to make mistakes and to do bad things. We even have a phrase for it when we try to excuse our wrongdoing or mistakes: “I’m only human.” Yet Jesus was the only human being who ever lived who was perfect. People could find no fault with him. When Jesus claimed to be God, his followers didn’t make fun of him or denounce him. Rather, they confessed him as Lord. One of his disciples, Peter, said this about him: “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth” (1 Peter 2:22).
But you might say, “Well, his followers are biased. Maybe they were swayed by Jesus’ charisma. Plenty of people have been fooled over the years by a cult leader with a strong personality.” But it wasn’t only his followers who couldn’t find fault with him. Even his enemies and those who didn’t follow him, couldn’t pin anything on him. His opponents, the Pharisees, knew that they could find no fault in Him. They mocked him. They slandered him and called him demon-possessed. But they couldn’t actually find anything that he had done wrong.
Pilate couldn’t find fault with him. It says in John chapter 18, “With this he went out again to the Jews and said, “I find no basis for a charge against him” (John 18:38). And this was true not only of Pilate, but his wife as well. In Matthew 27 we’re told, “While Pilate was sitting on the judge’s seat, his wife sent him this message: “Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him” (Matthew 27:19). The centurion who was there at Jesus’ crucifixion recognized him as someone special. Luke 23:47 tells us, “The centurion, seeing what had happened, praised God and said, “Surely this was a righteous man.”
Now if Jesus was lying about being God, then we can’t trust him on anything else. Because to lie about being God-in-the-flesh isn’t just a small mistake. C.S. Lewis is right when he says, if Jesus was lying about himself, then he is “worse than a madman” . But when we look at Jesus’ life, we find that he is a person of immense integrity. To be a liar would therefore be totally out of character for him. Not only did he give good moral teaching, but he practiced it in the most consistent way imaginable. No one could find any fault with his character. It doesn’t seem to make sense that he would be lying when claiming to be God. The strength of his character means that we must look for another explanation.
Now you might say, “Hold on, there’s another option we haven’t considered yet. What if Jesus wasn’t deluded, and he wasn’t a liar. But he was, in fact, a legend?” What if he never claimed to be God? Perhaps his followers began a new religion in his name after his death. They wrote the gospels, and now two thousand years later, Christians have been fooled into following a fictional version of Jesus: the Jesus of faith, rather than the Jesus of history.
This is a really popular idea. Philip Pullman has written a novel called “The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ,” in which he gives an alternative version of history and suggests that Jesus was actually two people. One was a good man who helped people called Jesus. And the other was his scheming, underhanded brother called Christ. He saw an opportunity to turn his brother’s death and legacy into a new world religion. But is there any truth to these claims? Has the real Jesus been lost to us? Well firstly, no serious historian doubts that Jesus really existed. There’s just too much evidence which confirms that he really lived in Israel two thousand years ago, from both Christian and non-Christian sources. But were the claims of Jesus exaggerated? This really boils down to the question of whether we can actually trust what we read in the New Testament. It’s the New Testament, particularly in the gospels and Paul’s letters, which gives us an accurate picture of who Jesus is and what his claims were.
There are lots of reasons why we can trust the New Testament accounts. But for the sake of brevity, let’s examine three of them. Firstly, it wasn’t just Christians who wrote about Jesus. There are plenty of non-Christian writers who testified to the life and work of Jesus as well. The major events in Jesus’ life, such as his baptism, his ministry, and his crucifixion, were mentioned by early non-Christian writers. For example, the first century Jewish historian, Josephus, mentions his crucifixion . And Jesus is also mentioned by Roman historians like Tacitus, Suetonius and Pliny the Younger . So the idea that Jesus was a complete legend doesn’t add up at all.
Secondly, the New Testament was written a short time after the events themselves. For example, many Bible commentators believe that Mark’s gospel was written within about 30 years of Jesus’ crucifixion, so it’s a valuable early historical document. Also, Paul’s earliest letters are dated to only 20 years after Jesus’ death. Paul very clearly talked about Jesus being God. He called him the Son of God (Galatians 4:4) and understood him to be the Creator of all things (1 Cor 8:6). This is not being recorded hundreds of years after Jesus’ death, but within the same generation or two. So the idea that it was cobbled together by the church at a later date is mistaken.
Thirdly, we can trust the New Testament because it contains historically accurate information. For example, Luke specifically wrote his gospel to be a historical account of Jesus’ life. We know this was his aim, because that’s what he says in his introduction. His gospel is also packed with references to historical characters: rulers, high priests, and so on. And so in Luke 3:1-2, we find references to not one or two, but eight historical figures: “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar – when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene – during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the desert.”
What’s pretty amazing is that all of these details have been confirmed through archaeological discoveries in recent years. And Luke’s credibility as a historian has only been strengthened over the years, even when tested. In the early 20th Century, one of the world’s leading archaeologists, Dr William Ramsay, was very skeptical about the reliability of the New Testament. He particularly doubted Luke’s gospel and the book of Acts, which was also written by Luke. So he visited the areas where these two books were based, in what was then known as Asia Minor. He wanted to see if he could find any archaeological evidence to support the many historical references in both Luke and Acts. He was expecting to be able to prove that Luke, as a historian, was hopelessly inaccurate.
But after many years of study he came to a very different conclusion. He said that Acts was, “Written with such judgment, skill, art and perception of truth as to be a model of historical statement…You may press the words of Luke in a degree beyond any other historian’s and they stand the keenest scrutiny and the hardest treatment” .
You might not yet agree with Luke’s faith position. But we know that his aim was to put together an accurate, historical account of a real person. He wasn’t interested in myths or legends. So there is an abundance of evidence that Jesus did claim to be God. You might not yet believe that Jesus really is God. But we must admit that Jesus claimed to be God and that many of his followers believed him. The conspiracy theorists really have nothing to work with. Philip Pullman is a very popular writer of fiction, but his skills as a historical writer leave much to be desired (although, admittedly, this was is not his intention).
Is Jesus God?
So, then, we come to the final option. Was Jesus, in actual fact, who he said he was? Is Jesus God? Let’s look at three reasons why this is convincing for so many people who are Christians today.
Firstly, there is His character and integrity. I’ve already mentioned the fact that Jesus had, or has, incredible integrity. God is described in the Old Testament as good, holy, and just. For example, Psalm 86 verse 5, says “You, Lord, are forgiving and good, abounding in love to all who call to you.” Now, if Jesus really is God, then we’d obviously expect him to be like God. And that’s exactly what we find. Remember, Pilate couldn’t fault him. His enemies couldn’t find any reason to blame him. His sinless character is consistent with his claim to be God.
Secondly, there are his miracles. In John’s gospel, these miracles are called “signs.” They act as pointers which tell us that Jesus really is God. Some people might say, “Surely what Jesus was doing is the kind of things the average magician would be able to pull off. He was a first century equivalent to Darren Brown.” He was a magician. So, turning water into wine was just a trick. But, actually, many of Jesus’ miracles don’t fall into that category at all. For example, he had total power over nature. He was able to calm storms and walk on water. Perhaps the best examples are the cases where Jesus even raised people back to life. In John 11, Jesus raised his friend Lazarus back to life. There were many eyewitnesses there, including Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus. And yet no one came out to discredit him. These are people who stuck with Jesus. They wouldn’t have done this if they thought Jesus was only a magician. They knew the truth that Jesus had in fact raised Lazarus from the dead. And so, these are signs that Jesus isn’t just a good man, but he is God in the flesh.
Lastly, there’s the evidence for the resurrection. This evidence is a larger topic in and of itself. But it includes the fact that Jesus’ tomb was found to be empty. And there were many people who reported that Jesus appeared to them at different times and places after his death. These are historical facts that the majority of historians, both Christian and non-Christian, all attest to.
Why does it matter?
At this point, you might still be considering the various options and taking time to figure out who Jesus really is. But I hope it’s clear that this idea that he was just a good man doesn’t make sense. As C.S. Lewis helpfully suggests, “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” .
Having examined the different options, the clearest one is that Jesus really is God. But you might ask, “Why does any of this matter anyway? What difference does this make to my life?” Firstly, because Jesus is Lord, it means that we can have hope. His purpose was to seek and save the lost, through his life, death and resurrection. And if he really did rise from the dead, then it means that all of his predictions about his death and resurrection are true. It means that we can trust that he is the Son of God. But it also gives us a hope that we couldn’t otherwise have.
The Bible tells us that right back at the beginning of the world, God made us in his image, to know and love him. But the first human beings who ever existed rebelled against God, cutting themselves off from him. Ever since then, we haven’t been in a right relationship with God. But because God is so loving, he took on human form, and became a man in Jesus. He lived a perfect life and died on a cross. And so he took on the punishment for all the wrongdoing that we’ve ever done. And not only that, but he rose again from the dead, and is now glorified in heaven. We have the huge privilege of being able to have a restored relationship with God because of what Jesus has done for us. When we confess our sins and put our trust in Christ, we receive a new life, an eternal life, with God, forever.
Secondly, because Jesus is Lord, it means we have a response to make. Jesus said in Matthew chapter 12, ““Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.” We either choose to follow Jesus, which means choosing eternal life. Or we choose to reject him, which means facing eternity separated from God. There is no third option. Because Jesus is God, it means that he isn’t just one good teacher among all the other great teachers of the world. He’s the Saviour who offers us eternal life.
Michael Shaw is a Deputy Director of the Centre for Christianity in Society.
 C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, London: Collins, 1952, p. 54.
 Charles Binet-Sanglé, La Folie de Jesus. Paris: A. Maloine, 1908.  Pablo Martinez and Andrew Sims, Mad or God?, Chapter 1, ‘The Test of Psychiatry: Was Jesus Mentally Disturbed?’ IVP, 2018.  Pablo Martinez and Andrew Sims, Mad or God?, Chapter 1, ‘The Test of Psychiatry: Was Jesus Mentally Disturbed?’ IVP, 2018.  C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, London: Collins, 1952, p. 54.  Josephus, Testimonium Flavianum. Kregel Academic, 1999.  Suetonius, TheTwelve Caesars. Benediction Classics, 2014.  William Ramsey, The Bearing of Recent Discovery on the Trustworthiness of the New Testament, p85, p89. Hodder & Stoughton, 1915.  C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity. London: Collins, 1952, p. 54.