I’m teaching several World Religions sections at the moment, and it is always interesting to me that students have a tendency to agree with other religious traditions when they assert that Jesus was merely a good man (perhaps an avatar, cf. Hinduism) or a prophet (cf. Islam), but he was not truly a divine person Himself. I often have to explain why these positions are problematic given what we know about Christ and what is recorded of his words.
I fall back to C.S. Lewis’ argument on the trilemma of Christ as presented by Stephen Davis. This is the question of the trilemma: Was Jesus a morally corrupted human being, an insane person, or God? David proposes a logical form the argument:
(1) Jesus claimed, either explicitly or implicitly, to be divine.
(2) Jesus was either right or wrong in claiming to be divine.
(3) If Jesus was wrong in claiming to be divine, Jesus was either mad or bad.
(4) Jesus was not bad.
(5) Jesus was not mad.
(6) Therefore, Jesus was not wrong in claiming to be divine.
(7) Therefore Jesus was right in claiming to be divine.
(8) Therefore, Jesus was divine.
As laid out by Davis, the seven premises the argument lead to the conclusion that Jesus was indeed divine—given that one affirms premises (3), (4) and (5) of his argument. Davis realizes this, but argues that these premises should be accepted (and are commonly accepted) since a plausible case can be made for their truth. Davis then proceeds to defend premise (1) which he believes is the one most vulnerable to criticism. I think Davis is right here and I think he did a brilliant job of defending the premise, but his failure to dive deeper into premises (3), (4), and (5) is a bit disappointing (though I do not know the limit and scope of his project).
The reader can read Davis’ own paper for his full argument, but here I want to note that given what is argued, it is unreasonable to insist that Jesus was a wonderful moral teacher but was not God. If we are to accept the words of Christ as profoundly true and wise beyond human understanding, then we must come to admit that Jesus is God.
Overall, however, I think the trilemma argument is quite effective to demonstrate the rationality of belief in the incarnation of Jesus. Not only so, but it forces reflection for people who admits “I don’t believe Jesus is God, but I think he’s a great moral teacher.” As the argument suggests, Jesus was either crazy, lying, or divine; one cannot affirm a function of the person whilst ignoring the belief the person holds of himself and the very person from which the functions proceed. While the argument is seemingly at best probable, it nevertheless is something to ponder since, like the ontological argument by St. Anselm, there is much more to it than meets the eye.