In the previous piece in this series, we referenced C. S. Lewis’s Trilemma, essentially the argument that: in claiming He was God, Jesus was either a liar, insane, or God. We discussed that Lewis’ position here is inescapably logical, but that two prior points needed to be made before we addressed this trilemma. The first point that needed to be addressed is whether Jesus lived, which was the topic of the previous installment. The next point that needs to be addressed is whether Jesus claimed to be God in the first place. That is the focus of this article.
Did Jesus Claim to Be God in the Synoptic Gospels?
In his book How Jesus Became God, Bart D. Ehrman notes that Jesus never exactly claims to be God in the synoptic Gospels. (He does concede that Jesus’ claims of divinity appear in the Gospel of John—although he rejects the authenticity of that Gospel, or at least the relevant passages therein.) Ehrman thus concludes, “Jesus did not declare Himself to be God.”
In the hearts and minds of some skeptics, anything shy of Jesus saying the words, “I am God,” will not suffice to amount to a claim of divinity. But Jesus’ verbal claims of divinity were clear, as were His actions.
One of the most striking examples is Jesus forgiving sins. Ehrman writes that Jesus did forgive sins but points out that “pronouncing sins forgiven” was a routine action performed by Jewish priests. Thus, Ehrman argues, “Jesus may be claiming a priestly prerogative, but not a divine one.” It is certainly true that Jewish priests did perform such rituals of forgiveness. This is why the Sacrament of Confession seemed so natural to some early Christians; they were well-acquainted with the process.
But as Frank Sheed reminds us in To Know Christ Jesus, the Pharisees took it to mean a divine “prerogative.” They couldn’t think of any other way He might mean it. That is why, after Jesus healed the paralytic and forgave his sins, the scribes and Pharisees responded, “Why does this man speak like this? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?”
The account of the paralytic appears in each of the synoptic Gospels, and Luke also records the forgiveness of a sinful woman in Luke 7:48-49: “And he said to her, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’ Then those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, ‘Who is this, who even forgives sins?’”
If, as Ehrman suggests, Jesus were only claiming priestly powers, the Pharisees might have asked, “Who is this man to claim priestly powers?” But that is not what they asked. They instead asked, “Who is this, who even forgives sins?” In effect, they were asking: “Who does Jesus think He is? God?”
Perspectives of Belief on Jesus Claiming That He Is God
In this discussion, there is a fascinating question, namely: instead of a gradual revelation of His divinity, why didn’t Jesus immediately say, “I am God” as soon as His public life began? Frank Sheed provides two answers: from the perspective of belief and the perspective of non-belief.
“If He had begun with the bald statement ‘I am God,’ only two reactions would have been possible. Those who believed Him, if any did, would have been in such stricken awe of the Infinite Majesty whose presence in their midst they must accept, that all communication between him and them would have been impossible: they would have been far too terrified even to raise their eyes to His face: it was not revealed even to His closest followers till they had grown so in intimacy with Him that they could not be merely terrified by it." —Frank Sheed, To Know Christ Jesus
As evidenced by many instances in the Old Testament, the Jewish people deemed God as unapproachable. Many dared not utter His name, much less approach God. But Jesus desired that we approach Him. Jesus came to the world as a baby so that men would love Him and find Him approachable. Beyond that, Jesus desired—and continues to desire—that we unite ourselves with Him in the intimacy of the Eucharist.
Further, as Sheed explains, had Jesus said, “I am God,” the Jewish people “could not even have understood what He was saying about Himself.” He writes, “The doctrine of the Incarnation must be either meaningless or wholly misleading to people who do not know the doctrine of the Blessed Trinity. And His hearers did not know it. They knew only the solitary God.” Rather than beginning His public life by saying “I am God,” Jesus revealed the mystery of the Trinity.
What the Gospels account—from the opening verse in Matthew to the final chapter of John—is a logical process of revelation.
What about those who did not and would not believe, had Jesus claimed “I am God?” From that perspective, the answer is even more obvious.
“On the other hand, those who did not believe could have seen God blasphemed, and his majesty profaned; and the penalty was death….In fact, we find that, when later Jesus said to such people, ‘Before Abraham was made, I am’ (John viii.58), they took up stones to destroy him, and he had to hide in the Temple. When he said, ‘I and the Father are one’ (John x.30), they tried to seize him and he had to make his escape to the other side of the Jordan. And in the end, it was for blasphemy that he was crucified.” —Frank Sheed, To Know Christ Jesus
Jesus claimed to be God through both words and actions—even unto death. Moreover, both His friends and enemies were crystal clear about His claims of divinity.
Did Early Christians Believe in Jesus’ Claims of Being God?
To be sure, Catholics recognize and profess the inerrancy of Scripture. We further recognize that one of the best ways to understand what Jesus truly meant is to view the lives and writings of the early Christians. To the early Christians, it is clear: they believed that Jesus claimed to be God. Further, they believed His earthly life had substantiated that claim.
We need to look no further than the Book of Acts and the epistles of Paul for reference. In Acts 2:38, we are again confronted with the belief that only God can forgive sins. And Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” In essence, there was no forgiveness without Christ! Nor was there baptism.
Paul’s Letter to the Philippians 2:5-6 states: “Have this mind among yourselves, which was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped.” Saint Paul was clearly stating that Jesus claimed divinity. Deeming divine equality of the Father and Son is also clear in 1 Corinthians 8:6: “yet for us, there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.” This is an intentional parallel.
It's also important to note that the earliest Fathers of the Church claimed the divinity of Christ. One of the earliest examples is Ignatius of Antioch, who began his Letter to the Ephesians by referencing “the will of the Father and of Jesus Christ our God.” It was not simply the fathers of the Church but the early Christian martyrs who believed that Jesus is God and that He has manifestly expressed His divinity. These men and women willingly bled to death in martyrdom rather than deny the divinity of Christ.
Among the earliest Christians, the question isn’t Which Christian believed Jesus is God?, but rather, Which Christian didn’t?
Jesus Did Claim to be God
In the first installment of this series, we illustrated that Jesus is a historical figure. Above, we addressed the fact that Jesus did, in fact, affirm His divinity. Now we are ready to address Lewis’ Trilemma.
Jesus walked the earth.
Jesus claimed to be God.
But that means He was either a liar, mentally imbalanced, or God.
In the next installment of this series, we will address the first question: Was Jesus a liar?
The Trilemma of C. S. Lewis: Is There Evidence That Jesus Ever Lived?: John Clark seeks to find evidence of Jesus's existence by utilizing C.S. Lewis' Trilema.
The 6 Criteria Historians Use for Proof of Jesus' Miracles: Did Jesus really perform miracles? Historians use 6 main criteria to determine if an event really happened, and these can be applied to Jesus' miracles.
Reasons to Be Confident about the Historical Jesus: Through philosophical presuppositions, historical methodology, and the Gospels, we find a reason to believe in and evidence for the “historical” Jesus.