The Central Argument in Christian Apologetics

"Baptism of Christ" (detail) by Pietro Perugino

“Baptism of Christ” (detail) by Pietro Perugino

The doctrine of Christ’s divinity is the central Christian doctrine, for it is like a skeleton key that opens all the others. Christians have not independently reasoned out and tested each of the teachings of Christ received via Bible and Church, but believe them all on his authority. For if Christ is divine, He can be trusted to be infallible in everything He said, even hard things like exalting suffering and poverty, forbidding divorce, giving his Church the authority to teach and forgive sins in his name, warning about hell (very often and very seriously), instituting the scandalous sacrament of eating his flesh — we often forget how many “hard sayings” he taught!

When the first Christian apologists began to give a reason for the faith that was in them to unbelievers, this doctrine of Christ’s divinity naturally came under attack, for it was almost as incredible to Gentiles as it was scandalous to Jews. That a man who was born out of a woman’s womb and died on a cross, a man who got tired and hungry and angry and agitated and wept at his friend’s tomb, that this man who got dirt under his fingernails should be God was, quite simply, the most astonishing, incredible, crazy-sounding idea that had ever entered the mind of man in all human history.

The argument the early apologists used to defend this apparently indefensible doctrine has become a classic one. C.S. Lewis used it often, e.g. in Mere Christianity, the book that convinced Chuck Colson (and thousands of others). I once spent half a book (Between Heaven and Hell) on this one argument alone. It is the most important argument in Christian apologetics, for once an unbeliever accepts the conclusion of this argument (that Christ is divine), everything else in the Faith follows, not only intellectually (Christ’s teachings must all then be true) but also personally (if Christ is God, He is also your total Lord and Savior).

The argument, like all effective arguments, is extremely simple: Christ was either God or a bad man.

Unbelievers almost always say he was a good man, not a bad man; that he was a great moral teacher, a sage, a philosopher, a moralist, and a prophet, not a criminal, not a man who deserved to be crucified. But a good man is the one thing he could not possibly have been according to simple common sense and logic. For he claimed to be God. He said, “Before Abraham was, I Am”, thus speaking the word no Jew dares to speak because it is God’s own private name, spoken by God himself to Moses at the burning bush. Jesus wanted everyone to believe that he was God. He wanted people to worship him. He claimed to forgive everyone’s sins against everyone. (Who can do that but God, the One offended in every sin?)

Now what would we think of a person who went around making these claims today? Certainly not that he was a good man or a sage. There are only two possibilities: he either speaks the truth or not. If he speaks the truth, he is God and the case is closed. We must believe him and worship him. If he does not speak the truth, then he is not God but a mere man. But a mere man who wants you to worship him as God is not a good man. He is a very bad man indeed, either morally or intellectually. If he knows that he is not God, then he is morally bad, a liar trying deliberately to deceive you into blasphemy. If he does not know that he is not God, if he sincerely thinks he is God, then he is intellectually bad — in fact, insane.

A measure of your insanity is the size of the gap between what you think you are and what you really are. If I think I am the greatest philosopher in America, I am only an arrogant fool; if I think I am Napoleon, I am probably over the edge; if I think I am a butterfly, I am fully embarked from the sunny shores of sanity. But if I think I am God, I am even more insane because the gap between anything finite and the infinite God is even greater than the gap between any two finite things, even a man and a butterfly.

Josh McDowell summarized the argument simply and memorably in the trilemma “Lord, liar, or lunatic?” Those are the only options. Well, then, why not liar or lunatic? But almost no one who has read the Gospels can honestly and seriously consider that option. The savviness, the canniness, the human wisdom, the attractiveness of Jesus emerge from the Gospels with unavoidable force to any but the most hardened and prejudiced reader. Compare Jesus with liars like the Reverend Sun Myung Moon or lunatics like the dying Nietzsche. Jesus has in abundance precisely those three qualities that liars and lunatics most conspicuously lack:

  1. His practical wisdom, his ability to read human hearts, to understand people and the real, unspoken question behind their words, his ability to heal people’s spirits as well as their bodies;
  2. His deep and winning love, his passionate compassion, his ability to attract people and make them feel at home and forgiven, his authority, “not as the scribes”; and above all
  3. His ability to astonish, his unpredictability, his creativity. Liars and lunatics are all so dull and predictable! No one who knows both the Gospels and human beings can seriously entertain the possibility that Jesus was a liar or a lunatic, a bad man.

No, the unbeliever almost always believes that Jesus was a good man, a prophet, a sage. Well then, if he was a sage, you can trust him and believe the essential things he says. And the essential thing he says is that he is the divine Savior of the world and that you must come to him for salvation. If he is a sage, you must accept his essential teaching as true. If his teaching is false, then he is not a sage.

The strength of this argument is that it is not merely a logical argument about concepts; it is about Jesus. It invites people to read the Gospels and get to know this man. The premise of the argument is the character of Jesus, the human nature of Jesus. The argument has its feet on the earth. But it takes you to heaven, like Jacob’s ladder (which Jesus said meant him: Gen 28:12; Jn 1:51). Each rung follows and holds together. The argument is logically airtight; there is simply no way out.

What, then, do people say when confronted with this argument? Often, they simply confess their prejudices: “Oh, I just can’t believe that!” (But if it has been proved to be true, you must believe it if you really seek the truth!)

Sometimes, they go away, like many of Jesus’ contemporaries, wondering and shaking their heads and thinking. That is perhaps the very best result you can hope for. The ground has been softened up and plowed. The seed has been sown. God will give the increase.

But if they know some modern theology, they have one of two escapes. Theology has an escape; common sense does not. Common sense is easily convertible. It is the theologians, now as then, who are the hardest to convert.

The first escape is the attack of the Scripture “scholars” on the historical reliability of the Gospels. Perhaps Jesus never claimed to be divine. Perhaps all the embarrassing passages were inventions of the early Church (say “Christian community” — it sounds nicer).

In that case, who invented traditional Christianity if not Christ? A lie, like a truth, must originate somewhere. Peter? The twelve? The next generation? What was the motive of whoever first invented the myth (euphemism for lie)? What did they get out of this elaborate, blasphemous hoax? For it must have been a deliberate lie, not a sincere confusion. No Jew confuses Creator with creature, God with man. And no man confuses a dead body with a resurrected, living one.

Here is what they got out of their hoax. Their friends and families scorned them. Their social standing, possessions, and political privileges were stolen from them by both Jews and Romans. They were persecuted, imprisoned, whipped, tortured, exiled, crucified, eaten by lions, and cut to pieces by gladiators. So some silly Jews invented the whole elaborate, incredible lie of Chrisitanity for absolutely no reason, and millions of Gentiles believed it, devoted their lives to it, and died for it — for no reason. It was only a fantastic practical joke, a hoax. Yes, there is a hoax indeed, but the perpetrators of it are the twentieth-century theologians, not the Gospel writers.

The second escape (notice how eager we are to squirm out of the arms of God like a greased pig) is to Orientalize Jesus, to interpret him not as the unique God-man but as one of many mystics or “adepts” who realized his own inner divinity just as a typical Hindu mystic does. This theory takes the teeth out of his claim to divinity, for he only realized that everyone is divine. The problem with that theory is simply that Jesus was not a Hindu but a Jew! When he said “God”, neither he nor his hearers meant Brahman, the impersonal, pantheistic, immanent all; he meant Yahweh, the personal, theistic, transcendent Creator. It is utterly unhistorical to see Jesus as a mystic, a Jewish guru. He taught prayer, not meditation. His God is a person, not a pudding. He said he was God but not that everyone was. He taught sin and forgiveness, as no guru does. He said nothing about the “illusion” of individuality, as the mystics do.

Attack each of these evasions — Jesus as the good man. Jesus as the lunatic, Jesus as the liar, Jesus as the man who never claimed divinity, Jesus as the mystic — take away these flight squares, and there is only one square left for the unbeliever’s king to move to. And on that square waits checkmate. And a joyous mating it is. The whole argument is really a wedding invitation.


Excerpted from Dr. Kreeft’s book, Fundamentals of the Faith. Please post your comments and questions below.

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About the Author

Peter Kreeft, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy at Boston College and also at the King's College (Empire State Building), in New York City. He is a regular contributor to several Christian publications, is in wide demand as a speaker at conferences, and is the author of over 55 books including: Back to Virtue; The God Who Loves You; Heaven, The Heart's Deepest Longing; Everything You wanted to Know About Heaven; Your Questions - God's Answers; How To Win The Culture War; The Journey; Before I Go - Letters to Our Children About What Really Matters; and Jesus Shock.

Dr. Kreeft is a convert to the Catholic Church from reformed Protestantism. He earned an A.B. degree from Calvin College, an M.A. and Ph.D. from Fordham University, followed by post-doctoral work at Yale University. He has received several honors for achievements in the field of philosophy, including the Woodrow Wilson Award, Yale-Sterling Fellowship, Newman Alumni Scholarship, Danforth Asian Religions Fellowship, and a Weathersfield Homeland Foundation Fellowship.

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7 Comments

    1. Disagree with the dichotomy that He was either a good man or a bad man. As soon as an ‘either or’ proposition appears, warning signs go up. are there no other choices. The most obvious choice, rather than ‘bad man’ would be, Jesus was wrong, He might have truly believed what He said, simply was in error. Another problem is correct quoting. None of the authors of the four canonical gospels heard or witnessed Jesus. We do not know certainly what He did or did not say. Thus, in this instance, the article oversimplifies.

  1. First, let me be clear: I believe Christ is God, not lunatic. But I’ve never found the ‘God or bad man, or mad man’ argument particularly convincing. What history is, the purposes of writing, has changed much over time from the composing of the earliest Church documents. This argument imposes upon those early documents a nature they do not necessarily embody, asking them to do work in logic for which they were not built. Nothing compels one to accept this ‘either or’ argument as a premise when other premises are available- even when they are also difficult, like the above mentioned ‘Hoax.’ I am afraid that belief is largely a grace. But I do not doubt that for some it is a grace reached by argument! Just this one is not particularly convincing to me.

  2. It’s not just that Jesus claimed to be God, it’s that he did so in a very specific context: Second Temple Judaism. His claims, therefore, to be greater than Moses, Solomon, and David were startling; his claim to have special knowledge of God, his addressing God as “Father”, his cheerful confidence in stating what the law was and was not, were shocking. And then, to claim to be the Messiah, standing in handcuffs before the powerful, seemed nothing but blasphemy.

  3. I liked the statements: The deity of Jesus is true. Well illustrated here that he can’t in no way be called a good man,or a sage!

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