Was Jesus just a Great Moral Teacher?

imagesThe question of Jesus’ identity has perplexed and fascinated us since he arrived on the scene 2,000 years ago. In our own day we seem to have a Jesus for everyone: Super-hero Jesus, Common Guy Jesus, Homosexual Jesus, Traditional Marriage Jesus, Democrat Jesus, Republican Jesus, Mormon Jesus, Oriental Jesus, and so on. Pick a cause or an agenda, and there is a Jesus waiting in the wings, ready to offer his support.[1] Why does everyone want a piece of Jesus, yet so often, not the whole? That is, why are we so ready to ascribe to Jesus the status of a great moral teacher, a teacher who we can use for our own personal or political agenda, yet we hesitate to call him Lord?

The claim that Jesus is just a great moral teacher is not a real option. He is a great moral teacher, but that is not all he is. If that is all he is, then he isn’t even that. As C. S. Lewis famously pointed out, an honest look at the life of Jesus reveals that either Jesus was God or he was a bad man.

“On the one side clear, definite moral teaching. On the other, claims which, if not true, are those of a megalomaniac, compared with whom Hitler was the most sane and humble of men. There is no half-way house and there is no parallel in other religions . . . . The idea of a great moral teacher saying what Christ said is out of the question. In my opinion, the only person who can say that sort of thing is either God or a complete lunatic suffering from that form of delusion which undermines the whole mind of man. . . . It is either lunacy or lies . . . [or] one turns to the Christian theory.”[2]

To think that Jesus was just a great moral teacher, and not God incarnate is wrong for at least the following two reasons:[3]

First, the factual mistake Jesus makes (on this suggestion) is cosmic, it is not a mere factual error, but a maximal factual error—believing himself (wrongly) to be the single, eternal source of all of life and the ground of all truth. What greater disparity could there be between belief and reality? The moral authority of Jesus’ teachings cannot be separated from his personhood and his self-identity (see e.g. Matt. 7:21–23 where, at the end of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus claims to be the Lord of history who will determine people’s eternal destiny, and Matt. 7:24–29 where he affirms that unless we build our lives on his teachings we will not hold up under the stress of life).

Second, merely propounding moral propositions is a necessary condition for one’s being a great moral teacher, but not a sufficient condition. Adolf Hitler could propound moral propositions, my eight-year old son could too, but that would hardly make them a great moral teacher. In order to qualify as a great moral teacher, one’s character is relevant too, not just the content of his teachings. Someone with delusions as severe as those attributed to Jesus on this view would indicate a personality that is so disintegrated as to be disqualified from being considered a great moral teacher.

In the gospels, Jesus asks his disciples THE CRUCIAL QUESTION that all of us must answer:

“But what about you?” He asked, “Who do you say I am?” (Matt. 16:15)

This question has reverberated ever since Jesus asked it. We must all respond to this question: What are we to make of Jesus? Let me suggest that whatever the answer, he did not allow the option of being just a great moral teacher.

You must choose: Either a bad man or God.

For a brief interview with theologian N. T. Wright on the question of Jesus, see this video:

[1] As the Boston University professor of religion, Stephen Prothero puts it, “In the book of Genesis, God creates humans in His own image; in the United States, Americans have created Jesus, over and over, in theirs.” Stephen Prothero, American Jesus: How The Son of God Became a National Icon (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2004), 298.

[2] C. S. Lewis, “What are we to make of Jesus Christ?”, in Walter Hooper ed. God in the Dock (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1970), 157, 158, 160.

[3] Both of these are from the excellent article by David Horner, “Aut Deus aut Malus Homo: A Defense of C. S. Lewis’s ‘Shocking Alternative’,” in C. S. Lewis as Philosopher, eds. David Baggett, Gary R. Habermas, and Jerry L. Walls (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2008), chap. 4.

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